Understanding Electricity

Electricity has become and indispensable fact of life in today’s world. With it we control our comfort and many of the functions of daily life in our homes.

Yet electricity also brings with it the potential for great danger. Inadequate wiring and improper installations can create serious, even lethal conditions. Homeowners should think twice before working with something as dangerous as electricity. Instead, hire a licensed electrician to do all but the simplest tasks. However, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the basics to help you operate it safely.

A home’s electrical system most often originates at the main distribution panel. It is then divided into branches, called circuits, and connected by wires to wall outlets, appliances, and switches throughout the house.

Danger Signs

Homeowners should be prepared for electrical repairs if any of the following danger signs are observed.

  • Dangling wires, overuse of extension cords
  • Unsupported cabling
  • Overheated wires
  • Open junction boxes
  • Splices not enclosed in a metal or plastic box
  • Heat emanating from switches, outlets, junction boxes or service panels
  • Wires passing through doorways, over radiators, or under carpets
  • Dimming lights

Electrical Problems Found During an Inspection

Main Distribution Panel

The main distribution panel is the heart of the electrical system. It is usually located on a wall near the incoming service entrance wire. The service disconnect can be an integral part of this panel, or it can be in a separate panel near the meter. It is essential homeowners know the location of all service disconnects and understand how to use them in the event of an emergency.

Power Distribution

If there are too few circuits or their loads are not distributed properly throughout the house, there may be frequent overloads. This kind of service is unsatisfactory and can be a potential fire hazard. If particular breakers trip regularly or specific fuses blow, an electrician should do a load calculation and makes appropriate repairs.

Each circuit in a house should be clearly labeled so the homeowner or others working on the system can tell which breaker or fuse controls specific outlets, appliances or lights.

Safety Tips

  1. When in doubt about any electrical project, call a licensed electrician.
  2. Never work with our near electricity when hands or feet are damp.
  3. Never remove service panel covers.
  4. Don’t use outlet multiplier plugs to connect lamps and appliances together.
  5. Avoid using extension cords. If used never run them across hallways or doorways, under carpeting or furniture, or through walls. Never staple or permanently attach them to any surface.
  6. Never replace blown fuses with larger amperage fuses, use the fuse size appropriate for the circuit.
  7. Don’t cut the grounding (3rd) prong off a plug to fit it into a two-hole receptacle outlet.
  8. Keep electrical appliances (e.g. hair dryer, radios, shavers, etc.) away from bath tubs, sinks and showers.
  9. Replace worn or frayed lamp and appliance wires.
  10. Check with your local authorities to find out what electrical projects need permits, and when completed have it inspected and approved by the local authorities.

Glossary of Electrical Terms

TermDescription
AmperageUnit of measurement of the amount of electrical current in a circuit.
Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupt
(AFCI)
A device designed to reduce the risk of fire by shutting off the circuit during an arcfault (short)
CircuitA branch of the main electrical system that brings power to areas of the home, for appliances, lights and outlets.
Circuit BreakerA switch that senses overload on a circuit and automatically shuts it off to prevent overheating or over-current.
ConductorAny material, such as wire, that will carry current.
Distribution PanelWhere branch circuits distribute electricity and circuit breakers or fuses allow individual circuits to be turned off as well as serve as overload protection.
ElectricityThe result of electrons flowing through a conductor.
FuseA non-mechanical device designed to sense and accidental overload in a circuit and interrupt the flow of electrical current. There are screw-in and cartridge fuses.
GroundingA system to protect people and equipment from the harmful effects of voltage surges (e.g. lightening) or electricity out of its intended path (e.g. damaged equipment). It consists of extra conductors within the system, as well as a connection between these conductors and the earth.
Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter
(GFCI)
A device designed to reduce the risk of shock or electrocution by shutting off the circuit when it senses electricity leaking outside its intended circuit
InsulatorAny material that inhibits the flow of electron
OverloadA condition caused when the circuits or conductors carry ore current than designed to carry, leading to over-heating and possible fires.
PolarityThe correct flow of electricity, which is achieved when the hot and neutral wires of the power supply circuit are connected to the corresponding hot and neutral wires of an appliance or outlet.
Reversed
Polarity
A potential hazardous condition in which the hot and neutral wires are reversed or incorrectly connected, thereby allowing voltage to be present even when equipment is switched off.
Service
Entrance
Conductors and equipment connecting the utility company’s service to the home’s main service disconnect
Short CircuitThe condition that exists when a hot wire comes in contact with a neutral or grounded wired or grounded conductor within a circuit. It should cause the fuse to blow or circuit breaker to switch off.
VoltThe unit of electrical force used to measure the “pressure” with which electricity is pushed through a conductor.
WattThe unit by which electrical power consumption is measured. It is calculated by multiplying the voltage of a circuit by the number of amperes being used by the appliance or fixture. Utility companies use watts for billing.
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