Electricity has only been in the majority of homes since the late 1920’s. In the less than 100 years since mass adoption, the ability to control electricity has revolutionized the way we live. Despite being something people use daily; most people don’t have even a basic understanding of electricity.
Electricity is hard to grasp for most people because you can’t see it. But the most fundamental concept to understand is that electricity has “flow”. There are several popular analogies to visualize electricity moving along a wire. We can move energy along a wire by giving energy to an electron at one end of the wire. The energy moves through the wire and comes out at the other end. One way to think of it is a domino effect. Knocking over the first domino knocks over every domino in the chain. Another analogy is to visualize the pendalum with steel balls hanging from a string. When you lift one ball and allow it to fall into the other ball, the ball on the end will go flying upwards.
A famous rift, coined the War of Currents, between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla occurred during the implementation of the electrical grid. The argument was over which type of electricity would be more practical, alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Edison insisted that his own direct current (DC) system was superior, in that it maintained a lower voltage from power station to consumer, and was, therefore, safer. But Tesla’s AC technology, which allows the flow of energy to periodically change direction, is more practical for transmitting massive quantities of energy, as is required by a large city. At the time, DC technology only allowed for a power grid with a one-mile radius from the power source. In the end, AC won out, and is used to power our houses instead of direct current. However, the average person cannot have AC flooding massive amounts of energy into their household appliances, so most plug in devices must internally convert AC back to DC (that’s what’s going on inside the brick of your laptop cord). That conversion wastes a lot of energy (think of all the heat coming from the brick of your laptop cord). Major studies are beginning to examine ways in which AC and DC power can work together with modern energy-harnessing technology to run our overall grid more efficiently.
Electricity enters our homes typically with either above ground, or underground service. The electric company service and home service meets at the main electric panel. Electricity is somewhat selective about what it can move through. Most houses are wired with copper wire because it is an efficient conductor, or a material that allows electricity to flow through easily. There are many materials that electricity doesn’t flow through easily. Air, for example is one thing that electricity can’t flow through easily. Air is an insulator. Other insulators include rubber, glass, ceramics, wood, many plastics and, distilled water.
We can control electricity by allowing it to run through conductors. We add some safety to it by surrounding the conductors with insulators. If we do this correctly, the electricity travels in well-contained spaces.
There are no perfect conductors, nor are there any perfect insulators, which is why there is always a risk associated with electricity. Due to the risk involved, it’s best practice to have experienced personnel handle any issues that arise with electricity in your home.