# Why is there a potential difference between neutral and ground (earth)?

I was surprised to find that bridging neutral and ground in a socket at home tripped the RCD. Measuring with a multimeter, there is indeed 0.1 V between them. If the RCD trips at 30mA that would mean that the wiring in the house must have resistance lower than 3 ohms. (Sounds likely if household wiring is around 0.01 ohm/meter.) So the questions are:

1) why is there a p.d. at all?

2) isn't it a problem for doing electrical work, since switching off the circuit breaker for the ring only disconnects the live wire, meaning the RCD can still trip the whole house if the neutral and ground wires touch?

EDIT: since there are different earthing standard apparently, this question relates to the UK and to a normal urban setup (2-wire 1-phase mains). Also, the live wire is disconnected on the ring. I think the RCD trips because the (small) potential difference between the neutral and earth creates a small but big enough current through the neutral wire, which is not balanced by current in the live wire.

• What do you mean by "RCD"? Is that the same as what we call GFCI in the US? Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 18:26
• sorry, RCD = residual current device Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 18:27
• @ThePhoton AFAIUI RCD is the UK/European term for what we call a GFI/GFCI in North America. Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 19:09

1) Why would you expect a potential difference not to appear? N and earth are tied together only in distribution/transformer boxes, that's a long way till your house, the N wire is usually carrying some current so its potential might slightly differ from ground.

2) If you call tripping the whole house an issue, well that's an issue then. I'd say that safety is not compromised at all, it is instead enforced by this behaviour. Disconnecting also the N through the circuit breaker would work.

• Hadn't heard the term "transformer cabin" before. I think we'd just call it a box or a vault if it was underground. Googling it led here: goo.gl/iiBf3j Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 23:30
• Where I live, neutral and earth are also tied together at the distribution panel in every house. I guess this answer is applicable to the UK electric system? Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 9:40
• @ntoskrnl I'm not sure, in Italy this is not true... Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 10:07
• @ntoskml there are a number of earthing arrangements in the UK, mainly TN-S in older installs and TN-C-S (aka PME) mainly in newer. In a TN-C-S system, there is a single conductor, the PEN, between the point of origin of the supply and the distribution transformer, but separate earth and neutral within the installation itself. There is also an earthing terminal (MET) at/near the distribution board for equipotential bonding. With the coming ubiquity of electric vehicles and their unique earthing challenges, it remains to be seen if this will change.
– Dan
Commented May 17, 2022 at 1:51

With earth and neutral being tied at a distribution panel but the neutral being used to close the power circuit with live, there will be a potential difference but that will not be why the RCD tripped.

An RCD checks for a balanced current in the live and neutral. If you have paralleled live and earth there will be an imbalance in the current and thus the RCD trips.

1) Because the currents in the neutral and ground are different.

2) Switching off the live wire means that there will be no current in the neutrals served by that breaker, effectively floating them, so - other than a momentary spike caused by charge accumulated on the neutrals - touching them to ground shouldn't affect the RCD's balance.

• I agree with you but I think that the breaker only disconnects the live wire, thus current can flow from N to ground, that current coming from another leg of the circuit (possibly another house). Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 18:44