If neutral is connected to ground and current desires ground then I would think it would go to ground. But my understanding is that it is kept off of ground until it's "upstream" of the breaker box, or unless a malfunctioning device shorts hot to ground. So what "prevents" the electricity from going to the ground that the neutral is connected to?

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    I answered this exact question here, though the explanation is very technical. The short answer is, there will be current through you if you touch a neutral wire while grounded, but it will be so small you will barely feel it. Dec 8, 2013 at 18:18
  • The current in the neutral wire in your service drop is a fraction of the current in the two hot legs. First of all, none of your 240 V loads use the neutral at all. Some 240 V/120 V appliances do send a small amount of current into the neutral and ALL the 120 V loads send all of their current into the neutral BUT approx half of them are on one 120 V leg and half are on the other leg SO they cancel out in the neutral! (They cancel out because they are 180 deg out of phase with each other.) Then only a very, very small fraction of that goes through the ground. Dec 20, 2023 at 19:32

8 Answers 8


Current doesn't want to return to ground, but rather it wants to return to the source. The ground isn't a great conductor and while it is in parallel with the service, the amount of current returning through the ground is so small it is effectively zero. However, if you lose your neutral then the ground becomes the only viable return path for the current to get to the source.

I replaced a residential service and the neutral on the service drop broke on the service drop-side of the point of attachment. The house still had power because the system was grounded and current was taking "plan B" of returning to source through the ground. Luckily the home owners just purchased the house and hadn't moved in yet.


The detailed question here seems to be whether in 'normal operation' there can be 'any' current on the large ground wire from the main panel to its actual 'earth ground'. The answer is YES, it is possible - but the amount of current should be very low. Note: we are not discussing current on the ground wires of the wiring within the house - only the large ground wire from the main panel to an external 'earth ground'.

At the main panel, the supply neutral is bonded to 'earth ground' - so there is a parallel path going 1) to supply neutral, and 2) to 'earth ground'.

The amount of current on a path is determined by the resistance difference between that path and any other path.

Proper design and construction has the resistance of the supply neutral being very much less than the resistance to 'ground' - so the majority of current is on the supply neutral, but a small amount can be on the 'ground' path.

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    You're not wrong, but you really haven't added anything to answers that have been here for years. Please take the tour and see how to write a good answer, then edit to improve.
    – FreeMan
    Dec 20, 2023 at 19:07

I know this is an old thread and has been answered in multiple ways here. If I am making this more confusing let me know and I will take it down.

This is my simple version of what happens and why grounded and grounding wires are both important and kept separate all the way to the main disconnect panel, and why 'earth ground' is needed but not adequate to act as sole ground.

The electrical grid is like a big piping system with lots of little pipes with differing pressures. The utility's power plant is a large pump of electrical current, looking to get back everything it sends out through a big loop. (Very much over simplified)

  1. At any point before the main panel, the grounding (green or copper) and grounded (white) are kept separate because the white (grounded or neutral) conductor carries current back to the center-point of the transformer (residential), while the 'grounding' wire is there to ensure an alternate, unused path exists if needed. If these conductors were bonded earlier than the main disconnect panel, then the grounding wire could end up carrying current back to the main panel and become dangerous. In case of a multi-drop circuit, for example, if the Neutral is used as the grounding wire (tied to appliance) there is the potential for the appliance frame to become a current carrying device. i.e. if a downstream neutral is broken, the appliance would look to the person who touches the appliance to be the current's route back.
  2. Earth ground exists as an alternate (alt on drawing) route to the transformer, etc, but is a lousy conductor. This is why a broken neutral to the transformer causes strange (floating) voltages. Earth is not enough of a conductor to carry all the current, so the path becomes any closed circuit in the house, finding its way through differently phased circuits. Earth ground is needed to help diffuse issues with errant current when there is no other path back.
  3. For older appliances with neutral as grounding conductor, the appliance has a straight point to point connection to the panel, so the appliance should never be in series with another neutral. It is an extension of the panel ground. This is not the case if the neutral is severed, which would make the appliance hot, attempting to complete the circuit any way it can, potentially through people. This is why a separate grounding wire is important on circuits and why it needs to be mechanically bonded when spliced.

Here is my art for this description, showing grounds only. It is rudimentary, and though I tried to be accurate, it leaves a lot out. I hope it is helpful in clarifying why 'grounded' and 'grounding' are both very different and important, and why ground doesn't seek earth, it seeks the generation source it came from. (Don't ding the art, it's all I got..The funny little faces off the panels are supposed to be outlets with their grounds only. No power is drawn in the picture except at the transformer to main panel lugs.)

Rough diagram of grounds


The short answer is resistance. Electricity will find the easiest path to ground. At the neutral-ground bonding in the breaker panel is a connection to the ground wire that goes to the actual ground. It's a heavy gauge, and connected to grounding bars deeply embedded in the ground to offer the least possible resistance.

For current to travel from the neutral back to the ground wires to where it can electrocute you, it needs:

  1. an imbalance in the house wiring (remember, there are two hots, and with a broken neutral it becomes a circuit with two loads in serial),
  2. a failed neutral since the neutral will be at the difference in current used by the two hots (by design of a center tapped transformer), and
  3. a better path to ground than the ground wire that is connected to the grounding rods.

As long as any one of those three conditions doesn't apply, you should not see any current on the ground wire.

  • I doubt that you will ever see an installation where the two hot conductors are perfectly balanced. So you will see some current on the wires that go to the grounding rods. Which is the main reason they are 6 gauge wire, to help pull the voltage down. Dec 9, 2013 at 0:12
  • The imbalance will first go out the neutral. After that, it will appear as an increase in voltage on the lesser used hot. See this question where using the microwave caused someone's lights to get brighter.
    – BMitch
    Dec 9, 2013 at 0:20
  • If you have a multimeter capable of measuring milli-volts, and measured the AC voltage from the grounding rod to the dirt a few feet away; you would see that there is some voltage. See also infinite resistor grid. Dec 9, 2013 at 0:48
  • I was looking at the majority of the electricity flow, which is what I think most people are concerned about when wiring a home. The paranoia is from the hot having 120, the neutral on the other end of that 120, the ground connected to the neutral, so metal appliances should have 120 on their exterior ready to electrocute you. Sure, there's going to be some milli-volts from the slight resistance, and there could also be phantom induced voltage, but it's going to be much more like a 9v battery than the 120v hot.
    – BMitch
    Dec 9, 2013 at 12:25
  • People are totally underestimating the amount of current that can flow on the grounding system. The ground path can have a VERY low resistance, for example where the GEC is attached to metal piping that in turn is connected to the GEC's (and therefore neutrals) of neighboring residences. I've seen as much as 40% of all 120V loads in a home flowing on its GEC and water service pipe, with no apparent problems, and going on for years.
    – kreemoweet
    Mar 16, 2023 at 17:27

A great question and it seems odd to have a ground and a neutral. We have a neutral to keep the ground from being loaded. We dont want the ground to be load, it doesnt have the capacity and its for back-up.

In AC systems, there is current on the "hot" leg and on the "reference" leg. We use a neutral leg for reference. In countries with 240v systems, there is no neutral, but two opposite legs of 120v that provide a reference for each other. You see in AC systems, the voltages are not constant - it alternates back forth +X volts and -X volts. + and - from what? voltage is just potential differences from the reference. In 120v systems, on leg will be -60v from the neutral and then switch to +60v from neutral 60 times a second. In a 240v systems with out neutral wire there is a perceived reference between the two 120v legs that are off opposite phase.

So, yes in theory, you could get the potential difference from a 120v "hot" leg and ground, BUT then your would be loading the ground and it would no longer serve a safety function. In practice when you load the ground, appliance panels and other things that are grounded out become will be loaded and can shock.

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    The grounding conductor should always have the capacity to carry the full load supplied by the ungrounded (hot) conductor, in a properly wired circuit.
    – Tester101
    Dec 9, 2013 at 12:01

Because ground is not a return unless you bridge across from neutral, hot, or have a component short to frame ground.

It is a free standing wire/conduit network connected to earth that isn't a part of a circuit till a fault occurs.

  • it is part of the circuit because the neutral is connected to it at the panel box. So it's a extension of the neutral wire.
    – Grasper
    Oct 7, 2015 at 19:36
  • Ground is always one of the possible return paths for current (where neutrals are grounded) and it absolutely will and does carry current in proportion to its resistance. It's very common for residential ground systems to carry measurable current in normal use
    – kreemoweet
    Mar 16, 2023 at 17:11

The ground wire is for safety, it should be very close to the same potential as Earth. To that end, there is a legal limit of how much resistance there is from the ground at the service entrance to dirt outside. In the US it's 25Ω, or you can get away with just using two ground rods 6ft (or more) away from each other. (It's cheaper to install two ground rods than spend time and money on properly testing the resistance)

The reason the neutral and ground wires are connected at the service entrance, is to help keep the voltage potential of the neutral to Earth, as low as possible by keeping the resistance to Earth as low as possible.

To have absolutely no current on the grounding wire going to the ground rods, the nearest transformer would have to have equal current on both hot conductors. Since the transformer typically has it's neutral (center tap) grounded at the the same location as the higher voltage side, there would also have to have to be equal current on all of conductors on the high side as well.

So basically there is always some current going through the grounding system, at the service entrance. The main thing, is that the voltage is kept as low as possible; by keeping the resistance as low as possible.

If you want proof that there is some voltage, and therefore current, on the grounding system, measure the voltage from the grounding rod to a point in the dirt a few feet away. If you measure any voltage with a high-end multimeter of even a tenth of a volt (AC); then there is current on your grounding system.
You can even measure some voltage from the grounding rod to the point at which the neutral and grounding system are bonded. Although this will be far less than the other test, as copper and aluminum are better conductors than dirt.

Even if you turn off your power, you will still see some voltage with both of these tests. Assuming there is someone else connected to the same transformer as you, and your neutral and ground wires are still wired properly. The amount of wire the current would have to travel through before it got to your premises would be greater, so the amount of current/voltage would be greatly lessened.


I admittedly know very little about AC wiring. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. But here's my neophyte expalnation. Somebody please explain why this is not correct.

AC swings from positive to negative 60 times a second. As the black Hot wire goes positive, the white Neutral wire goes negative. When the Hot wire is +60V, the Neutral wire is -60V, and vice-versa, for a total voltage swing of 120V.

Another way of thinking about it is, positive voltage is pushing and negative voltage is pulling so there is a push me-pull you effect happening 60 times per second relative to the source (stepdown) transformer.

So, the reason current is not lost thru the Neutral wire to ground is because of potential. Ground is 0V potential. The positive voltage being supplied is +60V which is greater than 0V (ground) so you might think Ground is where the current would go. However, at the same time there is +60V on one wire, there is also -60V on the other. So, the +60V is actually being pulled back to the source transformer by the negative voltage (-60V) which is has a greater voltage potential than ground (0V). Throughout the sine wave cycle, the positive voltage has an equal negative voltage which keeps the current in the circuit. The potential difference swings from 0V to 120V 60 times per second.

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    I think you may be getting hot and neutral confused with the two opposite phase hot wires supplied in typical US residential connections. Neutral does remain neutral, but each hot cycles from positive to negative relative to the neutral. Each hot on average is 120V different from neutral (sometimes positive, sometimes negative) as measured by an averaging method known as root mean square or RMS.
    – Armand
    Mar 16, 2023 at 8:12

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