Just moved into 5yr old home, was looking to expand a garage outlet to afford more outlets. The outlet is below the panel is a GGCI outlet, however, the circuit breaker is not, so, I am going to change that, well I bought the wrong one, however, then inspected the other GFCIs in the box and noted that the load neutral is going to the neutral bus with the GFCI neutral connecting to the same bus. I noticed the GFCI wires were all squiggly and not neatly run, then I disconnected one and it arced when it hit the panel box. I thought this problematic, but, reformed the neutral wire strands and put it back where I found it, again, it arced again.

Reading about the interweb, it appears that the load neutral is meant to go to the circuit breaker where a slot is provided then the stranded neutral from the GFCI is supposed to go to the neutral bar.

First, why is the stranded neutral from the GFCI arcing?

Secondly, do I have to rewire all the GFCI circuit breakers?

  • 1
    Can you upload a picture of the panel? Jun 25, 2019 at 22:35
  • 1
    Why are you doing this? Were all the breakers tripping before, or do you just dislike the configuration? Jun 25, 2019 at 22:48
  • 3
    Disconnecting wires in a hot circuit is not the smartest move if you expect to enjoy old age and are not a VERY experienced electrician with no other good options. You might want to reconsider how you are approaching "DIY electrical work", before it kills you.
    – Ecnerwal
    Jun 25, 2019 at 23:24

3 Answers 3

  1. When you pulled the Neutral wire off of the N bus, did you turn the breaker off first? I suspect that you did not, which would explain the arcing.

  2. You are correct about the error in wiring of the existing GFCI breakers; the pigtail (squiggly) white wire goes to the N bus of the panel, the load neutral wire goes to the N terminal of the GFCI breaker. They essentially bypassed the GFCI sensing of any L-N faults. This is indicative of the work having most likely been done without a permit and inspections. If you just moved in, you should take a look at your disclosure forms and if the previous owner stated that all work was done with permits and inspections, they either lied or you have terrible inspectors... If they lied, you should be able to go after them for the cost of having a licensed electrician come out and inspect the entire system for any other errors and make any corrections.

  3. If your outlet is already a GFCI, you do NOT need to have the breaker be a GFCI too. One or the other, not both. It's good that you discovered this problem, but you didn't need to do this project in the first place.

  • Yes, you are correct. I was using insulated professional tools, and only had one hand in the box. Did trace all the load neutrals after moving the stranded neutrals from the GFCI breakers, they did have the load neutral connected, the stranded ones were a nest so, it was difficult to see the solid core neutrals. Jun 27, 2019 at 12:43
  • I do not need the GFCI breaker if the outlet is GFCI? So, all I would need to do is change the breaker to 20A, and change the GFCI outlet to a 20A, no need for the GFCI breaker? Just an observation, the ground lug appears to connect to the neutral lug on the other side of the box, is this correct? The reason I ask, is the current outlet (I want to upgrade) below the box, has both the neutral and ground connected to the ground lug. Jun 27, 2019 at 12:55
  • I see that the NEC has changed codes to require AFCI GFCI protection for circuits and that his can be accomplished by changing the breaker that protects all down stream circuits, or like the GFCI, installing a AFCI GFCI outlet at the lead of the run. Looking at the prices for the breakers, they are a little more expensive than the general breakers, however, offer full circuit protection and minimizes the possibility of wire faults/shorts causing a fire. Jun 27, 2019 at 14:00
  • As this answer said the GFCI outlet provided the same protection as the breaker there was no need to add a GFCI breaker. The white or neutral should be on the silver screw and the ground wire should be on the green screw they should not be on the same screw. Even using insulated tools you should turn the breaker off the arcing you saw can damage things that are connected to the circuit.
    – Ed Beal
    Jun 28, 2019 at 10:41

Neutral is not your friend

First I'd address the common misconception that neutral is harmless somehow, which probably arises from people seeing neutral wires bonded to ground wires, therefore same, therefore safe. Nope.

Hot and neutral are the active conductors meaning current normally flows on them. This means neutral is a hot wire and you should fear it. One might say neutral is near ground when everything is working normally, but that fact is rather irrelevant to those of us opening up boxes or panels, since we wouldn't be in there if everything was working normally.

So yes, expect neutral to be nearly as bitey as its hot sister.

GFCIs pipe hot and neutral through themselves

Here is a schematic of how GFCIs work.

enter image description here

Here's how that works. The GFCI breaker clips onto the "bus" for supply hot, in the usual way. For neutral, it has a "pigtail" to the neutral bar. That pigtail is deliberately coiled up to make it distinctive and notable, to help you distinguish it from other wires in the panel. That takes care of the black and white in the diagram.

Now I deliberately colored the "protected load" wires differently to reflect that they must be kept separate. However yours are probably black and white because cables are made that way. But it's pretty easy; the hot and neutral from the Romex simply go to the hot and neutral terminals on the breaker. There's no need to even separate them, really; just run the black and white together.

Anway, as you can see, that neutral pigtail (the white wire in the chart above) powers both the GFCI and the entire circuit. Therefore one should expect series arcing when disconnecting it with the circuit live. Further, the neutral wire will have hot voltage on it, because like I say, it's a hot. Under ideal conditions, it would be near ground, but all bets are off when you remove a wire.

Captain Snippy

You mentioned "neat" and that worries me that you've had a visit from a fellow named Captain Snippy. This fellow nips every wire as short as it can possibly be. His most cherished tool is his wire cutter, and he has a shrine of all his cut off wire bits. I have a feeling the Captain has a bit of OCD, and is strictly following some internal rule in his brain.

Here is the internal rule in my brain: All hot and neutral wires must be long enough to reach every breaker space in the panel. Neutral because of GFCI and AFCI, and every breaker space so you or the next person is able to rearrange breaker positions for unforeseeable future needs such as gen interlock, surge suppressor, GFCI/AFCI, stab limits, logical organization, you name it.

Unfortunately if you're following in the wake of Captain Snippy, you soon end up with a panel full of wire nuts.

  • +1 for Captain Snippy. But the wires shouldn't be excessively (x2?) long (but they do need to comfortably reach everywhere). Jun 26, 2019 at 15:47
  • Thank you for the detailed explanation. You can see my responses to your thoughtful questions, yes, the circuit was energized, thus the arc. I had a couple of extra questions you may be able to answer. Specifically relating to AFCI-GFCI breakers and the circuits they protect. Thanks in advance, appreciate the assistance. My intent is not to play in the box, but to add a correct circuit to expand the garage outlet below the box where someone after the fact had installed a 15 A GFCI. Just need a couple of more outlets in the garage and want to make sure they are up to code. No fires Jun 27, 2019 at 14:27
  • I agree with longer wiring also, when a panel is installed you don’t know if the loads will be balanced and some times to properly balance the legs loads need to be moved around. This is not done in many residential panels until later when additional work is done and if snippy has been there in some cases we have to pigtail to be able to move things around.
    – Ed Beal
    Jun 28, 2019 at 10:51

The arc was the return path and breaker was not shut off. Yes your GFCI breakers are hooked up wrong. You need to find the cable pairs. The white wire on the GFCI breaker goes to the panel bars. And the GFCI breaker has a spot for the hot. It may be brass. And a spot for the neutral on breaker. It may be silver. Should shut off breakers if doing work, to be safe. And if you have GFCI outlet, you do not need breakers too.

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