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Common Electrical Terms

To the novice homeowner, the language of an electrician may sound foreign, but with just a little study you can easily understand standard electrical terms and terminology. Let’s cover some basic electrical terms, so that you can intelligently converse with your electrician or electrical supply outlet. A little knowledge in this area may help keep you from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous vendors, who may try to sell you a circuit breaker to assist you with your demolition work.

Volts — A measurement of the force of current within an electrical circuit. American circuits are usually 120v (most circuits) or 220v (ranges or dryers)

Amps — Short for Amperage, measures the amount of electrons flowing through a circuit. Typically, 15A to 50A, depending on the lighting or appliance serviced by the circuit.

Ohms — The measurement of resistance within an electrical circuit. Resistance to an electrical current causes heat and light, so it not always a bad thing.

Alternating Current — (AC) The standard type of current found in household electricity, as opposed to batteries which are direct current (DC)

Electrical Circuit — A separate loop of wiring through which the electrical current flows from the main service panel and back again. An electrical circuit may operate a string of outlets or lights, or a single appliance. An open circuit is an electrical circuit that does not make a complete circuit, while a closed circuit is one that makes a complete loop. A short circuit is when the electrical current returns to the service panel before it makes its complete circuit, usually caused by two bare wires coming in contact with each other.

Service Panel — The main electrical box which holds all the circuit breakers and distributes the electricity throughout the house. Every circuit within the house begins and ends within the service panel (also called the main breaker box).

Circuit Breaker — An electrical device which automatically interrupts an electrical circuit if the flow of current through the circuit exceeds the amount that the wire can safely handle. Circuit breakers have replaced old fashioned fuses in modern wiring.

Ground Fault Interrupt (GFI) – This is an electrical outlet which has an internal breaker which opens the circuit when there is a connection made between the power wire and the return wire to prevent electrical shocks. GFI’s are required when there is a water source close by.

Electrical Box — A small plastic or metal container in which all electrical splices and connection to outlets or lighting fixtures must occur. Electrical boxes may be rectangular for outlets or circular for light fixtures.

Conduit — A plastic or metal casing through which electrical wires pass, which is used whenever electrical wires must be run on the exterior of walls or ceilings to provide additional protection from physical damage.

Gauge (of electrical wire) — Measures the diameter of electrical wire. The larger the number the smaller the diameter of the wire, don’t let this contradiction confuse you.

There are many other electrical terms which electricians use everyday. If you are unfamiliar with any electrical term that you come across, don’t be afraid to ask questions or look-up the term later. As Fat Albert liked to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something.”

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