What’s a neutral wire and what to do if you don’t have one

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What’s a neutral wire and what to do if you don’t have one
Ryutaro Uozumi / Unsplash

The neutral wire is used to equalize the voltage across the phases of electrical installations. It’s necessary to prevent appliance ignition and fires. The cable is part of the neutral wire – the common point of the generator or transformer winding, connected as a star. There are two types of wire – a working N wire and a protective PE wire.

Modern home construction is often equipped with a deaf grounded zero conductor electrical system. For proper operation of this type of network, power is delivered from three-phase generating sets in three phases with high voltage. In addition, a fourth cable, referred to as the operating neutral, runs from the same power source. Well, let’s figure out what’s a neutral wire and what to do if you don’t have one.

What is a neutral wire?

When working with electricity, it’s important to understand what a working and protective neutral wire is. In the first case, it equalizes the phase voltage, in the second it protects grounding. Users mistakenly believe that the neutral wire is exclusively a grounding wire. Its main function is to connect the neutrals of installations in a three-phase circuit.

When different loads are applied to each of the phases, the neutral is displaced – the symmetry of voltages is broken. Some consumers are supplied with increased voltage, while others are supplied with decreased voltage. Under-voltages cause appliances to malfunction, while over-voltages cause them to overload and catch fire. It’s the job of the neutral wire to balance out the over- and under-voltages by balancing the power grid.

Under-voltages cause connected electrical equipment to malfunction, and under-voltages cause any electronics to break down from overloading and may cause a fire. Equalization provides a balance between over- and under-voltages. This is the role of the neutral wire in an electrical circuit.

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What is the danger of a damaged neutral wire?

First, everyone working with high-voltage power grids should be aware of the consequences of a neutral cable break, since a break can lead not only to the destruction of expensive equipment, fires, but also to the deaths of the users of this equipment. It ensures that there are equal potential differences in lines with different loads.

Now imagine that there’s no equilibrium. One, for example, will have 340 volts and the other only 50 volts. This means that the line with the higher potential difference will burn out the equipment connected to it. And don’t forget that the insulation can also be broken.

Causes of damage to the neutral coupling can be:

  • Mechanical damage by man or natural conditions.
  • A short circuit that results in a burnout.
  • Poor connection.
  • Old wiring.

Damage to the neutral cable eliminates the potential equalization of networks with different loads, which can result in the burning of appliances. The insulation breaks through in such cases. In older buildings, there are risks of electrocution in the event of breakdowns. In new buildings, damage to the neutral cable means that light electric shocks can be felt when touching the appliance.

What is the reaction of electrical appliances to a break in the neutral cable?

When the neutral cable breaks on a phase with a large number of consumers, the load increases. The voltage decreases. On a phase with fewer consumers there’s a sharp increase in voltage. Electric appliances can:

  • Malfunction.
  • Break down or burn out when plugged in.
  • Shock if the grounding wasn’t performed.

The consequence of damage to the neutral cable is the failure of expensive equipment with sensitivity to mains fluctuations. To eliminate electrical hazards, an individual switchboard with a voltage limiter is required. It will quickly turn off the power in case of a voltage fluctuation.

How to tell if you have a neutral wire

The easiest way to determine if you have neutral wires in your breakers is to find out when your home was built or when it was last renovated. If it was after 1990, your home probably has neutral wires. If it happened before 1980, you probably don’t have the neutral wiring needed for smart switches.

The situation becomes less clear-cut if your home was built in the 1980s. The 1980s were a transitional period for electrical standards.

To check if you have a neutral wire, you can open the junction box in your house if you know how to do it safely (you can also have an electrician come over). If you see white wire coming out of the junction box, you probably have a neutral wire.

What to do if you don’t have a neutral wire

If your switch box doesn’t have a neutral wire, you have two options. First, you can have an electrician install it. It’s not a difficult job, but you’ll have to climb into the walls, which could damage your paint or wallpaper. However, if you’re still doing renovations, you have nothing to fear.

An option without dismantling is to use any of the best smart light bulbs or smart switches that work without a neutral wire. A few years ago, there weren’t many companies dealing with wiring problems in older homes. Now, however, you can find an ample selection of models that will allow you to transform your home without neutral wiring.

What is the re-grounding?

The re-grounding of the neutral wire is the protection installed at the intervals defined by the rules of the Electrical Installation Regulations over the entire length of the neutral. The objectives of re-grounding include the reduction of the voltage force in the neutral wire and electrical appliances that have been grounded relative to the ground. This property is useful as protection against a breakdown of the neutral wire and a breakdown of the electrical voltage on the body of electrical appliances.

When creating protection in the electrical system, try to choose the neutral and protective conductor so that if a short circuit occurred on the metal body of the equipment, there was a short circuit in the network or the melting of fuses. Usually, when a circuit breaker is installed, this factor will cause the circuit breaker to trip.

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What is the North American dilemma?

Although the neutral wire is a necessary component of a three-wire system, it’s not part of every AC circuit in North America. Some gadgets on the continent are designed to use a 208V three-wire system with three hot wires and one ground wire. In this case, power is transmitted through the two hot wires in the circuit, and the neutral wire is completely absent.

In Europe, there’s no such thing as a 208V system, and the neutral wire is always part of the circuit. The three-wire system in Europe is designed symmetrically so that the live wire and the hot wire can be switched by rotation.

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