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Background: I recently moved into an apartment building in Canada (built in 1969). I don't know much about the electrical code, how grand-fathering works within it, etc., but I have an intermediate knowledge of household wiring.

Out of curiosity, I used a typical 3 light receptacle tester to double check the outlets. To my surprise, 7 of them had hot-neutral reversed. This didn't worry me much, because all of the devices I had plugged into them are small electronics with non-polarized 2 prong plugs (which trivially let you reverse hot and neutral). No big deal, I submitted a maintenance request, and had them fixed.

After the electrician came, 5 out of the 7 outlets were fixed, and two were completely non-functional (which were previously functioning but just reversed). I turned the power off and investigated for myself. I found the source of the issue: the hot wire for one of the outlets was cut and capped. The second non-functional outlet was downstream from this one, so that's why it wasn't working either.

Capped wire

Is that a dangling ground wire? Yep, sure is. But that's another question.

Shockingly (heh), the wall side of the wire is a short stub (which barely reached into the junction box) and isn't capped.

Stubby wire

My question: what's going on here? Why would anybody ever do this? Is this just some total shitshow, or is there some intention I don't know about?

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    Having to guess, so my guess is that when originally installed, the wire to that 2nd receptacle was cut too short and when someone tried to change a receptacle or something later, it broke off, leaving it too short to reconnect. So that person found where it came from and disconnected and capped it there, rather than have the stubby part energized or having to deal with pulling a new wire in the wall. Also, probably NOT a licensed professional electrician that would have done that... – JRaef Nov 5 '19 at 1:12
  • @JRaef Hi, thanks for your response! The tip of the stub feels like it's just stretched out insulation, with no conductor underneath. I can't get close enough with my non-contact voltage tester to see if it's live, but I'm almost certain that is is. I think the wires exiting out the left go to the downstream receptacle (they're not live). So the wires coming in from above supply power to both this receptacle, and the downstream one. I also don't think the box has been changed recently, because of how old and "integrated" it looks. – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '19 at 1:24
  • I can't tell from the pictures, but it may be very important: Are the wires in cables or are they separate wires in conduit? – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Nov 5 '19 at 4:06
  • @manassehkatz I don't see any cable that groups these wires together. It's possible these are in a cable, if the cable was stripped back beyond the visible area within the junction box and conduits. I doubt it though. – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '19 at 13:47
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A long shot, but maybe:

  • Hot wire broke
  • Instead of fixing it, someone swapped hot & neutral elsewhere and then for the neutral (not hot since they were swapped earlier in the chain) tied it to ground (which to a simple tester will look the same)
  • Latest electrician tried to fix the problem for you but due to the broken hot, couldn't easily fix it, and due to laziness and/or limited budget (i.e., he knows the landlord won't want to pay for many hours of extra work), he didn't fix it, just made it as safe as he could easily do.

The real fix depends on the type of wiring:

Cables

  • Remove the junction box and possibly cut holes in the wall for access
  • See if there is enough slack somewhere to use the existing wire and if that doesn't work...
  • Replace the entire section of cable (not fun), or
  • Use an approved in wall (i.e., hidden) splice to add an extension to replace the broken wire (not fun, but not as bad as running a new cable)

Conduit

  • Identify the other end of the broken wire and disconnect it
  • Pull out the broken wire
  • Put in a new wire

With conduit this should be easy. However there may be additional locations to be opened up along the path of the wire in order to get it all the way through. YMMV.

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    Haha fun fact: this is a concrete wall (this is the 17th floor of a 24 floor apt, so it wouldn't surprise me if it were weight bearing). This sounds like a complete nightmare. – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '19 at 3:21
  • @Alexander, in that case, it's almost certainly conduit, and it should be possible to pull a new wire fairly easily. If there's some slack on the other end, you may even just be able to grab it with some needle nose pliers (make sure the breaker is off!) and pull that wire further into the box. – Nate S. Nov 5 '19 at 17:14
  • @NateS-ReinstateMonica Tried that. Because this is only the streched insulation (with no underlying conductor), I wasn't able to get a good grip to pull much. I'll submit a maintenance request for the management to take care of it. – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '19 at 18:28
  • @Alexander, yeah, in that case there's very likely not slack on the other end, and the wire needs to be replaced. Fortunately, in conduit, that's fairly easy. – Nate S. Nov 5 '19 at 18:31
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In the conduit wiring system, a too-short wire probably means it's been pulled into the other box.

Just pull it back.

If it's too short to have a presentable length in both boxes, the wire is done for. Hook a new wire to it, and use the old wire to pull its replacement wire.

  • Is there any way I can independently verify that the conduit is actually grounded? – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '19 at 13:57
  • Physically inspect to see if it is continuous, or intentionally miswire a load so it returns current on ground, then measure the ground/neutral voltage difference. EMT is such a "thick pipe" that the difference should remain very small. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '19 at 14:33

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