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I have an electrical box in my basement that I want to wire an outlet into. There are three sets of wires (2 each) -- the usual black and white, and red (and ground). I've tried to wire the outlet with black and white (ignoring red), but I don't get any power from it (receptacle tester indicates "open hot").

I've also tried using the red wires instead of the black. Then I get power (but no ground even though it is connected), but the kitchen light (on the same circuit) flickers when switched off.

My understanding is that the red wire is a hot wire for a switched outlet. But in that case I should be fine just ignoring it, which doesn't work.

What I've tried and checked:

  • Verified that all the wires are attached correctly to the outlet.
  • Different outlet. Same result.
  • Checked that the wires are hot with a non-contact AC tester. Not connecting the two black or two red wires causes other stuff on the same circuit not to work, so they're clearly carrying current.
  • Tried all switches on the same circuit to see if any of them would switch on power with the black connected. None did.

Any ideas on how to solve this? Should this work, but something else is broken somewhere?

Edit 1:

  • The cables are in a round ceiling box, with one set of wires coming in in a metal sheathing and the other one NM sheathing.
  • Pairs of cables were originally pigtailed together (white - white, black - black, red - red) with a twist-on cap. Ground was just loose in the box.
  • The installer(?) labeled the box "3-way Sw".

Edit 2:

Here's a picture of the box: picture of ceiling box

  • The circuit has a 15A breaker.
  • On the same circuit are 4 lights and one receptacle which is switched with one of the lights.
  • Solid Copper wires.

Edit 3:

  • Voltage between black and white is negligible, about 2.5V.
  • Voltage between red and white and red and black is 117V.
  • Voltage between ground and everything else is 47V.
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    I would not assume that the colors in the box mean what you assume they mean. When I first read your question I thought that with red, black, white, and ground you have a 240V circuit where the outlet has been removed. Why not trace it back to its source and determine exactly what's going on here? – jwh20 Oct 26 at 17:24
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    Stop experimenting, that us a dangerous way to work with electrical, as presumably you'll stop when you find a combination that works. You will find many that will work and then kill you. You must collect information until you know definitely... it's downhill from there. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 at 17:26
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    @LarsKotthoff Then call in a professional electrician. This sounds as though it's beyond your experience. – jwh20 Oct 26 at 19:28
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    When someone says trace the wires they do not mean you are to remove drywall to see where the wires go, but rather to use your voltage tester to figure out what is connected to what. Put the wires in their original state of connection (where everything worked?) and attach a picture or pictures of the wires in the box. Then we can help you. – Jim Stewart Oct 26 at 20:29
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    +1 on suggestion to "buy a multimeter" and figure out where the wires lead. e.g. is one hot when you flip another switch which may be connected as a 3-way? A cheap $6 Multimeter from Harbor Freight should be sufficient for your needs. IMO, well worth the $6 to have one. – Vette Oct 27 at 15:19
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Since this is a ceiling box the wiring is probably designed for a light fixture. As such it will have a neutral (which would be the white wires connected together, but it may have only a switched hot and not a line hot (which is always hot). But it is possible that it contains a line hot. The first task would be to find out if you have an always hot in the box.

With the wires connected as they were originally use your non-contact tester to see if the bundle of black wires is hot in all the wall switch positions. Also test the red wires. Record and report to us.

You say you want to use this box as a source for an "outlet" which I take to mean you want a receptacle to be powered with an always hot and a neutral from this box, right?

EDIT1

Use a pair of "pigtails" one white and one black to connect to a receptacle. The white pigtail connects the bundle of connected whites to the neutral side of the receptacle (the longer slot); the black pigtail connects the bundle of blacks to the hot side of the receptacle (shorter slot). Unless this us a grounded receptacle in a metal box, use a green or bare pigtail to connect the ground wires to the ground screw of the receptacle.

EDIT2

To get maximum use of your wiring you should determine if the black and the red are part of a "multi wire branch circuit". You have said both are hot, but are these two wires switched by the same 2-pole breaker in your panel? Or are they each switched by one of a pair of linked (handle tied) 1-pole breakers in your panel?

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    Thanks -- yes, the black wires are hot in all positions. Same for the red wires. Yes, I want a receptacle with an always hot and neutral. I don't think that it was designed for a light fixture because there's a light fixture right next to it (which works as expected; it's a single bulb will a pull chain to switch it on and off). – Lars Kotthoff Oct 27 at 18:20
  • OK, I'm editing my post. – Jim Stewart Oct 27 at 18:23
  • Describe the breaker or breakers that protect the black and red hot wires? Are they 15 A or 20 A or 30 A? Are the wires copper or aluminum? What size are the wires? Are they solid or stranded? – Jim Stewart Oct 27 at 19:06
  • When you turn off the breaker that protects the hot black and the hot red in thus basement ceiling box what lights or receptacles are thereby turned off? – Jim Stewart Oct 27 at 19:16
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    You really need a multimeter, even a cheap voltmeter would help. For example, the black wire and the red wire are each hot, that is , they are each 120 V away from neutral and ground, but what is the voltage between the black wire and red wire? It could be 0 V or it could be 240 V and you need to know to get the most out of the wiring. – Jim Stewart Oct 27 at 20:48

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