Do you have misconceptions about electricity? I debunk the top 7 electrical myths I’ve encountered in my 20+ years as an electrician.
Myth #1: It’s Only 110 Volts
This is an expression I hear from time to time which is intended to mean; “Not to worry – 110 V isn’t strong enough to do any real damage”.
It’s usually uttered by a guy, and always by someone who does not know what they’re talking about.
It would be like saying “What is that? Just a .22? Eh, go ahead and shoot me”.
As someone who has been walloped many times, please believe me when I say 110 volts is nothing to sniff at. There is more than enough power in your outlets to cause your demise.
So why, you may ask, am I still among the living? Well, that has to do with which part of my body is in contact, and how much current is allowed to flow.
Most of the time I get a poke from touching the wrong thing with one hand. I reflexively jump back before any real damage occurs, but not before feeling some real pain.
But if two hands are involved, lethal current could flow from one to the other putting my heart in its path. Not good. Most electrical deaths occur in the home. That’s 110 folks!
Myth #2: Volts Don’t Hurt You, Amps Do
There is some truth here, but I would put it like this: Volts most certainly do hurt you – but the amps determine whether or not the volts hurt you.
Here’s a quick primer – When we speak of volts we are speaking of the amount of electromotive force being generated by the utility, or how strong the current is. 110 volts is less powerful than 240. which is less than 277, which is less than 480, and so on.
When we speak of amps we are talking about how much current is flowing. If electricity were a river, the volts would be the strength of the current, and the amps would be the width and depth of the river (or the amount of water flowing).
So do the amps matter? Definitely! But so do the volts. Both are needed and one without the other is benign.
Myth #3: My Older Home Needs Rewiring
This myth is usually stated something like this: My home was built in the 1920’s or ’30s, so I need to have it rewired.
Well, not so fast.
First of all, understand what that means – rewiring the house.
Electrical cables are running through all your walls, ceilings, floors, attic, basement and/or crawl space. The cost to replace all of that would be insane. I would recommend moving first. Y
Our wiring doesn’t expire like milk. If it has not been damaged, then it’s best left alone – with a few exceptions:
- Knob and tube wiring: If you have this type of wiring it should be replaced whenever possible. For example – during renovations or where it can be accessed (attics, basements, etc)
- Overloaded circuits: Older homes were not designed to carry the electrical load we are demanding of them today. The fix for this is to run additional branch circuits to high use areas like the kitchen or for equipment which should be on dedicated circuits: Microwaves, dishwashers, window A/Cs, etc.
- Upgrade your service: You should have at least a 100 amp service for your home. And if you have fuses it should be changed to a breaker panel.
Myth #4: Higher Voltage is Cheaper to Operate
Your electric bill is not based on volts. It’s based on kilowatts (KW). Watts are a measure of the total power used. It’s literally the product of voltage and current.
So, say, for example, you have an 1100 watt microwave. If it operates at 110 volts, it would require 10 amps of current (watts are the product of volts and current).
Therefore, 110 volts X 10 amps = 1100 watts, 10 amps or 1100 watts/110 volts
And you thought you would never use algebra!
If you take the same 1100 watt microwave and double the voltage to 240 volts, that would mean cutting the current in half to 5 amps.
Now the watts consumed would be 240 volts X 5 amps = 1100 watts.
In conclusion, watts are watts. The only way to get that cost down is to get a smaller microwave.
There is, however, a benefit to using higher voltages. It’s in the initial cost of infrastructure. Higher voltages mean lower current (amps) which means smaller wire and fewer needed circuits. But this is more of an issue in commercial and industrial lighting.
I only mention it here so you can sound brilliant at dinner parties.
Myth #5: Flickering Lights Equal a Short
The term, short, seems to be used for any electrical weirdness going on.
A “short” is a very specific thing. It means electrical current has found a path around its intended load; usually directly to ground (like a short cut). This is almost always caused by improper wiring, or damaged cables or equipment.
Unrestricted current is allowed to flow in the circuit which would cause massive over-heating of the wire and catastrophic failure – perhaps a fire.
To prevent this, the circuit breaker or fuse detects the build-up of heat and immediately opens the circuit thus stopping the current. The process is instantaneous. That is a short.
If your lights flicker – it’s probably a loose connection.
Myth #6: Electricity Can’t Hurt Me if I’m Grounded
If you hear someone say this, give them room. They’re a danger to themselves.
Being grounded is exactly why electricity can hurt you.
Our electrical grid is a grounded system. This means current wants to flow to ground.
It will take any path to ground it can find. If that path is through you, then your body becomes a very high resistance conductor.
Electrical current will happily flow through your person on its way to ground, but not before destroying your blood vessels and organs. Please be careful!
Myth #7: Electrical Deaths in TV and Movies
Mayhem and destruction by electricity in entertainment…. well, let’s just say extreme creative liberties are being taken.
Cut wires do not dance about like a loose fire hose.
People do not burst into flames when shocked.
Murdering someone by throwing a hairdryer in a puddle is very unlikely to work.
Matter of fact, if you want to end someone’s life, electricity is not very reliable. Just ask the poor soul who was first up on the electric chair.
Plugging in a bad vacuum cleaner will not blow the transformer on your utility pole, causing a city-wide chain reaction, rolling regional blackouts, and the end of western civilization as we know it.
Oh, and when the power does get restored, the lights don’t come back on in sequential order from the basement to the 10th floor. They just come back on.
These are my top 7 myths about electricity. Of course, there are many more misconceptions about electricity. But starting with these 7 myths will hopefully give you insight to share with others.