A bootleg ground is a connection between the ground and neutral in an electrical receptacle. This is also known as a false ground, and it can create an electrical hazard. Such wiring can be difficult to detect without specialized electrical circuit testers or a physical inspection of the inside of the receptacle. It tends to be more common in older homes, where grounding was not standard at the time of construction. People may create such connections accidentally or intentionally for a variety of reasons, including in an attempt to fool home buyers into thinking that outlets are grounded.
The bootleg ground can be extremely dangerous. It may cause electrical shock or damage equipment connected to the outlet. The neutral wire carries current, and connecting the ground wire to the neutral eliminates a safe path for the electricity to take. In the event of a problem, the electricity may energize the casing of something connected to the outlet, such as a lamp, and a member of the household could get an unpleasant shock.
Basic circuit testers can suggest that the outlet is wired correctly. More sophisticated models can detect a bootleg ground. In a physical inspection of the outlet, a home inspector or electrician can identify the problem and suggest some potential fixes. The best fix is the installation of a proper ground to cover the household wiring. Another option is to take out the bootleg ground and use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet to cut power in the event of a problem with that and other outlets on the same circuit.
The presence of a bootleg ground in a home or other structure means it is not up to code, in addition to being unsafe. Electricians can discuss options for bringing the structure into code, depending on budgetary restraints and any other issues that may be a cause for concern. Home buyers preparing for inspections may want to discuss the electrical system with their home inspectors, to make sure the system will be thoroughly checked for issues like bootleg grounds and other electrical problems.
For householders working on their own wiring, it is important to cut power to a circuit before starting work, and to inspect outlets and other wiring projects carefully before starting work and after finishing. Sometimes people make a bootleg ground inadvertently by not paying attention, and a quick check can reveal the problem and allow a chance to correct it. Home circuit testers may not necessarily identify such connections. It is advisable to read their operating instructions carefully to determine what kinds of conditions they can accurately pinpoint.