What Is a Neutral Wire? The wonderful world of electrical wiring can be quite complex for those who are unfamiliar with it. You might be wondering, “What exactly is a neutral wire?” ‘ or be left grappling with other industry jargon.
There are numerous terms to remember, as well as numerous steps and rules to follow in order to ensure that an electrical system is fully operational. A “neutral wire” is a term you’ve probably heard at some point in a science class back in the day.
The neutral wire, like every other component of an electrical system, is necessary for the creation of a functional circuit. But what exactly is a neutral wire, and how does it differ from other types of wires, such as hot wires?
Continue reading to learn about the function of a neutral wire in a circuit and why it is critical to your entire electrical system.
WHAT IS A NEUTRAL WIRE?
A circuit can be thought of as a large loop. In order to provide power, electricity must be able to constantly flow around it. If this loop is broken, the flow of electricity is halted.
A neutral wire assists in completing this loop by returning current (electricity) to the power supply, completing the circuit, and keeping the power on. That is the primary function of a neutral wire: to provide a path for energy to return to its original source.
Most North American circuits include two hot wires and a ground wire in addition to neutral wires. Two hot wires connect the power source (battery) to the load (in this case, a lamp).
The neutral wire then returns power to the power source, completing the circuit. The ground is only used for safety purposes. In the event of an abnormal electrical flow or surge, the ground wire would conduct the charge into the earth.
WHAT’S THIS WIRE MADE OF?
The neutral wire is constructed of the same material as the other electrical wires. That is made of copper. It is an excellent electrical conductor, making it ideal for electrical linings. However, be cautious before purchasing neutral wires.
There are many low-cost products on the market these days. There are some that are made of low-quality iron. Installing these could be hazardous in the long run.
As a result, installing a good wire may save you money in the long run. We can confidently state that these are some of the best electric wires available. Furthermore, these are of exceptional quality!
While the neutral wire returns electricity from the load to the power source, “hot” wires carry electricity from the power source to the load. A load is anything that consumes or draws power. As an example, consider a lamp, a toaster, or your wife’s curling iron.
Homes in North America use “split phase 240 volt current.” That is, each of the hot wires carries 120 volts, for a total of 240 volts. When the loads on the two hot wires are imbalanced (as they usually are), the difference is carried back to the power supply via the neutral wire.
For example, if one of the hot wires carries 12.5 amps and the other 15 amps, the neutral wire will carry 2.5 amps (15 amps-12.5 amps) back to the power supply, completing the circuit.
If only one of the hot wires is carrying a 15-amp current, the neutral wire will carry an equal 15-amp current back to the power supply, completing the circuit. If both hot wires carry the same current, the neutral wire will not carry any electricity back to the power source.
The circuit is completed in this case by electricity flowing back and forth between the two hot wires. So hot wires send electricity from the power source to your appliance (or load), and neutral wires return the electricity back to the power source (if the current is imbalanced between the two hot wires). But what happens if there is an unexpected flow of electricity in the circuit?
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In the event that the circuit of hot and neutral wires that normally carry the current fails, ground wires provide alternate pathways for electricity to flow. The electricity is diverted deep within the earth outside your home via this alternate pathway.
As a result, unlike neutral or hot wires, “ground” wires do not carry any electrical current under normal conditions. They are only used if a ground fault occurs. Ground faults are abnormal electrical current flows.
For example, suppose your house is struck by lightning. This would almost certainly result in a ground fault. In this case, the ground wire would take the abnormal current of electricity produced by lightning and direct it into the earth.
It would also trip a breaker at your electrical panel, cutting off all further power to your home. Without a ground wire, your TV, refrigerator, or, God forbid, your wife’s curling iron could all blow up. And that would be a disaster.
Alternative Video: What Is Neutral Wire?
GET TO KNOW THE BASICS OF NEUTRAL WIRES
Looking at a simple circuit may be the best way to understand what a neutral wire is and what it does. Consider a battery and a lightbulb in front of you. You must connect the two to power the lightbulb, just like in fifth grade science class.
First and foremost, you’ll need a wire to connect the power from the battery to the lightbulb. That wire is referred to as your hot wire. To complete the circuit, a wire must return the electrons to the power supply in order to turn on the lightbulb. This is your neutral wire, as the name implies.
To summarize: the hot wire carries electricity from the power supply and takes it to the load (lightbulb). Neutral wires take the used electricity from the load and bring it back to the power supply.
NEUTRAL WIRES IN YOUR HOME
That’s all well and good, but batteries don’t power your home’s lightbulbs. They are instead linked to a transformer. And, because they aren’t connected to batteries, they use alternating current rather than direct current.
Electricity flows in a straight line through the hot wire, to the load, back through the neutral wire, and then back to the power source with direct current. Consider a direct current to be a boat moving down a river that eventually returns to the lake from which it originated in a loop.
Instead of a perfect, consistent loop, electrons in alternating current constantly move back and forth between the wires. We don’t need to know much more than that about DC vs. AC for our purposes today, but it’s good to know in case you can’t remember from elementary school.
IS THE NEUTRAL WIRE SAME AS THE GROUND WIRE?
The neutral wire and the ground wire are not the same thing. Despite the fact that they are both linked, they serve different purposes. The neutral wire is a component of the electrical connection that completes the flow of current.
The ground wire, on the other hand, serves as a safety precaution. It protects you from electric shock by diverting current away from certain outlets. This also helps to prevent a short circuit!
THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING ABOUT NEUTRAL WIRES
As you can see, the neutral wire is critical to the electrical system of your home. There would be no circuit for electricity to flow along and complete its circle back to the power source if it did not exist.
Neutral wires are important at every point in your electrical system, from the time they leave a transformer or fuse box until they return to the source.
As a result, it is critical that you understand what neutral wires are and how they function in your home, especially if you intend to do any electrical wiring or panel upgrades in the future. Knowing the general purpose of each wire will help ensure that your system works properly for years to come!
DO I HAVE A NEUTRAL WIRE?
The simplest way to tell if you have a neutral wire in your light switch box is to look, but here are a few hints if you don’t want to look just yet:
- If your home was built in the mid-1980s or later, there is a good chance you have neutral wires throughout.
- If there is an outlet close to the light switch in question, that switch most likely has a neutral wire.
- Light switches that are ganged together (such as two or three next to each other) are likely to have a neutral, regardless of the year your house was built.
NEUTRAL WIRE COLOR
Electrical code in North America requires electricians to use a wiring color code, which makes identifying the various types fairly simple. Before you investigate your light switch, make sure the power is turned off!
Go to your electrical panel and turn off the breaker that is supplying power to the light switch you are working on. After that, return to the light switch and attempt to turn it on. If it doesn’t light up, you’re good to go.
Next, unscrew and remove the light switch face cover. After that, unscrew the light switch. Unscrew the switch and gently pull it out of the wall, leaving the wires attached. You should be able to easily identify each wire.
I had no prior experience with this and found it to be simple. If there is a coil of white or gray wires behind the light switch that is not connected to the switch, you have a neutral wire. If there isn’t a coil behind the light switch, you’re probably only dealing with three wires: black, white, and copper.
You don’t have a neutral wire in this case (despite the fact that one of the wires is white!). Once identified, the best advice I ever received was to use masking tape to label each wire before disconnecting them from the light switch.
Take a picture with your phone just in case, so you know how it was installed. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to call an electrician because you can’t even connect the original switch.
WHY IS A NEUTRAL WIRE REQUIRED?
Some circuits cannot function without a neutral wire, while others do not. Consider a standard light switch in your home. It does not consume any power; it simply connects the power to the appropriate bulb (s).
Because smart light switches must be powered at all times, they typically require a neutral wire. The neutral wire completes the circuit and allows the switch to be turned on. This is true even if your smart light switch is set to “off.”
The majority of smart light switches on the market do require a neutral wire, but there are some that don’t. The downside of these switches is they require a separate hub which you have to purchase.
WHAT TO DO IF I DON’T HAVE A NEUTRAL WIRE?
If you don’t have a neutral wire you have three main options:
- Run a neutral wire
- Find a smart light switch that doesn’t require a neutral wire
- Use smart light bulbs instead of smart light switches
1. Run a neutral wire
You could hire an electrician to run a neutral throughout your home. But you’re probably not looking to get involved in this. It can be expensive and a pain in the buttocks. A smart light switch that does not require the use of a neutral wire
Purchasing a smart light switch that does not require a neutral wire is a simpler and less expensive option. There are several options available, but in my opinion, the Lutron Caseta Smart Home Dimmer Switch is the best. It gets rave reviews and is simple to set up on your own.
2. Use smart light bulbs
Finally, you could simply use smart bulbs to avoid the hassle of smart light switches entirely. Smart bulbs, however, have some drawbacks. The most significant disadvantage is that they will not work if your light switch is ever turned off.
That is, you must keep the light switch turned on at all times. That can be a source of great pain for you and your family, as well as a difficult thing to remember.
Smart home automation, in my opinion, should enhance rather than replace existing functionality. I don’t think it’s very smart to be unable to use your house’s light switches. Don’t get me wrong, there are use cases for smart bulbs, they just aren’t my first choice.
WHY DOES MY NEUTRAL WIRE HAVE VOLTAGE?
As previously stated, the neutral wire’s primary function is to provide a path for energy to return to its original source. In the case of the smart light switch, the neutral wire also provides power, allowing the switch to be “on” at all times.
As a result, if this wire has voltage, it is doing its job! However, be cautious because this clearly indicates that you have not turned off the power to the switch you’re working on. Go to the electrical panel and turn the breaker off.
If you’ve already turned off the breaker and your neutral still has voltage, call an electrician before proceeding. More likely than not there is an issue you’re going to need a professional to resolve.
CAN NEUTRAL WIRE BE CONNECTED TO GROUND?
This question, “Can a neutral wire be connected to a ground?” appears frequently in search forums. NO, is the answer. The neutral and ground wires cannot be used interchangeably!
Attempting to use ground or neutral wires for purposes other than their intended use can be extremely dangerous. Ground wires, as previously stated, are not intended to carry any current under normal conditions.
They are only used as a precautionary measure when an abnormal charge is detected. You run a very real risk of electrocution if you remove the ground or tamper with it in any way.
CONCLUSION on Neutral Wires
Working with the electrical wiring in your home can be intimidating, and for good reason. The stakes are extremely high. However, in my experience, swapping out standard light switches for smart light switches is simple once you’ve done your research.
You have everything you need to get started now that you understand what neutral, hot, and ground wires are and how to identify them. Simply ensure that the appropriate breaker at your electrical panel is turned off.
FAQs About Neutral Wire
What is neutral wire used for?
The circuit is returned to the original power source via the neutral wire. More specifically, the neutral wire connects the circuit to a ground or busbar, which is usually connected at the electrical panel. This allows currents to flow through your electrical system, allowing electricity to be fully utilized.
How do I determine if I have a neutral wire?
Remove the existing switch’s wall plate by snapping it off or unscrewing it. Remove the existing switch from the electrical box and slowly pull it out to reveal the wires that are connected to it.
Does a neutral wire carry current?
During normal operations, the neutral wire will carry current. We can see neutral in most of the electrical equipment, mostly in non-linear loads.