How to Fix an Open Neutral

A break in the neutral wire on an outlet is known as an open neutral, and it can pose a major fire hazard. You can fix this problem if you reconnect the wire, but it is an 11 step process that requires extreme safety measures. Whether it be checking the voltage, turning off the power, or handling the wires, let’s take a look at how you can safely fix an open neutral.

How to Fix an Open Neutral

In North America, 240 volts of electricity are supplied to a panel. The 240 volts are split between two 120-volt circuits.

Electricity goes into the panel through two hot wires. One wire is black and the other is red. And a total of 240 volts goes between them. Large devices such as stoves use 240 volts and connecting the large device between the two wires completes the circuit.

Smaller appliances run on 120 volts, which is why a neutral wire is needed. Sometimes a break in the neutral wire occurs, also known as an open neutral. In order to fix an open neutral, you will need to find out what the cause is. Read on to find out how to determine the cause and fix the open neutral.

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Items You Will Need

In order to fix an open neutral, you will need the following items:

  • Multimeter
  • Screwdriver
  • Electrical Knowledge

A Word of Caution

Before you start fixing your open neutral, it is important to take safety into consideration.  You certainly don’t want to end up injured, or worse. Let’s take a look at a few things before beginning:

  • If you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to electricity, you shouldn’t mess with it. You may need to swallow your pride and hire an electrician. For the sake of this article, though, we’ll assume you know what you’re doing.
  • 120 volts is enough to kill you. A voltage as low as 42 volts can be lethal.
  • Never attach a neutral, or white wire, to a brass screw or a colored wire to a silver screw. This could produce a dangerous situation.

Steps to Fix an Open Neutral

1. Check the Voltage

In a normal outlet, you should have zero volts from neutral to ground. And hot to ground should have 120 volts. Use your multimeter to check the voltage of your wires. If your neutral is reading 120 volts, then the neutral wire is disconnected.

2. Cut Off Power

After checking the voltage, it is important when dealing with anything electrical to turn off the power. This is to keep you for serious injury, like electrocution. Make sure to turn the breaker off at the source.

3. Open the Outlet Cover

Using your screwdriver, unscrew the screws holding the outlet cover in place. The number of screws will vary by outlet. After removing the screws, take off the outlet cover.

4. Make Sure There is No Voltage

Once the outlet is opened, use a voltage tester to make sure the circuit is dead. If the circuit is dead, the tester should read zero.

5. Unscrew the Receptacle

After the outlet cover is opened and the voltage checked, the receptacle will need to be unscrewed. Use your screwdriver to remove any screws holding the receptacle in place.

6. Check for an Open Neutral

Gently pull the receptacle to expose the wires. Look for the neutral wire. Once you have located the neutral, or white wire, check the wire for any disconnecting.

7. Reconnect Wire

If at this point, the neutral wire is disconnected, reconnect the wire. This will fix the open neutral problem. Be sure to put the receptacle and the outlet cover back in place.

However, if the wire is connected, continue with the steps below.

8. Check the Receptacle

If there are no signs of a visible open neutral, try bridging across to see if the receptacle is bad. If you can bridge cross and get a reading of 120 volts, then your receptacle is bad and needs to be replaced.

9. Replace Receptacle (if Necessary)

You will want to remember where the black and white wires are connected to the current receptacle. The wires should be carefully removed from the current receptacle.

When you put in the new receptacle, the receptacle will have two screws on each side.  One side will have white screws.  One side will have gold screws.  Be sure to put the white wire with the white or silver screws.  The black wire should go with the gold screws.

Inspect the old receptacle. Note if each of the break-off tabs on the receptacle are broken off. If they have been broken off, then make sure to break them off on the new receptacle as well. You can use long-nosed pliers to bend the tab back and forth until it is removed.

Then, attach the wires to the terminals of the new receptacle. You can then push the receptacle back into the electrical box and replace the cover.

10. Check Other Outlets (if Necessary)

If you can’t find the issue at this outlet, you will need to check nearby outlets. Repeat the above steps.

11. Turn on Power

Once the open neutral has been identified and fixed, the power can be turned back on.

Related Questions

Can an open neutral cause a fire?

If the neutral wire is loose, it can cause abnormal arcing around its connection point. As a result, the neutral wire will become abnormally hot.  When it gets this hot, it will burn off its insulation and may cause damage to the surrounding areas.

The arcing is very brief but extremely hot.  This causes damage each time. At some point, a large long-lasting arc will occur, which may start a fire.

Can a bad outlet cause other outlets not to work?

One bad outlet can cause other outlets no to work.  If more than one outlet is not working, the outlets may be daisy-chained together.  It is sort of like on older Christmas lights where when one would go out, all would go out.

Once you find out which outlet is the first in the row to not be working, it will likely be the source of your open neutral.

What are signs of an open neutral?

One sign of an open neutral changes in the brightness of lights in your home.  If your lights get abnormally bright, this is a good sign of an open neutral. The lights will not be bright all the time but will become brighter at odd times. The lights will become brighter, for example, when an appliance comes on or another circuit is turned on. The changes in lights are a result of the open neutral causing unusual high and low voltages to occur.

Another sign of an open neutral is electric shock. Electricity is still able to flow through the device with an open neutral, but the electricity can’t flow back through the panel. Since the device is still charged, it will result in an electric shock.

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What are the tabs on an electrical outlet?

Each side of an outlet contains a pair of outlet screws. The upper screw connects to the upper outlet, and the lower screw connects to the lower outlet. The screws are connected by a break-off tab.

The tab will allow you to connect an individual wire to either screw. This will give electricity to both outlets of the receptacle. If the tab is broken, the upper and lower outlets can be connected to separate wires. This will allow them to be controlled independently.

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