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1960s build, electrical redone with a 200 A Siemens panel (where each breaker is labeled with/serves two circuits) about 15ish years ago.

Replacing a receptacle, I came across this series outlet with the ground backstabbed into a neutral terminal, and the neutral on the ground terminal.

what. is. this.

It seems to be the enclosure ground bond.

enclosure wires

As may be expected, my three-light receptacle tester did not identify this situation.

Since this is an outlet which presumably powers other outlets in series, the person who wired this presumably intended the ground to serve as a neutral. I find it very hard to believe this is an inexperienced-DIY accident they didn't bother to correct, but I suppose it's possible?

Assuming I correct this with a new receptacle, what else should I be looking for? Are there any other tests I can do on the circuit?

I'm already planning to replace all the receptacles on this circuit, but there are also pot lights (I think halogen) which I can't easily access.

Here are two similar but distinct situations below, where the consensus was though these both seem like bootlegged grounds, which is not what's happening here (as far as I understand - please correct me):

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    A voltage tester will tell if ground or neutral is not connected/broken somewhere before this. Hot to neutral and hot to ground should read 120v. Neutral to ground 0v. If you get these two reading, then someone thought it did not matter. If you don't get these readings then it is a hack/bootleg to have neutral work.
    – crip659
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:34
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    Whoa, that's forked up.
    – Huesmann
    Dec 23, 2023 at 14:17
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    I presume "series outlet" means that this is one of a series, using the receptacle to make the ongoing connection? While it's good that the receptacle is grounded (even though the wire colors are wrong, is the box itself actually grounded? I don't see anything that looks like a ground wire coming down from the cables at the top. Where does that bare wire go? We can't see it in the pic of the inside of the box.
    – FreeMan
    Dec 23, 2023 at 14:18
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    Based on the wiring seen in this box, you're probably safe to assume that every light & receptacle in the house is suspect.
    – FreeMan
    Dec 23, 2023 at 14:19
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    I would think it was done because someone knew ground and neutral are connected together in the panel and thought it did not matter which wire went where at the outlets. They thought that white and bare did the same thing. Usually a hack/bootleg would have a jumper wire to connect ground/neutral, to bypass the broken wire.
    – crip659
    Dec 23, 2023 at 15:39

2 Answers 2

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You appear to have one of the neutral wires on the ground screw and one of the ground wires in a neutral backstab. There are basically two possibilities:

  • Misunderstanding of Neutral/Ground "they're all the same so it doesn't matter what goes where". That is easy to fix - move the neutral wire to one of the side screws and move the ground wire to the ground screw. If everything works (including other receptacles/lights on the same circuit) then you're all set.

  • Deliberate swapping of neutral and ground. This happens from a combination of "they're all the same" with "neutral broken". If ground is broken there is no visible manifestation of the problem. You see it with a 3-light tester or with a surge protector or other device that reports ground status. But all appliances, receptacles, lights, etc. work fine, at least until there is some other problem. However, if the neutral is broken then nothing works. Somebody figures out the problem is neutral and rather than tracking down the problem (typically a bad connection somewhere) they play this sort of game. Which is dangerous for a bunch of reasons.

So rewire this receptacle so that everything is normal. And then see what works or doesn't work. If something that worked before doesn't work now then you have a more serious problem (anything from a chewed up wire to a loose screw or backstab) someplace else.

FYI, backstabs are notoriously unreliable. And screw connections are often hard for novices to do well. So it pays to spend a couple extra $ per receptacle to get "commercial grade" or similar that have "screw-to-clamp". That lets you wire straight in (like a backstab, unlike a regular screw connection), two per screw (unlike one per backstab or regular screw) with screw to tighten down securely (unlike a backstab) and reusable (unlike a backstab).

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    Three-light tester reported the outlet is wired correctly - I checked every single outlet in the house, top and bottom, after taking possession. Usefully, a voltage tester reports 120 V from hot to neutral and hot to ground, and zero from neutral to ground. This seems to fall into the "they thought it didn't matter" category. I'll correct the wiring. (And thank you for the additional and very useful details. )
    – msanford
    Dec 26, 2023 at 20:09
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DIY accident they didn't bother to correct, but I suppose it's possible?

Anything is possible.

What else should I be looking for?

The other end of all those wires.

each breaker is labeled with/serves two circuits

I'm assuming this is just a weird way of saying there are two appliances on each circuit. Each circuit breaker is a separate branch circuit by definition.

Are there any other tests I can do on the circuit?

There's no easy test for a bootleg ground or neutral bonding. Visually inspecting all the splices is the best option.

not what's happening here (as far as I understand - please correct me)

All we know from the photos is that the receptacle is wired wrong.

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  • Thanks for the concise response and for confirming there's no simple test other than inspection. I agree with "anything is possible". As to "I'm assuming this is just a weird way of saying there are two appliances on each circuit" > That's probably what I meant? Every breaker is numbered and divided into A and B on the breaker. The labels then read "36: A Hallway Outlets, B Hallway Lights". I suppose that's just a bookkeeping convenience and not representative of two physical paths.
    – msanford
    Dec 23, 2023 at 22:00
  • A picture of the panel would tell us for sure. Very often breaker panels allow for half-size (a.k.a., tandem or double-stuff) breakers. Each space is numbered and if there are two breakers within the space (depending on brand they may come as one physical unit or two separate units) they are then #A and #B. If it is two breakers then each has a separate hot (and usually separate neutral as well) wire and are effectively two different circuits. Dec 23, 2023 at 23:14

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