Tag Archives: Voltage

The Long Shorts of Bi-directional Flow


I didn’t correctly understand some of what is written below yesterday. There may possibly have been ‘an incident’ which provoked some hurried research to cure bamboozlement. My unbamboozling led to this post. I clearly can’t be trusted to offer safe electrical advice, so please consider this to be a discussion document, so people who ‘get’ electricity can tell me how Wrong I am before I put this information anywhere dangerous.

Direct Current (DC)

Convention: Current flows, in one direction, from +ve to -ve terminals of a battery.

Physics (closer to ‘The Truth’): Negative electrons flow from -ve to +ve terminals of the battery.

Quantum Theory: Something else happens that I don’t yet understand well enough to attempt to describe. For most practical purposes, we don’t care. Welcome to thinking like a physicist. There may be some order of magnitude estimations later. If that is inconvenient to you, please choose to ignore them. See how easy it is?

Provision of DC

DC is most often provided from a battery with two terminals, one marked Positive (+) and one marked Negative (-). The common analogy is say that this is like a pump pushing water around a circuit of pipes. This is helpful for most purposes but is what confused me in my thinking about AC.

Alternating Current (AC)

In addition to the possibility of an Earth wire, which is a safety feature, single-phase AC systems have 2 connections, known as ‘Live’ and ‘Neutral’. In a normal UK domestic supply, ‘Neutral’ is at or close to an electrical potential of 0 Volts. ‘Live’ has a varying potential that, when graphed, is the shape of a sine wave. It usually has an average, Root Mean Square (RMS) value of about 220-240 Volts. UK Voltage used to be 240V and mainland Europe was 220 Volts. The standard now is 230V with wider error margins. In reality, not much will change until key equipment in the electrical grid is replaced.

An RMS 230V AC supply would have the same heating effect (energy) as a 230V DC supply.

Provision of AC

AC can be generated by a device called an alternator, which relies on an electric coil revolving in a magnetic field. Movement through the field causes a current to be induced in the coil, if the 2 ends of the coil are connected into a circuit. This is how a power-station works.

‘Flow’ of AC

When an electrical load such as a light bulb or a fan-heater is switched-in between the Live and Neutral connections e.g. Switching on at the plug socket of a table-lamp with no other switch, the potential difference between the Live and Neutral wires will cause current to ‘flow’ through the lamp and the lamp’s bulb will light up. In an AC circuit though, this is not a one-way flow but a 50 times per second tidal flow (assuming the 50Hz EU standard for mains electricity.) The Neutral side of the plug is connected back to earth at the supply end, at close to 0V, while the Live side oscillates between +240V RMS and -240V RMS as the alternator spins round. The potential difference between this value and 0V causes electrons to flood back and forwards between the Live and Neutral, across the bulb. AC circuits have a flow but it is in quickly alternating directions. The movement of ‘current’ from Live to Neutral is a theoretical concept that has a similar effect to the movement of ‘current’ from +ve to -ve in a DC circuit (actually the one-way movement of electrons in the opposite direction.)

Short Circuit

Electrical systems and electrical household goods are designed with safety in mind, while attempting to minimise installation costs by not requiring thicker wiring. The design of a household electrical system assumes there will always be some kind of appliance connected between the live and neutral ‘sides’ of the circuit that will have a significant electrical resistance and limit current. This prevents too many electrons flooding across, under the unconstrained influence of the potential difference and overloading some part of the circuit, leading to over-heating or even fire. Such a ‘short-circuit’ is prevented by an old-fashioned fuse-box or modern circuit-breaker. If there is an unexpected load then the fuse will ‘burn out’ or ‘blow’ (at an appropriate load) first or the circuit-breaker will trip for the appropriate part of the ring-main, to prevent damage.

My Error

Was that all obvious to you? I’ve decided to embarrass myself by explaining the bit I misunderstood.

My mental model of the ‘2-way water pump’ concept was that the 1 way pump of the DC circuit was replaced by 2 one-way water pumps that worked in turn, to push water one way then the other.

My current understanding is that both ends of the pipe go into reservoirs. On the Live side is a single pump which alternatively pushes then pulls, or blows then sucks, to give a pressure differential between the two sides, causing the water to move. If you ignore lots of stuff you know about fluids, this model works too.

An alternative model for my misunderstanding of AC would be: 2 large water tanks, connected by a pipe. In the pipe is a flow meter that spins to show water flow. This is analogous to a light bulb. For my original understanding, the tanks were on a see-saw. Water flowed from the top tank to the bottom, whether from the positive or negative side. I can now see that the Neutral tank always stays on the same level and the Live tank is moved up (+ve) and down (-ve.) The relative difference between the tanks is the same but the Live side is always responsible for the potential energy difference.

Under this new model, DC has fixed tanks and stops when the top tank runs out (or you replenish the battery by either replacing it with new tanks full of water or charge its ‘battery’ by pumping water uphill.)

I realise now that I had to ignore quite a lot of evidence to keep believing in my Wrong model. Us humans are good at that.

Safety Advice

Get an authorised electrical professional to do anything more than change a light bulb or a plug, like I ALWAYS do.

Be particularly careful when mixing water and electricity.


What Fuse to use in a UK 13A Plug (probably not 13A)

I was just chatting to someone who has changed her first electrical plug fuse today. It took me a while to remember how to work out what size fuse to put in, which is embarrassing as I took a university degree that was half physics (obviously, it must have been the half that didn’t include electricity. Take that, Unified Theory!) If I’ve forgotten after 30 years, then perhaps you have too or maybe no-one ever told you. If you are a Mr/Ms know-it-all, skip straight to the bold at the bottom for the exciting equation bit.
(Don’t worry, it’s hardly even an equation.)

A normal household electrical system in the UK consists of a number of circuits running off a central ‘consumer unit’, often known as a ‘fuse-box’. This is very unlikely to actually have any fuses in it because they have probably been replaced by circuit-breakers. If something goes wrong with the equipment in your house e.g. a light bulb blows, there may be a surge of electricity which will be sensed by the circuit-breaker, causing it to ‘trip’, probably plunging part of your house into darkness. Once any fault causing the problem has been fixed or removed, simply reset the breaker switch that tripped.

Similarly, the fuse in a UK 13A plug is there to protect you and your electrical equipment from over-loading. It is called a 13A plug because that is the maximum current it is designed to carry. This does NOT mean it should be fitted with a 13A fuse. Instead of just ‘tripping’, a fuse ‘blows’ and has to be replaced. There can be an easy-access plastic flap that you lever off with a screw-driver or you may have to unscrew the plug case and go inside. Some plugs like to scatter their components across the floor at this point, so watch out for that unless you like puzzles. Plug designs vary but find yourself a table top to work on and you’ll be fine.

Having removed the blown fuse, you need a new one. But how many Amps? They usually have a value (in Amps) written on them and they’re colour coded but the colours often fade or change. The fuse may also have been fitted by someone who didn’t know how to select the correct fuse. Don’t trust them.

A fuse is there so that if there is a power-surge, the fuse blows before anything else does. It needs to be the ‘weak point’ in the circuit. You want to fit the lowest-powered fuse there is which doesn’t quite blow when everything is operating normally. This is how you calculate the value:

The ‘current drawn’ by your device (in Amps) = the ‘power of your device’ (in Watts) divided by ‘mains Voltage’ (in Volts)

Mains Voltage is 230V Alternating Current in the UK, though many people still think it is 240V. We changed in 2002 so that new devices can be sold to be used across Europe.

Find the power rating of your device, in Watts. It may be written on the device or you may have to look at the instruction manual or look it up on the Internet. If it is given in kiloWatts then multiply that number by 1000 i.e. a 2.5 kW kettle is 2,500 Watts.

Divide the Power value of your device by 230. You will get a number that will not be more than 13 (Amps.) Pick the fuse that is the next up from this number. You can normally buy 3A, 5A and 13A fuses.

[ The PHYSICS: this is all so simple because Power (in Watts) = Current (in Amps) x Voltage (in Volts). Aren’t SI units clever? ]