Most sites I find tell me how to distinguish the neutral wire from the live wire. Basically, you find the one that has current and the other one is neutral. That's all fine and dandy when you only have 2 wires. What if there are three or more? Sure it's usually the white one, but when 3-way and 4-way switches are concerned or if you just don't trust the previous electrician, how can I be sure that a particular wire is truly neutral and not just a traveller, for example.

For example in the following image, the neutral wire ends at the light fixture and for the sake of newer Z-Wave switches neither of those switch boxes has a neutral wire. So if I open a box and see a bunch of wires apart from identifying which one is live, how can I verify without a shadow of a doubt which of the others is truly neutral if there even is one?

enter image description here

Please don't assume this is the wiring I have. This is only an example to help clarify what I am asking.

Furthermore, if any particular wire is indistinguishable from neutral, then why does it matter which one I connect to the Z-wave neutral terminal. I know it does matter.

  • 4
    Just a small correction on electrical theory. Both the source conductor and the neutral have current, but the neutral does not have voltage to ground. Ticky tacky I know but it does make a difference especially in GFCI and AFCI circuits. Jan 19, 2018 at 13:38
  • I was thinking the same+
    – Ed Beal
    Jan 19, 2018 at 15:21
  • Abusing ground as an "alt" neutral is out of the question. That would create numerous safety hazards and trip GFCIs and AFCIs if they are ever placed on the circuit. I understand there are smart switches made that have somehow gotten UL approval for bootlegging neutral in this way, but I think that is a mistake of the magnitude of aluminum wiring. Jan 19, 2018 at 18:42

1 Answer 1


In each case you have to stop and figure out the topology of the wiring you are working on. I totally get that you're just trying to install smart switches and then get on with your day. But you can't just wing it because you're in a hurry.

In fact, you should figure out the topology of your wiring and develop a plan for wiring the smart switches before you buy the smart switches, and the topology should be pretty much determining your choice of smart switch product.

Take this example.

  1. You open up both 3-way switches and see, voila, that they only have one cable are therefore both switch loops. Power does not enter either switch box.
  2. You open up the lamp - aha! Power enters here.

  3. You use a voltage tester to see that the black wire on the right switch is always-hot in all switch positions. Therefore it is the always-hot and so you know which cable it is up in the light box.

  4. You can see the wires attached to the brass screws are messengers, white and red. You tag both of them with yellow tape on both ends, both in the switch box and up on the light box. (which is why step 3 was important).

  5. On the left switch, you can see which two wires on the brass screws, those are messengers, again you mark those with yellow tape on both ends.

  6. You deduce the left switch is switched-hot, so you mark that orange.

enter image description here

Now you have accounted for all the wires, and you have an understanding of that circuit. Now you know neutral is not present in either switch box, and always-hot is present only in the right box.

This forces you to a new approach. You redesignate ALL black wires to be always-hot (line), ALL white wires to be real neutral, the right-side red wire to be switched-hot (load), and the left side red wire gets capped off and disused. This, then, dictates which smart switches to buy: it calls for a 3-way master that takes line, neutral and load; and a 3-way remote that communicates wirelessly to the master. Such as Insteon.

As you get more experience, this becomes easier and faster, but the first couple times you just have to grind it out.

  • This is really helpful. I like your use of yellow and orange color coding. Are those generally understood in the industry?
    – Octopus
    Jan 19, 2018 at 17:32
  • 1
    @Octopus red is more commonly used for switched-hot, I used orange here because there were already red wires running around that weren't being used for switched-hot. Yellow is not standard for 3-way marking, but if an electrician knows he's in a 3-way circuit and sees 2 wires taped the same color, he'll figure it out quick enough. If it was in conduit, you'd use actual wires those colors, and again in a 3-way circuit a pair of oddball colors will be travelers. Jan 19, 2018 at 18:30
  • Your redesignation requires a rewiring of the light box, correct? May 11, 2020 at 15:54
  • @JohnFreeman not necessarily. If the wiring is working, then you can just remark the wires for the jobs they actually are doing. However it turns out the drawer of this diagram erred; when neutral is re-marked to be hot, it must be used for always-hot if that is present. So lamp to right switch needs white remarked black, and the other 2 are travelers. Thank goodness for marking! May 11, 2020 at 16:03
  • Now I'm even more confused. If I just "remark right-side red as load" and "cap off left-side red" with the existing wiring in the light box, then load from the right switch goes to the cap. No power is delivered to the light. Correct? May 11, 2020 at 16:31

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