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Just moved in to an older home with fiancé and WAS planning to change out a light fixture with a new ceiling fan. However after turning off light switch and breaker and proceeding to remove light fixture I ran into something I felt was strange and later confirmed was very strange to a novice such as myself.

When I removed the fixture to expose the wires I discovered it was connected to two white wires. Not the single black / white I expected and that was at the switch.

Both black wires were taped up together and not used.

I also got nervous over the fact that despite the switch being off apparently it was still live when I used my tester. (I am going to re-affirm this however as I noticed after the fact that my tester lights up and is audible just by waving it in the air near there. Appears something in the attic is causing it to light up, more to come on that)

Either way things weren't as they should be to a novice and thus I promptly shut the project down. I don't play around. I do however find it odd and would love to hear thoughts on how it works this way and why would it possibly have been wired this way? I thought black was hot and white was neutral so if nothing else it would be the black ones used?

fixture wiring

  • Non-contact testers can be a bit too excitable. If you turn the light ON, then find the breaker that makes it go off, it will be off (if in doubt, shut down the computer, etc. and turn off the main breaker, having a flashlight handy if needed.) An actual voltmeter is a more definitive tool. As the answers already cover, it sounds like a perfectly normal switch loop - add some red tape to both ends of the white wire that is switched hot if you determine that this (normal) situation is the case. – Ecnerwal Jul 14 '15 at 0:45
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So, the box in the ceiling has two pair coming into it. Two black white pair. One comes from the power source. Think of that one as Line and Neutral. The other one runs to the light switch wherever that is. ( If you open the switch, you should find a black and white on the two screws. )

Therefore, the two black wires are connected and beep your meter because the breaker is still on. Keep them intact. AND the white coming from the switch is connected to the black on the fan. It SHOULD have a bit of black E tape to mark it as a 'switched hot'. The white neutral is connected to the white wire on the fan.

How'my doin' so far?

The new fixture should be wired just like the old fixture. Put the black where the black was, and the white where the white was.

Double check the box is secure enough to the house to hold the weight of the new fixture.

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    +1 Yeah, for a ceiling fan I suspect @Dane's going to have to go into the attic and add a support bar. – Ecnerwal Jul 14 '15 at 0:47
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Doesn't seem that strange at all. I'm not there, and can't probe the wiring to confirm, but this is a common wiring method when power comes to the fixture outlet first.

Power comes to the fixture outlet on one of the black wires, then goes to the switch on the other. Power comes back from the switch on a white wire, and goes back to the breaker on the other white wire.

The meter is likely going off, because there's always power on the black wires.

Again, I'm not there, and so can't probe the wiring to confirm my suspicions. I'm basing this answer on experience, and common practice.

  • Ok now that you guys explain it it makes sense. I guess I was assuming the switch would have the power coming to it and then going out to the fixture. I see how things work as it's been explained above but it's just not how I would have assumed. Kinda makes me wonder why power from a breaker wouldn't go to the switch first and then the switch would then dictate power going on or off to the light fixture? That's not normal? – Dane Jul 14 '15 at 0:52
  • @Dane It was common in older homes (and newer homes in some areas), to run power up into the attic first. Then feed lights and receptacles from the top down, instead of the bottom up. Not sure why this method was preferred, but it's common in most of the areas that I have lived. – Tester101 Jul 14 '15 at 0:59
  • If you get old enough, power came in at the top, and the fusebox was there. – Ecnerwal Jul 14 '15 at 1:14
  • @Ecnerwal In some places, yes that's true. – Tester101 Jul 14 '15 at 2:44
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You are correct the Black or Color wire should be the hot/power and the white is the neutral, but as long as the wire is marked with black tape is was okay. Now you stated that you turned off the switch and you still had power at the fixture, that is because whom every wired this fixture may have switched the neutral and not the hot/power, which is no longer code. The easiest way to check is to use your tester and see if you get the same light in the fixtures socket.

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