When it comes to our home’s electrical systems, there are two kinds of panels we usually deal with. There is the main panel which is directly what connects the house to the grid. This is where all your main circuit breakers are.
However, in addition to that (particularly for larger homes with more elaborate electrical systems), you may have sub-panels that distribute power to a specific part of the home.
This has the added benefit of being able to control the power in a specific area without needing to affect the entire house.
Now within these sub-panels are a neutral bar and a ground bar. And many people have tremendous difficulty differentiating between them and why they connect to the same bar in a breaker box.
What’s the deal here? Are they just the same thing?
The main difference between a neutral bar and a ground bar is that the neutral bar provides a path for the electrical current to return and ensure the loop is maintained, while a ground wire provides a path for the electrical current to go to earth.
So, while they have similar purposes, their functions are very different. Yet they are often connected to the same bar, making it challenging to delineate between the two. So let’s take a deeper look at their functions so that you can understand them better.
What is a neutral bar?
The simplest way to think about how a neutral bar differs from the ground is that the neutral acts as a place for the electrical current to return and complete the loop.
So, for example, when a current is supplied to any electrical device, whether it be a light, television, hairdryer, etc., the current will flow to the device. Still, the electrons need to return to the source via this neutral, where the circuit will repeat.
Without this neutral wire completing the circuit, there would be no power supply to the device as there would technically not be a complete circuit.
The neutral is usually the white/gray wire.
What is a ground bar?
The ground, on the other hand, despite being bonded to the same service panel, serves a very different purpose which is one of safety.
The ground is attached to the earth, and should something happen where a device gets energized and poses a shock hazard to the user, that earth provides a safe path for the electricity to make its way back to the panel. It trips the circuit breaker – instead of into you, the user.
These kinds of electrical hazards are commonplace in homes where maybe a wire has come loose and is touching a metal component within the device. So even though you seldom hear of electrical incidents in general home use, that’s because the ground wire neutralizes them before they can hurt you.
What is the difference between a neutral bar and a ground bar?
As you can see, there are substantial differences between their intended functions within a circuit despite how they may be wired.
But we can further elaborate on this by describing their specific qualities to help remove any confusion you might have between both identifying them and their intended functions.
1. Current-carrying conductor
Ground wires are specifically there to act as a defense or failsafe against an electric shock hazard. So under normal operating circumstances, the ground does not hold any current.
The only time the ground will carry current is when there is an electrical issue, and the unstable current will flow down the ground wire and toward the ground, where the breaker will be flipped.
On the other hand, the natural bar is how the current makes its way back to complete the loop, so under standard operation, neutral is always carrying current and will only swap to the ground when there is an electrical surge.
2. Return path for regular and fault current flow
The neutral bar is where your current will flow under regular operation after the positive has taken it to the load or appliance, which will then be carried back to the source.
When there is a fault or surge, that return path will become the ground due to its low resistance, allowing that current to flow to the ground instead.
Most of the time, you can identify the neutral bar with a white or grey-colored wire. Whereas ground can be green or yellow depending on the application, or sometime’s it’s just bare copper wire in smaller circuits like a guitar’s electronics system where it doesn’t need to be covered.
4. Connection configurations
Neutral can be connected as a central point in a star configuration, in which all the hot wires are connected into a wye/start configuration.
Ground, on the other hand, is entirely different. A ground rod will be inserted near the house and wired back to the main panel to provide somewhere for the current to leave.
5. Wiring sizes
We briefly covered the differences in their color, but the size of the wires can further delineate them.
Because the neutral wire carries the same current as the hot wires, it’s just the second half of the complete circuit. They will be the same size, only differing in color.
Ground wires, on the other hand, can vary in size and depend on the circuit breakers’ capacity. Additionally, the grounding wire coming from the main service panel may change in size depending on what kind of service wires are coming into the home.
6. Using neutral as ground and vice versa
A ground wire should never be used as a neutral wire. Although these systems exist, they are far from safe and illegal in many countries due to their inherent flaws and safety risks.
On the other hand, a neutral wire can, when wired correctly, be used as a ground in certain circumstances. However, this does present a big problem where if the neutral wire was to break for any reason, you have also lost ground.
Let’s take an example of a refrigerator. If you had a neutral/ground that was disconnected and touched the door, you become the neutral, resulting in a dangerous electrical shock.
So while the chances of this happening as small, having the neutral and ground separate is a great redundancy feature to increase safety and reduce the event of a shocking hazard.
Neutral Bar vs Ground Bar: Are they the same?
Despite there being much confusion because of their singular connection point and interchangeability, hopefully, the differences between these two bar types are much more apparent.
It’s essential to understand the purpose of the ground, specifically to ensure your home electronics are safe in the event of an electrical fault and you are not at risk of shock.
- Neutral will always carry current returning from the load (appliance). In contrast, ground will only carry current in the event of an electrical fault, as if the ground wire leads the fault current to the ground.
- The neutral bar is the ‘return’ part of the circuit which will carry current back to the transformer for it to be taken back out by hot and to the appliance. At the same time, ground is a safety precaution to provide a low resistance path to carry current to ground.
- Neutral is generally indicated by a white or grey wire. At the same time, the ground is usually green, yellow, or sometimes just a bare copper wire.
- Neutral is connected as a central point in a star or wye configuration, whereas ground will lead to a grounding rod outside the home to return current to earth.
- Neutral is generally the same size as hot as they both will carry the same current. Whereas grounding wire sizes can differ based on the circuit breaker and service wires providing electricity to the building.
- In certain circumstances, neutral and ground can be wired together but may present an additional safety hazard, and it’s better to separate them. Ground, on the other hand, can never be used as a return.