How Your Home Electrical System Works
How Your Home Electrical System Works
It is vital for the operation of your home that you have electricity. When and where we need power, whether to watch TV, for heating and cooling purposes or to charge our cell phones, we depend on our home’s electrical system.
Understanding how a home’s electrical system works is vital if there is a problem or if the homeowner wishes to upgrade. Home electrical work is complicated and important, so it should be left to qualified professionals who know how to install, repair, and maintain electrical equipment safely and effectively.
As we all know, a home’s electrical system is installed early in the construction process. In this way, wiring and other components are kept safe from occupants, preventing damage to them. That makes it difficult to access and locate wiring later if it needs to be repaired. This is just one more reason you should only have qualified contractors work on your home’s electrical system. When homeowners attempt to locate wiring inside walls, they can cause a lot of costly damage.
Another important part of home wiring has changed considerably over the past few decades. The earliest electrified homes had wiring for lights and a few appliances. Things have improved greatly since then. One of the earliest additions was telephone wiring. Although many families no longer use landlines, nearly all existing homes and even most new construction still have telephone wiring. It is a different type of technology from the electrical system that powers everything in the house. A different skill set is required for many functions, such as installation, troubleshooting, repair, maintenance, and upgrading.
Then came television wiring. In any case, whether the signal came from a satellite dish, an antenna, or a cable company, it was distributed through the house via a coaxial cable installed into wall outlets or, in some cases, through floor wires that were simply pushed through the floor from below. TV lines require special skills, just as telephone cables do. Incorrectly installed cable systems can result in a poor picture and sound quality.
Over time, many homes were equipped with data cables providing internet access throughout the entire house. Older homes were retrofitted with this technology, while newer homes were constructed with it incorporated into them. As with phones and televisions, computer performance depends on the way data transmission wiring is installed.
How Home Electrical System Works
Since our use of electricity has increased, home electrical systems have changed dramatically. Whether it’s just powering a few lights and appliances, running TV and internet wiring, or providing electricity for the high-tech homes of today, a home electrical system plays an important role. Let’s take a look at how it all works.
1. Electrical Meter
Typically, the mainline comes from a pole or underground. It is connected to the home, where it meets the meter, which is usually on the exterior. Typically, they have a spinning wheel and display of numbers on a mechanical display; some newer models also have LCDs. A utility company meter reader uses these when they come to your home or it’s automated and done remotely. Each month, the meter records the amount of electricity used, measured in kilowatt-hours. The utility company uses this increase to calculate your monthly bill.
2. The Main Breaker Panel
Electrical panels are typically located inside homes, but it is possible to have weather-proof exterior panels also. When entering the home, the main electric supply line runs from the meter to the main circuit breaker. The size of the main circuit breaker determines the maximum electricity that a home can use at any given time. In the event of an overload, this switch automatically turns off, which reduces the risk of fires or electrocutions.
Usually, newer homes have 200-amp service, old ones might have 100-amp or sub-100-amp service, and a larger home may have 300/400+ amp services. If you’d like to know how much electricity your home uses, take a look at the main breaker panel. If you open it and look for the largest breaker switch you will see the total amps of your home electrical systems.
Upon distribution of power through the circuit breakers, the power then flows through bundles of wires in the walls, floors, and ceilings of each room and into hard-wired appliances. Each bundle contains three wires, two of which are insulated with plastic and one uninsulated. “Hot” wires are those that are black and red insulated and come directly from the circuit breaker. The white wire is the “neutral” which brings the current back to the electrical source in the panel. The bare wire is the copper ground wire, which is the safety part of the circuit. The ground wire is a direct path to the ground, acting with the circuit breaker if there should be a short circuit. It is a path of least resistance for excess electricity.
The insulated wires are connected to outlets or switches, and when nothing is plugged in or the switch is off, the wires do not meet. However, when you plug something in to an outlet or turn on an electric switch, the circuit is complete and electricity can flow.
4. GFCIs and AFCIs
After the circuit breaker system, the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlet is the second most common safety precaution. Within milliseconds, it detects when someone is receiving a shock and shuts off electricity, preventing electrocution. These are usually found in places that use water, such as bathrooms, kitchens, garages, basements, and outdoors. They appear to be regular outlets, but they have a reset and test button. In the case of a GFCI trip, the reset button restores power if the problem has been resolved. As these devices have sensors, which can malfunction occasionally, you should test them to ensure they are still functioning well. To restore power, press the test button and then the reset button.
Although GFCIs are great, they are not without faults. For instance, electrical arcing can occur. This occurs when metal or water completes a circuit outside of its intended circuit, causing a less direct fault. GFCIs can detect a dead short, but not an electrical arc. Even inside your walls, arcing can happen where there are loose connections or electrical cords meet furniture. These hazardous conditions can only be avoided by Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters or AFCIs. It is required to have AFCI outlets in many areas of the home including family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, closets, hallways, sunrooms, and similar rooms or areas.
Additionally, other basic components make up a home’s electrical system. These include:
AC and DC power are carried by your home’s wiring. We use AC in our homes, which is distributed through the walls and ceilings in metal conduit. Typically, 120 volts is the voltage in your home, although it can vary depending on the type of service you have. Many appliances and devices run on AC power.
In contrast, DC power is utilized in certain applications, such as low-voltage lighting or alarm systems. It is also used as a source of power for home appliances, such as refrigerators and freezers. In most cases, DC power wiring is hidden in the walls and ceilings, and a special device, known as a transformer, converts AC power to DC power.
In a home, switches are used to turn lights and fans on and off. They are available in a wide variety of colors and styles. You can choose from a single-pole, a three-way, a four-way, or a dimmer switch. When you flip a switch off, it “opens” the circuit, meaning the circuit is broken or not complete and the power is interrupted. When the switch is on, the circuit is “closed,” and power flows beyond the switch to the light or another device it is controlling.
Plug-in appliances and devices are powered by electrical outlets, technically called receptacles. Among the devices that can be plugged into an outlet are televisions, lights, computers, freezers, vacuum cleaners, and toasters. Standard outlets in a home are either 15-amps or 20-amps, the latter of which can deliver more electricity without tripping a breaker. For high-demand appliances, such as electric ranges and clothes dryers, specialized outlets may provide 30 to 50 amps or more.
Common Home Electrical Problems
Electrical upgrades are a top priority when renovating an old house for several reasons. Insulation that is missing or deteriorated in old wiring may pose shock and fire hazards. Having no grounding protection makes two-prong receptacles a shock or electrocution hazard. A fuse box won’t offer the same degree of protection as a modern circuit breaker. If you have an old setup you should really consider whole-house rewiring and a panel upgrades.
In assessing any old house, it’s good to look for jury-rigged electrical work that was done by the previous owner. There are many mistakes here that are obvious, like the outlets in the basement that don’t have cover plates or the Romex cable that’s exposed on the wall. Others, however, can only be identified by an experienced electrician or building inspector. If you’re the new owner of an old house, you should hire a professional to thoroughly inspect the electrical system.
If too many devices are plugged into one circuit, the wiring can overheat and damage the appliances. Sometimes this problem can be solved by upgrading to a higher-amp service. Other times, it may be enough to add some more circuits and install some new outlets.
Electrical systems can occasionally be shocked by high voltage from the grid, as a result of a lightning strike or a utility malfunction. An installation of a whole-house surge arrester will prevent such power surges from damaging electronic devices like computers and monitors.
Best Practices for Electrical Safety in Your Home
Some of the basic practices you need to follow for ensuring electrical safety in your home are as follows:
- Every piece of equipment, machine, and device must be appropriately grounded and double insulated
- No outlet should be overloaded
- You should never handle electrical equipment with wet hands
- For adequate heat dissipation, power strips should be located in well-ventilated areas
- Plugging grounded cords into ungrounded outlets is never a good idea
- Under no circumstances should electrical cords be knotted or hidden under carpets
- Any cord that is cracked, twisted, frayed, or damaged should be replaced
- Disconnect the power immediately if any equipment emits sparks or smokes, has an abnormally hot surface, or makes unusual noises, and have it inspected by an electrician immediately
Do Not Forget
Your home’s electrical system is a complex network of wires and cables that carry power to all the different parts of your house. It takes qualified residential electricians years of training and experience to be able to correctly install, maintain, and troubleshoot it. Therefore, you should not work with electricity if you are inexperienced with it.
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