I had an electrician install an outdoor receptacle recently, and it's not working as expected. Before the receptacle was installed, the only thing I'm aware of that was on this circuit was a single outdoor light fixture controlled by a switch. I swapped out the simple switch for a Honeywell RPLS540A (one of those no-neutral timer switches, as the switch box did not have a neutral available).

I was under the impression that the new receptacle was not hooked up downstream of the switch, and so it should operate at all times, independent of the switch.

Here's what actually happens (edited to reflect new information per DoxyLover's suggested diagnostic test):

  • With the switch turned on, the receptacle is completely dead. The outdoor lights go on fully, but there are no signs of life at the receptacle. The green LED turns off, and nothing lights up on an outlet tester. The GFCI doesn't seem to be tripped here, as it doesn't actually need to be reset. If you turn the switch back off, the lights go off, and the receptacle goes to the state described below.
  • With the switch turned off, the receptacle seems to get partial power and shows a dimly lit hot/neutral reverse with an outlet tester. The green LED light is on, and there is some power. Plugging in a 100-watt lamp, for example, results in partial power in the lamp plugged into the receptacle and partial power in the lights that are supposed to be switched off.

I'm confused as to why all this would be. It seems apparent that things are wired incorrectly, but what would cause this behavior? Part of what I'm after here is the issue of who screwed up: me in the installation of the switch or the electrician in the installation of the receptacle? (He should arguably have tested the receptacle a bit better, although I'd hardly rule out errors on my part.)


Second Update: I just went back to inspect my work in the timer switch, and it does appear to be installed according to the instructions given in the manual. Three wires come into the box: black (I assume line), white (I assume load), and a bare ground wire. The line and 3-way wires from the switch are wire-nutted to the black wire in the box, the load wire from the switch is wire-nutted to the white wire in the box, and the ground wire is wire-nutted to the bare wire. In other words, it's just like the diagram below (from the manual), except that the ground is connected to the bare wire instead of a screw in the box. I'm not 100% clear on how the receptacle is wired in relation to this.

timer switch wiring diagram

  • You should include some photos/diagrams of how the switch is wired, and how you suspect the receptacle relates to this wiring. – Tester101 May 11 '16 at 17:45
  • 1
    Does the outlet fully work? Have you tried actually powering a 100 watt light from it when the switch is off? I'm suspecting that you'll find that it and the outdoor light will light up half way. – DoxyLover May 11 '16 at 17:58
  • It almost sounds like a 3 way switch was used with the switch in 1 position it provides power to the outlet and in the other it powers the receptacle. That is if I read the post correctly. If there was no neutral how did the outlet get the return path? – Ed Beal May 11 '16 at 18:33
  • Your suspicion is correct, @DoxyLover. I only tested with an outlet tester, which seemed dull, but I chalked that up to the extremely bright sun. Using a 100-watt lamp results in exactly the behavior you describe. – Jonathan May 11 '16 at 18:50
up vote 3 down vote accepted

You have confirmed my suspicion that, with the switch off, the outlet and the light are in series. That is the reason that both light dim when a 100 watt light is plugged in.

The fact that the outlet shows hot/neutral reversed when the switch is off tells me exactly what the "electrician" did. The outlet must be wired as follows:

  • the hot side of the outlet (small prong) must be connected to the white wire between the lamp and the switch.
  • the neutral side of the outlet (large prong) must be connected to some hot wire (probably black).

This way, when the switch is on, it is shorting out the outlet (hot-to-hot). When the switch is off, you have a full path from hot into the neutral side of the outlet, from the hot side of the outlet to the hot side of the lamp, and from the neutral side of the lamp to neutral.

Bottom line - the switch and lamp seem to be wired correctly. The outlet is miswired. Frankly, the wiring of the outlet is so screwed up, I wouldn't let the same "electrician" back in your house. Find a real pro to straighten it out.

  • Yeah, I think the fool who wired the outlet wired it up to the switch loop, but managed to do that backwards even. Fail! – ThreePhaseEel May 11 '16 at 23:00
  • Thanks for the response. It seems you must be on the right track, but looking at the wiring of the receptacle, there's a white wire going to the neutral side and a black wire going to the hot side. Is it possible that he fouled up the connections within the junction box or something? Two additional wires (black and white) also pass through the box the receptacle is in and head from the interior junction box up to the flood light fixture. Those aren't connected to the receptacle within this box, though they obviously must be connected somewhere. – Jonathan May 12 '16 at 0:48
  • So he ran the right color wires to the new outlet and connected them to who knows what, hopefully in a junction box. Someone who fouled up this badly I wouldn't trust not to make buried splices. I might be wrong but I cannot think of any other arrangement that would produce the results you're seeing. – DoxyLover May 12 '16 at 5:49
  • Thanks! The explanation makes sense to me. I really appreciate it. – Jonathan May 12 '16 at 19:53

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