Sign up ×
Home Improvement Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for contractors and serious DIYers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

My house was built in early 1950's and all electrical switches do not have a ground. This was found out with an electrician when I asked them to install Lutron Maestro, but it would not power on since there was no ground to connect it to.

His suggestion was to find a motion sensing light switch that did not need ground, but he could not make a recommendation off-hand.

Do motion sensing light switches that do not require ground exist? Or do I have to build/rig them somehow. Unfortunately, due to cost, I cannot afford to add ground wires to the areas of the house that I need these at.

EDIT The electrician connected the Meastro unit then attempted to turn it on. Pressing the button or moving in front of the sensor did not turn it on. He also attempted to connect the unit's ground to either neutral or hot, but did not work either (I can't recall which). Guess I have to spend the loot and run ground wire :(

share|improve this question
An equipment ground has nothing to do with the functionality of switches and devices. It is a safety backup (for lack of a better term). Switches, receptacles, even GFIs will function fine without a ground. That said, a proper ground adds substantially to the safety of an electrical system. For replacement purposes though you can replace switches even without a ground. For something like an occupancy sensor or motions detector if the manufacturer's instructions say it must be grounded then it must be grounded. –  Speedy Petey Mar 10 '14 at 22:00
I am not sure what your electrician did or found that caused him to say the ground was the reason it was not working. –  Speedy Petey Mar 10 '14 at 22:01
WOW!! (after reading the edit) If this clown attached the ground to either the neutral or the hot(!!!) he was NO electrician. I can assure you that. I can almost guaranty you he killed the device by doing this. Please, before you go any further, find someone who knows what they are doing to look at this. –  Speedy Petey Mar 11 '14 at 0:09
@SpeedyPetey Some devices such as timers, dimmers, etc. require power to operate. In most cases a neutral is not present in a switch box, but one is required by the device. The geniuses that manufacture these devices have found a solution for this problem, and actually use the grounding conductor as a way to power the device. If a device like this does not have a grounding conductor attached, it will not operate. –  Tester101 Mar 11 '14 at 10:41
@SpeedyPetey I agree that the equipment grounding conductor should never carry current, however, device manufacturers don't have the same views. See my answer below, with wiring diagrams. –  Tester101 Mar 11 '14 at 11:15

7 Answers 7

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Occupancy sensors, timers, dimmers, and other "smart" switches often are required to be independently powered. If you look at this diagram from the devices documentation (PDF), you'll see that there are three ways this requirement is achieved.

Selection Matrix

Neutral Wire Required

The first method, is to simply require a neural wire. In this configuration, the device draws power using the ungrounded (hot) conductor and grounded (neutral) conductor. It also has a separate switched conductor, that it uses to control the load.

This setup would be wired like this...

Neutral Wire Required Wiring

Minimum Load Required

This method draws power using the ungrounded (hot) conductor, and the switched conductor. So the device is actually in line with the load.

This setup is wired like this...

Load Required Wiring

Ground Wire Required

This method draws power using the ungrounded (hot) conductor, and the grounding conductor. It's wired similar to the Neutral Required devices, however, it uses the grounding conductor instead of the grounded conductor. This means that there will be a small amount of current on the grounding conductor, and that the grounding conductor is required for the device to operate.

This setup would be wired like this...

Ground Required Wiring

Notice there's a bare, and green wire connected to ground in this diagram.


Your device

The device you're using (MS-OPS5M-XX) requires a ground to operate, according to the documentation.


Install grounding conductors

One solution, would be to install a grounding conductor with this circuit. This will likely require quite a bit of work, and might be quite costly.

Install a grounded conductor

It may be possible to extend a grounded (neutral) conductor from the light to the switch box, which could then be used to power the device. In this case you'd have to purchase a different device (one that requires a neutral rather than a ground).

share|improve this answer
Thank you. I missed this in the instructions. –  Speedy Petey Mar 11 '14 at 11:33

Can you take the cover off a switch and take a photo to show us?

I rewired my 1959 house in 2011. Although the switches and receptables were not grounded, there was a ground in every box. (Although electrical code can vary by jurisdiction, I would be surprised if your electrical boxes were not grounded.)

share|improve this answer

I think you probably mean the switch didn't have a neutral (which is connected to ground but not the same thing as "ground").

Standard light switches are either open or closed, and so they only have the incoming hot wire and the outgoing hot wire that are either connected ("on") or disconnected ("off").

If you have a switch with additional features that need electricity there are two options:

  1. Add a neutral wire to the switch so that the switch can consume some extra current from the incoming hot and return it via neutral.
  2. Draw a very small amount of current inline with the main light. This means that the light is always on, just very dim when the switch is in the "off" position. This is an older technique that eliminates the requirement for a neutral, however A) It does not work with fluorescent or LED bulbs, B) there is constantly electricity flowing through the light, and C) there is a limit to how much electricity can be used by the device.

Sounds like your chosen motion sensor is of the first type, i.e. it requires a neutral. Your electrician is suggesting the second type. There may or may not be such a sensor.

share|improve this answer
Some devices actually use the grounding conductor as a grounded conductor, meaning they leak current to ground in order to power themselves. I'm guessing this is one of those devices, in which case it will not operate without a ground connected. –  Tester101 Mar 11 '14 at 10:44

You need a ground. Neutrals aren't always in a switch box (depends on how the wires are ran). You might be able to run a 14/2 from the switch box to the nearest receptacle box and splice the ground connection in the receptacle to your switch. Cap off the white an black in that 14/2. As long as the ground going to the receptacle is on the same system that is providing power to switch your good. Might not be pretty but it will work.

share|improve this answer

Looking at the instructions for this unit I see no reason it cannot be used in a replacement application where no ground is present.

share|improve this answer
I didn't down vote you, but check the wiring diagrams for the model the OP is using (MS-OPS5M-XX). It shows both a bare and green wire connected to ground. –  Tester101 Mar 11 '14 at 11:17
The OP said "He also attempted to connect the unit's ground to either neutral or hot... (I can't recall which)". This to me means the OP isn't exactly clear what the Electrician did, not that there's a neutral present. I'm guessing the Electrician connected the green wire to the load wire, but who knows. –  Tester101 Mar 11 '14 at 11:21

The neutral is required to power the motion sensor and solid state timer. It cannot function without at least 1 hot and one neutral. Since all neutrals should be joined in the breaker box to one terminal block, any neutral in the house will work. Also (while not recommended, by the NEC you could wire neutral to anything in the house that's grounded, plumbing, electrical box itself, although being the house was built in the fifties the NEC wasn't as strict so finding a bonded/grounded surface may be difficult. But you have to provide a path for the neutral wire in the switch to get back to the neutral/ground terminal in the breaker box, one way or another to get it to be functional.

Small print is, (The NEC requires that no ground wire, may be used as a current carrying conductor.) Although the ground wire ultimately meet the neutral wires they shouldn't have any current. But on the other end probably most of the stuff in your house doesn't comply with modern NEC anyway...

share|improve this answer
Connecting a "neutral" conductor to the grounding conductor or any other grounded item in the house is not safe, as it will allow current to flow through the conductor. It is also not safe to use a "neutral" from a different circuit, as this can lead to an overloaded conductor. –  Tester101 Oct 1 '14 at 10:04

More than likely there is a ground wire or neutral at least "passing" threw that switch box. Probably wire nutted and tucked away in the back. I have an occupancy sensor that requires a neutral, my old house only has the ground and hit in the swotch box. I'm a licensed electrician and major in electrical engineering. Think about it. The neutrals and grounds are all tied down at the same buss in the panel. So I tied my neutral of the switch to the ground in back of box and wham its on working fine.

share|improve this answer
Electrically the device will function the same if you connect it to a ground wire or a neutral. However, using the ground in situations where you need a neutral runs the risk of electrocuting someone if there's ever an open neutral and you become the path between the grounded body of an appliance and a true ground. –  BMitch Jul 8 at 0:23
Your license should be revoked, and you should be thrown out of school. By using the grounding conductor as a "neutral", you've made the grounding conductor a current carrying conductor. There's now current flowing through all the metal objects that the conductor is in contact with, including boxes, frames, etc. –  Tester101 Jul 8 at 11:40

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.