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I have a junction box in which a neutral from one 2-wire cable is spliced to a hot from another 2-wire cable. Is it possible this is right?

I am currently learning about wiring as I try to untangle the problems in my new house. So idk if this is ever a thing that would legitimately happen. The thing is, there are two fixtures that I know of connected to this breaker (even though there are 3 cables) : one receptacle that works, and one that doesn't. So I want to say "eureka!" and just fix this box so it's all black-to-black and white-to-white. But I want to be sure before I do, especially since idk where that other cable even goes.

My voltage tester tells me that 1 and 2 have power, but 3 does not. To me, this looks like #1 is wired correctly, #2 is incorrect but works b/c it has a complete loop thru #3, and #3 is incorrect and does not work b/c it has no hot wire. So I suspect #1 is my working receptacle, #3 is my non-working receptacle (and I have no idea what #2 is).

Bonus question: That dead receptacle has worked in past, and died without explanation. Is it possible that if whatever is connected to #2 is switched on, that the receptacle on #3 would temporarily have power?

Thanks!

junction box and diagram

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  • Kind of looks like #2 could go to a switch, but the white should have been connected to the hot. Jan 2 at 18:15
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    What makes you think that white wire is neutral? Put it another way, suppose it's 1999 and you had to wire an old-school switch loop, where the 2 wires will be "always-hot" and "switched-hot". What kind of cable would you use? All the stuff they sell has a black+white wire. Jan 2 at 18:31
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Cable #2 is a switch loop, so try turning that switch on

What you see here is the origination point of an old-style switch loop that controls a receptacle. Cable #1 feeds power from the breaker onward to some other box, so we can ignore it and focus on cables 2 and 3. From that white-wire-to-black-wire splice and the fact cable 2's black is spliced to the always-hot black, we can tell that cable 2 is an old-style switch loop, carrying always-hot to and switched-hot back from an ordinary light switch somewhere. Cable 3, then, feeds a switched receptacle with the switched-hot from the switch loop, as its neutral connects into the main neutral bundle.

As a result, turning the switch at cable #2 on should get your receptacle to work. While you're in here with the breaker off, there are a couple things you can do to clean this box up for the next person working in it, though. First and foremost would be to use black tape or Sharpie to remark the white wire in cable #2 as a hot wire; that way, it's clear that it's hot, not a neutral. Furthermore, Code says that that white wire in cable #2 should be carrying the always-hot down to the switch, with the black wire in cable #2 used to carry the switched-hot back up. Once you have the relabeling done, swapping those two wires around should be a simple matter -- once you're done, the relabeled white wire from cable #2 will join with the black wires in the incoming feed and in cable #1, while the black wire in cable #2 connects to the black wire in cable #3.

Note also that since this switch loop controls a receptacle, it's exempt from the NEC 404.2(C) requirements for bringing neutral out to the switch location.

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  • Thank you for your advice! This is super helpful. It makes perfect sense, b/c in addition to the wiring it explains why the outlet worked but then mysteriously stopped working -- the mystery switch must have gotten flipped. Jan 2 at 22:10
  • @J.MatthewTurmer -- we thank people around here by upvoting and/or accepting their answers :) Jan 2 at 22:12
  • [Note to self: <enter> submits the comment. :-/ ] Anyhoo, the problem is that I have tested every single switch in this entire house, and nothing controls that outlet. Short of simply disconnecting the hypothetical switch and turning the outlet into an always-on outlet, do you have any suggestions for how to proceed? I'm stumped. Jan 2 at 22:14
  • @J.MatthewTurmer -- it may be that the switch in question was removed and the wires to it capped off separately at some point? And you can disconnect cable 2 and cap it off individually, then move the black wire from cable 3 into the same bundle as the black wires from cable 1 and the incoming cable, if you want to make the receptacle not-switched. I presume there's already a light fixture in the room the not-working receptacle's in? Jan 2 at 22:16
  • Yes, it has a ceiling light and two other working outlets. This house is so strange -- I bought it three years ago, and I'm just now really trying to root out these weird electrical problems. I've found one receptacle that was dead b/c it was still connected to knob and tube wires, even though the rest had been ripped out; I've found a 3-way switch that was mis-wired; and I have another 3-way switch that isn't working right that I've yet to investigate. The thing that kills me about this outlet is that it definitely worked once for like 5 minutes. But anyway.... Jan 2 at 23:27

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