Ok, so I've been trying to wrap my head around this for quite some time, and I think I've got it. I just want to explain it here in order for an electrician to take a look at what I've got and let me know if I'm missing anything.

Conventional household wiring from the electric company has three wires; two of them carry 120VAC that are 180 degrees out of phase with each other, and the third normally has no voltage on it, with respect to ground.

The breaker panel is wired in parallel, so each branch circuit also has 120VAC available.

A 120V circuit consists of a 'hot' wire connected to one of the two 120V lines coming into the house and a 'neutral' wire that is connected to the 0V (nominal) line at the breaker.

Touching an exposed wire in a properly wired circuit creates a situation comparable to a voltage divider (potentiometer/dimmer switch/volume control). If you touch an exposed 'hot' wire, you will receive almost all of the voltage available from the power source, because the resistance in the circuit between you and the power source is considerably lower than the resistance between you and the ground.

If you touch an exposed 'neutral' wire and everything is wired correctly, you receive very little of the voltage available from the power source because most of the resistance in the circuit is between you and the power source.

However, if the neutral wire is not connected to the panel/ground, you aren't creating a voltage divider circuit, you're creating a series circuit, with your body effectively being the path to ground to close the circuit.

Do I have that right?

  • Yes - ¯_(ツ)_/¯
    – brhans
    Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 18:36
  • @brhans Thanks. You have no idea how much this was bugging me. 😀 Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 18:45
  • Kind of right, you can still get shocked of a true neutral and especially off a MWBC that is not handle tied or common trip. Where the other branch is energised. How? Disconect the neutral now if the circuit is energised and there is any load connected you become the path to ground.
    – Ed Beal
    Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 19:05
  • @EdBeal You're talking about a shared neutral, right? Say a situation where the other circuit's neutral is tied into the neutral you're working on somewhere 'upstream' from the splice you're working on, right? Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 19:28
  • Yes a shared or if disconnected on a live circuit or if the neutral is switched (code violation) over the years I have been lit up by all of these. Never assume a neutral is safe, and even if wired correctly in the past a white wire could have been a switch leg that was hot they were supposed to be marked but almost never were.
    – Ed Beal
    Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 19:45

1 Answer 1


Yes, that is absolutely correct.

When a neutral is disconnected from the neutral bus on the panel, what happens next is unpredictable.

If absolutely no loads are connected, the neutral wire will "float". You will not be able to harness it for any useful work, but it will have a phantom voltage induced onto it by adjacent wires. This doesn't have any real EMF behind it, and can't shock you.

If any load is connected, the load will be taking in line voltage and trying to return the current via neutral. That means neutral will track with line voltage. If something gets between this neutral and either panel neutral or earth, they will indeed be in series with the load(s) and will not enjoy the experience none too much. Worse, if they bridge a neutral that's downstream from a GFCI, the GFCI will not trip to protect you.

It's unpredictable because you never know when someone is going to throw a light switch or a thermostat will pop on.

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