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My sister had some renovations done and we don't know how they ran the wire (don't bury your junction boxes!!!). I have a wire tracer and am working through them, so we will get there, but I am not convinced they wired everything correctly.

The way the old wiring worked was there were two switches that controlled one light in the middle of the room. At the light, two outlets were branched off. This arrangement kept the outlets hot and allowed for constant power at the remote switch, which then allowed for another light to be run off the remote switch. I didn't think much of it when I helped her remove the switches, but when I saw the junction box it was unlike anything I'd seen.

Questions:

  1. How did this wiring work?
  2. Is/was this allowed?

My suspicion is the guys didn't re-wire it this way, so she will not have constant hot at the far end of the room.

This picture is the junction box before rewiring, at the light controlled by two switches. You can see the additional wires from the outlets branching off.

unusual wiring

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  • Can you clarify if the picture you've included is a "before" or a "after" shot of the wiring, and indicate if you did anything with the uncapped red wires or if they were like that before/after the rewiring. Additionally, please edit your post to include pictures of the switch wiring at both ends, as seeing this will help others better figure out what's going on.
    – FreeMan
    Jun 23, 2020 at 14:00
  • This is the "before" picture.
    – tjack2006
    Jun 23, 2020 at 14:09
  • I do not have pictures of the switches. As I mentioned, I disconnected those before seeing this box and then wondering how it all worked. The uncapped red wires went to the light fixture.
    – tjack2006
    Jun 23, 2020 at 15:06

1 Answer 1

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I’ll be darned. I’ve never seen one of those before in the wild.

It’s a “Carter” 3-way

How did this wiring work?

It’s specifically for a case where the lamp is between the 3-way switches. Always-Hot and neutral go to each switch, and through the lamp without connecting to it. Obviously hot and neutral can also extend from or beyond either 3-way. So we have hot and neutral everywhere (except the lamp doesn’t use either one).

Now, each of the 3-ways has 1 traveler going to the lamp. The 3-way connects the traveler either to always-hot, or to neutral. This gives us 4 conditions.

 Sw1    Sw2       Resulting state
 Neu    Neu       Lamp does not light. Socket is neutral. 
 Neu    Hot       Lamp lights.  Socket is hot, obviously.
 Hot    Neu       Lamp lights.  Socket is hot, obviously.
 Hot    Hot       Lamp does not light. SOCKET IS HOT!

Is/was this illegal?

Oh you bet it was, because of that last case there. Holy smoke-Andy! The Edison shell is electrified at all, normally that’s impossible since it’s keyed to neutral and unswitched; and to compound the crime, it’s hot with the switch off! No, no, no!

However, we now live in an age where “bulbs” outlast “fixtures”, and therefore, the bulb socket is no longer useful and is only another failure point. As such, it’s being done away with altogether. Alternately, we have new socket designs such as GU24 specifically keyed to prevent incandescent use, and those are Euro-influenced (Europe doesn’t polarize, so they want to insulate both contacts). This casts the Carter 3-way in a new light.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with it, as long as a) the fixture is bulbless and hardwired (I’ll guess Code supports my interpretation there), or b) the bulb socket is a modern “both pins protected” type like GU24 (and I’ll guess Code does not agree).

How to fix it

So. My advice is to a) leave it, and b) fit a bulbless lamp there. You certainly don’t want anything with an Edison socket. If the spouse is in love with a particular chandelier with Edison, then re-do the wiring as follows:

  • The traveler to one switch gets deprecated; cap it off on both ends.
  • The traveler to the other switch becomes switched-hot to the switch.
  • Place a smart-switch “master” at the switch box with switched-hot.
  • Place a smart-switch “remote” at the switch box with the deprecated wire. It won’t use red at all.

Boy, I winding up to write you a solution with steam-era switches, then I realized “what am I doing, this is the 21st century”.

You will need to select smart switches that use wireless or powerline signaling, and whose remote wants always-hot and neutral.

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  • Brilliant! Thank you for the information!
    – tjack2006
    Jun 23, 2020 at 16:30
  • The fixture has been replaced and the wiring redone. there are now two lights between the switches and (I would have to look) I bet they did not wire those with the red wires. Well, now I know it is old and illegal and can break the truth to my sister as to why it pays to hire a real electrician. I will look into your proposed solution with the smart switches, maybe we can get it figured out. Thank you!
    – tjack2006
    Jun 23, 2020 at 16:36
  • So is the belief that after the rewiring the circuit is no longer a Carter 3-way or is it still a Carter? Did the OP state that originally the receptacles were switched? Jun 23, 2020 at 21:13
  • Correct, I do not believe there is a Carter 3 way anymore. I thought I implied it was replaced with a rewire. In the new arrangement, the outlets are on a different circuit, which I did not state.
    – tjack2006
    Jun 24, 2020 at 0:41

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