• Basic Electrical Terms and Definitions

    Understanding electricity requires knowledge of these basic electrical terms.


    Alternating Current (AC) — An electric current that reverses its direction many times a second at regular intervals.

    Ampere (A) — A unit of measure for the intensity of an electric current flowing in a circuit. One ampere is equal to a current flow of one coulomb per second.

    Apparent Power — Measured in volt-ampers (VA). Apparent power is the product of the rms voltage and the rms current.

    Capacitance — The ability of a body to store an electrical charge. Measured in farads as the ratio of the electric charge of the object (Q, measured in coulombs) to the voltage across the object (V, measured in volts).

    Circuit — A closed path in which electrons from a voltage or current source flow. Circuits can be in series, parallel, or in any combination of the two.

    Circuit Breaker — An automatic device for stopping the flow of current in an electric circuit. To restore service, the circuit breaker must be reset (closed) after correcting the cause of the overload or failure.

    Conductor — Any material where electric current can flow freely. Conductive materials, such as metals, have a relatively low resistance. Copper and aluminum wire are the most common conductors.

    Current (I) — The flow of an electric charge through a conductor. An electric current can be compared to the flow of water in a pipe. Measured in amperes.

    Demand — The average value of power or related quantity over a specified period of time.

    Diode — A semiconductor device with two terminals, typically allowing the flow of current in one direction only. Diodes allow current to flow when the anode is positive in relation to the cathode.

    Direct Current (DC) — An electric current that flows in only one direction.

    Farad — A unit of measure for capacitance. One farad is equal to one coulomb per volt.

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    Frequency — The number of cycles per second. Measured in Hertz. If a current completes one cycle per second, then the frequency is 1 Hz; 60 cycles per second equals 60 Hz.

    Fuse — A circuit interrupting device consisting of a strip of wire that melts and breaks an electric circuit if the current exceeds a safe level. To restore service, the fuse must be replaced using a similar fuse with the same size and rating after correcting the cause of failure.

    Ground — The reference point in an electrical circuit from which voltages are measured, a common return path for electric current, or a direct physical connection to the Earth.

    Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) — A device intended for the protection of personnel that functions to de-energize a circuit or portion thereof within an established period of time when a current to ground exceeds some predetermined value that is less than that required to operate the overcurrent protective device of the supply circuit.

    Henry — A unit of measure for inductance. If the rate of change of current in a circuit is one ampere per second and the resulting electromotive force is one volt, then the inductance of the circuit is one henry.

    Hertz — A unit of measure for frequency. Replacing the earlier term of cycle per second (cps).

    Inductance — The property of a conductor by which a change in current flowing through it induces (creates) a voltage (electromotive force) in both the conductor itself (self-inductance) and in any nearby conductors (mutual inductance). Measured in henry (H).

    Insulator — Any material where electric current does not flow freely. Insulative materials, such as glass, rubber, air, and many plastics have a relatively high resistance. Insulators protect equipment and life from electric shock.

    Inverter — An apparatus that converts direct current into alternating current.

    Kilowatt-hour (kWh) — The product of power in kW and time in hours. Equal to 1000 Watt-hours. For example, if a 100W light bulb is used for 4 hours, 0.4kWhs of energy will be used (100W x 1kW / 1000 Watts x 4 hours). Electrical energy is sold in units of kWh.

    Kilowatt-hour Meter — A device used to measure electrical energy use.

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    Kilowatt (kW) — Equal to 1000 watts.

    Load — Anything which consumes electrical energy, such as lights, transformers, heaters and electric motors.

    Ohm — (Ω) A unit of measure of resistance. One ohm is equivilant to the resistance in a circuit transmitting a current of one ampere when subjected to a potential difference of one volt.

    Ohm's Law — The mathematical equation that explains the relationship between current, voltage, and resistance (V=IR).

    Parallel Circuit — A circuit in which there are multiple paths for electricity to flow. Each load connected in a separate path receives the full circuit voltage, and the total circuit current is equal to the sum of the individual branch currents.

    Power — The rate at which electrical energy is transferred by an electric circuit. Measured in Watts.

    Power Factor — The ratio of the actual electrical power dissipated by an AC circuit to the product of the r.m.s. values of current and voltage. The difference between the two is caused by reactance in the circuit and represents power that does no useful work.

    Reactive Power — The portion of electricity that establishes and sustains the electric and magnetic fields of AC equipment. Exists in an AC circuit when the current and voltage are not in phase. Measured in VARS.

    Rectifier — An electrical device that converts an alternating current into a direct one by allowing a current to flow through it in one direction only.

    Resistance — The opposition to the passage of an electric current. Electrical resistance can be compared to the friction experienced by water when flowing through a pipe. Measured in ohms.

    Semiconductor — A solid substance that has a conductivity between that of an insulator and that of most metals, either due to the addition of an impurity or because of temperature effects. Devices made of semiconductors, notably silicon, are essential components of most electronic circuits.

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    Series Circuit — A circuit in which there is only one path for electricity to flow. All of the current in the circuit must flow through all of the loads.

    Service — The conductors and equipment used to deliver energy from the electrical supply system to the system being served.

    Transistor — A semiconductor device with three connections, capable of amplification in addition to rectification.

    True Power — Measured in Watts. The power manifested in tangible form such as electromagnetic radiation, acoustic waves, or mechanical phenomena. In a direct current (DC) circuit, or in an alternating current (AC) circuit whose impedance is a pure resistance, the voltage and current are in phase.

    VARS — A unit of measure of reactive power. Vars may be considered as either the imaginary part of apparent power, or the power flowing into a reactive load, where voltage and current are specified in volts and amperes.

    Volt-Ampere (VA) — A unit of measure of apparent power. It is the product of the rms voltage and the rms current.

    Volt (V) — A unit measure of voltage. One volt is equal to the difference of potential that would drive one ampere of current against one ohm resistance.

    Voltage — An electromotive force or "pressure" that causes electrons to flow and can be compared to water pressure which causes water to flow in a pipe. Measured in volts.

    Watt-hour (Wh) — A unit of electrical energy equivalent to a power consumption of one watt for one hour.

    Watt (W) — A unit of electrical power. One watt is equivalent to one joule per second, corresponding to the power in an electric circuit in which the potential difference is one volt and the current one ampere.


    References: Wikipedia, EPQ #138 - Basic Electrical Terms and Definitions, NFPA-70, IEEE


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