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I have an outlet for the air conditioner, not GFCI. I purchased a GFCI outlet (Leiviton GFWT2) to replace it (the outlet was old, with marks and painting). Upon opening, to my surprise, there are two hots and no neutral. The neutral is connected to ground with a short wire, to make the outlet work. It has been working like that for years.

I researched about these two hots. One is hot from a (most likely) dedicated breaker labeled "AC", but was not used (!). Turning on the "AC" breaker, brings power to that hot end. No other outlet in the whole apartment is affected by this "AC" breaker, only this hot end (and it was off all this time). The other one is also hot but coming from another circuit breaker labeled "Living Outlets". This "Living Outlets" hot end was the one installed in this AC receptacle (and neutral connected to ground as I said previously).

Questions:

  • I assume this was a totally wrong installation, correct? You can't just connect neutral to ground (even though it works).
  • To make it worse, I have no idea why two hots ended up there. If there was one already, and it is working (the "AC" circuit breaker), why did they put another hot there (from the "Living Outlets" breaker). Any idea? Since there is no neutral anyway, the "AC" circuit breaker seems to have been a better option since it's dedicated.
  • I read that a GFCI outlet might be OK to be installed in this case (with no neutral wire available) - is that right? If this is correct, what would be the correct way to "connect" the neutral?
  • If I misunderstood about the GFCI outlet with no neutral available, then the only option is to bring the neutral all the way from the breaker? Because as far as I know I can't take a neutral from a nearby outlet, it has to be a neutral from the same circuit (either "AC" or "Living Outlet" breakers). I would rather not "extend" the Living Outlet circuit to the AC (even though this is how it was working). To make it worse, pulling any new wire would be a headache because conduits seem to be on their accepted limit already. Would require a full rewire probably.

Picture of box (sorry you don't see much, but I assure you there is only one conduit arriving, with two red wires; I added label so I know from which circuit is each wire): enter image description here

Picture of the outlet, neutral side (you see the wire connecting it to ground): enter image description here

Thank you!

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  • Yikes! What a mess. A number of different problems, including that if the ground (which shouldn't be used as neutral, but in theory could function (illegaly)) is not paired with the correct hot then you end up with a real mess. Upload pictures, of all the wiring, maybe there is something one of the experts can figure out to fix it. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact May 13 at 23:30
  • This sounds like a major SNAFU without the N. Picture of outlet will help, but I would be turning off main breaker and checking everything else in the place. If they F..K this up, what else did they F..K up? Are hots on same side of outlet or different sides? You do know what happens to people who think they are working on a dead circuit, that is live? – crip659 May 13 at 23:30
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    @Harper - Reinstate Monica OP said the two hots were from different breakers, not one going to other stuff. – crip659 May 14 at 0:11
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    OK, I get it. This was an air conditioner outlet. It was originally wired for 240V (two hots no neutral). Air conditioners got more efficient, so one day Bozo got a 120V model, and did the laziest thing possible to power it up. Power comes off one hot. Neutral goes to the recep ground screw, to the receptacle yoke, through the mounting screws, to the metal conduit, back to the panel, and through the neutral-ground bond. Wow, that's yiffed up... – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 14 at 4:13
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica So I learned one more today, thank you. Makes sense. It's a building from 1956, so most likely it was a 240V outlet (two hots from different breaker, no neutral). Poorly converted to 120V. So my options is to rewire it using neutral from Living Outlets circuit (potentially overloading the whole living room outlet circuit) or call an electrician to properly pass neutral from "AC" breaker to that receptacle - but that requires rewiring everything since wires are old and it would not be possible to fish another wire without damaging existing ones. Time for an electrician. – igorjrr May 14 at 18:50
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It sounds like at one time this was a 240v circuit but it’s not now and you need a proper neutral.

Get some white or gray paint, or tape and coat both ends of the old cloth braid. In the panel move the wire from the breaker to the ground buss (if a newer panel and the grounds and neutrals are separated to the white or grounded buss).

Then use the neutral at the receptacle. Break loose the neutral to ground jumper at the receptacle.

Connect the receptacle green screw to the box with a jumper wire or if self grounding receptacle the screw and box contact is all that is required.

These changes will make it much safer than using the conduit for a return path.

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  • I'm pretty sure you're not allowed to re-color a live wire to neutral. – Jasen May 15 at 0:30

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