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6.7: Household Wiring and Electrical Safety

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of the section, you will be able to:

    • List the basic concepts involved in house wiring
    • Define the terms thermal hazard and shock hazard
    • Describe the effects of electrical shock on human physiology and their relationship to the amount of current through the body
    • Explain the function of fuses and circuit breakers

    Electricity presents two known hazards: thermal and shock. A thermal hazard is one in which an excessive electric current causes undesired thermal effects, such as starting a fire in the wall of a house. A shock hazard occurs when an electric current passes through a person. Shocks range in severity from painful, but otherwise harmless, to heart-stopping lethality. In this section, we consider these hazards and the various factors affecting them in a quantitative manner. We also examine systems and devices for preventing electrical hazards.

    Thermal Hazards

    Electric power causes undesired heating effects whenever electric energy is converted into thermal energy at a rate faster than it can be safely dissipated. A classic example of this is the short circuit, a low-resistance path between terminals of a voltage source. An example of a short circuit is shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). A toaster is plugged into a common household electrical outlet. Insulation on wires leading to an appliance has worn through, allowing the two wires to come into contact, or “short.” As a result, thermal energy can quickly raise the temperature of surrounding materials, melting the insulation and perhaps causing a fire.

    The circuit diagram shows a symbol that consists of a sine wave enclosed in a circle. This symbol represents an alternating current (ac) voltage source. In an ac voltage source, the voltage oscillates between a positive and negative maximum amplitude. Up to now, we have been considering direct current (dc) voltage sources, but many of the same concepts are applicable to ac circuits.

    Part a shows diagram of a toaster. Part b shows the circuit for part a with ac source voltage connected to two parallel resistors r and R.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A short circuit is an undesired low-resistance path across a voltage source. (a) Worn insulation on the wires of a toaster allow them to come into contact with a low resistance r. Since \(P = V^2/\tau\), thermal power is created so rapidly that the cord melts or burns. (b) A schematic of the short circuit.

    Another serious thermal hazard occurs when wires supplying power to an appliance are overloaded. Electrical wires and appliances are often rated for the maximum current they can safely handle. The term “overloaded” refers to a condition where the current exceeds the rated maximum current. As current flows through a wire, the power dissipated in the supply wires is \(P = I^2 R_W\), where \(R_W\) is the resistance of the wires and I is the current flowing through the wires. If either I or \(R_W\) is too large, the wires overheat. Fuses and circuit breakers are used to limit excessive currents.

    Shock Hazards

    Electric shock is the physiological reaction or injury caused by an external electric current passing through the body. The effect of an electric shock can be negative or positive. When a current with a magnitude above 300 mA passes through the heart, death may occur. Most electrical shock fatalities occur because a current causes ventricular fibrillation, a massively irregular and often fatal, beating of the heart. On the other hand, a heart attack victim, whose heart is in fibrillation, can be saved by an electric shock from a defibrillator.

    The effects of an undesirable electric shock can vary in severity: a slight sensation at the point of contact, pain, loss of voluntary muscle control, difficulty breathing, heart fibrillation, and possibly death. The loss of voluntary muscle control can cause the victim to not be able to let go of the source of the current.

    The major factors upon which the severity of the effects of electrical shock depend are

    1. The amount of current I
    2. The path taken by the current
    3. The duration of the shock
    4. The frequency f of the current \((f = 0 \) for dc)

    Our bodies are relatively good electric conductors due to the body’s water content. A dangerous condition occurs when the body is in contact with a voltage source and “ground.” The term “ground” refers to a large sink or source of electrons, for example, the earth (thus, the name). When there is a direct path to ground, large currents will pass through the parts of the body with the lowest resistance and a direct path to ground. A safety precaution used by many professions is the wearing of insulated shoes. Insulated shoes prohibit a pathway to ground for electrons through the feet by providing a large resistance. Whenever working with high-power tools, or any electric circuit, ensure that you do not provide a pathway for current flow (especially across the heart). A common safety precaution is to work with one hand, reducing the possibility of providing a current path through the heart.

    Very small currents pass harmlessly and unfelt through the body. This happens to you regularly without your knowledge. The threshold of sensation is only 1 mA and, although unpleasant, shocks are apparently harmless for currents less than 5 mA. A great number of safety rules take the 5-mA value for the maximum allowed shock. At 5–30 mA and above, the current can stimulate sustained muscular contractions, much as regular nerve impulses do (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Very large currents (above 300 mA) cause the heart and diaphragm of the lung to contract for the duration of the shock. Both the heart and respiration stop. Both often return to normal following the shock.

    Part a shows a person thrown back after touching an electrically hot wire. Part b shows the hand of the person touching the electrically hot wire.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): An electric current can cause muscular contractions with varying effects. (a) The victim is “thrown” backward by involuntary muscle contractions that extend the legs and torso. (b) The victim can’t let go of the wire that is stimulating all the muscles in the hand. Those that close the fingers are stronger than those that open them.

    Current is the major factor determining shock severity. A larger voltage is more hazardous, but since \(I = V/R\), the severity of the shock depends on the combination of voltage and resistance. For example, a person with dry skin has a resistance of about \(200 \, k\Omega\). If he comes into contact with 120-V ac, a current

    \[I = (120 \, V)(200 \, k\Omega) = 0.6 \, mA\]

    passes harmlessly through him. The same person soaking wet may have a resistance of \(10.0 \, k\Omega\) and the same 120 V will produce a current of 12 mA—above the “can’t let go” threshold and potentially dangerous.

    Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}(a)\) shows the schematic for a simple ac circuit with no safety features. This is not how power is distributed in practice. Modern household and industrial wiring requires the three-wire system, shown schematically in part (b), which has several safety features, with live, neutral, and ground wires. First is the familiar circuit breaker (or fuse) to prevent thermal overload. Second is a protective case around the appliance, such as a toaster or refrigerator. The case’s safety feature is that it prevents a person from touching exposed wires and coming into electrical contact with the circuit, helping prevent shocks.

    Part a shows an ac voltage source connected to resistor R and part b shows schematic for three-wire system.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): (a) Schematic of a simple ac circuit with a voltage source and a single appliance represented by the resistance R. There are no safety features in this circuit. (b) The three-wire system connects the neutral wire to ground at the voltage source and user location, forcing it to be at zero volts and supplying an alternative return path for the current through ground. Also grounded to zero volts is the case of the appliance. A circuit breaker or fuse protects against thermal overload and is in series on the active (live/hot) wire.

    There are three connections to ground shown in \(\PageIndex{3}(b)\). Recall that a ground connection is a low-resistance path directly to ground. The two ground connections on the neutral wire force it to be at zero volts relative to ground, giving the wire its name. This wire is therefore safe to touch even if its insulation, usually white, is missing. The neutral wire is the return path for the current to follow to complete the circuit. Furthermore, the two ground connections supply an alternative path through ground (a good conductor) to complete the circuit. The ground connection closest to the power source could be at the generating plant, whereas the other is at the user’s location. The third ground is to the case of the appliance, through the green ground wire, forcing the case, too, to be at zero volts. The live or hot wire (hereafter referred to as “live/hot”) supplies voltage and current to operate the appliance. Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) shows a more pictorial version of how the three-wire system is connected through a three-prong plug to an appliance.

    The figure shows schematic for three-wire system with three-prong plug.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The standard three-prong plug can only be inserted in one way, to ensure proper function of the three-wire system.

    Insulating plastic is color-coded to identify live/hot, neutral, and ground wires, but these codes vary around the world. It is essential to determine the color code in your region. Striped coatings are sometimes used for the benefit of those who are colorblind.

    Grounding the case solves more than one problem. The simplest problem is worn insulation on the live/hot wire that allows it to contact the case, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\). Lacking a ground connection, a severe shock is possible. This is particularly dangerous in the kitchen, where a good connection to ground is available through water on the floor or a water faucet. With the ground connection intact, the circuit breaker will trip, forcing repair of the appliance.

    Part a shows a person receiving shock as the ground connection is broken. Part b shows a diagram similar to part a but with proper ground connection so that the person does not receive a shock
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Worn insulation allows the live/hot wire to come into direct contact with the metal case of this appliance. (a) The ground connection being broken, the person is severely shocked. The appliance may operate normally in this situation. (b) With a proper ground, the circuit breaker trips, forcing repair of the appliance.

    A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a safety device found in updated kitchen and bathroom wiring that works based on electromagnetic induction. GFCIs compare the currents in the live/hot and neutral wires. When live/hot and neutral currents are not equal, it is almost always because current in the neutral is less than in the live/hot wire. Then some of the current, called a leakage current, is returning to the voltage source by a path other than through the neutral wire. It is assumed that this path presents a hazard. GFCIs are usually set to interrupt the circuit if the leakage current is greater than 5 mA, the accepted maximum harmless shock. Even if the leakage current goes safely to ground through an intact ground wire, the GFCI will trip, forcing repair of the leakage.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Samuel J. Ling (Truman State University), Jeff Sanny (Loyola Marymount University), and Bill Moebs with many contributing authors. This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).

    This page titled 6.7: Household Wiring and Electrical Safety is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax.

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