What do electrical wire color codes mean?
Don't be confused by the jumble of electrical wire colors. (Photo by Brandon Smith)
All residential A/C electrical wires made in the United States follow standard color codes that identify each wire's function in a circuit.
Knowing the electrical color code that dictates which wire does what is imperative not only in the correct configuration of an electrical system, but it's also paramount for your safety.
Be aware that all electrical wires, regardless of their function, could carry an electrical current at some point, so treat all wires with equal caution. Also, highly rated electricians note that older homes, built prior to the 1940s, might use different color codes if the wiring has never been upgraded.
Black electrical wire is used for power in all circuits. Any circuit's black wire should be considered hot or live. Black wire is never used for a ground or neutral wire and should be used as the power feed for a switch or an outlet. A black wire is often used in a circuit as a switch leg, the connection that runs from the switch to the electrical load.
Red electrical wire indicates the secondary live wires in a 220-volt circuit, used in some types of switch legs and in the interconnection between smoke detectors that are hard-wired into the power system. You can connect a red wire to another red wire or to a black wire.
Blue and yellow
Yellow and blue electrical wires are also used to carry power but are not for wiring the outlets for common plug-in electrical devices. These colors are used for the live wire pulled through conduit.
You'll use yellow mainly as switch legs to fans, structural lights and switched outlets. You'll use blue mainly as a traveler for a three-way or four-way switch.
White and gray
White and gray indicate a neutral wire. White is the color most often used for this function. A neutral wire connects to the neutral bus bar within an electric panel. (A bus bar is made of conductive metal that attracts the electric current for distribution outward to feeders.)
You can connect white and gray only to other white and gray wires. Although neutral, they can still carry current, particularly the unbalanced load — the electricity not being used and being returned to the electrical service.
Green indicates the grounding of an electric circuit. A green wire can connect only to another green wire and should never connect to any other color wire. Green wires connect to the grounding terminal in an outlet box and run from the outlet box to the ground bus bar within an electric panel.
The purpose of the green wire is to provide a path to ground for a circuit's electric current if a live wire within the circuit happens to touch metal or some other conductive material. In the event of a fault, it could carry significant current, so treat green wires cautiously.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story originally posted on Aug. 25, 2011.