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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 73)

1587. When electricity comes out of the wall and through a lamp, where does the circuit loop complete? Does the circuit go all the way back to the power plant? — J, Florida
The electric circuit that powers your lamp extends only as far as a nearby transformer. That transformer is located somewhere near your house, probably as a cylindrical object on a telephone pole down the street or as a green box on a side lawn a few houses away.

A transformer conveys electric power from one electric circuit to another. It performs this feat using several electromagnetic effects associated with changing electric currents—changes present in the alternating current of our power grid. In this case, the transformer is moving power from a high-voltage neighborhood circuit to a low-voltage household circuit.

For safety, household electric power uses relatively low voltages, typically 120 volt in the US. But to deliver significant amounts of power at such low voltages, you need large currents. It's analogous to delivering hydraulic power at low pressures; low pressures are nice and safe, but you need large amounts of hydraulic fluid to carry much power. There is a problem, however, with sending low voltage electric power long distances: it's inefficient because wires waste power as heat in proportion to the square of the electric current they carry. Using our analogy again, sending hydraulic power long distances as a large flow of hydraulic fluid at low pressure is wasteful; the fluid will rub against the pipes and waste power as heat.

To send electric power long distances, you do better to use high voltages and small currents (think high pressure and small flows of hydraulic fluid). That requires being careful with the wires because high voltages are dangerous, but it is exactly how electric power travels cross-country in the power grid: very high voltages on transmission lines that are safely out of reach.

Finally, to move power from the long-distance high-voltage transmission wires to the short-distance low-voltage household wires, they use transformers. The long-distance circuit that carries power to your neighborhood closes on one side of the transformer and the short-distance circuit that carries power to your lamp closes on the other side of the transformer. No electric charges pass between those two circuits; they are electrically insulated from one another inside the transformer. The electric charges that are flowing through your lamp go round and round that little local circuit, shuttling from the transformer to your lamp and back again.

1572. My dog's bed is on the floor just to the left and below the transformer plug for our house phone. She has been sleeping there for years. She has been experiencing problems lately and I would like to know if the transformer could be emitting some type of harmful waves that could be making her not feel well. — SH, Florida
While I'm sorry to hear that your dog isn't well, I doubt that electromagnetic fields are responsible for her infirmities. The fields from the telephone adapter are too weak to have any significant effect and 60-Hz electromagnetic fields don't appear to be dangerous even at considerably stronger levels.

To begin with, plug-in power adapters are designed to keep their electromagnetic fields relatively well contained. They're engineered that way not because of safety concerns but because their overall energy efficiencies would diminish if they accidentally conveyed power to their surroundings. Keeping their fields inside keeps their energy inside, where it belongs. Moreover, any electric and magnetic fields emerging from an adapter probably don't propagate as waves and instead fall off exponentially with distance. As a result, it should be fairly difficult to detect electric or magnetic fields more than a few inches from the adapter.

Even if the adapter did project significant electric and magnetic fields all the way to where your dog sleeps, it's still unlikely that they would cause any harm. For years, researchers have been looking for a correlation between high-voltage electric power lines and a variety of human illnesses, notably childhood cancers such as leukemia. As far as I know, no such correlation has ever been demonstrated. In all likelihood, if there are any risks to being near 60-Hz electric or magnetic fields, those risks aren't large enough to be easily recognized.

In contrast to power adapters, cell phones deliberate emit electric and magnetic fields in order to communicate with distant receivers on cell phone towers. Those fields are woven together to form electromagnetic waves that propagate long distances and definitely don't vanish inches from a cell phone. Any electromagnetic hazard due to a power adapter pales in comparison to the same for cell phones.

Furthermore, cell phone operate at much higher frequencies than the alternating current power line. A typical cell phone frequency is approximately 1 GHz (1,000,000,000 Hz), while ordinary alternating current electric power operates at 60 Hz (50 Hz in Europe). Higher frequencies carry more energy per quanta or "photon" and are presumably more dangerous. But even though cell phones are held right against heads and radiate microwaves directly into brain tissue, they still doen't appear to be significantly dangerous. As unfond as I am of cell phones, I can't condemn them because of any proven radiation hazard. Their biggest danger appears to be driving with them; I don't understand why they haven't been banned from the hands of drivers.

Lastly, there are no obvious physical mechanisms whereby weak to moderate electric and magnetic fields at 60-Hz would cause damage to human or canine tissue. We're essentially non-magnetic, so magnetic fields have almost no effect on us. And electric fields just push charges around in us but that alone doesn't cause any obvious trouble. Research continues into the safety of electromagnetic fields at all frequencies, but this low-frequency stuff (power lines and cell phones) doesn't seem to be unsafe.

1560. In your response to Question 891, you wrote of the advantages of alternating current power transmission. Hasn't lately there been some discussion of going to DC power transmission? I believe it is supposed to have superior operating properties when transmitting power over large distances. I have tried to find the reference, I think I came across the comment either in New Scientist or Scientific American. — JM, United Kingdom
You're right that DC (direct current) power transmission has some important advantages of AC (alternating current) power transmission. In alternating current power transmission, the current reverses directions many times per second and during each reversal there is very little power being transmitted. With its power surging up and down rhythmically, our AC power distribution system is wasting about half of its capacity. It's only using the full capacity of its transmission lines about half of each second. Direct current power, in contrast, doesn't reverse and can use the full capacity of the transmission lines all the time.

DC power also avoids the phase issues that make the AC power grid so complicated and fragile. It's not enough to ensure that all of the generators on the AC grid are producing the correct amounts of electrical power; those generators also have to be synchronized properly or power will flow between the generators instead of to the customers. Keeping the AC power grid running smoothly is a tour-de-force effort that keeps lots of people up at night worrying about the details. With DC power, there is no synchronization problem and each generating plant can concentrate on making sure that their generators are producing the correct amounts of power at the correct voltages.

Lastly, alternating currents tend to flow on the outsides of conductors due to a self-interaction between the alternating current and its own electromagnetic fields. For 60-cycle AC, this "skin effect" is about 1 cm for copper and aluminum wires. That means that as the radius of a transmission line increases beyond about 1 cm, its current capacity stops increasing in proportion to the cross section of the wire and begins increasing in proportion to the surface area of the wire. For very thick wires, the interior metal is wasted as far as power delivery is concerned. It's just added weight and cost. Since direct current has no skin effect, however, the entire conductor can be carry current and there is no wasted metal. That's a big plus for DC power distribution.

The great advantage of AC power transmission has always been that it can use transformers to convey power between electrical circuits. Transformers make it easy to move AC power from a medium-voltage generating circuit to an ultrahigh-voltage transmission line circuit to a medium-voltage city circuit to a low-voltage neighborhood circuit. DC power transmission can't use transformers directly because transformers need alternating currents to move power from circuit to circuit. But modern switching electronics has made it possible to convert electrical power from DC to AC and from AC to DC easily and efficiently. So it is now possible to move DC power between circuits by converting it temporarily into AC power, sending it through a transformer, and returning it to DC power. They can even use higher frequency AC currents and consequently smaller transformers to move that power between circuits. It's a big win on all ends. While I haven't followed the developments in this arena closely, I would not be surprised if DC power transmission started to take hold in the United State as we transition from fossil fuel power plants to renewable energy sources. Using those renewable sources effectively will require that we handle long distance transmission better than we do now and we'll have to develop lots of new transmission infrastructure. It might well be DC transmission.

1534. A bird lands on an uninsulated 10,000 volt power line. Will it become extra crispy? — RKS, Texas
No. Birds do this all the time. What protects the bird is the fact that it doesn't complete a circuit. It touches only one wire and nothing else. Although there is a substantial charge on the power line and some of that charge flows onto the bird when it lands, the charge movement is self-limiting. Once the bird has enough charge on it to have the same voltage as the power line, charge stops flowing. And even though the power line's voltage rises and falls 60 times a second (or 50 times a second in some parts of the world), the overall charge movement at 10,000 volts just isn't enough to bother the bird much. At 100,000 volts or more, the charge movement is uncomfortable enough to keep birds away, so you don't see them landing on the extremely high-voltage transmission lines that travel across vast stretches of countryside.

The story wouldn't be the same if the bird made the mistake of spanning the gap from one wire to another. In that case, current could flow through the bird from one wire to the other and the bird would run the serious risk of becoming a flashbulb. Squirrels occasionally do this trick when they accidentally bridge a pair of wires. Some of the unexpected power flickers that occur in places where the power lines run overhead are caused by squirrels and occasionally birds vaporizing when they let current flow between power lines.

1528. If a home looses some of its power during a power outage and the lights shine dim, will it burn up the motor in the refrigerator? Will it damage other appliances (TV, VCR. stereo. etc)? Should the main disconnect be shut off? — J, Ohio
Power outages come in a variety of types, one of which involves a substantial decrease in the voltage supplied to your home. The most obvious effect of this voltage decrease is the dimming of the incandescent lights, which is why it's called a "brownout." The filament of a lightbulb is poor conductor of electricity, so keeping an electric charge moving through it steadily requires a forward force. That forward force is provided by the voltage difference between the two wires: the one that delivers charges to the filament and the one that collects them back from the filament. As the household voltage decreases, so does the force on each charge in the filament. The current passing through the filament decreases and the filament receives less electric power. It glows dimly.

At the risk of telling you more than you ever want to know, I'll point out that the filament behaves approximately according to Ohm's law: the current that flows through it is proportional to the voltage difference between its two ends. The larger that voltage difference, the bigger the forces and the more current that flows. This ohmic behavior allows incandescent lightbulbs to survive decreases in voltage unscathed. They don't, however, do well with increases in voltage, since they'll then carry too much current and receive so much power that they'll overheat and break. Voltage surges, not voltage decreases, are what kill lightbulbs.

The other appliances you mention are not ohmic devices and the currents that flow through them are not simply proportional to the voltage supplied to your home. Motors are a particularly interesting case; the average current a motor carries is related in a complicated way to how fast and how easily it's spinning. A motor that's turning effortlessly carries little average current and receives little electric power. But a motor that is struggling to turn, either because it has a heavy burden or because it can't obtain enough electric power to overcome starting effects, will carry a great deal of average current. An overburdened or non-starting motor can become very hot because it's wiring deals inefficiently with the large average current, and it can burn out. While I've never heard of a refrigerator motor dying during a brownout, it wouldn't surprise me. I suspect that most appliance motors are protected by thermal sensors that turn them off temporarily whenever they overheat.

Modern electronic devices are also interesting with respect to voltage supply issues. Electronic devices operate on specific internal voltage differences, all of which are DC — direct current. Your home is supplied with AC — alternating current. The power adapters that transfer electric power from the home's AC power to the device's DC circuitry have evolved over the years. During a brownout, the older types of power adapters simply provide less voltage to the electronic devices, which misbehave in various ways, most of which are benign. You just want to turn them off because they're not working properly. It's just as if their batteries are worn out.

But the most modern and sophisticated adapters are nearly oblivious to the supply voltage. Many of them can tolerate brownouts without a hitch and they'll keep the electronics working anyway. The power units for laptops are a case in point: they can take a whole range of input AC voltages because they prepare their DC output voltages using switching circuitry that adjusts for input voltage. They make few assumptions about what they'll be plugged into and do their best to produce the DC power required by the laptop.

In short, the motors in your home won't like the brownout, but they're probably protected against the potential overheating problem. The electronic appliances will either misbehave benignly or ride out the brownout unperturbed. Once in a while, something will fail during a brownout. But I think that most of the damage is down during the return to normal after the brownout. The voltages bounce around wildly for a second or so as power is restored and those fluctuations can be pretty hard some devices. It's probably worth turning off sensitive electronics once the brownout is underway because you don't know what will happen on the way back to normal.

1498. I understand how a transformer changes voltage, but how does it regulate the amperage? - DE
A transformer's current regulation involves a beautiful natural feedback process. To begin with, a transformer consists of two coils of wire that share a common magnetic core. When an alternating current flows through the primary coil (the one bringing power to the transformer), that current produces an alternating magnetic field around both coils and this alternating magnetic field is accompanied by an alternating electric field (recall that changing magnetic fields produce electric fields). This electric field pushes forward on any current passing through the secondary coil (the one taking power out of the transformer) and pushes backward on the current passing through the primary coil. The net result is that power is drawn out of the primary coil current and put into the secondary coil current.

But you are wondering what controls the currents flowing in the two coils. The circuit it is connected to determines the current in the secondary coil. If that circuit is open, then no current will flow. If it is connected to a light bulb, then the light bulb will determine the current. What is remarkable about a transformer is that once the load on the secondary coil establishes the secondary current, the primary current is also determined.

Remember that the current flowing in the secondary coil is itself magnetic and because it is an alternating current, it is accompanied by its own electric field. The more current that is allowed to flow through the secondary coil, the stronger its electric field becomes. The secondary coil's electric field opposes the primary coil's electric field, in accordance with a famous rule of electromagnetism known as Lenz's law. The primary coil's electric field was pushing backward on current passing through the primary coil, so the secondary coil's electric field must be pushing forward on that current. Since the backward push is being partially negated, more current flows through the primary coil.

The current in the primary coil increases until the two electric fields, one from the primary current and one from the secondary current, work together so that they extract all of the primary current's electrostatic energy during its trip through the coil. This natural feedback process ensures that when more current is allowed to flow through the transformer's secondary coil, more current will flow through the primary coil to match.

1488. I'm rewiring a lamp and didn't make sure that the silver and copper wires in the cord matched the screws on the bulb socket. What will happen if I got it wrong? - L
The bulb will operate perfectly well, regardless of which way you connected the lamp's two wires. Current will still flow in through one wire, pass through the bulb's filament, and return to the power company through the other wire. The only shortcoming of reversing the connections is that you will end up with the "hot" wire connected to the outside of the socket and bulb, rather than to the central pin of the socket and bulb. That's a slight safety issue: if you touch the hot wire with one hand and a copper pipe with the other, you'll get a shock. That's because a large voltage difference generally exists between the hot wire and the earth itself.

In contrast, there should be very little voltage difference between the other wire (known as "neutral") and the earth. In a properly wired lamp, the large spade on the electric plug (the neutral wire) should connect to the outside of the bulb socket. That way, when you accidentally touch the bulb's base as you screw it in or out, you'll only be connecting your hand to the neutral wire and won't receive a shock. If you miswire the lamp and have the hot wire connected to the outside of the socket, you can get a shock if you accidentally touch the bulb base at any time.

1460. How does a Tesla coil work? — EK
Popular in movies as a source of long glowing sparks, a Tesla coil is basically a high-frequency, very high-voltage transformer. Like most transformers, the Tesla coil has two circuits: a primary circuit and a secondary circuit. The primary circuit consists of a capacitor and an inductor, fashioned together to form a system known as a "tank circuit". A capacitor stores energy in its electric field while an inductor stores energy in its magnetic field. When the two are wired together in parallel, their combined energy sloshes back and forth from capacitor to inductor to capacitor at a rate that's determined by various characteristics of the two devices. Powering the primary of the Tesla coil is a charge delivery system that keeps energy sloshing back and forth in the tank circuit. This delivery system has both a source of moderately high voltage electric current and a pulsed transfer system to periodically move charge and energy to the tank. The delivery system may consist of a high voltage transformer and a spark gap, or it may use vacuum tubes or transistors.

The secondary circuit consists of little more than a huge coil of wire and some electrodes. This coil of wire is located around the same region of space occupied by the inductor of the primary circuit. As the magnetic field inside that inductor fluctuates up and down in strength, it induces current in the secondary coil. That's because a changing magnetic field produces an electric field and the electric field surrounding the inductor pushes charges around and around the secondary coil. By the time the charges in the secondary coil emerge from the coil, they have enormous amounts of energy; making them very high voltage charges. They accumulate in vast numbers on the electrodes of the secondary circuit and push one another off into the air as sparks.

While most circuits must form complete loops, the Tesla coil's secondary circuit doesn't. Its end electrodes just spit charges off into space and let those charges fend for themselves. Many of them eventually work their ways from one electrode to the other by flowing through the air or through objects. But even when they don't, there is little net build up of charge anywhere. That's because the direction of current flow through the secondary coil reverses frequently and the sign of the charge on each electrode reverses, too. The Tesla coil is a high-frequency device and its top electrode goes from positively charged to negatively charge to positively charged millions of times a second. This rapid reversal of charge, together with reversing electric and magnetic fields means that a Tesla coil radiates strong electromagnetic waves. It therefore interferes with nearby radio reception.

Finally, it has been pointed out to me by readers that a properly built Tesla coil is resonant—that the high-voltage coil has a natural resonance at the same frequency that it is being excited by the lower voltage circuit. The high-voltage coil's resonance is determined by its wire length, shape, and natural capacitance.

1405. What does a transformer do?
A transformer transfers power between two or more electrical circuits when each of those circuits is carrying an alternating electric current. Transfers of this sort are important because many electric power systems have incompatible circuits—one circuit may use large currents of low voltage electricity while another circuit may use small currents of high voltage electricity. A transformer can move power from one circuit of the electric power system to another without any direct connections between those circuits.

Now for the technical details: a transformer is able to make such transfers of power because (1) electric currents are magnetic, (2) the magnetic fields from an alternating electric current changes with time, (3) a time-varying magnetic field creates an electric field, and (4) an electric fields pushes on electric charges and electric currents. Overall, one of the alternating currents flowing through a transformer creates a time-varying magnetic field and thus an electric field in the transformer. This electric field does work on (transfers power to) another alternating current flowing through the transformer. At the same time, this electric field does negative work on (saps power from) the original alternating current. When all is said and done, the first current has lost some of its power and the second current has gained that missing power.

1401. What is the cause of the power "drop" in my house, that will intermittently (every 5 to 10 minutes) cause my lights to dim? — JF
Your lights are dimming because something is reducing the voltage of the electricity in your house. The lights expect the electric current passing through them to experience a specific voltage drop—that is, they expect each electric charge to leave behind a certain amount of energy as the result of its passage through the lights. If the voltage of electricity in your house is less than the expected amount, the lights won't receive enough energy and will glow dimly.

The most probable cause for this problem is some power-hungry device in or near your house that cycles on every 5 or 10 minutes. In all likelihood, this device contains a large motor—motors have a tendency to draw enormous currents while they are first starting to turn, particularly if they are old and in need of maintenance. The wiring and power transformer systems that deliver electricity to your neighborhood and house have limited capacities and cannot transfer infinite amounts of power without wasting some of it. In general, wires waste power in proportion to the square of the current they are carrying. While the amount of power wasted in your home's wiring is insignificant in normal situations, it can become sizeable when the circuits are overloaded. This wasted power in the wiring appears as a loss of voltage—a loss of energy per charge—at your lights and appliances. When the heavy equipment turns on and begins to consume huge amounts of power, the wiring and other electric supply systems begin to waste much more power than normal and the voltage reaching your lights is significantly reduced. Your lights dim until the machinery stops using so much power.

To find what device that's making your lights dim, listen carefully the next time your lights fade. You'll probably hear an air conditioner, a fan, or even an elevator starting up somewhere, either in your house or in your neighborhood. There may be nothing you can do to fix the problem, but it's possible that replacing a motor or its bearings will reduce the problem. Another possible culprit is an electric heating system—a hot water heater, a radiant heater, an oven, a toaster, or even a hair-dryer. These devices also consume large amounts of power and, in an older house with limited electric services, may dim the lights.
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