Losing the Neutral Conductor

This one came across my social media timeline this morning (edited a bit):


I came home on Friday, an hour before we had a birthday party planned. There was a cable company guy who came over and asked if I was the home owner. He did not explain the problem very clearly and became very frustrating but in short, he saved our house from burning down.

He shut down the Internet and told us to shut down the electricity. Apparently the neutralizing wire that runs under ground was not working causing brown outs and power shortages. The smell of electrical fire was heavy in the house.

We managed to have a great party despite the problems. The output caused a shortage in the hot tub and pool. We have no refrigeration or dishwasher along with a few other things that burned out. Last night, we found a power strip that had really burned out with burn marks on the floor. As he moved it, the same electric burn smell filled the room.

Through it all God spared us big. We are still without a refrigerator but at least the stove works.


What happened was that this home lost the neutral conductor from the utility to the service entrance. Without that neutral, there’s no return path except for the safety ground, which is often substandard or high impedance (~25 ohms). The result: Phase-Phase voltages (such as used for an electric stove, water heater, or electric dryer) are fine, but Phase-Neutral voltages can be anywhere from 0 VAC to 240 VAC.

So yes, things blow up, burn, etc. and often in a bad way (high current but not a dead short, so not enough to trip breakers). The “power strip with burn marks on the floor” is typical as internal surge suppressors / MOVs overheat, not because of short term transients, but because of prolonged, sustained AC overvoltage.

Oftentimes this sort of situation has some warning signs: lights dimming or brightening as appliances switch on and off, light bulbs failing prematurely. One online board reports:


When i turned the oven on, the fan went back to normal, the lights normal.  The 240v load
apparently balanced the system.


Sadly, a lot of electricians and utility workers are not that well versed in this sort of issue. From the same message board:


So i get on the horn with the power company.  They come out, and basically look at what i’m experiencing and the first thing the guy does is pull the meter.  Then he measures the voltages on the incoming legs.  All is equal.  Then he tells me the problem must be on the inside.  Puts the meter back in and the imbalance returns.  “yep , he says, problem is on your side”.