"Shocking" Scenario with Ceiling Fan Wiring

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Old 11-30-12, 03:40 PM
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Question "Shocking" Scenario with Ceiling Fan Wiring

Okay, so not shocking exactly, unless stumping Home Depot counts. Three hours on the phone with them and I've got nothing to show for it except a burnt ceiling.

Hello and thanks for having me here! My ceiling and I will greatly appreciate any help you can offer with my strange problem.

I'm trying to install a Hampton Bay fan that doesn't have a pull chain or any type of manual control, it comes with a remote. Except we're going to take the remote out of the equation for the moment in the interest of making things easier to follow. Or so I hope!

This particular fan has a blue wire for the light and, of course, black for the fan motor. Hooking it up like we would any other, the 14/3 black from the ceiling goes to the fan black, 14/3 red goes to fan blue, 14/3 neutral white goes to fan neutral, and all the grounds (14/3, fan, and fan brace) are connected.

The corresponding wall switch is wired with a Lutron switch separating the fan and light controls for independent operation, using - you guessed it - 14/3 wire. The circuit wires from the breaker box are /2 with ground wire. The junction box itself is metal. The ceiling fan box is also metal.

With all wiring perfect, nothing happens. Nada, zip, zilch. Until by accident the discovery that, touching metal makes it work. Either at the wall or at the ceiling. At the ceiling, for example, if I take the black fan wire and touch a screw or the fan brace itself, the fan comes on. Doing this with the fan blue wire makes the light come on. On the other hand, adding the black 14/3 to the fan black and then touching metal burns the ceiling. That was per Mr. Depot's instructions, actually. Yeesh.

Also, the touching metal result was irrespective of the wall switch being on or off. It worked either way, as long as the single wire touched metal. Same at the wall switch. If I take the black 14/3 at the switch and touch it to the metal j-box, the fan spins (provided the blacks are connected at the ceiling, of course).

Clearly I'm not a professional electrician, but it seems to me like there might be one too many conductive metals or one too few, but Mr. Depot said that didn't matter. To be sure, he had me put cardboard between the ceiling fan brace and the ceiling fan box, but that didn't change anything either. I was just thrilled that, at least it didn't catch fire.

Please help me if you can. Many thanks again!
 
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Old 11-30-12, 04:00 PM
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Check your neutral connections. At the switch box using a multimeter or test light but not a non contact tester with wires discconected check between the black and white of the 2-conductor cable. Do you get 120 volts? Check between black and ground of the 2-conductor cable.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 04:24 PM
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Thanks for the reply, Ray! I don't have a tester, but I can get one and report back either later tonight or tomorrow.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 05:09 PM
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How many cables are going into the switch box? Is it just the one 14/3? How many cables are in the ceiling box? It seems to me the power hits the ceiling box first and you are eliminating the switch from the circuit.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 05:24 PM
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Hi, toolmon!

Thanks for joining in. There are two cables going into the wall box - 14/3 from the fixture, and /2 from the circuit. The 14/3 wire runs from the wall box to the ceiling fan box, and is the only wire coming through from the ceiling.

Ordered a testing kit from HD and will go pick it up after dinner. Stay tuned!
 
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Old 11-30-12, 05:30 PM
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Maybe you can return the testing kit. The last one I saw contained junk you didn't need. All you need is a cheap ($8-15) analog multimeter.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 05:44 PM
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it would be helpful to know the colors and number of wire in the switch box and connected to the switch. I suspect a switch loop or a missing neutral.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:02 PM
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LOL, Ray! They didn't have a decent cheapie in my store, so I bought the kit with three different testers in it. The set is nice. And I'm kinda glad I did, given my results.

According to the multimeter, I have 122 volts when testing the black and ground of the circuit /2 wire. When I test the black and neutral, I get a big fat zero. Yet, according to the non-contact tester, the neutral is live. I can personally attest to that after it zapped me several times while maneuvering around in there.

Please tell me what I should do next. While I pray that won't involve the breaker box or breaking walls.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:09 PM
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Are you getting 120V from white to ground also?
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:09 PM
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What did your multimeter show neutral-to-ground?
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:10 PM
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Hi, pcboss!

Thanks for your input. I think Ray might be on to something given my test results, but FYI, here goes:

The Lutron switch has four wires: green/ground, black for the circuit, yellow for the fan motor, and red for the fan light. When it was wired in, the black wire went to the black /2 from the circuit, red went to the red of the 14/3, yellow went to the 14/3 black, and the green was connected to both the grounds in the /2 wire and the 14/3. The white neutrals from the /2 and the 14/3 were also connected.

Hopefully we're getting closer, my electrical Watsons!
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:14 PM
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Nashkat and toolman - I wasn't told to test that combo. Ha! Just did and it too says 122 volts.

Hopefully this is good news!
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:18 PM
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The Lutron switch has...
I missed this in your original post. If your wall switch is one that controls light level and fan speed, it is almost certainly incompatible with a remote control. Decide which you prefer.

If you prefer the remote, I would splice the black and red in the 14-3 going to the ceiling together with a pigtail and connect that to one of the terminals on a simple on/off switch.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:21 PM
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I wasn't told to test that combo. Ha! Just did and it too says 122 volts.

Hopefully this is good news!
Um, not actually. You'll need to trace the wiring back toward the panel, find the point where that white wire is tied into ungrounded potential, and correct that problem.

The good news is that you read 0V black-to-white. Not 240V.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:22 PM
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I had a feeling the remote and the wall switch wouldn't play nicely together. Your solution sounds easy enough, but of course, we prefer the wall switch. LOL! What would be the fix for that scenario?
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:24 PM
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Set the remote aside, correct the crossed wiring feeding into the switch box, wire the ceiling and the wall switch as you described earlier.
 
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Old 11-30-12, 09:28 PM
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Um, not actually. You'll need to trace the wiring back toward the panel, find the point where that white wire is tied into ungrounded potential, and correct that problem.
Ugh. I have no idea how we can do that without ripping the walls apart. Is it possible to connect a ground and neutral together at the switch?
 
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Old 11-30-12, 10:37 PM
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Is it possible to connect a ground and neutral together at the switch?
NO. That is very unsafe. It could turn any metal cased appliance in your house into a lethal weapon.

Ugh. I have no idea how we can do that without ripping the walls apart.
I do. You determine which receptacles and lights are on the breaker then start checking for a box with an open neutral. It could be in the last working box or first non working box. You need to remove each wire nut and either check inside for damage or just replace with a new one. You need to move any back stabbed wires to the screws. Also see: http://www.doityourself.com/forum/el...ther-info.html
 
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Old 12-01-12, 05:00 AM
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FWIW, all splices should be in accessible junction boxes. There should be no need to break open the wall.s
 
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Old 12-01-12, 10:13 AM
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Thanks for the tip, Ray! This might be easier than I'd thought. Although in our mishmashed box of the century, the circuit with the fan switch encompasses parts of the living room, kitchen and the garage. We've tested the switches and receptacles, but all we've found are ungrounded outlets in the garage. Could that be the problem?
 
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Old 12-01-12, 10:19 AM
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Depending on how the cable was originally run or later added to it could be any box on the breaker. Even a junction box with no fixture in the basement, attic, or garage.
 
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Old 12-01-12, 10:25 AM
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Got it, Ray. Thank you again! But I'm still unclear on the ground issue. You had said to look for an open neutral, which I haven't found, but the ungrounded outlets in the garage are on the same circuit with the ornery fan switch. Might grounding the garage outlets fix our problem with the neutral in the fan switch?

If not, what else should I be looking for? Besides a new house, that is.
 
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Old 12-01-12, 11:40 AM
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Originally Posted by Nashkat1
Um, not actually. You'll need to trace the wiring back toward the panel, find the point where that white wire is tied into ungrounded potential, and correct that problem.
Ugh. I have no idea how we can do that without ripping the walls apart. Is it possible to connect a ground and neutral together at the switch?
This sounds like typical switch-loop wiring. Did the switch in this wall box control a receptacle in the room, or half of a receptacle, before, and you added the ceiling box and the 14-3/G cable?

If so, you need to replace the receptacle that was switch-controlled with one that has both side tabs still in place and splice the wires in the receptacle box together color-to-color, adding a pigtail to each splice to terminate to the new receptacle.

This should give you 120V black-to-ground and black-to-(your new true) neutral at the switch box when you turn the power back on.
 
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Old 12-01-12, 12:10 PM
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Might grounding the garage outlets fix our problem with the neutral in the fan switch?
No. Grounding is safety only. It is not needed for the circuit to function if correctly wired.

<Separate Issue>Is your wired with metallic cable (BX) or non-metallic cable (Romex)? If non metallic cable and most of it does not contain a ground wire I'd be worried someone added grounded cable later and did a bootleg ground by connecting the ground to neutral. That can be very dangerous. Just to be clear do the cables at the light and switch have a ground wire and the ones in the garage no ground wire?
 
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Old 12-01-12, 12:22 PM
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Hi, Nashkat!

No, actually, that switch went to nothing. We tested every receptacle on the circuit, but nothing ever worked with the switch. I suspect this might have been changed sometime in 2006, when an electrical permit was issued. We bought the house last year. Our home inspection pointed out the ungrounded outlets in the garage and several outlets with reverse polarization (those already fixed), but I'd never have thought until now the ungrounded outlets could be related to the issue with the fan in the living room.

However, you are correct in that we added the ceiling box and the updated switch for said living room fan, which will be our fifth. Well, fourth new install, actually. We replaced a shoddy install on the the previous ceiling box in the kitchen, but none of the bedrooms had ceiling fans or fixtures. Those wall switches also went nowhere. And those jobs were cakewalks in comparison!

Given our circuit test results, I'm guessing the ungrounded outlets in the garage are our culprits. There are three of them. Two in metal boxes connected by a metal runner which all seem perfectly fine - and grounded - that are connected to a third wall outlet which fell apart after taking the outlet off. The decrepit outlet seems to be the first of the three on the circuit because the nicer two are dead without that one wired up.

We definitely need to replace the receptacle there, but the wires are also giving strange testing readings. It seems like they ran /2 cable from the nicer outlets to the decrepit outlet, then a separate /2 which probably goes to the breaker box. They had one /2 wired to the top receptacle and the other /2 to the bottom of the plug. We should be getting something on at least the wire that goes to the breaker box, right? Yet we're getting zero on all of the wires in the decrepit receptacle though the non-contact tester says they're hot - even the grounds. Sheesh! Getting a little lost here, that's for sure.
 
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Old 12-01-12, 12:28 PM
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Hi, Ray!

Ok, well, there goes my theory! LOL!

To answer your question, the whole house is Romex black/white/ground, except what we've replaced with 14/3 (also with ground). Everything appears grounded, even the garage outlets (despite the test reading), and I haven't seen any neutral/ground connections in any of the outlets I've examined or worked in.

Hope this helps to help. I really appreciate the effort you guys are making!
 
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Old 12-01-12, 12:37 PM
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Look closely at the "decrepit" receptacle. There are brass tabs between the upper and lower screws. Are they still intact or broken off? If they are missing, that may have been what the switch was controlling.
 
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Old 12-01-12, 12:46 PM
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Hi, toolmon!

Nope, the brass tabs are both there, but all four wires were backstabbed. Does that count?

The decrepit offender is no longer wired in, and interestingly, the fan no longer works or lights up even when touching metal. Hope that means we're making progress!
 
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Old 12-01-12, 01:16 PM
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The decrepit offender is no longer wired in, and interestingly, the fan no longer works or lights up even when touching metal. Hope that means we're making progress!
Does that mean that you disconnected the wires from that receptacle and from each other, and then lost power in the switch box?

If so, what voltage readings do you get across each pair of wires in the receptacle box? It sounds like that may be where the conductors were crossed.
Nope, the brass tabs are both there, but all four wires were backstabbed.
Were the colors matched?
 
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Old 12-01-12, 02:43 PM
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I think the answer is yes to your first question, Nashkat.

The testing results were strange. I received no reading from the wires coming from the breaker box when I tested them earlier. However, I just did it again and got 122 volts between black and neutral, and nothing between black/ground or white/ground.

Now, sans decrepit outlet, the wires in that box are spliced together, and we have power to the remaining metal garage outlets, but they are still showing as ungrounded. However, if I touch metal now at the living room fan or at the fan switch, the fan spins. Oy vey!

If so, what voltage readings do you get across each pair of wires in the receptacle box? It sounds like that may be where the conductors were crossed.
Did that mean in the garage I should have also tested black from the metal outlets to neutral from the breaker box (or vice versa)?
 
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Old 12-01-12, 05:42 PM
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I just did it again and got 122 volts between black and neutral, and nothing between black/ground or white/ground. and we have power to the remaining metal garage outlets, but they are still showing as ungrounded.
You have an open ground somewhere in this circuit. Keep looking toward the panel until you find and connect it.

Did that mean in the garage I should have also tested black from the metal outlets to neutral from the breaker box (or vice versa)?
IDK. What is a "metal outlet"?
 
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Old 12-01-12, 06:11 PM
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I don't know the technical term for those, my apologies. They're receptacles encased in a metal box which reside outside of the wall.

I noticed when doing some testing earlier I received a false indication of an open ground when a neutral wire wasn't connected. I can only hope finding the open ground in the garage (or another open neutral) will fix the problem with the living room fan. Otherwise, it's probably time to call an electrician.

Thanks to you and everyone for the help. The assistance and the education are greatly appreciated!
 
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Old 12-01-12, 08:22 PM
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They're receptacles encased in a metal box which reside outside of the wall.
All metal electrical boxes need to be bonded to ground. Are these bonded? Are the boxes in the living room metal or plastic?

I noticed when doing some testing earlier I received a false indication of an open ground when a neutral wire wasn't connected.
From a plug-in tester? That's one of the inaccuracies those are prone to.

I can only hope finding the open ground in the garage (or another open neutral) will fix the problem with the living room fan.
An open ground needs to be corrected, but even a totally missing ground will have no effect on the function of the live parts of an electrical system - with a few rare exceptions which shouldn't apply here. The ground is an emergency drain that provides the power with a straight path to earth if something comes loose and the power winds up where we don't want it.

An open neutral is a different matter. That interrupts the circuit and the ungrounded power then has to find a different path to earth or, more accurately, back to the generator or turbine it came from. That not only prevents the circuit from functioning, it creates a clear and immediate hazard.

if I touch metal now at the living room fan or at the fan switch, the fan spins.
If you touch what metal? The boxes? The metal fan? The metal yoke of the switch? With what? Your hand? A wire? A current-carrying conductor or a ground wire?

I thought you had solved the problem in the LR by straightening out the wiring in the receptacle box. No?
 
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Old 12-02-12, 07:28 AM
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If you had a switch mounted in that switchbox and only one 14/2 cable going into it before you started the project then, as mentioned several times, it is almost certainly wired as a switch loop and controlled something on that circuit you are investigating now. Either an outlet or fixture that may or may not still exist. You need to remove the Lutron switch, open all the outlet boxes starting from the box you know is fed first from the panel. Go down the line looking especially at any box that has 3 cables or where you find a white wire connected to a black wire or the black side of a receptacle. Also check out any nearby light fixture boxes or boxes with blank plates.
 
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Old 12-02-12, 10:05 AM
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Nashkat: Even after Googling "bonded to ground" the answer is IDK. Both of these "metal outlets" in the garage have ground wire that is connected to the appropriate wire at the outlet points, but I have no clue if they've been connected anywhere else outside of the house.

Yes, the faulty open ground reading was from a plug-in receptacle tester. That came from an indoor receptacle on the circuit in question. Amusingly, the metal box outlets in the garage show grounded when I touch the box they live in.

And NO, we still have not solved the living room fan issue. I wish! We actually seem to have more problems than we did before, now that we've learned the ungrounded garage outlets are on the same circuit as the living room fan.

toolmon: IDK which box/receptacle on this circuit is fed first. I can only assume at this point. More on this in a minute. And the Lutron switch has been out of the wall for days - I'm testing on the wires only. More on that later, too.

I totally agree with you, when the house was originally built, the living room fan switch absolutely had to have powered one of the receptacles. Howevever, a prior owner of the house had electrical work done in 2006. They must have changed that. They were also probably the idiots who hooked up the wires backwards and led to the reverse polarity condition that we fixed as soon as we moved in. All receptacles in question have their tabs in place now.

Interestingly, there is a switch on the same wall with these receptacles from "the" circuit that is apparently on a different circuit. We turned "the" breaker off but it still lit - it powers a floodlight thing in the back yard. I noticed three cables in that switch box, but there are two floodlights, so one might be for each, and it isn't on our circuit anyway. So I assume that switch's condition wouldn't be relevant, right?

New: Husband is going to go into the attic and try to track down the wires (and their feeding order) on this circuit as far back as he can. He isn't the most patient person, and the attic isn't the most pleasant place, so I don't know how fruitful this will be, but it seems like the logical next step. I will also examine every outlet and switch on "the" circuit once again.

And a new status condition to update. As I explained in my first post, the fan would light or spin if the fixture wire for the fan or light was touched to metal. The neutral fixture wire would have the same effect, powering both light and fan when touched to metal. That used to work at both the wall and at the ceiling. However, after a large arc blew the breaker when wires at the switch touched that shouldn't, this only works at the ceiling now.

Test readings on the living room fan switch are the same as before, tho. Hot to neutral gets zero. Hot to ground and neutral/ground are coming in at 122 volts.

Calgon, take me away!
 
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Old 12-02-12, 10:31 AM
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I think it might be time to call in some professional help. I re-read this and do not like that touching part of the system can cause things to work. This is not normal and might be a shock hazard.
 
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Old 12-02-12, 01:27 PM
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Even after Googling "bonded to ground" the answer is IDK. Both of these "metal outlets" in the garage have ground wire that is connected to the appropriate wire at the outlet points, but I have no clue if they've been connected anywhere else outside of the house.
Bonding is the joining of metallic parts. To ground, in this case, means to the Equipment Grounding Conductor, or EGC, commonly called "the ground wire." Each and every metal box in your electrical system should have an approved ground screw - a green hex-head 10-32 machine screw - or ground clip that permanently attaches the ground wire to the box. IDK if the code specifies this or not, but, in boxes with more than one cable, I always identify the cable feeding power in from the panel and use the ground wire in that cable to make the bond, before splicing that wire to the other ground wire(s) and to any needed pigtails.

You need to buy a small bag of ground screws and make this bond in every metal outlet box where it doesn't exist. Use a 3/8" nut driver to start the screw in one of the holes made for that in the back of the box, crimp the appropriate ground wire around the shank of the screw, clockwise, tighten the screw down, and splice any other ground wires and pigtails to the bonded wire.

Here's a bit more about grounding and bonding from one of the leading authorities on the NEC and electrical standards:

Originally Posted by Mike Holt for EC&M Magazine
The Equipment Grounding Conductor (EGC) does not connect anything directly to the earth (ground). Does that surprise you? From the definition of EGC in Article 100, we see that the EGC connects the non-current carrying metal parts of electrical systems to the system grounded conductor or the grounding electrode conductor (or both). Thus, the EGC is really not a grounding conductor at all, but a bonding conductor.

From Article 100, we see that bonding is the "permanent joining of metallic parts" and grounding is a connection "to earth." So we have a distinction, here. If you are joining metallic parts, you are bonding. If you are connecting to earth, you are grounding...

The EGC provides the low-impedance fault-current path that overcurrent protection devices need to operate. It's those devices that remove dangerous voltage potentials between conductive parts of building components and electrical systems [250.2 and 250.4(A)(3)].
From Grounding versus Bonding Part 8 of 12 — 2005 NEC®

Toni, if your eyes haven't totally glazed over by now, I think you and Hubby might enjoy reading Wiring Simplified, which is the authoritative reference on residential electrical systems. It explains both how and why things are connected the way they are, it's non-technical and readable, and it is also inexpensive.

Amusingly, the metal box outlets in the garage show grounded when I touch the box they live in.
I find that less amusing than (ahem) shocking. It's additional evidence that one of the paths to ground - either the Grounded Conductor (the neutral) or the EGC - may be open somewhere. It's also additional evidence that you're a good conductor, but that's not news. We all are. Did you enjoy the tingle you got when you used your body to complete the circuit?

Test readings on the living room fan switch are the same as before, tho. Hot to neutral gets zero. Hot to ground and neutral/ground are coming in at 122 volts.
I thought you guys had found the panel feed in the receptacle box and tested that and found it to be normal - 120V hot to either neutral or ground and no voltage neutral-to-ground, and that you had spliced that panel feed to the black and white wires, color-to-color, in a cable that ran from there to feed the switch box. If so, that should give you proper current in the switch box.

Am I missing something?
 
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Old 12-02-12, 07:53 PM
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Nashkat, thank you for the excellent post and reference materials. Big thanks to Toolmon and Ray, too. I'm happy to report we've had the big "Eureka!" moment. Yesss!

There's an outlet on the same wall as the living room fan switch that hubs and I each thought the other had checked. When I went through the circuit again today, I found that outlet was aiding and abetting our criminal - it was hiding a third cable and what seemed like a very weird pigtail, too. I don't know if it's common practice to bundle hots and neutrals together, but I'd tend to think not - so I pulled out the pigtail (and Frank Sinatra) and redid it my way. Now the outlet has power, the fan switch has power, and it goes all the way to the garage. Woo hoo!

On the not-so-great side, despite adding grounding screws and "bonding" the ground wires to the metal outlets in the garage, they still reflect an ungrounded status when tested. Maybe that will change after I put in the replacement for the decrepit outlet which connected those metal outlets to the circuit. If not, I just might be back to torture you again.

Seriously, many thanks again for the friendly and in-depth assistance, and even more for the invaluable education. You rock!
 
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Old 12-02-12, 08:03 PM
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Glad you found and conquered that foe! Thank you for the feedback, and we're ready to hear more if you need us.
 
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