RV Electricity – What’s up with upside-down outlets?

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By Mike Sokol

Dear Mike,
I’ve encountered quite a few 15-amp outlets that were “upside down” with the ground at the top instead of the bottom. And it seems like this same upside-down orientation is what’s needed to plug in my shore power plug without it sticking up in the air. So is there a right or wrong way for outlets to be installed in your home? And is there a right or wrong way for pedestals to be installed at a campground? —Dizzy in Denver

Dear Dizzy,
To discuss this properly we first have to get in the groove with Diana Ross singing Upside Down. All righty, everyone got your beats happening? Then here we go.

First of all let’s go over what the NFPA-70 National Electrical Code has to say about which way the 15- or 20-amp (Edison) outlet should be installed in your home. And guess what? They say NOTHING! That is, there’s no official code describing orientation of ground up or ground down in a home receptacle (outlet). Nada! Zip! Nanimonai!

Here’s what it looks like. On the left side of the picture we have what I’ll call the original USA orientation with the ground at the bottom, which for decades was accepted as the normal way we all installed electrical outlets. But on the right we have what’s commonly referred to as “California Code” with the ground pin at the top.

So what exactly is “California Code” and why did it happen? While this is steeped in lore, the story goes that a loose metal cover plate in a hospital fell down over the partially unplugged extension cord and shorted out the hot and neutral contacts. Something really bad happened (I’m not sure what) but it resulted in the California electrical inspectors requiring hospitals to flip the outlets so the ground pin is at the top. That way if a metal cover plate ever falls into the gap from a partially unplugged power cord, it will harmlessly ground itself, rather than shorting the hot and ground which results in the heart-lung machine (or whatever) shutting off.

I’m not making this up: It’s the generally accepted theory as to why this happened. But the California/Hospital code is a real thing, and now you’ll find that many states have adopted California Code for hospital, hotels and residential code. Yes, they can do that. Your state probably doesn’t care either way, but you’ll find that many electricians are simply installing all 15- and 20-amp outlets “ground up” since this is how many hotels are installing them.

But which way do you want 30- and 50-amp outlets oriented in a campground – with the ground up or ground down? Well, code does suggest that ground up is the proper orientation simply because just about every surge protector, shore power cord, and dog-bone adapter has the ground pin at the top. If you orient the outlet with the ground at the bottom, the plug won’t hang properly straight down, sometimes pulling itself out of the outlet. I’ve even found a few campsites with the outlet turned sideways, and that’s nearly as bad.

Nope, every campground pedestal outlet should be installed with the ground at the top, NOT the bottom. If you find one with the ground at the bottom then tell them to fix it or you’re not paying for the campsite.

Let’s play safe out there….

 

Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 40+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.

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Jim Collins

I have worked in nursing homes in Florida and learned about this when replacing outlets, also was told that with the ground on top it relieves some of the strain and wear on the plug, of course if the plug is a 90° plug that doesn’t quite work out

Jackson Sheesley

I read an article where a small child was electrocuted in their home while playing with a full metal butter knife and trying to pry out an electrical plug from its socket… The Outlet was installed with the Ground Prong “Down in the 6’clock position”… As the child tried to unplug the plug by prying the butter knife on top of the plug the knife blade contacted the 2 top (hot) prongs and killed him… Sad…

Sharon B

I have a fireman friend who helped me put in a new GFCI socket on my kitchen wall in my house. He installed it in upside down. I question him on this. He told me that was the safest way to install this socket. OK I agreed with him.
However, at a campground where most are right side up these upside-down sockets will make me crazy when I have to put my Progressive EMS plugged in upsidedown position. I will have problems reading the display upside-down and also have an issue with securing this box. And it may not even work since the door hinge to the campground electric box is too close and will to accommodate these electric security systems. Is there a plug that accommodates these upside-down sockets so these EMS boxes can lay flat down. ?

Steve

Just ran into a “flipped” 30 amp receptacle at a KOA in Davie, FL. When I pointed it out to management she said it’s a code requirement and all rv parks are supposed to be that way. It’s impossible to argue with the ignorant so I just used the 50 amp with an adaptor.

Lee

It is truly a wonder we are all still alive…

Phil Smith

When I was working with an electrician after getting out of the USMC, I was taught to flip receptacles that were half-switched (operated by a wall switch for a lamp). We split the receptacle so the top was switched and the bottom was always hot.

Brendan James Walsh

Another amazing story. Thank Mike for clearing that up! We’ve all seen these outlets and thought, “why’d they do that?” Now we know!

Thomas Becher

My wife worked at a video conference center and during an important meeting a metal plate which has lost a screw slipped down,shorted out and left everyone in the dark. After hours so no maintenance man to reset the breaker. Had to call in someone( 4 hours call time) meeting shot. Next day ALL outlets were changed ground up

Walt

Very interesting article and I have to admit that this has never occurred to me. Next time I am sitting in the exam room waiting for my doctor, I will be pondering the ground orientations to help pass the time. Thanks

Dale

Mike. Willow wind rv in hurricane Utah has 50 amp plugs upside down. I asked them to move me and I was invited to leave the park. So I rigged a stick by tying it to the box and tying my surge protector upside down to the stick.

Tommy Molnar

I found this discussion about ground up or down interesting. I know virtually nothing about electrical wiring, other than plugging stuff in and turning it on. But, for a few home projects, I bought the “Black & Decker Complete Guide to Home Wiring”. Copyright 2005. I perused the entire 300+ pages of well documented (as in lots of clear, color pictures showing how to do everything) installation instructions, and in every case, the receptacles show the ground at the bottom of the plug. No explanation as to why this is. Just all the pictures showing it that way.

Wolfe

I learned “Ground up” back in the 80s, the excuse being dropping paperclips off the back of a desk where plugs are always half unplugged and unseen. Shrug. I’ll agree a hair safer at times, but all my grounded wall-warty things want the other way, and “peel themselves” off outlets in very UNsafe cantilever ways. I intentionally have both directions in any doublegangs in my shop and office just to have both options handy, but the combos look odd to casual observers.

Captn John

Last year Mark suggested a product that cleaned and lubed electrical connections. Sadly, my can was left at a CG. Anyone know the name of that product?

John Koenig

I took “Trade Electric” Level 1 & 2 in 1999 (I was the only homeowner in the class. Everyone else were apprentice electricians and, at least EIGHT apprentices dropped out forfeiting the $500 class fee!). I clearly remember, in the text book that the author opined, in the next NEC update, the NEC would require the grounding pin to be in the 12 O’Clock or 9 O’Clock position as those positions were slightly safer than 6 or 3 O’Clock positions. I came up with the mnemonic “Safety is LEFT UP to the installer; some installers are DOWN RIGHT dangerous” when looking at the ground as a way to remember the safest way to install the Edison outlet. Years later, when I was having a major electrical upgrade in my 100 year old house, I insisted that the Master Electrician install the outlets the “safer” way. The Master Electrician argued that appliances such as the refrigerator’s plug would not hang properly. He was surprised that the new fridge’s plug hung properly with its’ ground prong at 12 O’Clock! Had he installed the outlets in the “common fashion”, the cord would have had to twist around once plugged in. I thought that the NEC DID require 30 and 50 amp outlets to have the ground at 12 O’Clock as I’ve ALEAYS seen them installed that way. Such a simple thing; I’m amazed the the NEC has not codified it yet.

John harpel

When I was building condos and patio homes in Denver it was a common practice to install outlets with the ground up on outlets that were connected to a wall switch. That way a lamp could be plugged in and turned on with the switch.

jamesham

When I moved to the South (Mississippi) from the Midwest, I saw most of the newer plugs were installed “ground up” in homes, and commercial buildings. I also heard the story about metal bar shorting the hot and neutral prongs, but it was not attributed to California. I just assumed “Bubba” started installing them upside down by accident and the rest of the good old southern boys did not want to tell him of his error.

Dick Hime

Mike, I found that to be an interesting article. I have seen hotel/motel outlets with the “ground up” and questioned it since by far the majority of residential outlets I’ve ever seen were “ground down”. This answers a question for which I didn’t think there a legitimate answer… just speculation. Thanks for scratching an itch it didn’t know I had!

steve roland

When I wired my house in 1999 (Texas) I bought a book called “Wiring a House”. It was full of great info and when it came to the 15A plug ground orientation it said ground up for the very reason you cited. Made sense to me so I wired ground up on all plugs. Sometimes I cuss my decision.