I'm trying to figure out how I got a shock from a neutral wire. I didn't think it was possible until I read this article on being "in series with the neutral." Here's what happened:

I was disconnecting a ceiling fan remote receiver which has a hot and neutral connection and supplies power to the fan and light kit. The hot wire that supplies the box runs through a single-pole switch, so I shut off the switch and tested with a solenoid voltage meter to make sure it was in the off position. I then removed the wire nuts from the hot and neutral connections. I tested both the hot and neutral bundles with the voltage meter (between wires and the grounded box) and there was no voltage, but there was a small spark when I touched the lead to the neutral bundle. I tested it again and there was no voltage, so I assumed that it was static discharge (I don't know why I did that). So I tested the neutral bundle again, to be safe, and there was no voltage. I started unbraiding the neutral wires and that's when I got a shock.

I couldn't believe it. I got a multimeter out and tested again, but there was zero voltage from the neutrals to ground. I turned the switch back on and tested again (hot to ground and hot to neutral), and the black wire was indeed the hot. Then I realized that there were two neutral wires coming into the box, which seemed odd for a ceiling box with only one load (the fan controller). I tested both neutral wires with the switch on and off (neutral to ground): no voltage on either.

Is it possible to get a shock even though you can't detect voltage from a neutral wire? I think now that "neutral one" came from a mystery load that ran into the box and hooked up to "neutral two", which runs to the neutral bar. I probably should have tested hot to each neutral separately to confirm this, but I didn't want another shock. Did I complete a circuit when I touched both neutral wires, and that is why I got the shock?

  • 2
    If you had used a good multimeter, you would have seen some voltage from neutral to ground. – Brad Gilbert Jan 28 '14 at 18:02

Here's how you can get a shock from a "neutral" wire: you had multiple white wires, only one was the neutral leading back to your circuit breaker/fuse panel. The rest are extending the neutral to other fixtures/outlets. Let's say that one is a light fixture and its switch is on. When you undid the white wire bundle, the white wire going to that light now becomes hot: voltage is coming through the closed switch and the light. You'd get a shock from that white wire, but only when you'd disconnected it from the true neutral.

Now, as for the volt meter, did you meter the individual white wires to ground, or only the complete bundle? As I noted above, you would only see voltage on that white wire when it was disconnected from the real neutral wire.

  • The reason black-to-white didn't measure anything is because, when switched off, the black (switched hot) wire doesn't go anywhere. You may as well be touching one probe of the meter to white and holding the second probe aloft in the air: there could be 1KV on that wire, and the meter would still read zero. – Doktor J Aug 22 '18 at 15:11

When you have power going to any part of your house, if there is any type of load on it,and you take the neutrals apart,you are interrupting the load so if you touch the 2 neutrals at any time you can become the neutral which is how and why you feel the shock. It can be harmful depending on the load.

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