See my previous question for more detail on my household's bizarre wiring. Three of my bedrooms have dimmer switches connected to outlets and ceiling fans, which is electrically unsafe and just horrible practice, so I have been replacing the switches with toggle switches. The first bedroom only had two wires and a ground coming into the switch box, so it was an easy change. In the second bedroom, things are a bit more complicated, as you can see here. lightswitch wiring box

This is probably hard to see, so let me describe it. There are two cables coming into the box, one from above and one from below. Both cables have white, red, and black wires, and a bare ground. The two grounds are wired together, as are the two white wires. Not pictured out of frame is the dimmer switch, which is connected across the black and red wires.

This is what is confusing to me. The black wires and the red wires from both cables are connected together as well, and the switch is connected across the black and red wires from both cables. I would imagine the wiring like this is set up so maybe the overhead lights and the fan can be controlled separately, which would definitely be nice to be able to do, but I can't figure out how that would work.

Let me state that again, all of the wires from the two cables are connected directly together. The switch connects two wires in the same cable. Can someone give me a sense of what might be going on here?

Edit: Doing some testing with my ohmmeter, the black wires are connected to the always on outlets, and the red wires are connected to the switched outlets and the lights in the ceiling fan. I separated out the red wire bundles, and the same wire (from the lower cable) connects to both the switched outlets and the lights in the ceiling fan. So I'm not even sure what the upper cable is for.

  • Can you post a photo of the wiring in the fan box? Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 23:34
  • @ThreePhaseEel I don't really feel like taking down the ceiling fan, especially since I've already established that the same wire goes to the lights as to the outlets, so I couldn't keep them on a dimmer anyway. I suppose it's possible that the other red wire controls the fan motor, but I doubt it, as that would require much more thoughtfulness than I have seen in any of the wiring in this house so far. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 0:33
  • Can you find the receptacles that are controlled by this? Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 0:36
  • @ThreePhaseEel at least in that bedroom. Probably all the others too if I'm going by the pattern in the rest of the house. Most of the receptacle pairs in my house have the upper one always on and the lower one controlled by a switch. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 1:42
  • See my answer. Do tests and report back. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 5:48

2 Answers 2


They are buses

Hang onto your hat. This is one of the few times wire color codes actually mean something. In this case (not often repeated):

  • Black is always-hot
  • Red is switched-hot
  • White is neutral (well, that actually is fairly common)

All those wires have simply been bussed to all locations. Remember

  • Supply needs always-hot and neutral
  • Dumb switches need always-hot and switched-hot (but neutral must be present)
  • Smart switches need all 3
  • Lamps need switched-hot and neutral
  • Split receptacles need all 3

Here's a drawing I did of a bussed arrangement for sharing motion sensors. It's exactly the same deal.

enter image description here

Nevermind my error with the ground wires. You get the idea.

  • Your answer makes sense (of course :-) ). I'm in NZ and was unaware of the US standard colours. The US use of Black as Phase/live I'm aware of - it always seems very strange choice to we antipodeans. Here (and in the UK black was neutral - now blue. Phase is brown and ground is yellow/green striped - the colours being chosen so the most common forms of colour blindness are accommodated. I'd suggest that the tests that I described are worthwhile for peace of mind given the nature of the rest of the wiring - but it does sound as if this arrangement is standard. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 10:49

Edited: See notes at end.

The following makes sense of what you describe.
Note that this is not the ONLY interpretation - just the most likely (and it matches what Harper advises is a standard US arrangement.)

See "Glossary" at end for terms used.

I'll assume mains voltage is 110 VAC = Vmains.

Connections that would make sense:

Black: Phase. Live mains. Always on.
Red: Switched phase - connected to phase when switch is on.
White: Neutral. Mains return. At ground potential.
Bare: Ground



Wires: White Red Black Bare = WRBb

  • Use meter set to high enough voltage AC range to read full mains voltage.
  • Use meter rated for mains measurement use. Cat III or better recommended.

    1. Turn switch off.
      Locate an outlet near to an earthed surface (water tap ...). This is "ground"

Measure & record voltages between each of WRBb and ground
If NO readings read full mains voltage find another "ground" and repeat.

Any wire that returns Vmains relative to ground is (probably) Phase.

  1. Measure and record voltages between each wire pair 6 Readings: WR WB Wb Rb Rb Bb

If maximum reading between and any other wire and bare wire is full mains voltage then bare wire is probably neutral or ground (as you'd hope).

  1. Again measure and record voltages between each wire pair 6 Readings: WR WB Wb Rb Rb Bb

One wire will hopefully have changed from Vground to Vmains.

  1. Is the black wire present in all outlets (switched or unswitched.)
    If not, report wire colours present in each type of outlet.

Report back.
The above should allow a high probability assessment of what has been done - but 1. at the start is most likely.


All care and no responsibility. ME Electrical. 55ish years experience. Still learning :-)



Phase : Live mains relative to ground or neutral
Neutral : Current return conductor - paired with phase. Usually at same potential as ground. They may be joined at switchboard depending on regulatory system.
Ground : Connected to earth via a grounding connection. May be connected to Neutral at switchboard. Switched phase : connected to phase via a switch contact - live when switch is closed / on. Dead when switch is open / off.



  1. Edited to remove stupid mixup. As red and black have the switch between them they are obviously phase and switched phase.

  2. I removed my 'other unlikely alternatives' as Harper's answer makes it clear that my 1st (now colour correct) choice matches what he says.
    My suggested tests still make sense as they will confirm that things are indeed as expected - and there appears to be a lot of non standard work elsewhere in your system.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.