Electrical Wire Colors and What They Mean

When you want to do minor electrical work around your house, whether it’s updating an outlet or installing a ceiling fan, knowing which wires do specific roles is an essential part of doing the job correctly and safely. To help you get started, our electricians in Durham are sharing what the electrical wire colors mean and how to work with them safely.

Decoding Electrical Wire Colors

The electrical code has assigned each color a specific meaning. First, let’s decipher the colors to help you know what to expect when you start your project.

Black

Black wires are used to carry live currents from your home’s circuit breaker panel to the outlets, switches, and appliances through your home. They’re also used as “switch legs” to connect your wall switches to the outlets, lights, and appliances in your home. When the switch is off, the wire isn’t live, but when the switch is on, the wire is energized and carries power to whatever the switch operates. It’s important to note that you should always assume a black wire is live until you double check with a voltage tester.

Red or Orange

Red and orange wires are most commonly found connected to larger appliances as they carry secondary power from 240-volt circuits. These are most often used with dryers, stoves, and air conditioners as they require a secondary power supply, whereas 120-volt circuits generally only rely on a single black wire.

Red wires are also used as switch legs, often when separate switches are used for separate tasks. For example, with ceiling fans, the black wire will connect one switch to the fan motor while a red wire will connect the other switch to the light. Orange wire is used as a substitution for red and should be used and treated in the same manner.

Blue, Yellow, Violet, or Brown

Blue and yellow wires are called “travelers,” and they transfer power between switches when there are three-way and four-way switch applications. For example, if you have two switch locations that control the same set of lights, this is a three-way switch, where as three switch locations that control the same appliance, light, or other function is a four-way switch. Often, brown or violet wires will be used in place of blue or yellow, so regardless, make sure you’re assuming these wires are live.

White or Gray

White or gray wires are considered neutral and they return unused electricity from the live wires back to the grounded portion of the house’s breaker panel. Even though they are neutral, they may be carrying power at any given time and also carry a risk of electrocution if not handled properly.

Green, Green-Yellow, or Bare Copper

Green wires, green wires with a yellow stripe, or bare copper wires are grounding wires. These are connected to the earth and provide a safe, effective way for electrical devices or appliances to release excess electricity. While they don’t carry electricity under normal circuit operations, they offer an alternate path for the current to go back to the source and carry currents that would other wise be a short circuit.

Safety Precautions When Working with Electrical Wires

Safety should be your number one priority when working with electricity and even simple mistakes can lead to dangerous shocks or an increased risk of fire. First, make sure that every wire you’re going to be working with is turned off. Turn off your breakers or even switch off the main power to your home before you do anything. Next, use a non-contact voltage tester available at any hardware store to double check that the wires aren’t drawing power.

Once you’re certain it’s safe, you can then get started working on your project.

Call a Licensed Electrician for Your Electrical Projects Today

Instead of putting your home and safety at risk for a DIY project, call in the professionals at MSS-Ortiz. Our licensed electricians in Durham offer comprehensive service, from ceiling fan installation and outlet repairs to whole home electrical renovation and wiring. For a free quote or to schedule service, give us a call at  (919) 382-0832 or fill out our contact form to get started.

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