dictionary

Like any specialized field of study, there are a lot of terms specifically used with their own definitions. Here is a small glossary of common home electrical terms – we will cross reference any other words that get used if needed.  This is obviously not a comprehensive list, but this will familiarize you with some basic terminology.

110 & 220

1, 2, 3, or 4 Gang

Amps

Appliance

Arcing

AFCI

Breaker

Cable

Circuit

Conduit

Current

Device

Disconnect

Electricity

Fault

Fixture

Fuse

Fuse Box

GFCI

Ground

Ground-Fault

Hot

Junction

Load

Neutral

Outlet

Overload

Panel

Receptacle

Short

Socket

Splice

Switch

Terminal

3-way System

Voltage

Wattage

110 and 220

This refers to voltage.  First, you need to know that electricity typically is generated at a power plant and travels to transformers, which lower the voltage to a level that local distribution systems can handle. From there, electricity travels over local distribution systems to individual homes.

If the home was recently built, most likely you have 220v.  Most houses today have two 110-volt wires and one neutral wire running into the house from the local distribution system. These wires can run underground or above ground. If there are two 110 volt wires running to the house, then the house has 220-volt service and appliances, such as dryers and air conditioners.

Older houses were usually built with 110-volt service; if the electrical system hasn’t been upgraded, it won’t be possible to use some models of appliances (though alternatives can be found).

It’s possible to upgrade a house from 110- to 220-volt service. How much it costs to upgrade will depend on the particular house so you would need to get an estimate done to find out the cost.

1-, 2-, 3-, or 4-Gang

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A combining of more than one device side-by-side, such as a “three-gang” switch box. ‘Gang’ describes the number of switches. They are sometimes called dimmers, depending on how they operate, but still they just refer to the number of light switches on the plate. If you have a dimmer switch they are described like this: 1-gang dimmer switch will have a single dimmer on the plate, a 2-gang dimmer switch will have 2 dimmers, and so on.  Larger and more complex construction can have 4-gang boxes.

 

Amps

“Amps” is shorthand for “ampere,” which is the basic unit of measurement for electric flow. It is the rate of electron flow or current in an electrical conductor moving past a specific point in one second.  (Remember that an electron is a negatively charged energy particle).  If you think in terms of water through a hose, amperage would be a measure of water volume flowing through the hose.

 

Appliance

Toaster

A non-lighting, movable electrical item that, by its resistance, consumes electricity rather than just passing it on. So an appliance is not a fixture (fan, light) nor a device (outlet, switch). Examples: fax machine, garbage disposal, refrigerator, toaster.

Arcing / Arc

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Current passing (through air) across a gap, that is, using the air itself like a wire.  An electric arc is a visible discharge between two terminals that is caused by electrical current interacting with gases in the air via ionization.  Electric arcs occur in nature in the form of lightning.

AFCI

ar135492190421335Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter.  A type of breaker that is designed to detect a wide range of arcing electrical faults in order to prevent electrical fires. It is a type of circuit breaker that breaks the circuit when it detects a dangerous electrical arc.

Breaker

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An automatic switching device that disconnects power to a circuit when current or heat exceeds a certain level for a certain amount of time. It’s located in a circuit panel box and its handle is generally in one of three positions: on, tripped (the middle position), and off.

Cable

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A cable is a set of wires, usually encased in an outer protective sheath.  A “cord” would be a cable by this definition, but a cord is more flexible and often has a plug end for a portable appliance or lamp.  Common types of cables are for TV/satellite and audio-visual installation.

Circuit

An electrical device that provides a path for electrical current to flow in (roughly) a circular line, route, or movement that starts and finishes at the same place.

Conduit

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A tube used to protect and route electrical wiring in a building or non-building structure. Electrical conduit may be made of metal, plastic, fiber, or fired clay. Most conduit is rigid, but flexible conduit is used for some purposes.

Current

Electricity or “current” is nothing but the movement of electrons through a conductor, like a wire.  The rate of flow of electrical energy through a  wire, comparable to the amount of water flowing in a pipe. Electric current is measured in amperes or “amps”.  Electric current can be either direct or alternating. The difference between alternating current (AC) and Direct current (DC) lies in the direction in which the electrons flow. In DC, the electrons flow steadily in a single direction, or “forward.” In AC, electrons keep switching directions, sometimes going “forward” and then going “backward.”  We use AC currents in household applications such as fans, TVs, computer systems. It is the output of common utility outlets.  We use DC currents in battery-supported systems such as FM receivers, and TV remote controls.

Device

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As distinct from a fixture or appliance, an item which does not itself consume significant electricity, but interrupts or passes it on in a particular fashion. Examples include: switch, receptacle, thermostat, breaker, fuse.

Disconnect

(In this definition, we are talking about the device, not the action of cutting off power to something.)  A disconnect is a type of switch that is used to ensure that an electrical circuit is completely de-energized for service or maintenance.  They are most often used on larger electrical units, such as electric water heaters and AC condensing units.

Electricity

A form of energy that is carried through wires and is used to operate machines, lights, etc.  It is a fundamental form of energy, observable in positive and negative forms that occurs naturally (as in lightning) or is produced (as in a generator) and that is expressed in terms of the movement and interaction of electrons.

Fault

In an electric power system, a fault or fault current is any abnormal electric current. For example, a “short circuit” is a fault in which current bypasses the normal load. An open-circuit fault occurs if a circuit is interrupted by some failure.

Fixture

A fixture is an electrical item that is non-movable once installed, and are normally part of the build of the hoe.  Lights and fans are the most common types of fixtures.  Not to be confused with an appliance, which is technically a non-movable, non-lighting electrical item that does not pass on electricity (see: device).

Fuse

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An electrical safety device that can stop current from flowing if it becomes overloaded.  Its safety device consisting of a strip of wire that melts and breaks an electric circuit if the current exceeds a safe level.

Fuse Box

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Like a panel, a usual main source of the circuits in a home. It contains fuses rather than breakers and the two terms (breaker and fuse) are often confused.  Breakers simply trip if there is an overload and can be reset, while a fuse will break and need replacing.

GFCI

GFI

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.  They are devices to prevent electrocution, which serves also as a receptacle (A device that serves as the outlet). Since 1973 Code has required GFCI protection for more and more receptacle locations in homes. If connected to properly, a GFCI receptacle is  able to sense and disrupt ground-faults.  Nowadays, for new construction, there are special breakers that are GFCI/AFCI combined.

Ground

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A ground is a direct electrical connection to the earth, a connection to a particular point in an electrical or electronic circuit. The neutral wires of circuits and of the system are grounded, but a “ground wire” means a separate “grounding” wire keeping metal parts of devices, fixtures, or appliances from staying accidentally energized and endangering people or equipment. These wires are to be either bare or green-covered. The ground wire is not connected so as to be part of the normal path of the circuit. When a ground wire does carry current, it is taking care of an otherwise dangerous situation; in fact, it is supposed to carry so much flow suddenly, that it causes the breaker of the circuit to trip.  If things were not grounded, people’s bodies would more often be a path for current from a hot wire touching the metal to get to the ground.

Ground Fault

Any short circuit finding at least some of its path to the earth by way of something other than the neutral/ground wire. It is a “leaking” of current off of the intended path. The electrical current  taking an alternative path to the ground through the user. Most shocks are an example of a ground fault.

Hot

Electric wire or cable through which current is flowing, as opposed to ground wire or neutral wire. Also known as a “live” wire.

Junction Box

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A container for electrical connections, usually intended to conceal them from sight and deter tampering.

Load

The amount of power consumed by a circuit – measured in amps.

Neutral

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In any electrical circuit, there are two wires needed to complete any circuit. One is called the “hot wire” and the other is called “neutral” or “ground”.  The neutral, normally a white wire, is a circuit conductor that normally carries current, and is connected to ground (earth) at the main electrical panel.

Overload

When in its normal operation a circuit has carried a little too much flow a little too long, so that the wires will be getting too hot to be safe, the breaker will trip off. This is called an overload.

Panel

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Also known as panelboard, breaker panel, or breaker box. The large metal box containing breakers for circuits. The “main” panel or “service” panel would be the central source for the home and would be receiving its power from the power company; it’s normally located near your electric utility meter (older homes it may be on an interior wall adjacent to the meter). There can be subpanels in a home, fed from the main panel and containing some of the home’s circuit breakers – these are usually the panels you’d find in your garage or a hallway.  Some people still use the term “fusebox” to refer to a panel, because at one time have panels did have fuses, though this is now an outdated term.

Receptacle

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Also outlet or plug. A device that serves as the outlet for lights or appliances to connect to a circuit by means of a cord with a “plug” on the end.

Short

A short circuit occurs when a “hot” wire and a “neutral” wire actually touch each other. When this happens, a large amount of current flows, causing a fuse to blow or a circuit breaker to trip, not to mention the sparks and pop that is followed generally by a little smoke.

The cause of this unfortunate occurrence may be as simple as a loose connection on one of these two wires in a junction box.  There are at least as many ways a short can come about as there are outlets and lights on a circuit. Also a nail for hanging a picture or a screw in a remodel project will occasionally find a cable in the wall and short across its wires.

Socket

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The part of a light fixture that receives the bulb or tube. Not to be confused with a plug or receptacle.

Splice

Splicing wire is the process of joining two or more pieces of wire together.

Switch

A device used to interrupt current to part of a circuit.  You use one to turn lights off and on.  There are a few types, such as toggle and dimmer.

Terminal

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One of the points at which you can connect wires in an electrical circuit.  A screw or other pressure-device to which one or more wires are connected for passing electrical current along.

3-way System

Although there is a type of light bulb and socket by this name, here we mean a switching system in which a light(s) is controllable from more than one location by two or more switches. The name comes from the usual number of terminals on or contact points within the switches involved.

Voltage

Voltage is a force that makes electricity move through a wire. It is measured in volts.

Wattage

The amount of power required to operate an electrical appliance or device.  Wattage is directly proportional to current and to voltage and is mathematically the product of them (amps times volts).  It’s like horsepower.

We hope this helps you understand some of the lingo we toss around – we want you to understand what’s going on!

Are there any electrical terms you’ve heard that you’d like help understanding?  Let us know!