# Can two circuits share a neutral?

I'm finally implementing the advice given in this question, I've managed to run the wiring up to the junction box, but I'm a bit confused by the contents of that box.

There are three circuits entering the box, but it appears that two circuits are sharing a single neutral.

Everything appears to work (and has done so for 2+ years), but I'm curious if this is kosher from a code point of view. Should there be an individual neutral for each circuit? If so, is there a brief explanation as to why this is OK?

• This answer and This answer, might be useful. Mar 12 '12 at 11:49
• Thanks to all who took the time to answer my question. I am going to research further a way to apply a neutral from the existing circuit...which solves all issues. Ben
– Ben
May 8 '12 at 16:38

A multi-wire branch circuit (two hots from different legs sharing 1 neutral) is often found in the kitchen where it powers one receptacle which has the jumper connecting the upper and lower outets removed. The result is that you get two 15amps circuits at one receptacle. At the panel, both breakers should be bonded together so it is not possible to have one on and one off.

Code varies by region, but I do not think it is typically permitted in any other configuration.

There are also restrictions for having multiple circuits in a single junction box. Be careful working on this - even if the breaker is off, check for voltage with a non-contact tester to ensure there are no other live circuits.

Only if it is a split 220 volt circuit as Steven points out and it It must be on a two pole circuit breaker. This ensures that the circuit is two different legs and not just one, also the entire circuit will be disabled with only one breaker. Each hot leg returns on this shared neutral. The reasoning is that no more than the rated (breaker) current will pass through the neutral in this configuration. The two "Hot" legs will tend to balance the return current. Example: If both legs draw 5A, then no return current passes through the neutral. If leg 1 draws 3A and leg 2 draws 10A then the difference, 7A is returned through the neutral.

It is NOT permitted to share a neutral in any other situation. If you were to share a neutral with two breakers on the same leg of a panel, both circuits could draw the breaker limit (lets say 15A) making the shared neutral as much as 30A return current! That will exceed the limit of the wire size and could cause a fire. Also, GFCI and AFCI breakers will not work on a shared neutral circuit.

• I believe that GFCI's do indeed work in a shared neutral configuration as long as they both have their own pigtail lead to the neutral. Mar 12 '12 at 17:23
• There is only one GFCI breaker in a shared neutral scenario. The sharing of the neutral is elsewhere beyond the circuit breaker panel, and the GFCI will not work as expected in this scheme. The GFCI works by measuring the current in both the hot and neutral wires. If they differ by more than 5 ma the breaker trips. If you have a shared neutral currents are being returned through two neutrals imbalancing the leads. Mar 12 '12 at 18:28
• @SteveR Remember GFCI receptacles measure the hot and neutral out to a device, so if there is extra load on the neutral outside of the device (returning from down stream device for example) it will not sense an imbalance. This is why (in theory) using a pigtail will allow you to connect GFCI receptacles on multi-wire branch circuit. Take a look at This Answer for more info. Mar 12 '12 at 18:40
• I thought you meant GFCI outlets, not GFCI breakers. Mar 12 '12 at 18:46
• @Tester101 - I'm referring to GFCI breakers, not receptacles. Mar 12 '12 at 22:38

The "Edison 3 wire" circuit has been used for many years. 240 volts between phases and 120 volts to a neutral that carries the unbalanced load of the two phases. On perfectly balanced loads there will be no amperage on the neutral. It is imperative to have the circuit wires on different phases, i.e. 240 volts across them.

It depends -- how old is the house? Old houses (presumably, wired per the existing code at the time) are sometimes found to be wired this way (i.e., with a shared return leg). Legs L1 and L2 are each fused (or breakered) and share a return leg as far as the first junction box. Thereafter Leg L1 and a neutral branch one way, and Leg L2 and a neutral branch the other. This was done to save copper and reduce then number of cables needed.

Three points:

1. In newer houses The two circuits must be on a double pole breaker for the smallest gauge wire used in the two circuits (e.g., 14 Ga. ==> 15 amps)In older houses code did not require the double pole or handle tie breakers.

2. The two breakers should be ganged together, so that if one trips, both will trip, and all junction boxes in the circuits become deenergized.

3. The two hot leads from the power panel (two black, or one black one red) MUST be wired to opposite legs (one to L1, the other to L2). Failure to do this (i.e., if they are both wired to the same phase) results in DOUBLE the current running in the common Or neutral conductor, and could cause an electrical fire.

The code requirement for the breaker to turn off both legs of shared neutral circuits is relatively new (after 1999). It is very likely that in older homes the circuit breakers for shared neutral circuits are not tied together and the user needs to turn off both breakers if he or she wants to avoid encountering current on the neutral wire. I encountered this issue in 1999 and asked my electrical inspector to submit this code requirement change. I'm a homeowner, not an electrician, but I have taken out electrical permits twice to wire additions to my homes.

Bottom line is you can share a neutral if the two hot wires are on different phases and the breakers are locked together

You can share up to 3 circuits in 3 phase using 1 neutral but the 3 circuit breakers must be tied together with a breaker bridge so when 1 tries or 1 is turned off they all are off with no chance of getting bit by the neutral

• Hello, and welcome to Stack Exchange. What do you mean by "no chance of getting bit by the neutral"? Nov 9 '18 at 1:14
• @DanielGriscom he means not having some other load on another phase/leg putting current on the neutral and shocking you as a result. "bit" is colloquial for "shocked", IOW Nov 9 '18 at 2:01

If two separate circuits fed from separate supply lines share a neutral, the main danger is when the neutral becomes disconnected. If this happens, voltage will dramatically increase on the circuits. The reason is the current will flow between the lines by going through whatever loads are connected. In essence, your appliances become a series circuit between the supply lines (In U.S. split phase/single phase systems this means going from 120 to 240 volts). Fires, fried appliances, or worse is the result. This is why the NEC does not allow this once common practice.

If the two circuits are from the same line, the main danger is overloading the neutral with too much current. A fire hazard as the neutral is not connected to a breaker. In short, stay safe and run separate neutrals for each circuit.

• Shared neutral circuits (multi-wire branch circuits) are absolutely still allowed.The only reason they are no longer a good idea is the lack of availability of two-pole AFCI breakers for dwelling circuits. May 23 '17 at 11:02
• @SpeedyPetey -- two-pole CAFCIs are a thing (at least for Siemens, Square-D, and Eaton gear). GE doesn't use 'em but that's because Mod3 GE single pole AFCIs support shared neutrals. May 23 '17 at 11:39
• My point was two-pole AFCIs are not widely available in supply houses, at least around me. ....... I had no idea GE SP AFCIs supported shared neutrals, problem is they would still not be code legal. May 23 '17 at 16:23
• @SpeedyPetey They have it all figured out... basically handle-tie em. Hey, been a long time Speedy, we've missed you around here! Apr 19 '20 at 2:21

you definitely do not want to share neutrals from different circuits. This sets up a potential shock hazard if one circuit breaker is open and the other closed. If you assume one circuit is dead by opening the breaker the neutral on that circuit will immediately be energized if any appliance is using the second circuit. If you are doing work on the first circuit and get across neutral and ground you could be electrocuted if an appliance or a light is energized on the second circuit.

• There are code rules in place for multiwire branch circuits (shared "neutral"), to reduce the risk of only deenergizing half the circuit. Jun 30 '15 at 12:55
• Both by reducing the risk of what happens (pigtailing neutral so you can service devices without interrupting neutral), and by requiring common maintenance shutoff (handle ties) to force you to deenergize the whole circuit. Feb 2 '18 at 23:43