Electrical Wiring Safety
|American Wire Gauge (AWG)|
|Wire size||Handles up to|
|Remember: The larger the gauge number, the smaller the wire!|
Electrical hazards result from using the wrong size or type of wire. You must control such hazards to create a safe work environment. You must choose the right size wire for the amount of current expected in a circuit. The wire must be able to handle the current safely. The wire's insulation must be appropriate for the voltage and tough enough for the environment. Connections need to be reliable and protected.
The wiring methods and size of conductors used in a system depend on several factors:
Fixed, permanent wiring is better than extension cords, which can be misused and damaged more easily. NEC requirements for fixed wiring should always be followed. A variety of materials can be used in wiring applications, including nonmetallic sheathed cable (Romex®), armored cable, and metal and plastic conduit. The choice of wiring material depends on the wiring environment and the need to support and protect wires.
Aluminum wire and connections should be handled with special care. Connections made with aluminum wire can loosen due to heat expansion and oxidize if they are not made properly. Loose or oxidized connections can create heat or arcing. Special clamps and terminals are necessary to make proper connections using aluminum wire. Antioxidant paste can be applied to connections to prevent oxidation.
Electrical cords supplement fixed wiring by providing the flexibility required for maintenance, portability, isolation from vibration, and emergency and temporary power needs.
Flexible wiring can be used for extension cords or power supply cords. Power supply cords can be removable or permanently attached to the appliance.
DO NOT use flexible wiring in situations where frequent inspection would be difficult, where damage would be likely, or where long-term electrical supply is needed. Flexible cords cannot be used as a substitute for the fixed wiring of a structure. Flexible cords must not be:
The size of wire in an extension cord must be compatible with the amount of current the cord will be expected to carry. The amount of current depends on the equipment plugged into the extension cord. Current ratings (how much current a device needs to operate) are often printed on the nameplate. If a power rating is given, it is necessary to divide the power rating in watts by the voltage to find the cur-rent rating. For example, a 1,000-watt heater plugged into a 120-volt circuit will need almost 10 amps of current. Let's look at another example: A 1-horsepower electric motor uses electrical energy at the rate of almost 750 watts, so it will need a minimum of about 7 amps of current on a 120-volt circuit. But, electric motors need additional current as they startup or if they stall, requiring up to 200% of the nameplate current rating. Therefore, the motor would need 14 amps.
Add to find the total current needed to operate all the appliances supplied by the cord. Choose a wire size that can handle the total current.
A 29-year-old male welder was assigned to work on an outdoor concrete platform attached to the main factory building. He wheeled a portable arc welder onto the platform. Since there was not an electrical outlet nearby, he used an extension cord to plug in the welder. The male end of the cord had four prongs, and the female end was spring-loaded. The worker plugged the male end of the cord into the outlet. He then plugged the portable welder's power cord into the female end of the extension cord. At that instant, the metal case around the power cord plug became energized, electrocuting the worker.
An investigation showed that the female end of the extension cord was broken. The spring, cover plate, and part of the casing were missing from the face of the female connector. Also, the grounding prong on the welder's power cord plug was so severely bent that it slipped outside of the connection. Therefore, the arc welder was not grounded. Normally, it would have been impossible to insert the plug incorrectly. But, since the cord's female end was damaged, the "bad" connection was able to occur.
Do not let this happen to you. Use these safe practices:
The length of the extension cord also needs to be considered when selecting the wire size. Voltage drops over the length of a cord. If a cord is too long, the voltage drop can be enough to damage equipment. Many electric motors only operate safely in a narrow range of voltages and will not work properly at voltages different than the voltage listed on the nameplate. Even though light bulbs operate (somewhat dimmer) at lowered voltages, do not assume electric motors will work correctly at less-than-required voltages. Also, when electric motors start or operate under load, they require more current. The larger the size of the wire, the longer a cord can be without causing a voltage drop that could damage tools and equipment.
The grounding path for extension cords must be kept intact to keep you safe. A typical extension cord grounding system has four components:
Insulation is made of material that does not conduct electricity (usually plastic, rubber, or fiber). Insulation covers wires and prevents conductors from coming in contact with each other or any other conductor. If conductors are allowed to make contact, a short circuit is created. In a short circuit, current passes through the shorting material without passing through a load in the circuit, and the wire becomes overheated. Insulation keeps wires and other conductors from touching, which prevents electrical short circuits. Insulation prevents live wires from touching people and animals, thus protecting them from electrical shock.
Insulation helps protect wires from physical damage and conditions in the environment. Insulation is used on almost all wires, except some ground wires and some high-voltage transmission lines. Insulation is used internally in tools, switches, plugs, and other electrical and electronic devices.
Special insulation is used on wires and cables that are used in harsh environments. Wires and cables that are buried in soil must have an outer covering of insulation that is flame-retardant and resistant to moisture, fungus, and corrosion.
In all situations, you must be careful not to damage insulation while installing it. Do not allow staples or other supports to damage the insulation. Bends in a cable must have an inside radius of at least 5 times the diameter of the cable so that insulation at a bend is not damaged. Extension cords come with insulation in a variety of types and colors. The insulation of extension cords is especially important. Since extension cords often receive rough handling, the insulation can be damaged. Extension cords might be used in wet places, so adequate insulation is necessary to prevent shocks. Because extension cords are often used near combustible materials (such as wood shavings and sawdust) a short in an extension cord could easily cause arcing and a fire.
Insulation on individual wires is often color-coded. In general, insulated wires used as equipment grounding conductors are either continuous green or green with yellow stripes. The grounded conductors that complete a circuit are generally covered with continuous white or gray insulation. The ungrounded conductors, or "hot" wires, may be any color other than green, white, or gray. They are usually black or red.
Conductors and cables must be marked by the manufacturer to show the following:
When an electrical system is not grounded properly, a hazard exists. This is because the parts of an electrical wiring system that a person normally touches may be energized, or live, relative to ground. Parts like switch plates, wiring boxes, conduit, cabinets, and lights need to be at 0 volts relative to ground. If the system is grounded improperly, these parts may be energized. The metal housings of equipment plugged into an outlet need to be grounded through the plug.
Grounding is connecting an electrical system to the earth with a wire. Excess or stray current travels through this wire to a grounding device (commonly called a "ground") deep in the earth. Grounding prevents unwanted voltage on electrical components. Metal plumbing is often used as a ground. When plumbing is used as a grounding conductor, it must also be connected to a grounding device such as a conductive rod. (Rods used for grounding must be driven at least 8 feet into the earth.) Sometimes an electrical system will receive a higher voltage than it is designed to handle. These high voltages may come from a lightning strike, line surge, or contact with a higher-voltage line. Sometimes a defect occurs in a device that allows exposed metal parts to become energized. Grounding will help protect the person working on a system, the system itself, and others using tools or operating equipment connected to the system. The extra current produced by the excess voltage travels relatively safely to the earth.
Grounding creates a path for currents produced by unintended voltages on exposed parts. These currents follow the grounding path, rather than passing through the body of someone who touches the energized equipment. However, if a grounding rod takes a direct hit from a lightning strike and is buried in sandy soil, the rod should be examined to make sure it will still function properly. The heat from a lightning strike can cause the sand to turn into glass, which is an insulator. A grounding rod must be in contact with damp soil to be effective.
Leakage current occurs when an electrical current escapes from its intended path. Leakages are sometimes low-current faults that can occur in all electrical equipment because of dirt, wear, damage, or moisture. A good grounding system should be able to carry off this leakage current. A ground fault occurs when current passes through the housing of an electrical device to ground. Proper grounding protects against ground faults. Ground faults are usually caused by misuse of a tool or damage to its insulation. This damage allows a bare conductor to touch metal parts or the tool housing.
When you ground a tool or electrical system, you create a low-resistance path to the earth (known as a ground connection). When done properly, this path has sufficient current-carrying capacity to eliminate voltages that may cause a dangerous shock.
Grounding does not guarantee that you will not be shocked, injured, or killed from defective equipment. However, it greatly reduces the possibility.
Equipment needs to be grounded under any of these circumstances:
The use of GFCI's has lowered the number of electrocutions dramatically. A GFCI is a fast-acting switch that detects any difference in current between two circuit conductors. If either conductor comes in contact-either directly or through part of your body-with a ground (a situation known as a ground fault), the GFCI opens the circuit in a fraction of a second. If a current as small as 4 to 6 mA does not pass through both wires properly, but instead leaks to the ground, the GFCI is tripped. The current is shut off.
There is a more sensitive kind of GFCI called an isolation GFCI. If a circuit has an isolation GFCI, the ground fault current passes through an electronic sensing circuit in the GFCI. The electronic sensing circuit has enough resistance to limit current to as little as 2 mA, which is too low to cause a dangerous shock.
GFCI's are usually in the form of a duplex receptacle. They are also available in portable and plug-in designs and as circuit breakers that protect an entire branch circuit. GFCI's can operate on both two- and three-wire ground systems. For a GFCI to work properly, the neutral conductor (white wire) must (1) be continuous, (2) have low resistance, and (3) have sufficient current-carrying capacity.
GFCI's help protect you from electrical shock by continuously monitoring the circuit. However, a GFCI does not protect a person from line-to-line hazards such as touching two "hot" wires (240 volts) at the same time or touching a "hot" and neutral wire at the same time. Also be aware that instantaneous currents can be high when a GFCI is tripped. A shock may still be felt. Your reaction to the shock could cause injury, perhaps from falling.
Test GFCI's regularly by pressing the "test" button. If the circuit does not turn off, the GFCI is faulty and must be replaced.
The NEC requires that GFCI's be used in these high-risk situations:
In order to assure a continuous, reliable electrical path to ground, a bonding jumper wire is used to make sure electrical parts are connected. Some physical connections, like metal conduit coming into a box, might not make a good electrical connection because of paint or possible corrosion. To make a good electrical connection, a bonding jumper needs to be installed.
A metal cold water pipe that is part of a path to ground may need bonding jumpers around plastic antivibration devices, plastic water meters, or sections of plastic pipe. A bonding jumper is made of conductive material and is tightly connected to metal pipes with screws or clamps to bypass the plastic and assure a continuous grounding path. Bonding jumpers are necessary because plastic does not conduct electricity and would interrupt the path to ground.
Additionally, interior metal plumbing must be bonded to the ground for electrical service equipment in order to keep all grounds at the same potential (0 volts). Even metal air ducts should be bonded to electrical service equipment.
When a current exceeds the current rating of equipment or wiring, a hazard exists. The wiring in the circuit, equipment, or tool cannot handle the current without heating up or even melting. Not only will the wiring or tool be damaged, but the high temperature of the conductor can also cause a fire. To prevent this from happening, an overcurrent protection device (circuit breaker or fuse) is used in a circuit. These devices open a circuit automatically if they detect current in excess of the current rating of equipment or wiring. This excess current can be caused by an overload, short circuit, or high-level ground fault.
Overcurrent protection devices are designed to protect equipment and structures from fire. They do not protect you from electrical shock! Overcurrent protection devices stop the flow of current in a circuit when the amperage is too high for the circuit. A circuit breaker or fuse will not stop the relatively small amount of current that can cause injury or death. Death can result from 20 mA (.020 amps) through the chest (see Section 2). A typical residential circuit breaker or fuse will not shut off the circuit until a current of more than 20 amps is reached!
But overcurrent protection devices are not allowed in areas where they could be exposed to physical damage or in hazardous environments. Overcurrent protection devices can heat up and occasionally arc or spark, which could cause a fire or an explosion in certain areas. Hazardous environments are places that contain flammable or explosive materials such as flammable gasses or vapors (Class I Hazardous Environments), finely pulverized flammable dusts (Class II Hazardous Environments), or fibers or metal filings that can catch fire easily (Class III Hazardous Environments). Hazardous environments may be found in aircraft hangars, gas stations, storage plants for flammable liquids, grain silos, and mills where cotton fibers may be suspended in the air. Special electrical systems are required in hazardous environments.
If an overcurrent protection device opens a circuit, there may be a problem along the circuit. (In the case of circuit breakers, frequent tripping may also indicate that the breaker is defective.) When a circuit breaker trips or a fuse blows, the cause must be found.
A circuit breaker is one kind of overcurrent protection device. It is a type of automatic switch located in a circuit. A circuit breaker trips when too much current passes through it. A circuit breaker should not be used regularly to turn power on or off in a circuit, unless the breaker is designed for this purpose and marked "SWD" (stands for "switching device").
A fuse is another type of overcurrent protection device. A fuse contains a metal conductor that has a relatively low melting point. When too much current passes through the metal in the fuse, it heats up within a fraction of a second and melts, opening the circuit. After an overload is found and corrected, a blown fuse must be replaced with a new one of appropriate amperage.
Control contact with electrical voltages and control electrical currents to create a safe work environment.