How Does Electricity Work?

by | Educational, Electricity, Energy Topics

We use electricity every day for (nearly) everything. From charging our cell phone to enjoying a hot bath to watching our favorite sitcoms on TV – electricity is practically everywhere. However, most of us probably couldn’t clearly answer the question, “How does electricity work? 

In this article, we’ll give you a clear understanding of what electricity is along with some interesting facts, including how many watts your daily appliances need.  

How Does Electricity Work? 

The concept of electricity itself is based on electron movement. When you force electrons to move in sync, they end up producing heat, which turns the wire they’re moving in into a magnet.  

Britannica describes electricity as a phenomenon associated with stationary or moving electric charges. Every electrical charge is a fundamental property of matter being borne by elementary particles. 

For electricity, this elementary particle is an electron that has a negative charge, which is carried to the next electron through the convention method. So, when we talk about how electricity works, it’s essentially the result of the accumulation or motion of a specific number of electrons. Moreover, electricity travels in a closed circuit for the electrons to move through it. 

Let’s explain this with the help of an example. 

Imagine you flip a switch to turn on a light. What do you do? You basically close a circuit. By applying the same logic, when you flip a switch off, you open a circuit.  

Now, when you close a circuit, the flow of electricity from the electric wires powers through them through the light, and vice versa. Likewise, the same logic applies when you charge your phone, switch on your television, or operate any other appliance. 

Moreover, electricity takes different forms like water, coal, wind, solar, hydroelectricity, and nuclear. 

How Is Electricity Made and What Is It Made Of? 

Electricity | What it is Made of and Where it's from - hand holding electric imagesource

Not many people are aware that electricity is actually a secondary energy source – something that you derive from the conversion of other primary sources of energy, such as natural gas, coal, nuclear power, oil, and so on. Interestingly, these primary sources of energy can be either renewable or nonrenewable, but electricity itself is neither. 

Electricity is made up of building blocks called atoms, which is why you need to understand how atoms, and most importantly, how electrons behave. 

Every atom has a nucleus that’s made up of protons and neutrons, while electrons are charged particles that revolve around the nucleus in shells. As protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge, they attract each other. This keeps both the charges equal, which, in turn, keeps the atom balanced. So, the positive charge on the proton is equal to the negative charge of electrons. 

Neutrons have no electric charge, and as such, they don’t have an active role to play when it comes to balancing an atom. 

Understanding the Relationship Between Protons and Electrons 

Electrons have a strong attraction to protons. But the electrons in the outermost shell don’t have as strong an attraction to protons when compared to the electrons in the immediate shells.  

The weakly-attracted electrons can be pushed out of the orbit, which in turn, causes them to shift from one atom to another. It’s these shifting electrons that are electricity. 

Electricity is made of electrons. But from a technical point of view, it’s the flow of electric charge as a form of electricity that creates an electrical current flow. 

To recap, the movement of a number of electrons creates magnetic fields, which kickstarts the formation of electric charges.  

Conductive materials that are used to carry the electric charge, such as a copper wire, have a negative charge flow of electrons. This helps conduct electricity by giving the flow of electrons a targeted direction, allowing them to move uniformly while simultaneously creating a positive charge known as an electrical current. 

To create electricity, you need to properly harness this flow of electric current and then direct it along with a conductive material. 

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How Is Electricity Measured? In What Units? 

Measuring electricity and electrical units is an interconnected affair. You’ll understand what this means shortly. 

The first unit of electric current measurement under the international system of units is ampere or amp (A). It denotes the number of electrons (aka the electric current) that flows through an electrical circuit at a given point in time. 

Next is volt (V), which is the measurement of the force that pushes the electron through an electric circuit. This force is also known as the electric potential difference. When we determine the voltage, we’re calculating the potential for the energy to move. Basically, lower voltage equals lower force, and high voltage means higher force. 

To measure electricity, you also need to measure electrical resistance, which is expressed in ohms (Ω). As mentioned, copper wire is a conductive material, and since it has minimal resistance, it allows the easy flow of electrons. It’s also why copper is a good conductor of electricity, having a low ohm reading. 

So there you have it: You need ampere, volt, and ohm to measure electricity 

As for the interconnection between the three concepts, one amp is equivalent to the amount of current produced by a force of 1 V that acts through the resistance of 1 ohm.  

Now read that again slowly, we know it’s a bit complicated.  

The discussion of how to measure electricity will remain incomplete if you don’t mention watts (W), which is a measurement of power. Named after the Scottish inventor, James Watt, this unit of measurement indicates the rate at which work is done.  

If you think about the light bulb (created by another famous inventor, Thomas Edison), you’ll realize how it shines brighter when you increase the electrical power supplied, which also translates to a higher wattage. A one-watt light bulb converts one joule of electric energy per second. 

When measuring electricity, the last unit you should know is the coulomb, which is the amount of charge flowing whenever the current is one ampere.  

In other words, 1 ampere = 1 coulomb/second 

Why Is Electricity So Important? 

We’re pretty sure nobody would argue against the importance of electricity. Considering the inconvenience caused by even a short electric power outage, life without electricity is almost unthinkable. After all, this is an essential form of energy that we use throughout our lives, whether it’s heating, lighting, transportation, or entertainment. 

In fact, we need electrical energy for a greener, cleaner Earth. 

From rotating wind turbine blades to solar power to channeling steam to geothermal power plants, it would all come to a standstill in the absence of electricity. If you want to enjoy renewable sources of energy, you need to ensure a steady electricity supply. 

Where Does Energy Come From? 

In the United States of America, the three main electricity generation sources are coal, petroleum, and natural gas. But this may differ depending on the part of the world you live in. For instance, hydropower is the main source of electricity in Canada, but in France, electricity is mostly sourced from nuclear energy. 

Luckily, the growing awareness for alternative sources of energy has led to houses and industries employing wind energy and solar energy. Nuclear power plants, biomass, and hydroelectric stations are also being used to produce electricity. 

To learn more about your electricity source, you can contact your energy supplier for more information. 

Why Is Electricity Not an Energy Source? 

If you recall how we described electricity earlier, you’ll realize it’s a way of transporting energy from one place to another. Therefore, electricity isn’t an energy source in itself but rather a secondary source of energy. 

Let’s discuss this with the help of wind power. 

It’s the flow of wind that helps to drive the turbines, which are connected to an electric generator that creates electricity. So, once the electricity is generated and transported, the energy gets converted to other forms of energy. It also stands true to the first law of thermodynamics that it cannot be created or destroyed. 

The potential energy stored in renewable and non-renewable sources of energy is converted to electricity, which then helps power electric devices, vehicles, and other things. 

Determining Electricity Usage 

Knowing the total electric consumption by common home appliances is crucial. After all, the higher your electricity consumption, the more you have to pay. Below, we’ve made a list of the electricity usage for several common electronic devices. 

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How Much Electricity Does a TV Use? 

Typically, most TVs use between 120 to 170 watts, depending on the size of the device and the technology used.  

For instance, a 42-inch LCD uses 120 watts, while a 50-inch LCD uses 150 watts. But when you change the technology, a 42-inch plasma TV would need 220 watts to run, while a 50-inch plasma, 300 watts. 

How Much Electricity Does a Computer Use? 

The electricity consumption range of a desktop computer is anywhere between about 200 watts, and again depending on the type of device you use, electricity consumption will differ. 

How Much Electricity Does a Light Bulb Use? 

To find out the amount of electricity used by a light bulb, you’ll have to look at the watts on its packaging. You can have bulbs that are 100 watts as well as bulbs that are 60 watts. Moreover, while an LED light bulb needs 18 watts, fluorescent tubes need about 36 watts. 

How Much Electricity Does an Oven Use? 

Ovens come in all shapes and sizes – some are designed for commercial kitchens while others are made for domestic use. On top of this, the dishes you cook involve different cooking temperatures and duration as well. 

It’s normal for ovens to use anywhere between 1,000-5,000 watts, with the general average being around 2,400 watts per hour – provided the usual cooking temperature stays between 300-425°F. 

How Much Electricity Does an Air-Conditioner (AC) Use? 

Similar to ovens, ACs are also available in a variety of configurations. Several other factors also affect the overall electricity consumed – from the number of rooms in your home or apartment to the desired inside temperature to your insulation, and so on.  

Geography and season are also crucial here. Think about it: AC usage during the winter in New York will be different than AC usage during summertime in Palm Springs. 

To give you an idea, an average central air-conditioner unit uses anywhere between 3,000-5,000 watts of power during the hotter months of the year. 

How Much Electricity Does a Dryer Use? 

The average clothes dryer uses 5,000 watts while the average washer uses anywhere from 500 watts (non-electric water heating) to 1,800 watts (with electric water heating). 

Do Dimmers Use Less Electricity? 

Yes, dimmers ensure a lower consumption of energy.  

Modern dimmers use less electricity as opposed to older dimmers as the former uses a TRIAC switch that cuts off the electric supply several times per second.  

As a result, the total amount of power reaching the light bulb is reduced. This lowers the amount of light produced, which in turn uses less electricity. 

How Much Electricity Do I Use? 

Electricity Usage | How Much is Used - powerlines-imagesource

The best way to determine the total amount of electricity consumed is to analyze your monthly electricity bills 

Your electricity usage will differ with seasons, weather, and other factors. For example, months when you’re not home will have lower electricity consumption as opposed to months when you have guests over. 

You can also calculate your power consumption by using the following formula: 

Step 1: Calculate the watts of every device you use daily 

You will find this on the packaging of every device. Here’s a list of everyday devices to get you started: 

  • Microwave: 750-1,100 watts 
  • Dishwasher: 1,200-2,400 watts 
  • Iron: 100-1,800 watts 
  • Laptop: 50 watts 
  • Coffee maker: 900-1,200 watts 

Step 2: Convert the watts to kilowatts  

Every 1000W is equal to 1kW, so just apply this for your wattage. 

Step 3: Find out the kilowatts and monthly appliance usage 

You’ll need three formulas for this: 

  1. Calculating Watts-Hours per Day

Device Wattage (watts) x Hours used per day = Watt-hours (Wh) per day 

  1. Converting Watt-Hours to Kilowatts

Device usage (Wh) / 1000 (Wh/kWh) = Device usage in kWh 

  1. Find Your Monthly Usage

Daily usage (kWh) x 30 (Days) = approximate monthly usage (kWh / Month) 

Step 4: Calculate the entire cost  

Monthly usage in kilowatt-hours (kWh) x Electric rate ($/kWh) = approximate cost per month 

What Is the Average Household Electricity Usage? 

In 2019, the average annual electricity consumption for a residential utility customer in the U.S. was 10,649 kWh, an average of nearly 877 kWh per month. 

In French households, the average electricity usage was considerably lower at 6,400 kWh per year, while China consumes about 1,300 kWh annually. 

Different regions have different average usage. Plus, other factors like house size, availability of electricity, and appliance standards also affect the numbers. 

Electricity Literally Makes Our Future Bright  

Electricity Renewable Power | plug-imagesource

Today, most of the devices we use and activities we engage in require electricity. From cooling off with a fan to talking on a phone to driving (hello, Tesla owners!), it’s become a significant part of our daily lives. 

Adopting renewable power sources as opposed to fossil fuel sources can ensure a brighter future for our Earth and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Contact your energy supplier to switch to electricity from renewable energy sources like solar panels, biomass, and wind turbines. 

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