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1954 House with original (cloth over rubber) wiring on the main floor. Replacing fan and light with simple overhead light fixture and toggle switch with a dimmer switch. Box has an incoming conduit and an outgoing conduit. When I pulled out the toggle switch, one screw had a dark wire and the other screw had two dark-colored wires attached.

Box Contents: 2 green (ground) wires nutted together, 2 white (neutral wires nutted together), and 3 dark-colored wires (one is hot, two are not).

After installing the dimmer and capping off the other dark-colored wire, my bathroom and hallway lights were out. When I tried to connect the third dark-colored wire to the switch, reinstall and turn the power back on, the circuit broke.

I figured out that this was a switch loop, removed everything, looked for signs of frayed wires, tried to organize as much as possible, pigtailed the ground wires, pigtailed the hot/bathroom/hallway wire, re-nutted everything, taped around the edges of the nuts, and turned the power back on without putting the switch back in the box. Everything worked fine.

When I added everything back to the box and tried to screw it down, the circuit popped. I turned it all off and waited a day thinking that maybe I had fried the dimmer the first time.

Tonight, I re-inspected and connected to a regular single pole switch. With the power off, I put the switch in the box, screwed it down and then turned the power back on. The hallway light turned on, but when I hit the switch on the GCFI lightswitch/power combo in the bathroom, the circuit broke again. When I removed the switch from the box and tried again, all of the lights and switches work.

Can the electrical box be bad? Any ideas?

This is in a plaster/lathe wall and is not able to be pulled or easily cut out. Does it sound like I have a short in one of the wires and its only happening when put into the box?

  • think very carefully about what is happening when you attach the switch to the box – jsotola Jan 23 at 7:19
  • I disconnected the green wires with the switch out of the box and turned the power back on. The ground wire appears from my voltage tester (I know that I need to get a better meter tomorrow) to be hot. This could be a false reading, but thinking back to the original toggle, the green wires weren't connected and were just capped in the back of the box. I then took the entire thing apart and separated each of the wires. The green wires are hot. I'm going to get a meter tomorrow to see what voltage is being produced. – Laund Jan 23 at 8:10
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    what kind of voltage tester are you using? a stick one, or one with actual probes? – Alex Jan 23 at 8:11
  • chances are one of the two wires going to the single terminal on the original switch was a "poor mans" pigtail to provide power to another branch (you bathroom?). you just have to determine what line is the incoming one, and which ones are the outgoing and to where and wire accordingly. also some dimmers require the use of a neutral as well. – Alex Jan 23 at 8:17
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    When you say the circuit broke, do you mean the breaker tripped open because of over-current or do you mean the GFCI receptacle tripped open but the breaker in the panel did not? (If the breaker trips and de-powers the circuit, I thought that at least in some circuits this will trip any GFCI receptacles or maybe the GFCIs trip when the breaker is switch back on.) I just tried this on a dedicated circuit in the kitchen (20-A breaker to one receptacle) with a fairly new GFCI receptacle and the GFCI did not trip when I switched off the breaker nor when I turned it back on. – Jim Stewart Jan 23 at 10:17
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The green wires are the mystery here. One thing is clear, they are not correctly installed equipment grounding conductors (ground wires).

If this is conduit as you say, it's possible that it's just a color coding problem, which is an issue because it is confusing and potentially dangerous when people work on the wiring, but not necessarily an electrical problem. The solution would be to identify where green wire has been used incorrectly and remove it or replace it with a suitable color.

However, is it possible what you have here is not conduit but armored cable with an insulated ground? It sounds like you have armored cable where someone decided to use the armor as the ground (not good) and use the green wires for power (also no good). If that's the case, someone has to sort out how this has been screwed up and correct it, and it could be a big headache. It sounds like someone partly corrected it - they capped the green wires in this box - but they didn't fix everything.

Apparently one of the green wires is hot; when you connect the green wires to the ground terminal on the switch, both green wires are hot, and the switch strap is hot - you're lucky you didn't accidentally touch it when you had the box open and live, you'd have been zapped.

When you close the box, the screw clamps the switch strap to the box, which is grounded by the conduit or armor; when you restore power, you have a ground fault and the breaker trips.

If this is armored cable rather than conduit, it's likely that the cable armor is not a reliable ground path, and you're lucky that the breaker tripped, rather than heating up the armor and potentially causing a fire.

If you cap the green wires and install a dimmer, everything should work as it did, but you still have an issue, possibly a serious issue.

Ultimately I think you're going to want have an electrician take a close look at the wiring and the grounding and sort this out. If it's conduit it may be a simple matter to trace the wires and remove or replace any green wire that ought to be a different color. If it's armored cable, it could be quite a bit more work, and you may find that other shortcuts have been taken.

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