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image of box behind light fixture with 3 wires - one black and two whites twisted together

Hi folks. I’m attempting to replace a damaged light fixture on our outdoor (though covered) patio. I removed the old light fixture (power off at the breaker), and was surprised to find a few things:

First, that there is a single black wire along with two white wires twisted together. On the old fixture, the black was capped to the black wire from the fixture, and the two white wires were capped to the single white from the fixture.

Second, the smaller of the white wires appears to be bare (missing insulation) near where it comes out of the cable.

Third, the grounding wire on the old fixture was connected to a screw on the old metal mounting bracket (not pictured), however that bracket didn’t appear to be connected to any metal or grounding wire. It did have two screws which go through the holes on the left and right side of plastic box/mount shown in the picture. However, I’m skeptical that they are connecting to anything metal behind the plastic (though it’s possible).

Since this is a ~110 year old house, I think it’s possible this simply lacks a ground wire connection.

My questions are:

  1. Why are there two white wires wrapped together - is this normal? I’ve founded discussions about setups with two whites and two blacks, but I don’t seem to have another black.

  2. Should I be worried about the smaller white wire having bare wire exposed like this? If so, what should I do about it?

  3. Do I need to be concerned about grounding?

This light is on a single switch and nothing else is controlled by that switch.

Thanks for any help you can offer!

Update: Here’s a picture of the light switch (the one controlling this fixture is the switch on the right).

Image of light switch wiring

It has two wires coming from it. In the box behind the switch there’s kind of a jumble of things, but I see what looks like a small ground wire. So now I think the small white wire that’s partly bare at the fixture location may actually be a ground wire. Is there any way to confirm that? I do have a multimeter.

Is there any reason it would’ve been connected to the white (presumably neutral) wire like that?

Update #2: Adding a picture showing that the smaller wire is indeed coming from the same cable, but appears to be bare inside it as far as I can tell, further supporting the idea that this is indeed a ground wire.

Close up of the bare/white wire coming out of the cable

Update #3: On the switch side I see what looks like grounding wire(s) being capped together with a white/neutral. So perhaps this supports the theory that the neutral to the fixture was damaged or something so someone decided to abuse the cable’s ground wire as a neutral?

Here’s a photo of that, a little hard to see (ignore the screwdriver at the bottom that I’m using to try and hold some of the white wires out of the way). Image from inside the switch box

Update #4: Adding another picture of the switch side. This shows the adjacent switch which controls some inside lights. These lights are on a 3-way switch setup.

I see: A cable in the middle which I assume comes from the breaker box. The black wire here is capped with two black wires, one going to each of the switches. The white wire from this is capped with whites going to the two outgoing cables on either side. However, one of those is then connected to the ground wires with the cap shown above. That includes the ground wire from the panel and the ones going to both the interior and exterior lights.

The interior light switch has three wires attached - I believe one black from the panel, one black going to the interior lights, and one white going to the interior lights.

Seems bad that all the grounds (not just the one for this fixture, but also the other fixture and the panel ground) are connected back to the panel neutral?

Switch box with interior light switch pulled out (left)

Thank you for the great help here, even though it’s not what I wanted to learn 🙂 I’ll be getting an electrician to come sort out this mess as soon as I can.

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  • Can you get a closer look and see if the smaller gauge white wire is indeed coming out of the cable. Then take a look in the box with the switch. Do you have the same black, white and smaller gauge white there? If so the smaller gauge white is intended to be the ground. Posting more pics here would help as well.
    – RMDman
    Jul 8, 2023 at 22:46
  • The second white is weird. Is the white covering tight on it? The second white(in the middle) does not look to be from the cable. I would remove that cover/housing and look inside to see what is connected to what. If to a ground connection that is not right(a bad hack). Usually ground on a light is nice, but not having it is not a major safety risk(unless you like to stick your tongue into the sockets).
    – crip659
    Jul 8, 2023 at 22:46
  • Thanks. I have been wondering if maybe that second smaller white (partly bare) wire is indeed a ground wire. I updated the post with an image of the light switch wiring. Oh, and the white covering does seem somewhat loose on the smaller wire. Jul 8, 2023 at 23:14
  • It is possible that the neutral wire is broken somewhere(in the wall). A cheap/bad hack is to connect neutral to ground somehow. Because why not, neutral and ground are connected at the main panel. This is a very bad reason. A fast test is to remove the ground and if the light does not work with just the neutral, you have a broken neutral.
    – crip659
    Jul 8, 2023 at 23:18
  • @crip659 Thanks. I added another photo from inside the box behind the switch. It looks to me like some grounding wire is connected to a neutral/white in there, which I suspect supports your theory. Jul 8, 2023 at 23:47

1 Answer 1

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It appears that someone violated code in multiple ways by slipping white insulation onto the bare ground wire in the cable, and joining it to neutral. Remove that bit of white insulation (it appears to have been slipped on, it should slip off again) and connect the ground properly.

Also check the other end of the cable to be sure it's wired as it should be.

Ah. Your code-violating idiot was using the ground wire as part of a switch loop? Rip this junk out and do over. And consider going through the house with a fine toothed comb looking for other "creative solutions."

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  • Hah. Interesting. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “using the ground wire as part of a switch loop”? So is it a bad idea to install the new fixture at least for now? If I do, should I wire it up the way the old one was? Or treat that smaller wire as a ground? Jul 8, 2023 at 23:21
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    @BrandonPaddock You need to treat the smaller wire as ground. Having a loose white covering on it is fake/not code/illegal. Ten to one your real neutral is broken somewhere.
    – crip659
    Jul 8, 2023 at 23:28
  • Look with more care at the switch end of the cable, if it is indeed the same cable. I suspect the ground wire has been misused there as well - if there's a single cable from switch to light, there should be no white wire on the switch. So something doesn't add up, and the misused ground wire is a huge red flag not to depend on "usual, normal practices" having been employed here. Maybe that's just white paint on a black wire, though. Anyway, don't trust, do verify that the ground goes only to other grounds before wiring in a new fixture, using ground as ground.
    – Ecnerwal
    Jul 8, 2023 at 23:28
  • @Ecnerwal The switch seems to have the proper two black wires, one with white paint.
    – crip659
    Jul 8, 2023 at 23:32
  • Ah, you are right, I didn’t think about that but it does indeed look like the switch has two black wires (which makes sense) and one has some paint on it. Jul 8, 2023 at 23:34

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