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Understanding Your Household Electrical Circuit

Updated: May 17, 2023

A basic definition of a household circuit is the electrical system that directs the electricity within your home.

If you are looking to have someone install a heat trace cable system on your roof and gutters, you’ll need at least a basic understanding of your home’s electrical system. This will help you to communicate better with the installation expert. You will also be able to troubleshoot your heat cable system should the need arise.

If you are planning on installing the heat cable system yourself, that ups the ante. In that case, you will want a solid knowledge of the electrical system, including each of its components and how they operate.

The electrical system in your home consists of five general components.

1. Meter

An electric meter for your home is a device that measures the amount of electricity consumed within the home. This information provides the basis of your monthly power bill. The power company provides the meter, which is mounted outside where electricity enters your home. The power company’s service cables are extended either overhead or underground and connect to your electric meter. This is how electricity is delivered to your home.

2. Disconnect Switch

Near the electric meter on some homes, you will find a large switch. This is the disconnect switch. The disconnect switch shuts off the entire electrical control panel. If your home’s electrical system doesn’t include a separate disconnect switch, the main circuit breaker in your home serves as the system disconnect. A disconnect switch comes in handy when you need to shut off all of the power in your home for unfortunate events, such as a fire or flash flood. They make it possible for you to turn off the power in your home without having to go inside your home.

3. Service Panel and Circuit Breaker

Your home’s main service panel, also known as the breaker box, is where the electricity goes after passing through the meter. The service panel consists of three service wires. The first two wires are called “hot” wires. These connect to lugs (big screw terminals) located inside the service panel. Electricity is supplied to the house on these three wires. The third wire, known as the neutral, is connected to the neutral bus bar within the service panel. After electricity flows through the electrical system, it goes back to the utility on the neutral wire. This completes the electrical circuit. Contained in the service panel is a large main breaker. This main breaker controls the power to the rest of the circuit breakers within the panel. As mentioned above, the main circuit breaker serves as the system disconnect in homes without an external disconnect switch. Knowing how to turn off power is crucial for being a homeowner. You’ll need to cut the power before doing any type of electrical work in your home, including installing heat trace products. Below the main breaker, you’ll usually find the branch circuit breakers. Branch circuit breakers control the flow of electricity to different branch circuits in your house. Turning off one of these breakers will shut off power to any appliance or device on that specific circuit. If a problem occurs within a circuit, the breaker automatically trips itself off. A circuit overload is the most common cause of a tripped breaker. But, there are circumstances in which a dangerous fault situation is to blame. In this case, you need to contact an electrician.

4. Outlets and Switches

Outlets and switches are easily the most recognized part of your electrical system. You probably handle them in one way or another every day, from plugging in your phone charger to turning on the bathroom light, outlets and switches. Outlets provide power to any devices or appliances that need to be plugged in. Standard outlets are what make up the majority of outlets in a home. But, there are higher amp outlets for high-demand appliances. For any area of a home that may potentially have moisture or become wet, you’ll find GFCI (ground-fault circuit-interrupter) outlets. This type of outlet is usually required when installing a heat trace system on your roof. For, Self Regulating heat cable, that would mean standard outlet with the GFEP (ground-fault-equipment-protection) type breaker. Switches turn on and off power to things such as lights and fans in your home. When a switch is in the off position, you open the circuit, which interrupts the flow of power. The circuit is closed when the switch is flipped to the on position. This allows power to flow past the switch to the light or fan.

5. Wiring

The wiring in your home comprises a few different types of wiring. These include wiring concealed in conduit, armored or Bx cable and non-metallic cable. A conduit is a hollow tube in which electrical wires are concealed. This protects individual insulated wires and anyone that could potentially come in contact with the wires. This type of wiring is used in various areas where the wire must be protected from exposure. Armored cable contains a metal sheath that provides an extra layer of protection to the wires within it. This additional protection safeguards the wires from unwanted cuts, abrasions, or other damages. It is most often used in cases where wiring for appliances is exposed. The most common type of circuit wiring is the non-metallic cable. This is a flexible type of cable with a plastic sheath rather than a metal one. Non-metallic cable is suitable for use in dry, protected areas, including inside walls, flooring, and ceiling cavities. This basic knowledge of the five general components of your home’s electrical system will serve you well as you prepare to have a heat trace cable system installed on your roof, gutter, or pipes.

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