I replaced an old two-prong receptable with a three-prong GFCI (no ground) yesterday. It won't reset. I found out that "downstream" there is a light on the next level down that is controlled by two switches, one at the top of the stairs, one at the bottom. The original receptable is fine (resets, green) as long as that light is not turned on. As soon as it is turned on, the new GFCI receptacle trips.

Now for the weird part. I open the light and it has two cables coming in, each with a black, white and pink wire. I assume (not a great idea) these are one cable each from the two switches, and that based on the color they are hot(black), neutral(white) and switched hot (pink). I would have assumed the light fixture's bulb holders would be wired with the switched hots (combined together) as hot (to the bulb holders' black wires) and the white neutrals should be combined and attached to the white of the bulb holders, but they're not. Instead the neutrals (really I should say "white", 'cause who knows what they are) from one cable is fed to the hot of the light holders, and the neutral of the other cable is attached as neutral.

Does this make sense? I just bought the house, and the light and switches worked until I installed the GFCI, and the GFCI I just installed doesn't work either.

I would have thought that the pink switched hots should be combined and attached to the hot (black of the bulb holders) Of course, if it were that simply, why was it not that way already?

Edit: 1st Swithc Light Box

2nd Switch

2nd Swith

Edit2: When I took the switches out of the boxes so that I could take pictures, not disconnecting anything, the upstream GFCI would not reset, even with the switches open. When I put them back again, it would.

Again, it all worked before I changed the two prong outlet upstream with the GFCI. That is the only change I made.

When I looked in the 2nd switch box a second time I noticed there were some bare wires, maybe grounds I had not seen before.

Is it possible all this is about a ground or a neutral? If so, how do I track it down?

Edit 3: Addl pics as requested enter image description here Light box Lightbox

Edit 4: Add pics of the "unrelated" switch, per request. See below.
BoxBox SwitchesBox Cables Bottomline, if I can't figure this out shortly, I'm in trouble with the wife, so I bought another standard, non-GFCI receptable so shortly I'm going to install it. I don't have a ground, but the box is metal and the cable is armored, so I think the receptacle is grounded. I gather I can test by seeing (carefully!) that I get 120V AC across the hot and the box? And if I don't, it's not grounded?

Edit5: Adding pics of the missing junction box!! Great catch. Missing Junction Box 1 Missing Junction Box 2 Missing Junction Box 3 Missing Junction Box 4 Missing Junction Box 5

  • Between 3 way switches there are 2 travelers. Some GFCI's won't work without a ground. Is your outlet rated for 2 wire no ground?
    – Ed Beal
    Apr 17, 2016 at 14:56
  • I think so. It's a Leviton GFTR1-W. leviton.com/OA_HTML/…
    – codenoob
    Apr 17, 2016 at 15:02
  • So one of the cables is the neutral coming from somewhere and the other is the "leg end" hot? I wonder why it is resetting?
    – codenoob
    Apr 17, 2016 at 15:59
  • Please post photos of the inside of each box, so we can see what you're talking about! Apr 17, 2016 at 17:01
  • From your description is sounds as though your light fixture may be pulling its neutral from somewhere other than your new GFCI. The circuit connected downstream from a GFCI must have its hot originate from and its neutral return to that same GFCI or the GFCI will trip as soon as you turn anything on that downstream circuit on.
    – brhans
    Apr 18, 2016 at 12:35

4 Answers 4


From your description it sounds like you have the intelligence to understand this stuff, but are simply lacking certain nuggets of information. You'll want to read up a lot on "switch loops" and particularly "3-way switches". It will all make sense pretty quickly, then.

Oh, and one more thing that's a bit harder to uncover: In America, wire colors do not have firm meanings. Green always means ground. White or gray always mean neutral, unless marked or in switch loops and messengers - the goal being to build the necessary circuits with readily available multi-wire cable even though it's the wrong color. "Hot" lines are everything else - including marked whites and (implied) switch-loop whites, and there is no official standard of how to designate certain types of hot. (however in commercial facilities, consistency is required.)


Just because a wire is white doesn't mean it is being used as a neutral especially in an old house. ( I can't tell exactly from your pictures but in the top picture if you have a black, red, and white all attached to a switch then the white wire is most likely a traveler not a neutral. It should be re-identified black, red, or blue.)

3 wire cable in lighting circuits is normally used between 3 way switches. Two of the wires are travelers the other wire could be a hot, neutral, or switch leg. It all depends on the configuration of the circuit and which box is fed first.

I would say if everything was working prior to you changing things, go back to the orginal configuration and start over with a working circuit. Then change one thing at a time and see if everything still works.

Too many novices take everything all apart without taking pictures or making a diagram and then lose their way. Take it one step at a time.

Good luck!

  • Thanks ArchonOSX! The only thing I've changed is to replace an upstream old two prong with a three prong GFCI. If I put in back, what would I be able to do to "step by step"?
    – codenoob
    Apr 17, 2016 at 21:01
  • Hmmm verify that you connected the incoming power to the "line" terminals and the downstream circuit to the "load" terminals. The new ones will trip if you connect them backwards.
    – ArchonOSX
    Apr 17, 2016 at 21:03
  • Thanks. If the downstream is open, everything is fine the gfci shows green tests and trips and a tester shows wired properly. It's only when I flip one of the switches that control the light that it trips.
    – codenoob
    Apr 17, 2016 at 21:05
  • Hmm now you have a mystery. Do you have permanently wired fluorescent fixtures or screw in bulbs?
    – ArchonOSX
    Apr 17, 2016 at 21:09

On 3-ways, the two gold terminals are the travelers. The one black by itself is a "hot" if you will. On one switch, this hot needs to be attached to power. The other will go to the light hot (black) wire. In your switch box, it looks like what was your neutral is not used. The circuit neutral is picked up in the light box. You need to get that neutral to your GFI.


Call a licensed electrician. How GFCI's work...


  • You're probably right, but what am I missing: communities.leviton.com/thread/1080
    – codenoob
    Apr 17, 2016 at 16:03
  • 1
    No, GFCIs don't need a ground to work -- this is a whole different issue. Apr 17, 2016 at 17:01
  • Critique accepted and edited ThreePhaseEel. ;) What is the 'different issue' your referring too?
    – Been There
    Apr 17, 2016 at 17:53
  • Some GFCI's do need a ground, maybe not many any more but in years past they did. The electronics are better than in the 90's when they were first required
    – Ed Beal
    Apr 17, 2016 at 18:09
  • Most people come here to get advice on doing small projects on their own. Replacing a receptacle usually doesn't require a service call from an electrician, if the person is reasonably handy with tools and can follow instructions. If it is very complicated that is when people start recommending professional help.
    – ArchonOSX
    Apr 17, 2016 at 21:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.