Don’t you just hate it when outlets and lights don’t work or sparks fly randomly from an outlet? Many look on in despair, knowing the call to the local electrician means $80/hr plus scheduling hassles. I’d like to show you how easily, and more importantly safely, these problems can be fixed. Before we get into that, let’s have a little review of the basics.
As Heather is so apt to point out when I talk shop : “Not everyone is an engineer…”. Fair enough, but for most repairs or upgrades only a basic understanding is necessary. First and foremost is Safety. Forgive me if I start sounding like a broken record, but an electrical fire or severe electrical shock can really mess up Sunday Brunch.
“Ma’am…your problem seems to be caused by voltage fluctuations caused by either a load imbalance or improper grounding on your 120/240vac distribution system. Poor contacts in your light switch is also creating a high resistance hot spot…”
Wha…what??? Esoteric Lingo…gotta love it. Here’s an overview of some basic terms that you may come across in dealings with all things electrical:
Load: This is any device which consumes power in an electrical system from a source. The source would be an outlet or distribution panel. Toasters, vacuums, A/C, and dishwashers, etc… are all examples of loads.
A good analogy of electricity would be to think of electricity like a river.
Where current would be how deep and wide the river is, and voltage would be how fast the river is flowing. Resistance would be akin to a log jam, slowing down the flow (current). Given enough logs, no water (current) would flow until the speed of the river (voltage) increased enough to overcome it. Although this isn’t a perfect analogy, it does make it easier to visualize how all those little electrons are acting.
How does all this relate to safety?
Well, most conductors are metals like the copper wire in your house, but given enough voltage anything can become a conductor including the human body. On average, it only takes 100ma (milliamps) or one tenth of an amp to cause the human heart to stop beating. That’s not much! Consider your average toaster oven can have over 5 amps running through it at breakfast. So, why is it that most times when we get an electric shock we don’t just keel over and die? Because our body’s resistance is usually is well over 1Mohm (one million ohms). This means the current flowing through us would be less than one milliohm and be felt as nothing more than a slight tingle. Things that affect our internal resistance include sweat, hydration, and our current health. When we’re sick, our bodies resistance to current is much lower. So, with that in mind, here’s the Golden Rule for all Electrical Work:
Never Work On Energized Equipment!!!
In case you’re just skimming through this I’ll say it one more time:
Never Work On Energized Equipment!!!
What this means is that before working on your washing machine, you would unplug it. If you needed to change an outlet or light switch you’ll need to identify the correct circuit breaker and turn it off. Even if you simply needed to change a light bulb, the best thing you could do is make sure the switch is off. Sound paranoid? Think of this: Let’s say your simply changing a light bulb, but in the process of unscrewing the old one the glass bulb breaks. Now you’ve just exposed yourself to 120 volts that are still present on the light’s filaments – Ouch!
In my next article we’ll go over how to verify power is off (Obvious for a light bulb, not so with an outlet). We’ll also cover the surprisingly short list of tools required to cure most household electrical ailments.
Submit questions to Tim@home-ec101.com.