Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Do Some Outlets Look Different From Others?

Buying new appliances or performing home upgrades can be a headache for those who have little knowledge of concepts such as volts and amps. Some of you may have noticed that the outlet used to plug in your desk lamp may be different from the outlet located behind your refrigerator, and you may have been frustrated when you learned that the new space heater you just purchased can’t be plugged into the standard two-pronged outlet found in your living room.

Because our lives are becoming more complicated and high tech, we are becoming increasingly dependent on these holes in the walls but may not be aware of how they work. The purpose of an electrical outlet is obvious: to provide a point to plug in your various electrical appliances. A standard outlet in the United States is usually of the 125-volt, 15 amps, alternating current variety. These types of plugs are often used for small appliances and devices such as toasters, lamps, and computers. However, for larger appliances such as air conditioners, clothes dryers, electric ranges, and other major appliances, you will be dealing with 220-240 volt outlets.

It is very important to never exceed the above ratings in order to avoid damage to the outlet or a fire inside the wall. In other words, never power a 15A outlet from a circuit breaker larger than 15A, even if multiple outlets will be fed from the circuit breaker. With that in mind, when looking at a standard 125-volt outlet, a few common types can be noted: non-polarized, polarized, grounded, and ground fault circuit interrupter outlets.

Non-polarized Outlets:
These outlets have two vertical slots of the same size that are side by side. These types of outlets are no longer used, and modern polarized plugs will not fit in them.

Polarized Outlets: These outlets are different in that the slot for the neutral wire is wider than the slot for the hot wire, making it difficult to insert the plug the wrong way. This is often seen in appliances such as toasters and lamps, which have exposed parts that can have electrical current running through them.

Grounded Outlets: These outlets have a round hole for the grounding conductor, in addition to the vertical slots. Generally, electronic devices such as computers require these to provide a solid ground for the case so that the device to work properly. This type of outlet is also used for safety reasons in appliances such as vacuum cleaners, and grounded outlets are always polarized.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter Outlets: These outlets always have two buttons on them and are always polarized and grounded. The purpose of these outlets is to detect ground faults and shut off the power if they occur (such as when a hair dryer has fallen into the bathtub). This type of outlet can be found in the bathroom and near the kitchen sink.

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