Important Electrical Terms to Know

Updated October 23, 2015
Light switches without switch plate
Regardless if you're a homeowner or renter, it's important to have a basic knowledge of common electrical terms. (Photo by Summer Galyan)

Terms like watt, amp, volt and GFCI can be confusing to the average homeowner or renter, but they're important to know and understand.

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Circuit - Current

Circuit: A closed loop around which electrical current flows. Circuits are typically used to distribute current to electrical components that do some sort of work with the current. They are used in everything from electronic devices to buildings, and may be built with any kind of conducting material.

Circuit breaker: A switch that automatically shuts off an electrical circuit in the case of a fault or other disruption. Circuit breakers protect devices attached to the circuit from damage and protect the circuit itself from damage in the event of unusual power conditions. They are rated in amperes.

Current: The flow of charged particles through any type of material. Current is measured in amperes.

Fuse - Ground

Fuse: A device that eliminates the flow of current to a circuit when the current exceeds a certain level. Fuses protect equipment from current overloads. Most are composed of a metal wire designed to melt when the current exceeds a specific level.

GFCI: A ground fault circuit interrupter is an outlet that is installed in areas of the home where moisture is present to prevent electrical shock. A GFCI outlet detects current imbalances between the hot and neutral conductors in an electrical circuit and opens the circuit when imbalances are detected.

Ground: Ground refers to a wire that provides the easiest-possible path for current to reach the earth. The ground reduces the potential for electrical shock by carrying off current that may build up on electrical equipment.

Ground-fault - Overload

Ground-fault: A current deviation caused when the current is diverted away from the circuit and into the ground.

Node: A point in a circuit that connects different circuit segments or a segment in a circuit characterized by the same voltage everywhere on the segment.

Overload: A condition that occurs when an electrical circuit carries more current than it was designed to carry.

Short - Wattage

Short: A short circuit occurs when current finds an unintended route between nodes of a circuit, leaving some components of the circuit without current.

Voltage: The electrical potential difference between two points. Also the resistance multiplied by the current.

Wattage: The amount of electrical power in a circuit. Wattage measures the “work” that can be done with electrical power. The wattage of a circuit is equal to the voltage multiplied by the current and is also equal to the square of the current multiplied by the resistance.

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