I opened switch box in the basement that has two switches: one for basement and other 3way switch for stairs. I wonder why white wire thet usually neutral connected to black wire that goes to another connection woth load wire.

  • 1
    It's not neutral. Neutral wires must be white, but not the other way round. A white wire can be hot if it's in cable. If a wire-nutted group has even one non-white wire, the non-white wire is a hot, which means so are the white wires. Dec 28, 2018 at 19:46
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    – FreeMan
    Nov 30, 2020 at 13:54

2 Answers 2


It's not neutral. Neutral wires must be white, but not the other way round. A white wire can be hot if it's in cable.

So think about the meaning of this. If you see a bundle wire-nutted together, and even one wire is non-white, what does it mean about the whites in that bundle? It means they cannot possibly be neutral. They are hot.

"Hot" includes always-hot, switched-hot and 3-way travelers.

Here is how a 3-way switch works, electrically. The physical positions may change, and the colors will alway change, but electrically if you unwrap it, it looks like this everytime.

enter image description here

... That wasn't so bad, was it? I love this drawing because it makes sense. Current travels in loops, and you can see very quickly what's really going on. Eother the switches line up, or they don't.

Of course, when you turn your gaze to the morass in that electrical box, not so pretty.

It can be prettier. They make colored electrical tape, a 5-pack for $4. And I recommend re-marking wires in the box, particularly travelers, using that tape. First rule of tape marking: mark both ends of the wire the same. It really makes life easier, and it's one of the easiest things a less experienced person can do to make comprehension easier and reduce mistakes. I'm a stickler for it just because I don't have time to puzzle out wire functions everytime I open a box.

It is now the law that you must mark white wires black or a color when you make them a hot.

enter image description here

So identify both travelers on both 3-way switches and mark them with yellow tape. On a 3-way switch, the travelers are on the brass screws.. That is the key to wiring a 3-way switch. Every switch jumbles around the positions, but the screw colors are true.

  • This white goes to another black from 2-way switch, Not 3-way. white + black in box connected together and another black from there goes to regular two way switch. On 3-way switch everything is fine. My concern is about 2-way switch beside it. Why does it have white at all?
    – Jenny
    Dec 28, 2018 at 21:55
  • If you see on second photo. There are green, two black and one white wires on 2-way switch. Green goes to the box, white to bunch of white wires, one black goes to the black from box, but another black goes to orange cup that attached with black wire to another orange cup - in it I see one additional black and one white wires together. This confused me.
    – Jenny
    Dec 28, 2018 at 22:01
  • Thanks. That is right for the 3-way switch. But I also have 2-way switch there.
    – Jenny
    Dec 28, 2018 at 22:03
  • Why? You see whites in places where neutral should not be, because cables come in any colors you want, as long as you want white-black. Or white-black-red for 3-conductor cables. Seriously they do not sell any other color combinations. A very common use of white as a hot is in a "switch loop". Another is in 3-ways. also 240V wiring. Dec 28, 2018 at 23:12
  • @Jenny the black pigtail between the yellow wire nut and the orange wire nut is superfluous/redundant, it used to go to the screw terminal on the original plain switch, and this happened as a side effect of the last guy very literally following the instructions on the smart switch. Good to follow instructions. It doesn't do any harm, but I would've gotten rid of it just to tidy up the box. The white wire on the smart switch is actual neutral, smart switches need actual neutral. Dec 28, 2018 at 23:21

That junction of two blacks and the white is where power comes into the box at

What we see in your photos at that junction is a black wire coming in from a cable, that feeds two wires. One of them is a black pigtail to the single pole switch on the left, while the other is the white wire you are asking about. Following this white wire takes us to a different cable, and if you look at the black and red wires from that cable, where do they go? To the brass screws on your 3 way switch! Therefore, that white wire is not a neutral at all, but the always-hot going out to the other 3-way switch in that complex, which has been wired as a switch loop from this box. (The other black wire off the 3-way is the switched-hot that goes into the middle cable and off to the fixture from there, while the center and left whites in the first photo are neutrals, connected to each other and the smart-switch.)

I would wrap that white wire from the far-right cable with black electrical tape (with the breaker off, of course!) to avoid future confusion.

  • thanks for explanation. appreciate your help.
    – Jenny
    Dec 28, 2018 at 22:22
  • @Jenny -- we thank people around here by upvoting and/or accepting their answers :) Dec 28, 2018 at 22:26

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