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Electricity - Mains Electricity

Mains electricity is the phrase used to refer to the general-purpose 230 V AC electricity supply, as opposed to the specialist higher voltage industrial electricity supplies. You can regard it as the electricity that is supplied to normal wall sockets, lighting circuits etc. in homes and places of work like offices and shops. In GCSE Physics, mains electricity is focused on electricity in the home. Mains electricity is useful but, if used incorrectly, it can be deadly, so understanding this form of energy and how to use it safely is a very important life skill.

Any form of electricity is a source of energy which can be transferred into other forms of useful energy. There is usually at least one form of waste energy during any energy transfer. With home electrical appliances, it's a good bet that this waste energy will be heat (unless it is an electric heater of course!). This means that no appliance will ever be one hundred percent efficient, but some come quite close.

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Electrical appliances all have a power rating. This represents the rate at which they transfer electrical energy into other forms of energy. The power rating is given in watts (symbol W), 1000 watts is also expressed as one kilowatt and you will often hear people talk about a three kilowatt heater rather than a 3000 watt heater but they mean exactly the same thing: at full power, the heater will transfer energy at a rate of 3000 joules every second. In everyday life, you will hear people talk about the wattage of an appliance but power is the correct scientific term.

Knowing the power rating is particularly useful for two reasons: it enables you to work out the cost of using an appliance, and you can also use it to work out the correct size of fuse. Electricity is sold in units of kilowatt hours. An appliance with a power rating of 2000 watts would use two units of electricity per hour. How do we know? As well as telling you how many joules per seconds is transferred by the appliance at full power, the power rating also tells you how many watts it uses per hour, so a 2000 watt appliance will use 2000 watts per hour, in other words, two kilowatts each hour which is 2 units of electricity. To find out how much that would cost you, all you need to do is to multiply that by the cost of each unit of electricity.

To work out the fuse size, you use the relationship between power in watts, potential difference in volts and current in amps (P = I V). You need to rearrange it to work out the current, so dividing the power by the potential difference will give you the maximum current used by the appliance. If you choose a fuse with a lower current rating than this, the fuse will keep blowing, so you choose the available fuse with the nearest but slightly higher value. Take for example the 2000 watt appliance mentioned in the previous paragraph. Dividing the power by the potential difference works out at a current of 8.6 A (based on UK mains voltage). Standard common fuse sizes are 3 A, 5 A, 10 A and 13 A so in this case, you would choose the 10 A fuse. Since a fault would produce a much higher current than this, it would still blow should the appliance develop a fault.

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  1. What kind of a plug is used to connect electrical appliances to a mains socket in the UK?
    2-pin plugs are found on low power items. They either need an adaptor or have a 'dummy' earth pin made out of plastic so that they can be used directly with a normal wall socket
  2. What do electrical appliances transfer?
    Appliances convert electrical energy into other forms of energy
  3. If an appliance uses mains electricity at 230 V and the service manual for the appliance recommends using a fuse of 13 A, what is the power consumption it can safely use?
    Power (in watts) = current (in amps) multiplied by the potential difference (in volts). Fuses allow the appliance to operate at a safe capacity. If there is a power surge through the appliance, the fuse will break the circuit stopping an unsafe level of electricity flowing through the appliance which could either damage the appliance or cause an electric shock
  4. Which colour wire is the live wire in a 3-pin plug?
    The blue wire is the neutral wire, yellow and green is the earth wire and the brown wire is the live wire
  5. Some cables for electrical appliances only have two wires within them. Which wire is missing from this configuration?
    This is used normally for low power items like smartphone chargers, bedside lamps and items whose casing is made entirely from plastic
  6. What size of fuse would be required for an electrical appliance which has a power rating of 600W and running off UK mains voltage at 230V?
    600 W divided by 230 V = 2.61 A so you choose the next highest standard fuse
  7. Why do some appliances not need an earth wire?
    Double insulation of appliances is designed to make sure that, in normal use, it is not possible for the electricity to come into contact with the outer casing
  8. What is the main difference between a circuit breaker and a fuse?
    They also respond much faster than fuses and are generally used to protect complete circuits that are fitted with several sockets or lights
  9. Most appliances have their power consumption and potential difference printed on them. Which of the following can be calculated from these values?
    The ability to calculate the current that the appliance uses allows us to correctly identify which fuse should be used in the plug, to ensure any electrical surges are prevented from damaging the appliance or posing safety risks
  10. What does the power of an electrical appliance represent?
    An appliance that transfers one joule of electrical energy per second has a power of one watt

Author: Martin Moore

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