Buying a house -- All outlets are open neutral

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Old 09-18-04, 07:50 PM
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Bought a house - Most outlets are Hot/Neutral Reverse

Edit: I posed this just before I bought my house.

Unfortunately, I misread the inspector's report when I first posted this. Most of my outlets are Hot/Neutral Reverse, and not Open Neutral as I had initially thought.

Sorry for any confusion.
 

Last edited by Kevin_28; 10-22-04 at 03:12 AM.
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Old 09-18-04, 09:21 PM
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An open neutral is an entirely different problem than an open ground. In the other thread, racraft seemed to have misread your post.

If all the outlets have an open neutral, then nothing electrical works in the whole house. Is this correct?

If you can plug a lamp into a receptacle and turn it on and you get light, then you do not have an open neutral, and the home inspector's tester is certainly broken, and the home inspector is certainly stupid (or you misheard what he said).
 
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Old 09-18-04, 09:22 PM
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Kevin I'm a little suspect that every receptacle has an open neutral could it be that they have an open ground instead? If you have an open neutral then nothing is going to work when you plug it into a receptacle. Plug a lamp or something into some of these receptacles and see if they work. If they do then you dont have an open neutral but more likely an open ground. Lets determine if you have an open neutral or ground before we go further. If you have three prong receptacles you can purchase a receptacle tester at your local home store this will tell you what is wrong with the wiring by a series of lights on the tester. they look like the image in the below link. If you have 2 prong receptacles then it is most likely you have no ground in your wiring.....Roger

Looks like we posted at the same time John

http://www.professionalequipment.com...40_product.jpg
 
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Old 09-18-04, 09:53 PM
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Okay... I have the written report in front of me.

I must have misunderstood what the inspector said yesterday.

Here's what the report shows for each outlet (except for the kitchen and bathroom):
Conditions of outlets: Hot/Neutral/Reverse - (black & white wire), generally means the black and white wires are touching or the wires are reversed.
I haven't moved in to the house yet (and won't until next month), so I don't have access to the inside. What I was hoping to do was find out if replacing all the outlets would do anything worthwhile, so I could look for them on sale at Home Depot or Lowes between now and my closing date -- and so I'd know what I needed to do before plugging in my computer, UPS, or any other 3-prong devices.
 

Last edited by Kevin_28; 09-18-04 at 09:56 PM. Reason: added more info
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Old 09-18-04, 10:34 PM
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Kevin, usually the sellers have to fix what is wrong with the house. Is your situation different? I doubt you have hot and neutral wires touching this would be tripping breakers and I dont think the owners would have put up with that. You mentioned earlier that the wiring had been upgraded. If you have a hot neutral reverse this would be very odd if new grounded wiring was installed. It also could mean an open neutral but would be strange for every receptacle in the house to show open neutral. See if you can clarify with the inspector if he is talking about a group of receptacles instead. Again we are a little short on needed information. I wouldnt go out buying any receptacles just yet. We need to know a lot more. I'm thinking that only a new main panel was installed upgrading from fuses to circuit breakers. Now the fact that the inspector didnt say you have an open ground suggests you have new grounded wiring and three prong (grounded) receptacles.that puzzles me some. Because if new wiring was installed by an experienced person you wouldnt have hot wires and neutral wires landed on the wrong terminal screws (hot/neutral reverse) of the outlets. So lots of ifs here. I would get access to the house and arrange to have the inspector meet you there if indeed you are going to be responsible for getting this straightened out. See if you can get a clearer picture of what you are dealing with....ie ask if you have grounded wiring, The house most certainly didnt when it was built. Does it have three prong outlets installed on ungrounded wiring? Not good. Have him check an outlet by physically taking one out of the box and check to make sure a "boot-leg" ground hasnt been installed on any three prong outlets. I'm worried about this because, as said, he doesnt mention an open ground in his findings. You paid him so get your moneys worth post back after finding these things out. We really cant proceed till we know more.....Roger
 

Last edited by Roger; 09-18-04 at 10:51 PM.
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Old 09-19-04, 01:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Roger
Kevin, usually the sellers have to fix what is wrong with the house. Is your situation different?
Yes. The State of Michigan does not require a seller to make any modifications or repairs. Sellers are required to disclose any known problems, but they're not required to resolve them.

Some cities have ordinances that require sellers to bring their houses to code before selling, but that's the exception, rather than the rule.

As a buyer, I made my offer contingent on a satisfactory inspection report. I have the right to say "fix it, or I'm not buying", and the seller has the right to say "fine, I'll sell it to someone else". Since I'm getting the house for less than I had expected, and the rest of the inspection was great, I'll pay to have the whole house re-wired if need be.

I doubt you have hot and neutral wires touching this would be tripping breakers and I dont think the owners would have put up with that. You mentioned earlier that the wiring had been upgraded. If you have a hot neutral reverse this would be very odd if new grounded wiring was installed. It also could mean an open neutral but would be strange for every receptacle in the house to show open neutral. See if you can clarify with the inspector if he is talking about a group of receptacles instead.
The report shows a room-by-room breakdown. Here's a scan of it.

Again we are a little short on needed information. I wouldnt go out buying any receptacles just yet. We need to know a lot more. I'm thinking that only a new main panel was installed upgrading from fuses to circuit breakers.
That could be. I suppose when they put in the service for central air, they probably figured it was worthwhile to replace the fuse box.
Now the fact that the inspector didnt say you have an open ground suggests you have new grounded wiring and three prong (grounded) receptacles.that puzzles me some. Because if new wiring was installed by an experienced person you wouldnt have hot wires and neutral wires landed on the wrong terminal screws (hot/neutral reverse) of the outlets. So lots of ifs here.
Judging from the improvements in the house, the owner (a single middle-aged woman) appears to have had everything professionally done. In terms of structure, there aren't any weekend handyman hackjobs that are apparent. Though, there are a couple electrical quirks (the one that sticks in my head is there's some normal indoor wiring that's been trenched to the garage -- without any sort of conduit to protect it) that would make me raise an eyebrow.
I would get access to the house and arrange to have the inspector meet you there if indeed you are going to be responsible for getting this straightened out. See if you can get a clearer picture of what you are dealing with....ie ask if you have grounded wiring, The house most certainly didnt when it was built. Does it have three prong outlets installed on ungrounded wiring? Not good.
Like I had said before, there's really not a contingency. If I absolutely have to, I'll just pay an electrician to re-wire the house. I was just hoping it was something I could fix myself. I won't have access to poke around for another month.

The outlets I noticed were all three prong, and there were lots of things in the house that I'd expect to need grounding (computer, refrigerator, dishwasher, garbage disposal, trash compactor). And the inspector said there was an aluminum ground... so something's grounded there.

That's not to say that there weren't a couple of grounded outlets wired between 1959 and when they decided to install a dishwasher, garbage disposal, etc.

Have him check an outlet by physically taking one out of the box and check to make sure a "boot-leg" ground hasnt been installed on any three prong outlets. I'm worried about this because, as said, he doesnt mention an open ground in his findings. You paid him so get your moneys worth post back after finding these things out. We really cant proceed till we know more.....Roger
I guess at this point, I'll just have to wait it out until next month, unless the info I've given allows for more insight.

Unfortunately, home inspectors don't get that involved here. Everything's a "visual check" (I contacted at least ten different inspectors before choosing one, and all said the same thing). Actually taking stuff apart is something they'd tell me to get an electrician for. (In the same regard, they'd tell me to call a plumber if I wanted to know about the water heater or bathroom plumbing).
 
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Old 09-19-04, 04:27 AM
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Talking just some advice take it or leave it

With the report showing basicly all outlets being reversd should make your problem one of the easyer ones to track down and fix.The first thing i would do is when you are able to enter the house,beings that you are comfortable replaceing switches and recepticals is during the day in a well lit room with the breakers off pull one of the tested reverse wired recepticals out of its box and check for ground,and that the black wire (hot) is conected to the copper looking side and the white (nuteral) is to the lighter looking side of the receptical? if all appears to be correct then your problem would have to be at the source the main panel.If not correct it might have been that the electrician had a helper that went behind him and installed all the recepticals (not knowing the proper way)and installed them wrong.But before doing all that i would stop and pick up $6.00 plug in tester and test a couple outlets yourself in case the inspectors findings were inacccurate.
 
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Old 09-19-04, 05:42 AM
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Hot/neutral reverse is a very common and basic wiring mistake. For most appliances, it does not effect safety nor operation. In a few appliances it will effect operation, and in a couple of very significant ways it can compromise safety in anything with exposed contacts (eg a lamp). Most things will operate normally, but this problem should be tracked down and fixed.

You should get a basic wiring book and read it; it will help you to better understand this issue.

The power to a device is carried by _two_ conductors. Power is supplied in the form of alternating current, which means that in a cyclic fashion first one terminal and then the other will be _relatively_ positive to the other. Current flows back and forth over and over again, delivering power to the load. Thus as far as an _isolated_ load is concerned (say the filament in a lamp) it doesn't matter which load terminal is connected to which supply terminal.

However, for reasons of safety, one of the supply terminals is held approximately at earth potential. This is called 'bonding', and the idea is that while the terminals are going +- -+ +- -+... relative to _each other_, relative to the 'outside world' (say your body) the terminals are going +0 -0 +0 -0... In the ideal case (don't try this intentionally!) touching the bonded terminal wouldn't shock you at all, and it will likely result in only a minor shock. In the US, the bonded supply conductors are called the 'neutral' conductors, and the conductors are covered with white insulation.

Electrical devices are designed so that the most potentially exposed live conductors are connected to the neutral (bonded) supply leg. For example, if you look at the screw shell holder for a lamp, you have a big shell for one contact, and a small button for the other contact. The big shell is supposed to be connected to neutral. If you look at a receptacle outlet, you will see that one slot is slightly larger than the other. The larger slot is supposed to be connected to neutral. Similarly, if you look at a two prong plug, you will see that one blade is larger than the other; this is the neutral blade. All this is designed to make certain that the neutral conductor is connected to the most exposed metal, that the hot conductor is the one that gets switched, etc.

When you have 'hot neutral reverse' it simply means that someone connected the supply to the outlets backward, with the bonded wire going to the small slot and the non bonded wire going to the large slot. Until you investigate where the reverse happened, telling you how to fix this is impossible. It might be that the cables are correct, but that each receptacle was wired backward, or it might be that the receptacles are wired correctly, but the cables are fed incorrectly.

-Jon
 
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Old 09-19-04, 08:48 AM
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Boy, this thread (and its predecessor) has sure gone off on a lot of extended wild goose chases. First we wasted a lot of time discussing open ground, and then we wasted a lot of time discussing open neutral.
 
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Old 09-19-04, 10:12 AM
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Kevin, sorry for all the confusion. Seems to me since you cant get back in the house and getting back with the inspector isnt an option, then you just need to wait till you close on the house. It doesnt sound to me you have any major concerns that should keep you from buying this house. The inspector does show all outlets hot neutral/reverse, not hard to fix but a little puzzling if new grounded wiring was installed by a professional. Suppose you could have an open neutral but this really doesnt fit the fact that all outlets are affected. Usually when the hot and neutral are terminated on the wrong screws of an outlet this is associated with two wire ungrounded wiring. You say all outlets are three prong which is indicative of modern 3 wire grounded wiring. So we dont really know what you have but none of these are what I would call a red flag not to buy the house. When you address the wiring issues after you get in the house find out these things.

1.) Plug a lamp into these outlets as John Nelson suggested, if they work you dont have an open neutral.
2.) Do you have ungrounded wiring. Take the cover off an outlet, the cables coming into the box will only have 2 wires in them. Or if you see any two prong receptacles along with three prong suggests you may have a mixture of both grounded and ungrounded wiring.
3.) If you have ungrounded wiring are any three prong receptacles installed on this wiring. If so this needs to be changed if these outlets arent associated with gfci protection.
4.) Plug the receptacle tester I mentioned in an earlier post into the outlets if they are three prong. See what it tells you.

As for the buried cable this may be fine but should have protection above the ground level. It should be buried to a specific depth depending on the situation and materials used.

When this house was built gfci wasnt required, the inspector is simply saying that bedrooms and kitchens now require gfci protection. It would be a good idea to provide gfci for better saftey in these areas but isnt required.

It would be great if you would post back after you get in the house and let us know what you have going on with the wiring. Hope this is a little less confusing....Roger
 

Last edited by Roger; 09-19-04 at 10:29 AM.
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Old 10-22-04, 03:05 AM
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It's been a while... but I now have the house.

Here's what I actually have going on:
First floor
Living Room (all): Hot / Neutral Reverse
2 Bedrooms and half of another bedroom: Hot / Neutral Reverse
Bathroom and other half of the above bedroom: Correct (the bedroom outlets are on the same wall as the bathroom, so I'm guessing it is the same circuit)

Second floor
Family room (all): Hot / Neutral Reverse
Dining Room: Hot / Neutral Reverse
Kitchen: Correct
Utility Room: Open Ground

To answer your questions, Roger:
The wiring is not underground, and is not entirely professional. Case in point: the owner trenched indoor wiring from the back of the house to the garage for an exterior light.

Most of the outlets are three-prong (only one is two-prong).

1) Lamps seem to work in all of the outlets.

2) It's definitely overhead wiring, but the array of different wires coming out of my circuit breaker box would tell me that the wiring was changed in various stages, by people of varying skill. Since the bathroom and kitchen are correct, I know at least some of the wiring is okay

3) I'll check and see what the actual wiring behind looks like and report back (probably with pictures, if it's confusing to me).

4) Done (see above)

Is it reasonable to assume that whoever wired the place just didn't know what he (or she) was doing? The outlets seem to range rather extensively in terms of age, color, and manufacturer. The one in the utility room appears to be the newest.

I think you guys have given me enough info to try and track down and fix the Hot / Neutral outlets, but the Open Ground concerns me a bit.

I have to plug my washer in to that outlet (but nothing else). Since the washer is metal, am I running a risk of electrical shock because it is improperly grounded? Within a couple inches of the outlet is my laundry tub... would it be a good idea to buy a clamp and run a wire from the outlet to a clamp on my cold water line? Would that shock me if I happened to touch the water line while the washer was in use? (Not that I get my kicks by touching water lines while doing my laundry, but the fixture is metal and there may be a time when I need to turn the water on while the washer is running.)
 
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Old 10-22-04, 05:54 AM
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A hot neutral reverse means that the hot side of the circuit goes to the silver screws on a receptacle, while the return side goes to the brass screws on a receptacle, instead of the other way around. Most electrical devices will work this way. Is it a problem? Yes, it is a problem. Should it be corrected? Yes, it should be corrected.

You need to find the source of the problem. You may need to check each and every receptacle and light on the circuit. They all may be wired improperly, or there may simply be a mistake at one receptacle that causes the problem further downstream. The problem could even be at the main panel.

At the circuit breaker panel the black wire should be connected to the breaker. The white wire should be connected to the neutral bus, and the ground wire (if there is one) should be connected to the ground bus. The grounds and neutrals may very well share the same bus.

At each receptacle the black wire(s) should be attached to the brass screws. The white wire(s) should be attached to the silver screws. The ground wire(s) should be attached to the green screws and to the metal boxes. If there is no ground wire then you should have two prong (ungrounded) receptacles only (see below regarding open grounds).

Lights should be wired with the hot wire to the black light wire and the neutral wire to the white light wire. Be careful with lights and switches, as there may be switch loops containing white wires, and there may be red wires in some cases.



Open grounds are a different issue. An open ground means that there is no ground wire attached to the receptacle. This can be caused by an incorrectly wired receptacle, or more likely, an older wiring job where no ground wire exists.

Open grounds due to a miswiring should be corrected, by simply reattaching the groud wire to the receptacle.

Open grounds because no ground wire exists should also be corrected. Here you have several choices. You can replace the receptacles with two prong ungrounded receptacles. You can run new wire (cable) that contains a ground wire to the receptacles. You can separately ground the receptacles by means of an added ground wire. Finally, you can provide GFCI protection for the circuits. In the GFCI case you need to clearly mark any three prong receptacles (including the GFCI) as "No Equipment Ground".

For any devices that have three prong plugs you should either use GFCI protection or properly ground the receptacle. This includes your washer. If you have a computer it should be properly grounded. Note also that most surge supressors need a proper ground to function.

When investigating your wiring and fixing these and any other problems you find, I recommend that you move any backstabbed connections to the screw terminals.
 
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Old 11-06-04, 10:16 AM
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Here's just a quick update...

After reading a lot here, and browsing through a home electric book, I decided to start down the path of fixing this problem.

I turned off the breaker, and used the tester to make sure that the outlet was really off. Then I took it out.

Now here's what's odd to me:
The white wire was on the left side, the black wire on the right, and the ground wire was connected to a screw in the junction box rather than on the grounding screw on the recepticle. I had read that this was safe, though not up to code... but I left it as it was.

I figured it was safe to just switch the wires over, so I did that, put everything back, hit the breaker, and returned with my trusty ground tester and voila! It shows the outlets are now correct.

So I'm guessing whoever put these outlets in just didn't pay attention to what they were doing. I think now that I've found that they're easy to fix, I'll just go ahead and replace all the outlets while I'm correcting them.
 
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Old 11-06-04, 12:00 PM
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"Left" and "right" means nothing when talking about a receptacle. The screw color is the only thing significant.

Don't reverse the wires unless you see black wire on silver screw and white wire on brass screw. If you see black on brass and white on silver, leave it alone, even if it registers as hot/neutral reverse. Once you fix one, you'll likely find that others may also be fixed, so test each one before you change it.
 
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Old 11-09-04, 12:38 PM
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Although the volume of this thread may have caused me to miss it, one thing I have not seen in here is a discussion of older wiring types. Specifically, if there is existing knob & tube, or some of the old black cloth covered "romex", both conductors were black back then and you couldn't distinguish hot from neutral without an electrical tester. In that case, with the breaker on you would test both wires against a known, reliable ground. One should read roughly zero volts. That's the neutral. The other one should read between 110 - 120 volts. That's the hot.

One other thing - about the trenched cable out to the garage - it must be UL listed for direct-burial (it must say so on the outer jacket) and must have 18" minimum cover. That would be legal. If the area where it is run is not exposed to vehicular traffic. If it is the cover requirement increases. But direct-burial is done fairly commonly. However, if it is normal NM-B listed cable, it is strictly for indoors and is definitely an ameteur job.

Just a couple points that grabbed my interest. You have some pretty good advice and ideas from the other wise contributors to this thread to which I will not add at this time. (Winnie - I particularly enjoyed your explanation of alternating current.)

Good luck with the house, Kevin-28.

Juice
 
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