Important: Electrical repairs can be dangerous and deadly. This website and blog are for informational and educational purposes only. Leave all electrical work in your home or business to licensed professionals.
Electrical wiring in American homes built after the 1940s follows a standardized code which can help you figure out what each wire is used for. NOTE: Electrical wiring can be dangerous to work with, and it’s always a good idea to make sure you are grounded and not around any wet surfaces.
Hot Wires — Be Careful!
Something important to remember is that a “hot wire” means that the wire carries electricity. Before working on it, make sure to shut off the circuit breaker. Be safe and make sure not to put yourself at risk. If you have any questions or are uncertain, get in touch with the experts at M. R. Electricians, and we’ll be happy to help. Also remember, regardless of the color of the wire that ALL wiring should be considered HOT or LIVE.
- Black wires are hot wires. They go from a power source, usually the breaker panel, to electrical outlets and switches. They also connect switches to appliances and fixtures that require power.
- Red wires are hot wires, and the same rules apply. These can most commonly be seen to interconnect smoke detectors. Sometimes, they’re used for 240-volt appliance installations like a stove or water heater.
- White wires with black or red tape are hot wires. The black or red tape is to signal that the wire is actually hot, unlike a regular white wire. It may be used for the second hot wire on a 240-volt appliance replacing the red wire.
- Blue or Yellow wires are hot wires. These are sometimes found in an electrical conduit. They can also be called travelers, especially the blue wires, since they allow operation for three-way or four-way applications.
Ground wires — Passing It Back
All electrical devices and all metal electrical boxes must be grounded. Ground wires provide a safe path for a current if a device faults, shorts out, or trips a breaker. Essentially these wires pass the current back to the earth.
- Copper wires are ground wires. These bare wires connect to electrical devices, outlets, switches, as well as metal appliance frames and housing. and pass the current to the ground.
- Green wires or Green with a Yellow Stripe wires are ground wires. These wires help prevent potential fires by redirecting electrical overload. They connect the grounding terminal in an outlet box and to the busbar, a metal strip, in an electrical panel.
“Neutral” Wires — Not As Simple As You Think
Neutral may make you think that the wire is safe, but that’s not always the case. Neutral wires can and, often, do carry power that will shock you. They generally bring electricity back to the service panel, the opposite of what a hot wire does. And that’s why neutral wires require just as much care as every other wire. Bottom line: neutrals do carry current and should also be treated as a HOT wire.
- White wires or Gray wires are usually neutral wires. If it is wrapped in electrical tape, then it is a hot wire. If the wires are old and you think maybe the tape fell off, check the breaker box for loose loops of tape which could have come from the white or gray wire.
This stuff isn’t supposed to be easy! Don’t stress if you’re still confused. Instead, call (301) 871-0477 to get in touch with M. R. Electricians, who have been working since 1996 to provide service with a family touch to homes in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC. Also, call (727) 422-0391 for service in Florida.