I have 6 power outlets in my kitchen. Two 20amp breakers in my panel supply power to them.

I wanted to update my GFCI outlets, with new ones (old ones were installed when the house was built, 1994). Cut off both breakers marked "kitchen outlets" in my panel. I pulled all six outlets, and thought I'd measure voltages at each junction box feeding the outlets.

I turned on the FIRST breaker, thinking the circuits were isolated. Measured the voltages with my multi-meter. Three registered 120v, and 3 registered 24 volts.

I turned on the SECOND breaker, and all 6 outlets now register 129v.

I turned OFF the FIRST breaker, and the the three that were 24v the first time, now had 120v reading, while the ones that had 120v, now had only 24v (the readings flipped).

Does this make sense? What's going on here?

  • Are these circuit breakers right next to each other? What does the wiring look like inside the junction boxes? Are the neutral wires pigtailed? Are red wires present? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 18 at 23:53
  • Yes, these are wired using 12AWG 3+g, so there is red wire. And, the outlets are on the red wire The breakers are next to each other. – Andrew Jan 19 at 0:04
  • Correction, three are on black hot, and three are on the red hot., which is in parity with the three that have short voltage, when only one breaker is on. – Andrew Jan 19 at 0:06
  • That's exactly what I expected. The 24v is nothing to be worried about. The rest of the circuit, however, is a bit of a mess. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 0:13
  • What make and model is your electrical panel? – ThreePhaseEel Jan 19 at 0:44

This is a multi-wire branch circuit

aka MWBC. This is a special arrangement for delivering two circuits' worth of power onto a single cable with only 1 more copper wire, because it is putting two opposite-pole subcircuits arranged so the neutral only carries differential current. It's quite wire-efficient, but yours was installed quite improperly. They pretty much did everything wrong.

Also the six GFCI receptacles were not original; they were added probably by a previous seller because the home inspector red-flagged it. If you know anything about GFCIs, you only need 1 per circuit, but an MWBC is one circuit -- and the way they share neutral requires either one GFCI at the breaker, or a GFCI at each receptacle (expensive).

The first problem is that MWBC requires a handle-tied or 2-pole breaker. You don't have one. In fact, you haven't said, but you might even have the worst nightmare of MWBCs, which is a duplex breaker.

Fix the breaker... and revisit GFCI

OK, so the breaker needs to be replaced with a 2-pole breaker. (you can do handle-ties, but those are a PITA to find, and a 2-pole breaker is available pretty much anywhere.)

However, remember where I said an MWBC can have either

  • one GFCI at the breaker... or
  • six GFCIs at every receptacle separately?

When you have more than 4 receps, it's actually cheaper to fit a single GFCI+breaker. Around $20 each for six GFCIs vs about $80 for a 2-pole GFCI breaker ($90 if you want AFCI also).

The only downside of this is that a GFCI trip with receptacles will only trip the single recep (and you can reset it right there), but a GFCI trip with a breaker will knock out everything, which may be confusing and will send you on a trip to the basement to reset. Your call.

But you need a 2-pole breaker. Remember, breaker types must match the panel. If the panel is Murray QP but the breaker is Eaton BR, the breaker is wrong and replace with a Siemens/Murray QP not a BR. Alien breakers are dangerous and burn up panel buses. This is especially important when spending $80 on a breaker!

If you currently have a duplex breaker (two handles in 1 space) then ask a new question about how to replace that with a 2-pole.

Neutrals need to be pigtailed

You didn't mention this, but the neutral wires in the boxes need to be spliced with a wire nut etc. and a single neutral wire brought out to the receptacle.

Removing a device must not sever power to the other half of the circuit.

However, it's perfectly OK to use the GFCI receptacle as a splice point for the hot wires. Note that ALL these wires will go on the LINE screws (most accept 2 wires in back-wiring), the LOAD terminals will never be used here.

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  • 1
    This helps significantly. Thank you. – Andrew Jan 19 at 0:49
  • Follow-up sourcing a common trip 20A breaker as suggested, to replace 2 isolated 20A breakers in panel now. Is this correct? smile.amazon.com/Square-Homeline-TwoPole-Circuit-Breaker/dp/…. And, would it make sense to put in a common-trip AFCI breaker instead ? I think I still like the idea of the GFCI at the wall, for the first line of defense. Seems like a small price to pay since I own it. Is that an issue? – Andrew Jan 19 at 16:28
  • @Andrew yes, that's the correct breaker for a HOMeline panel, though that price is way high. Mail ordering electrical equipment is expensive because it tends to be low cost and high weight. Sure, an AFCI breaker instead, with GFCIs at the outlets, is a fine option. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 18:46

The 24 volts is probably just induced current because in the MWBC the wires are in the same cable. Andrew said the breakers feeding the circuit were next to each other so they are probably on opposite legs, which is of course correct. The thing he should check is to ensure he has 240volts across the black/red at the first outlet box. If not, the entire load of 2 20 amp circuits might be feeding back via a single neutral....which is very "not good".

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  • Someone voted this as unacept and I don't know why or see any feedback. If it is, I'd like to know why. – George Anderson Jan 31 at 16:18

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