I have a three or maybe four way switch to a ceiling box. I guess a ceiling fan was there before we moved in. But since we moved in the previous owner just put up a light fixture and removed the ceiling fan.

Now I see two red wires and two black wires. Hidden away are some whites pigtailed together and some grounds pigtailed together.

My light fixture has a hot and a neutral wire. I assume I wago the two red wires to the light fixture neutral, and wago the two black wires to the light fixture hot?

  • 5
    How was the light fixture that you removed wired? You said the previous owner took down a fan and put up a light. What was that light connected to? Guessing or assuming is NOT the way to do wiring...
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented May 8 at 2:10
  • Unfortunately fixture was removed without photos taken of the previous wiring
    – Zach Smith
    Commented May 8 at 2:52
  • you probably need to catalog the wiring in each switch box that controlled this light, also specify the type of wiring in use, (eg romex or conduit)
    – Jasen
    Commented May 8 at 4:28
  • Do you have a multimeter?
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 8 at 20:20

4 Answers 4


I assume I wago the two red wires to the light fixture neutral


In the US and Canada, and there are a bunch of clues here and in previous questions that you are in the US or Canada, neutral is always white, but white is not always neutral.

Which means that unless things are supremely messed up, the light fixture neutral MUST connect to the bundle of whites.

That leaves open the question of which wire(s) connect to the light fixture hot wire. It could be one red, two reds, one black or two blacks. Possible even a mixture of red and black, though that is unlikely. But all we know for sure is:

  • White is neutral (a lone white might not be, but a group of whites is pretty much guaranteed to be neutral)
  • Blacks and reds are some variants of: hot, switched hot, travelers

The starting point is going to be figuring out:

  • Hot (i.e., always hot, no matter what the position of any switches is) - To do this you turn on the breaker and carefully check each wire for power (NCVT is the starting point, but a multimeter to be sure). And once you think you have found a hot wire, flip each switch to see if that has any effect
  • Switched Hot - This is any wire that shows hot only when switch(es) are in a particular position(s)

The complication is that with 3-way/4-way switches, you may have travelers flowing through the box, and there are a lot of different possibilities.

Pictures and basic diagnostics of "probably hot" and "probably switched hot" will help get to the next step.

  • 5
    Downvoters care to explain? Commented May 8 at 3:49
  • 1
    My intuition is the same - whites neutral, black and red are legs or travelers to the 3/4 way switches. Guessing though that the black may be for a fan, and red for fan lights.
    – brichins
    Commented May 8 at 10:10
  • 5
    "neutral is always white" Unless, of course, the previous owner made incorrect assumptions and wired it wrong as was about to happen here. Always best to check, first.
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 8 at 16:28
  • 1
    @FreeMan Which is why I said unless things are supremely messed up Commented May 8 at 16:30
  • 1
    Just reinforcing the point.
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 8 at 16:33

DO NOT TRUST the previous owner. He owes you nothing!

DO NOT TRUST wire colors. You don't know who installed old fixture.

Wrong assumptions may result in a fire or even death.

Call an electrician.

At least, you should get any kind of live wire detector and multimeter. And you MUST BE SKILLED enough to use them properly and safely.

Then you should:

  1. Detect the live wires.
  2. Find which wire is opened with the switch.
  3. Trace each open wire to find both ends.
  4. Draw the found wires on a diagram.
  5. Compare your drawing with the new fixture installation guide.
  • 10
    "Call a Pro" is always the last-resort advice given here on this site dedicated to "Do it yourself".
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 8 at 16:35
  • 7
    @FreeMan That doesn't mean it's the wrong answer though. We all know there are DIY jobs which are generally 'do-able' by most people and jobs which require specialist knowledge. If you have the right knowledge then fine, if you don't then call a pro, especially when dealing with things which could cause serious damage or injury. Personally, I'm not bad at electrics, however I've opened ceiling roses before and thought "what the hell is this mess?" and called my friend the electrician who has then spent an hour sorting the mess out. Yes, absolutely DIY, but sometimes calling a pro is the answer
    – ThaRobster
    Commented May 9 at 8:43
  • 3
    @FreeMan Especially when the initial assumptions made in the question are so far wrong
    – ThaRobster
    Commented May 9 at 8:44
  • 2
    @FreeMan back when the Earth was young and dinosaurs still roamed it (at least that's how 1995 feels now) I was certified to work on live wires and yet last year I called an electrician to change a switch simply because after immigrating I have not bought all the tools necessary. In a job like this you must assume all wires are hot because they are wrongly connected -- does OP have the tools and the knowledge to operate under such conditions? I sincerely doubt. You buy a $10 screwdriver set off Amazon which is supposed to 1000V insulate and then be surprised when it does not... ...
    – chx
    Commented May 10 at 14:18

Don't make assumptions.

Connect your new light fixture the same way the old one was connected.

There's no general method to count up the colors of the wires in a box and intuit the wiring from there. Colors don't make lights work, electricity does. "electricianing" is only partly a color matching game.

  • 2
    I wish my wife would had taken a photo of the wiring before she removed the fixture. Alas, here I am.
    – Zach Smith
    Commented May 8 at 2:50
  • 1
    It's likely that the lamp should connect to one of the whites for neutral and one of the other colors for live, you're going to have to guess where it was, if you get it wrong you won't be able to tun it off. but if you have a whole forest of unconnected ends it they all need to go somewhere... and guessing is futile
    – Jasen
    Commented May 8 at 4:21
  • 7
    @Jasen "Guessing is futile" - I'd say "guessing may be dangerous"
    – Aleks G
    Commented May 8 at 12:28
  • @ZachSmith have you asked your wife if she remembers what wires were connected to what?
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 8 at 16:29
  • @FreeMan Would you trust your life to someone's memory?  Especially as it's likely to be vague at best.  (If either of them felt it was important, they'd have taken a photo or sketched it on paper first.)
    – gidds
    Commented May 10 at 21:44

It is normal for a ceiling fan to also include a light fixture. It is normal for these to be separately switched. So you are probably seeing a light circuit and a fan circuit. This also means you may have another (apparently dead) switch to switch the fan.

Unless you are really comfortable doing circuit tracing, then others are correct. Call an electrician.

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