To clarify further, there are actually TWO separate return paths involved. One is the neutral and it is the return path for the current during normal usage. The other is the grounding wire, which among other purposes, also serves as a low impedance path for a FAULT (short circuit between line wire and the metal frame of equipment, outlet box, conduits, etc) so that the circuit breaker will see the situation and open the circuit.
If the ground at one outlet is connected ONLY to earth, and not back to the power source, then a short circuit from line to ground will likely not draw enough current to trip the breaker. However, a ground fault breaker should be able to detect this, so if you have such a circuit, put a ground fault breaker in to be at least safer than before if it is not practical to correct the ground wiring right then.
As long as the protection on the circuit is strictly overcurrent protection, then you need to have a low impedance return path for every piece of metal anywhere close to a live wire that could possibly short circuit to that metal under any adverse condition. Even so, some kinds of faults, such as an arc, may provide their own impedance and prevent quick breaker reaction (seconds, but plenty long enough to ignite a fire). This is one reason we now have arc-fault protection devices, and require them in places people may be sleeping where they would not react quickly enough to the problem.
| Lets not get into high impedance grounds on this thread.
That would definitely make the thread longer since it can work, but it is more complicated. It needs its own thread, which will likely show up some day (when I get more time).
| Supplemental grounding is allowed with the proper installation. I.E. you | use the same size wire as your service.
There are risks to weigh in doing this. For example if you have 2 points to ground at significant distance (a situation you would have with a feed to a detached building) you can earth flow currents (frequent but usually low with passing storms, and occaisional high with a lightning strike) going through your grounding wire.
| I was working at a University and someone bought a ion beam splitter | something like $3 million dollars and 600 amps at 480v. The company would | not warranty it unless there was a "clean ground" ( god I hate those words). | I refuse to connect the equipment based on the manufacturers | recommendations. The engineer from the manufacture came out and we sat in a | conference room for 2 hours while I explained to him why he was wrong. He | relented and changed the documentation for the machine.
Did he ever define "clean ground"?