Ground Acting as Neutral

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Old 04-15-08, 09:05 PM
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Ground Acting as Neutral

I have found a lot of very useful info on these pages, it has been great. Unfortunately I have a pretty specific question, so I thought I'd post my own. Hopefully someone can point me in the right direction!

I have a receptical that is the end of the line -- there are three wires coming in black/white/ground, and none going out. The outlet was recently replaced and is no longer working correctly (no power). It worked just fine before, so it was clearly not reconnected in the same manner as previous. I disconnected and found out the hard way that the white was actually hot and the ground was acting as neutral! Holding the white and touching the ground produced a nice little shock. Below are the details that I've found by playing around with this.

Both the black and white coming in are hot (this explains why hooking up the outlet in typical fashion (black on one side, white on the other, ground to ground screw) does not work). It appears that the previous owner set it up so that the ground is actually acting as the neutral. I do not have the old outlet, so I don't know how this was initially setup (i.e. if any tabs were broken). I have read that it is ok to have two hots coming in and use the ground as nuetral as long as the hots are canceling out rather than providing 240v. I am almost positive that this is the case, as this outlet feeds a 120v microwave that has always worked on the 'old' connection. I also connected the black (hot) and white (hot) together and used this to feed a light fixture to test whether it would blow and it didn't. (I don't have a voltmeter).

Anyway, I guess I just need to know the best way to reconnect the 'new' outlet -- i.e. should both the white (hot) and ground (neutral) be on one side, with the black (hot) on the other and no tabs broken? Any suggestions would be wonderful.

Hopefully this isn't too long; thanks!!
 
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Old 04-15-08, 09:39 PM
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Originally Posted by Jodamo23 View Post
The outlet was recently replaced and is no longer working correctly (no power).
Have you verified this with a tester of any kind? The best test would be with a neon bulb style plug-in tester.

found out the hard way that the white was actually hot and the ground was acting as neutral! Holding the white and touching the ground produced a nice little shock.
This is normal operation between the neutral and ground. The neutral carries current just like the hot; it is quite possible to be shocked by a neutral conductor. Why were you working on this circuit hot?

I have read that it is ok to have two hots coming in and use the ground as nuetral as long as the hots are canceling out rather than providing 240v.
That is not okay; it's illegal and dangerous. The bare ground cannot be used as a current carrying conductor. What you have read about is a multi-wire circuit which uses an additional red wire as the second hot. White neutral and bare ground still serve the proper function in an MWC.

Any suggestions would be wonderful.
Have you replaced any other receptacles lately? This sort of symptom can be caused by mis-wiring a previous receptacle in the circuit.
 
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Old 04-15-08, 11:17 PM
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Thanks Ben, sounds like I might just need to have someone take a look to be on the safe side. With regards to

Originally Posted by ibpooks View Post
That is not okay; it's illegal and dangerous. The bare ground cannot be used as a current carrying conductor. What you have read about is a multi-wire circuit which uses an additional red wire as the second hot.
There are only three wires coming into the box -- black, white, and ground. If white and back are on opposite sides of the receptical and the ground is attached to the ground screw, I get no power (plugging a light in). However, if black is on one side and ground is on the other, I get power and if white is on one side and ground on the other, I get power. Is it safe to say that this is the illegal and dangerous method of using the bare ground as a current carrying conductor?

This is a setup that was in place when we moved in -- it is the only outlet of its kind that we have come across in the house. I think that it was initially hooked up with both white and ground together on one side (in order to complete the circuit for one set of lights) and black on the other (to provide power to the outlet itself), but you can understand my hesitancy to hook it back up this way... Thanks for the insight. If you wouldn't mind commenting on this added info it would be appreciated, otherwise thanks again for the initial response!
 

Last edited by Jodamo23; 04-15-08 at 11:22 PM. Reason: Add Info
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Old 04-16-08, 12:03 AM
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You NEVER "test" wiring by touching them to see if you get shocked. Nor do you connect what seems to be a "hot" lead (any color other than white, grey or green) to either a neutral or ground wire to test.

It appears that you have little knowledge of electricity and how it is wired in a home. You need to read at least one, and better, several books on home wiring and thoroughly understand the "whys" behind the rules. One of the best books for a beginner is Wiring Simplified and it is available at most home centers for about ten dollars.

Next, as Ben asked, why are you working on this circuit while it is energized? That is playing with your life.

You need to find out where the other end of this cable is to find out what is wrong, and something is DEFINITELY wrong.

Do you KNOW what circuit breaker controls every light and receptacle in the house? You should have mapped this out shortly after moving into the house. Do NOT rely on any notes or schedule that was already in the panel when you moved in but check for yourself.
 
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Old 04-16-08, 05:47 AM
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Not trying to be mean here, but given your lack of knowledge of electricity,and the dangerous situation you are in right now, maybe it is time to call in an electrician.

From what you described, it sounds like the hot (black) is connected to the neutral (white) somewhere on the circuit upstream from your trouble outlet. The fact that the breaker has not tripped is a bit scary. If you want to try and troubleshoot this yourself, first go out and buy a multi-meter with something that can measure at least voltage and resistance. Next, turn off the breaker on that circuit and start going from box to box starting at your trouble receptacle, measuring resistance between hot and neutral on this circuit only. You should measure around zero ohms to start with and once you get something on the order of thousands of ohms, then the mis-connection is probably at the last box you were at. I am guessing that you will find the incorrect connection at another receptacle. The tricky part is that some boxes may have multiple circuits passing through, so be careful. I would also suggest buying a non-contact voltage tester that beeps or lights up when a live circuit is near.

If you are going to do this yourself, you need some knowledge in a hurry. Don't underestimate 120 V, it can still easily kill!

Good luck.
 
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Old 04-16-08, 06:35 AM
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The neutral connection is open at the other end of the cable. Connect it the way you did the first time and go look in other places for the neutral being disconnected.
 
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Old 04-16-08, 09:43 AM
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I'd agree with joed about a loose/disconnected neutral down the line somewhere. What's happening is that the hot is transferring the full 120v, and another device on the circuit (lamp or similar) is passing the voltage through the device onto the white wire. This makes it appear that both are hot (they actually both are).

I'd suggest you turn off the breaker, and start checking each receptacle in the circuit and ensure all the connections are tight. If you've read through prior posts, you'll know that prime candidates are any receptacle that is wired using the back-stab connections (wires pushed into the little holes in the back of th receptacle). If any are wired like that, you've probably found your problem and the wires should be transfered to the screw terminals.
 
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Old 04-16-08, 09:44 AM
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I agree that joed is also on the right track. There is a break (or loose connection) in the neutral wire somewhere along this circuit. Such problems can be tedious to find, but could be accomplished in an afternoon's work.

If you had opposite legs of hot on black and white, when you plugged the lamp in it would have been very bright and burned out quickly.

I think that it was initially hooked up with both white and ground together on one side (in order to complete the circuit for one set of lights) and black on the other (to provide power to the outlet itself), but you can understand my hesitancy to hook it back up this way..
That is definitely wrong and unsafe. It's a possible "bootleg" a previous installer did to work around the broken neutral instead of putting in the time to fix is correctly.

You mentioned a microwave...is this receptacle in a kitchen, dining room or pantry area? If so, now would be a good time to add GFCI protection to the circuit.
 
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Old 04-16-08, 12:52 PM
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It is frustrating is that this outlet worked just fine until we had someone change out the outlets. I have gone through and checked all of the others connections throughout the house and nothing seems to be loose or back-stabbed -- all other recepticals and lights are working. This whole issue is limited to one outlet above the microwave and a set of lights above the sink. I get the lights to work by connecting white to ground, and I get the outlet working by connecting black to ground -- I believe that a previous installer (sometime over the last 60 years) set this up to use the ground as neutral at this particular junction.

I did not intentionally zap myself to check for power, it happened while the ground was attached to the grounding screw and I was holding the outer edges of the receptical (this is how I began to think that the ground was intially being used to complete the circuit). But yes, I should have had the breaker off in the first place.

Anyway, thanks for all of the warnings and advice guys -- I will likely schedule an appointment with an electrician and will update this forum upon resolution in case anyone is insterested (sounds like they will likely tell me to have new wire run). Thanks again.
 
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Old 04-16-08, 06:22 PM
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Did you check the light and the light switch box. Problem could be in any junction box on the circuit.
 
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Old 04-21-08, 02:22 PM
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I met with an electrictian over the weekend. He explained that the ground in my box was is being used to complete the circut for the sink lighting. We get voltage on the connection between white and ground when the sink lights are flipped on, and nothing when the sink lights are off. The black in the box is a straight hot that brings power to the receptical for the microwave. This line also uses the ground to complete it's circuit. I have two options:

1) Connect White to Ground and have the receptical installed with Ground on one side, black on the other.

2) Run new wire

He did not seem too concerned with using the ground as neutral for this situation (don't know if it's becuase it is a short connection, or based on the voltage he was testing or what...)

I think I will cap these off in the box for now and choose to have new wire run at some point down the road. My wife isn't happy with having to use an extension cord for the microwave, but it's probably for the best given all of the warnings about using the ground here. Thanks for the insights guys, looks like this all stems from a wonky setup that came with the house.
 
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