What Is An Open Neutral: Troubleshooting Guide

Even before you can think of troubleshooting and fixing an open neutral, you need to know what it is. That way, you can differentiate between the various colors that define the wires. One wire is in black, another red, while the other is white coating. So, what exactly is an open neutral?

A neutral wire has 0 volts. A wire carrying electrical current (often referred to as “hot”) is used to power receptacles, lights, and appliances. The neutral wire is used to complete the path back to the electrical panel. When the neutral wire is open, the white wire is disconnected or has a loose connection. This can cause lights in your home to flicker or appliances to operate inconsistently.

But other ways cause an open neutral, as you’ll see.

Usually, the black and red wires work hand in hand with the white neutral wire. The black and red wires have a live electrical current. In contrast, the neutral isn’t hot. The primary function of the neutral is to complete the circuit by returning the flow to the panel.

When the neutral line is open, your device gets electricity through the neutral wire. In the process, it is a risk because the neutral is carrying electricity while it shouldn’t. That’s how you get your appliances and fixtures to start malfunctioning.

Let’s discuss how to troubleshoot and fix the problem.

What Is Meant By Open Neutral?

Open neutral means the white wire (neutral) in a 120-volt circuit in your house is broken. If the neutral breaks, the circuit is incomplete because there is no electricity returning to the panel.

Since the purpose of the neutral wire is to circulate the current back to your power source, once it breaks, it results in a disconnect. In addition to that, some of the energy goes back through the one live wire or ground. As a result, the lights in your house may glow lighter or dimmer.

For a better understanding of the American electrical systems and how a neutral wire works, here is a quick overview of how each wire in the circuit functions:

  • Hot Wire: the hot (black wire) carries the current from the power source to the outlets in your house. It is the most dangerous wire in the circuit as it is always carrying electricity unless the power source is off.
  • Neutral Wire: the neutral (white wire) takes the power back to the initial source thus completing the circuit for electricity to flow continuously.
  • Ground Wire: though the ground (green wire or bare copper) does not carry any electrical current, it is essential for your safety. What it does is it carries the electricity back to the ground during an electrical malfunction such as short circuits.

Is It An Open Neutral Bad?

An open neutral is terrible; in fact, it is dangerous. When there’s a loose connection, the neutral wire becomes abnormally hot and damages appliances in its wake.

Most fires related to an electrical fault have an open neutral to blame. When the connection to the circuit breaks, it forms an arc. In most cases, the arc is brief; however, it can cause heavy damage within that period. These arc formations are unpredictable. Can you imagine how dangerous they might be if the arc is prolonged?

To get an open neutral, it’s either there was a loose or no connection at all. The resistive neutral is when the neutral has a loose connection. When the link is wrong, there’s some instant resistance. By contrast, a good connection got minimal resistance.

The resistance will allow for the transfer of electricity but is not as perfect as it should be. And that’s where the damaging effects come from

The first danger is when there’s unusually low or high voltage in your house. These types of influxes will shock appliances. For instance, a 120-volt device may not handle 240 volts because it will burn out.

On the other hand, a 240-volt appliance might not function appropriately with half of its power if you notice lights burning brighter than always; that’s a good indication of a resistive neutral.

For your family safety, you can engage an electrician who should treat it as a high-priority case. If you dare to try out the methods below, you can fix the problem yourself.

Resistive neutral connections tend to get hot. In the process, they burn surrounding items which may cause a fire in your home. Now, if you don’t fix it in time, it may cause a problem over time. The other effect is that it increases the rate at which the wires deteriorate.

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The other danger of open neutrals is the possibility of electrocution. You may get shocked or electrocuted from open neutrals. And it can get worse if left unchecked. For example, you can easily get electrocuted while taking a shower with an open neutral.

What Happens When A Neutral Fails?

A neutral wire breakage will cause an electric shock. Any device connected to the circuit will get high voltage and probably overheat in the process. And this is very dangerous for your appliances and people in the house.

The neutral wire takes all the heat from the incomplete circuit.

Ideally, you should not disconnect a neutral wire because they play a vital role in completing the circuit. Its primary function is returning the electricity to the panel. In the real sense, an electric circuit will not function if the neutral is missing.

There’s a conflict in the currents in the absence of a neutral wire, and electric flow tends to cause trouble. The electric discharge is unstable, with the electric supply fluctuating among the three wires. When the changes are small, you may ignore them, but you may expect more significant problems when they escalate.

The neutral wire is not dangerous in its own right because it does not carry any voltage. It keeps the electricity supply “grounded,” so to speak. However, when there’s a lost connection or no neutral wire is a danger to your family and appliances.

In contrast, the other two live wires can be dangerous. So, handle them with a lot of care.

How Do You Troubleshoot An Open Neutral?

Fixing an open neutral is best done by a professional. It’s best to call an electrician if you notice any problem with your home’s electrical systems. But, what you can do as an initial troubleshooting step is to identify the exact issue through 2 simple steps we will discuss below.

There are two ways to identify a bad connection. One is to confirm whether the live wire or neutral is open and examine the severity of the outage in your circuit.

But again, it’s always best to leave these things to the experts. Only do the following steps if you at least have the basic knowledge of how the electrical system in your house works and if you’re confident you can execute the following steps:

1. Check If Neutral Has Power

Use a tester to check for power. Let’s say you have some dead device. In normal circumstances, the neutral should not be live at any given moment.

However, if the tester indicates a neutral is live, it might be the source of the problem. On the other hand, determining the severity of the outage becomes more manageable; if you switch off the breaker that’s maintaining the hotness of the nonfunctional device, it’s easier to check the extent of the outage.

It is essential to know that an open live wire makes the process a little bit difficult. Nevertheless, if the labeling is correct, you can run with it.

Notably, when multiple wires are misbehaving in the panel, the trouble could be more significant. Generally, it could extend to your meter or even the grid connection. In such a case, there could be different signs than the above.

If a couple of your items are not functioning correctly, you can check the neutrals or breakers at the main panel. In there, you’ll search for hanging, corroded or discolored wires, then testing their voltages at the breakers.

If you have a transfer switch, check to see if it’s knocked off. You may search for the open wire along the circuit. It is not an easy task, especially if the lights are misbehaving or you’ve completely switched off the power.

If you discover some functioning devices, they could be the cause of the problem. Alternatively, the open may also be any of the surrounding devices closest to the working one.

2. Test All Outlets And Switches

Next, you may turn on the light and plug in a testing device. What you are doing is to see whether it flicks. You could request an extra hand because from then you will be moving a lot.

You have to examine all outlets, even those used less often. Take the covering outs and test them even if they appear dead.

Next, you need to test all the outlets and switches. You may plug different testing objects in the outlets and try to shake things up. Additionally, you may use a lousy conductor of electricity such as plastic or dry wood to press and wiggle the wires.

The idea is to interfere with the wires so that they can help identify the problem. That way, you are waiting for a simple flash of the plugged-in light. Now, if the lamp flicks, then it means you are on the right track.

It means you have identified the switch or outlet with the open neutral. Afterward, fix the connection in that particular section.

If you discover that the live wire is open, use a non-contact voltage tester to test any non-functioning devices. There’s a likelihood it might start up the cables held in the panel box.

When the live wire is the cause of the problem, the device stays lit. Otherwise, if that’s not the case, then it might be any of the functioning devices. Therefore, you’ll have to manually check while correcting any anomalies with the live wires connections.

Conversely, fixing the neutral wire means correcting any anomalies on the white wires in your home wiring. When the problem persists, it could be because of hidden circuits.

For instance, a fire alarm or even junk boxes situated in crawl spaces or attic in modern homes may have newer electrical systems that are easier to troubleshoot.

Nevertheless, if you live in an older house, it’s good to check the out-of-way circuits. They could be the cause of the problem. Just as they are, these older electrical installations might have some shortcomings, which depend on the period they have been in use. 

Can A Breaker Cause An Open Neutral?

If you have an irregular connection on the outlet, it causes an open neutral downstream. In most cases, this happens especially when outlet connections are employed to create a path for the neutral.

In reality, it is not advisable to connect a neutral in such a manner. Instead, direct a neutral via the panel with a wire nut plus a pigtail and drop to the outlet. Of course, other ways can cause an open neutral.

If you can’t locate an open neutral to the junction box, breaker panel, appliances, you can call your electrician for help. The most significant hurdle in troubleshooting open neutral is locating hidden fixtures.

If it’s hard to reach, you will get to do more work than necessary. Modern building and wiring codes consider these problems. So they advise that you place items such as the junction box in easy-to-access areas.

Final Thoughts

Several ways can cause an open neutral in your home wiring. Once you confirm an open neutral, you can begin the process of troubleshooting. In complex wiring, troubleshooting is a lot of work.

It could mean going through any dead or working items to see where the problem lies. The easier way is to contact an electrician. It is not advisable to DIY electrical issues because you may cause extensive damage.

An open neutral is dangerous. When you have an open neutral, it means that you do not get a complete circuit. Usually, there are three wires; red, black, and white. The white is neutral, and it does not carry electricity.

Each of the other two wires carries about 120 volts to make a total of 240 volts. The neutral allows appliances that need 120 volts to access the supply without hitches. When it’s an open neutral, it means that it is activated.

In the process, it carries electric flow to appliances instead of returning to the panel. That’s why your lamps and devices start to misbehave. Some lights might glow brighter or dimmer, depending on the source of energy. 

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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