why is a service neutral grounded but not the subpanel-neutral?

I know it's code (refer to NEC 250.24(A)5 and 250.32), but I don't understand why you can't use a bonding jumper to connect the ground bus and neutral bus in the subpanel? I've been told it's because then you'd have current on the grounding conductor. In my attempt to understand this, I was thinking maybe it's a more of an issue of having parallel neutrals... but if they're grounded on both ends, how would that (not) work? Possible safety issue: if one of the grounds becomes disconnected, then you have a true parallel neutral... is that a viable or better explanation, or is current on the grounding conductor the real issue?

If so, then why isn't current on the grounding conductor(s) from the main panel a problem? I don't see the inherent difference between a subpanel and a main panel. Ultimately this question is, why bond neutral and ground in the main panel, but not the subpanel (besides NEC said so)? Why is the neutral from the main panel to the subpanel inherently different from the service neutral to the main?

edit- you may also refer to: How to properly ground a subpanel in detached building? for a relevant picture and because it is a related thread.

• Under normal circumstances, there is no current in any grounding conductor and that's why they can be a thinner wire than the others - a grounding conductor only needs to carry current for as long as it takes a breaker to trip. Paralleling ground & neutral could become unsafe if neutral becomes disconnected and you then start relying on the potentially undersized ground conductor as if it were neutral. – brhans May 26 '16 at 18:09
• @brhans Ah, that makes sense! I wasn't thinking about that... undersized ground. – Ben Welborn May 26 '16 at 18:10
• @brhans And we need the conductor ground in case there is a fault between the main and the sub, right? Beyond that, parallel neutrals have their own issues (harmonics) right? It seems like parallel neutrals a more sensible explanation than the ground wire could conduct electricity. – Ben Welborn May 26 '16 at 18:51
• I agree with brhans on the parallel paths but this is only 1/2 of the reason. Because of the distance , wire resistance when there is a short to ground now all the grounded surfaces become energized until the breaker trips. this is the reason for 4 wire 240 outlets now also. – Ed Beal May 26 '16 at 18:54
• This was explained to me when it became code by an inspector as the main reason because of the possibility of short in the sub creating voltage on the neutral was the reason he cited. We did talk about parallel path also because the ground is smaller and has higher resistance there can be "objectionable current" on the neutral. – Ed Beal May 26 '16 at 20:13

Ground and neutral are not parallel neutrals. I know it looks that way because they're bonded in the main panel. But shift into a different way of thinking about the purposes of the 2 wires. Think of the ground solely as a safety shield.

Let's try a few pairs of examples. The first is Code and the second bonds at the sub-panel also. The orange glow is on things which are "hot".

Seems awesome right? Poor old Code Man is in the dark. His power tried to return via neutral, and neutral is broke, so the power failed. Rogue Man is one happy guy and his life isn't disrupted. Ground is working great as a "backup neutral". He doesn't even know he has a problem!

Of course, ground is a thinner wire, so it might overheat, but so what? Or, what if both ground and neutral were cut?

Code Man is still in the dark and he's still gotta fix those wires. Rogue Man is dead.

In Code Man's installation, the hot went through the bulb, looking for neutral. It didn't find it, so it pulled the neutral up to 120V ( not enough power for useful work, but plenty to shock). It did the same for Rogue Man, but since he tied neutral to ground in the sub-panel, ground is now also 120V, including the service panel cover and the switch plate cover screws.

Suppose the sub-panel has its own ground rod. That doesn't help much. Earth tends to have high resistance, so the cover screws might be 103V instead of 120V.

I have the good fortune of working in EMT conduit in a steel building, which naturally forces the entire conduit system to ground. Ground is never part of the circuit in any way whatsoever. So I get to see it as intended, as a protective "shroud" around all things electrical.

Ground isn't quite yet a perfect envelope. It is in new work, but we still have a lot of old wiring out there that is not practical to outlaw entirely - such as NEMA 10 and switch-loop smart switches which poach ground as a neutral.

Why bond neutral at all?

That's a GREAT question. Not bonding ground would give you an isolated system. And that makes a lot of sense in some ways, like solving some of the problems you see above. But it has other disadvantages. I go into depth about that here.

• I think the confusion comes in because ground and neutral are connected in a main panel, but is requires to be isolated in a sub. – Ed Beal May 26 '16 at 23:22
• @EdBeal Yes. People misunderstand the purpose of the bond. Hopefully I can make some art when I get home. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 26 '16 at 23:37
• This answer does not address the core question "why isn't current on the grounding conductor(s) from the main panel a problem". – Kris May 29 '16 at 2:37
• I don't agree that is his core question. He asked 7 questions, mostly grasping around trying to understand the function of separating ground. I had to kinda figure out what he was after. His core question seems to be "why does code disallow this" which I answered. In fact, current on the grounding conductor from the main panel IS a problem. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 29 '16 at 3:32
• @Harper, my down votes are NEVER done because an answer is different. Now, back to the REAL matter: The OP mentions TWICE about why to tie together the neutral and grounds in the main panel vs a sub panel, and your answer basically shows someone getting shocked because the ground was NOT connected to detect a ground fault. So again, your answer does NOT address the question. – Kris May 29 '16 at 11:02

I read through the postings, and I sort of understand why Neutral and Ground are bonded at the main service panel. But why is it a bad idea to bond them at the subpanel, seeing that the ground wire and the neutral wire from the subpanel are in fact connected through the bonding at the main panel anyway?

Harper really did provide the correct answers, but I think being a non-expert I may be able to explain it with some simple illustrations. (Disclaimer: I am just a beginner and I got interested in the neutral/ground wire question when trying to figure out how to wire some 50W LEDs to the electrical system.)

Everything is indeed Ok when nothing is broken in the circuit. If the subpanel is connected to the main panel then bonding at the subpanel seems harmless, but bad things happens when that connection is broken.

If ground wire and neutralwire are bonded at a subpanel, and somehow the neutral wires from the subpanel to the main panel is broken, then though this "bad bond" the ground wire now becomes the "backup neutral" and start to carry the current that is supposed to return to the transformer, and all the grounded cases etc becomes hot and can electrocute somebody. (See the code man vs rogue man illustrations by Harper May 26 '16 at 21:39)

Setup with no subpanel

``````                                  -----------
Main Panel         Hot wire      |           |
--------------->--------------| Appliance |
+------X-------<--------------|           |
|      |        Neutral wire   -----+-----
|      |                            | Ground wire
+------|-----------------------------
|      |
|       ---- If the wire breaks there, all is well since
-------         the break occurs BEFORE the bonding
----- Earth
---
``````

Good wiring with no bonding at subpanel

``````                                     Subpanel        -----------
Main Panel         Hot wire             -           |           |
--------------->--------------------| |---->-----| Appliance |
+--------------<---------------X----| |----<-----|           |
|               Neutral wire   |    | |           -----+-----
|                              |    | |                | Ground wire
+------------------------------|----| |----------------+
|                              |     -         OK if there is a break
|                              --------------  since there is no bonding
-------                                           at sub panel
----- Earth
---
``````

Bad wiring with bonding at subpanel

``````                                     Subpanel        -----------
Main Panel         Hot wire             -           |           |
--------------->--------------------| |-->-------| Appliance |
+--------------<---------------X ---| +--<-------|           |
|               Neutral wire        | |           -----+-----
|                                   | V                | Ground wire
+--------------------------------<----+----------------+
|                               Alternative return path
|                               via ground wire, which becomes deadly
-------                            when that path also breaks and the
----- Earth                       the appliance's case becomes hot
---
``````

Alternatively, think why it is a bad idea to bond the neutral and ground receptacles at the outlet, and the same reason applies to the subpanel.

Before I answer your question let's cover a few basic properties :

• The main purpose of the neutral is to carry the unbalanced loads.
• The main purpose of the grounding system is to have a clean and reliable zero voltage reference.
• The main purpose of a ground rod, and/or other grounding electrodes is to help deter extrinsic indirect surges from natural sources from causing damage to the residential electrical system.
• The grounding system and grounding electrodes serve two totally different purposes.

Now to address the questions main concern

Why isn't current on the grounding conductor(s) from the main panel a problem?

Simple answer: Parallel and Series circuit behave differently.

For the most part, every branch circuit is ran in parallel in a home, yet the neutral carries all the unbalanced loads and is technically a grounded conductor in series. In a series path, voltage is inversely proportional, resistance is directly proportional, and current is constant.
This makes it very hard, if not impossible for potential voltage to go anywhere but down, but make no mistake about it, the neutral can shock and cause death because of current.