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Is Electricity Really Mysterious?

Larry Dimock

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The scientist and the homeowner have two entirely different reasons for saying that electricity is mysterious.

They are probably talking about different things. The scientist is considering some basic principles of nature, which as yet have no deeper explanation. The average person might share such wonder. But when I hear a homeowner say that “electricity" mystifies them, they usually mean that they don't know how to deal with their wiring system or what to think when it acts up. They are technologically, not scientifically, mystified.

There is a remedy for technical mystery - education. To the degree that a person wants to interact intelligently with their household environment, they can learn more about it. Regarding our home electrical systems, this is available from books, on-line, and even from relatives, friends, and neighbors. Any of these sources can misinform or mislead at times, but with perseverance one can begin to grasp the subject and disperse the mystery. Let's go over some of these areas of mystification.

* Much information on home electrical emphasizes safety first. This is appropriate, but if safety rules are given without any background for understanding the basis of those rules, these warnings may have the effect of discouraging the educational process altogether. For instance, if you are told not to overload circuits, are you likely to keep track of the wattages of everything you are using from minute to minute, or are you more likely to go ahead with (or refrain from) using what you want, however anxiously. In this example, the irony is that if you learned what is behind this rule, you would find that it has no reasonable basis after all, since the circuit breaker or fuse prevents a real overload from happening.

* Another area where ignorance tries to reign is installation. In one book you can read that when replacing a receptacle you should place the wires onto the new receptacle in the exact positions they had on the old one. Even if two wires were the same color and on the same side of the receptacle, you are told to match the positions. This instruction makes it simple for the writer, but are you, the reader, made confident that you know what you are doing if, say, you happened to lose track of which wire was higher on the receptacle and which was lower? If you knew how wiring at receptacles distributes a circuit, you would know that top versus bottom does not matter. (An exception to this would also require that a metal tab between top and bottom be removed, but this was not brought out in the book. )

* When it comes to troubleshooting an electrical problem, those who have remained under this spell of “electricity is mysterious" can end up being (and feeling) stupid about simple things. Someone replaces a burned out light bulb, but the light still doesn't work. They call an electrician who quickly finds that the new bulb was no good either. Embarrassment. Is your first thought when a circuit breaker trips off, “Maybe the breaker is bad"? A little more knowledge would put a different voice in your head saying, “A breaker is designed to trip like this; there must be an abnormality out on this circuit. "

Electromagnetism is weird. Lightning is scary. But your wiring is actually pretty knowable.

Larry Dimock is The Circuit Detective, a master electrician and electrical troubleshooting contractor in the state of Washington. His website is filled with home electrical troubleshooting information and tips. He also gives advice from there, to homeowners around the country, on their specific circuit problems. See


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