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Electrical Wiring Colors: The Basics

Throughout the world, electrical wires have different colors to dictate what they are. Even if you’re not a professional electrician, knowing the difference between live, neutral, and ground cables could save your life. The color coding for electrical wires goes back to 1879, right after Thomas Edison introduced the electric lamp, and insurance companies insisted on having a system in place so that people wouldn’t accidentally shock themselves. Today’s wire colors are different from the old days, and they even differ by location. The electrical color codes for wires in the UK are slightly different to those within the US, for example. But what do the colors of the wires in our houses mean?

Black Wires – Hot

Black wires are the accepted standard for any cables that carry electricity from a panel to a service location. You can also have a white wire marked with electrical tape as a hot wire. However, under no circumstances should you have a black wire acting as a ground wire or a neutral wire. Electricians will need to know which wire is the hot wire because mishandling it could mean death.

Red Wires – Hot

Red wires are also hot wires. They are typically used in 240-volt installations that require a second hot wire to be fed into the outlet. They are also typically used to connect smoke detectors together so that if one goes off, they all go off.

White Wires with Red/Black Tape – Hot

Typically, white wires are neutral wires. However, in some cases, the white wire is modified by adding red or black tape to it. This modification signifies that the cables are being used as a live wire, and they should be handled with caution. These may find their way into 240-volt outlets replacing the red wire as the second live wire.

Bare Copper Wires – Ground

Copper wires are the most common type of grounding. Electrical devices require grounding if they are to remain safe for people to use. If a fault occurs, the grounding allows the electricity to travel to the ground, removing the chance of an electric shock. Metal electrical boxes and fixtures require grounding and usually utilize bare copper wire for the purpose. Plastic installations don’t need grounding.

Green Wires/ Green & Yellow Wires – Grounding

An alternative to copper wires is a solid green wire or a green wire with a yellow stripe. These are recognizable immediately to electricians as a ground and are treated as such. Under no circumstances should these types of wire ever be used as live or neutral wires.

White or Gray Wires – Neutral

When you notice a white or a gray wire, check to make sure it isn’t wrapped in black, since that would indicate it’s being used as a hot wire. If a box has some tape inside of it, you should be careful, since it may have come from the white or gray wires. The term “neutral” is deceiving because many non-professionals think that those wires are safe to play around with. The truth is that they still carry electricity and can deliver a nasty shock if you aren’t careful. Neutral wires have the task of taking power back to the service panel, completing the circuit.

electrical-wires-splitOther Wires

Within electrical conduits, you might encounter blue and yellow wires. They are sometimes used as hot wires within these conduits. Blue cables are also used as connectors for three-way and four-way switching.

Wiring With the Professionals

Replacing your house wiring is a job best left to those trained to do it, especially if you happen to have aluminum wiring in your home. LiveWire has completed scores of house wiring and rewiring projects, so we know the most efficient and safest way to get it done. Don’t chance getting an electric shock. Leave electricity to the experts. Give us a call today and let’s help you sort your house wiring problems out now!

1 Comment
  1. I came here because I am changing an outlet out and forgot to take a photo before I took it all apart. I wasn’t sure – is the white wire live or neutral? Or which is live, black or white?

    This post was so helpful and I got my outlet put back together with no issue. Thanks a lot!

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