## How big is the electric circuit that powers a lamp in my house?

#### 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.

## Is it safe to locate my dog’s bed near the power adapter for the telephone?

#### 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.

## Is it safe to turn off computer equipment by turning off the power strip?

#### Does it matter how I turn off electronic devices? I have installed a power surge strip and it’s easiest for me to simply turn off that strip. Is it better for the devices to turn them off individually first? For the computer itself, I perform the shutdown procedure first. — A, Seattle, Washington

As long you shutdown the computer first, turning off the power strip is fine. Essentially all modern household computer devices are designed to shut themselves down gracefully when they lose electrical power and that’s exactly what they down when you turn off the power strip.

In fact, turning off the power strip is likely to save energy as well. Many computer devices have two different “off” switches: one that stops them from doing their normal functions and one that actually cuts off all electrical power. Computers in particular don’t really turn off until you reach around back and flip the real power switch on the computer’s power supply. The same is true of television monitors and home theater equipment.

In general, any device that has a remote control or that can wake itself up to respond to a pretty button or to some other piece of equipment is never truly off until you shut off its electrical power. Our homes are now filled with electronic gadgets that are always on, waiting for instructions. Keeping them powered up even at a low level consumes a small amount of electrical power and it adds up. Last I heard, this always-on behavior of our gadgets consumes something on the order of 1% of our electrical power. Whatever it is, it’s too much. So by turning off your power strip and completely stopping the flow of power to your computer, your speakers, your monitor, etc., you are saving energy. You lose the convenience of being able to turn everything on from your couch with a remote, but who cares. Energy is too precious to waste for such nonessential conveniences.

## Is DC power transmission possible?

#### 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.

## Are there high voltages around fluorescent lamps?

#### Do ballasts of fluorescent light fixtures produce a high voltage arc that ionizes gases in the tube during start up? If so what sort of voltages are we talking about? — SC, Australia

A traditional fluorescent lamp needs a ballast to limit the current flowing through its gas discharge. That’s because gas discharges have strange electrical characteristics, most notably a regime of “negative” electrical resistance: the voltage drop across the discharge actually decreases as the current in the discharge increases. If you connect a gas discharge lamp to a voltage source without anything to limit the current and start the discharge, the current flowing through the lamp will rise essentially without limit and the lamp will quickly destroy itself. As a kid, I blew up several small neon lamps by connecting them directly to the power line without any current limiter. That was not a clever or safe idea, so don’t try it!

The standard current limiter for fluorescent lamps and other discharge lamps that are powered from 60-cycle (or 50-cycle) alternating current has been an electromagnetic coil known as a ballast. When that coil is in series with the discharge, the coil’s self-inductance limits how quickly the current flowing through the lamp can rise and therefore how much power the lamp can consume before the alternating current reverses direction. The discharge winks on and off with each current reversal and never draws more current than it can tolerate. Unfortunately, the lamp’s light also winks on and off and some people can see that flicker, especially with their peripheral vision.

Actually, the ballast usually has another job to do in a traditional fluorescent lamp: it acts as a transformer to provide the current needed to heat the electrode filaments at the ends of the lamp. Heating those electrodes helps drive electrons out of the metal and into the lamp’s gas so that the gas becomes electrically conducting. In total then, the ballast receives alternating current electric power from the power line and prepares it so that all the lamp filaments are heated properly and a limited current flows through the lamp from one electrode to the other.

In modern fluorescent lamps with heated electrodes, however, the role of the ballast has been usurped by a more sophisticated electronic power conditioning device. That device converts 60-cycle alternating current electric power into a series of electrical energy pulses, typically at about 40,000 pulses per second, and delivers them to the lamp. The lamp’s flicker is almost undetectable because it is so fast and the limited energy in each pulse prevents the discharge from consuming too much power. It’s a much better system. Compact fluorescent lamps use it exclusively.

So where might high voltage fit into this story? Well, there are some fluorescent lamps that don’t heat their electrodes with filaments. They rely on the discharge itself to drive electrons out of the electrodes and into the gas to sustain the discharge. But that begs the question: “how does such a lamp start its discharge?” It uses high voltage. Because of cosmic rays and natural radioactivity, gases always have some electric charges in them: ions and electrons. When the voltage difference between the two ends of the lamp becomes very large, the electric field in the lamp propels those naturally occurring ions and electrons into the constituents of the lamp violently enough to start the lamp’s discharge. The voltages needed to start these “cold cathode” lamps are typically in the low thousands of volts. For example, the cold cathode fluorescent lamps used in laptop computer displays start at about 2000 volts and then operate at much lower voltages.

## Is it important to ground a microwave oven?

#### A co-worker who is an intelligent electrical engineer said an ungrounded microwave is dangerous because microwaves can then escape through the holes in the door. Aside from the electrical dangers, I disagreed because I think it is just the size of the holes vs. the wavelength of the microwaves. Does lack of a ground allow some microwaves to escape through the holes in the microwave door? — LG, Maine

You’re right. Whether the microwave oven is grounded or not makes no difference on its screen’s ability to prevent microwave leakage. In fact, the whole idea of grounding something is nearly meaningless at such high frequencies. Since electrical influences can’t travel faster than the speed of light and light only travels 12.4 cm during one cycle of the oven’s microwaves, the oven can’t tell if it’s grounded at microwave frequencies; its power cord is just too long and there just isn’t time for charge to flow all the way through that cord during a microwave cycle.

When you ground an appliance, you’re are making it possible for electric charge to equilibrate between that appliance and the earth. The earth is approximately neutral, so a grounded appliance can’t retain large amounts of either positive or negative charge. That’s a nice safety feature because it means that you won’t get a shock when you touch the appliance, even if one of its power wires comes loose and touches the case. Any charge that the power wire tries to deposit on the case will quickly flow to the earth as the appliance and earth equilibrate.

But charge can’t escape from the appliance through the grounding wire instantly. Light takes about 1 nanosecond to travel 1 foot and electricity takes a little longer than that. For charge to leave your appliance for the earth might well require 50 nanoseconds or more. That’s not a problem for ordinary power distribution, so grounding is generally a great idea. Each cycle of the 60-Hz AC power in the U.S. takes 18 milliseconds to complete, so the appliance and earth have plenty of time to equilibrate with one another. But a cycle of the microwave power in the oven takes less about 0.4 nanoseconds to complete and there’s just no time for the appliance and earth to equilibrate. At microwave frequencies, the electric current flowing through a long wire is wavelike, meaning that at one instant in time the wire has both positive and negative patches, spaced half a wavelength apart along its length. It’s carrying an electromagnetic ripple.

The metal screen on the oven’s door has to reflect the microwaves all by itself. It does this without a problem because the holes are so much smaller than 12.4 centimeters that currents easily flow around them during a cycle of the microwaves. Those currents are able to compensate for the holes in the screens and cause the microwaves to reflect perfectly.

## If a bird lands on a high-voltage wire, will it be injured?

#### 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.

## Lightbulbs and Power

#### What does it mean if a light bulb uses 60 watts? — B, Los Angeles

The watt is a unit of power, equivalent to the joule-per-second. One joule is about the amount of energy it takes to raise a 12 ounce can of soda 1 foot. A 60 watt lightbulb uses 60 joules-per-second, so the power it consumes could raise a 24-can case of soda 2.5 feet each second. Most tables are about 2.5 feet above the floor. Next time you leave a 60-watt lightbulb burning while you’re not in the room, imagine how tired you’d get lifting one case of soda onto a table every second for an hour or two. That’s the mechanical effort required at the generating plant to provide the 60-watts of power you’re wasting. If don’t need the light, turn off lightbulb!

## Do brownouts or other power outages damage appliances?

#### 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.

## I understand how a transformer changes voltage, but how does it regulate the amp…

#### 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.