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Understanding Your Home's Electrical System

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How Your Electrical System Works

Have you ever wondered how your home's electrical system works? Most homeowners aren't licensed electricians, and, as such, we often take our electrical systems for granted, assuming the lights will go on when we flip the switch or that the ceiling fan will keep us comfortable on hot days. But when things go wrong, we are often at a loss for what to do.

While we always recommend that you work with one of our licensed electricians on all electrical repairs, installations, and upgrades, we also think it is important that homeowners feel empowered when it comes to their electrical systems. A little basic knowledge about how your system works can go a long way in making you feel more comfortable.

The Major Parts of Your Electrical System

In most residential homes, power enters your home from outdoor lines through your electrical service head – depending on where you live, these lines may be above ground or buried below ground. You may have also heard your service head called a weatherhead, weather cap, or service entrance cap. Most service heads will have two 120-volt wires and a neutral wire. These wires are used to create the circuits in your home.

You will find your electric meter and service panel near your service head. The meter is how your utility provider measures your energy usage. Your service panel is like the grand central station for your home's electrical system. Here you will find the circuits that power your home (in older homes, you may still find fuses). This is also where you will go if you need to shut down a circuit or if you need to power a circuit back on after a circuit overload trips your breaker.

Inside your home, you will find your wiring system, outlets, and receptacles. Electricity always wants to create a complete circuit. Generally, your home's electrical circuits will have hot and neutral conductors. Electricity will move from your service panel to your appliances and devices through the hot conductor and back to the service panel via the neutral conductor. Your wiring system and circuits should also feature a grounding wire to help protect you from electrical shocks.

Outlets & Receptacles

The parts of residential electrical systems that most homeowners are familiar with are their outlets and receptacles. An outlet is a point where electricity can leave your electrical system to power an appliance or device. However, to access that electricity, you need a receptacle. The receptacle is the set of verticle slots into which you can plug your devices. Basic residential outlets typically feature two receptacles.

You will likely have noticed that the verticle slots in receptacles are slightly different sizes (the neutral wire slot is usually a little wider than the hot wire). This safety feature ensures that you plug items into the socket correctly. Grounded outlets will have a third opening, usually a round hole, below the two verticle slots. You may also have GFCI receptacles and tamper-resistant receptacles (TRRs).

Note: modern electrical codes require that all outlets installed in residential homes be grounded. If you have an older home that does not have grounded outlets, you should call our electricians and have them updated as soon as possible. You should also have your entire electrical system inspected to ensure that you are not missing other vital electrical safety features.

Though technically different, most people use these terms interchangeably. Additionally, when people say "outletandquot; and "receptacle," they typically mean the general unit that the outlet and receptacle form together. You may also use the term "socket." We usually know what you mean no matter which term you use, so you shouldn't worry about which word you use.


Switches are hard-wired into your system and control the electrical current to devices, such as lights, fans, and outlets. When a switch is in the "offandquot; position, the circuit is open. When a circuit is "open," it is broken, and therefore, the electricity is interrupted. When the switch is "on," the circuit is closed, and the power can flow freely to the device you want powered.

Want to know more about your home's electrical system? Check out some of our past blogs:

Maintaining Your Electrical System

Now that you know the basic parts of your electrical system, you may wonder what you need to do to take care of it. The first step to maintaining your electrical system is scheduling routine inspections. It is generally recommended that your electrical system be inspected by a licensed electrician (like ours at Valley Heating, Cooling, Electrical and Solar) every three to five years. If your system is older and you are dealing with chronic repair issues, you may wish to schedule an inspection more often.

Damaged electrical systems have the potential to be very dangerous; even a relatively small problem can lead to serious electrical shock or fire. The next most important thing you can do to keep your electrical system in good condition is to take care of repair issues as soon as possible. If you see any symptoms of a problem or are experiencing issues with your electrical system, call Valley asap for help.

Other things you can do to keep your electrical system running smoothly include:

  • Keeping the area around your electric meter and service panel free from debris
  • Keep trees and bushes around your service head trimmed so they don't interfere with your power lines
  • Don't use appliances or devices that have damaged cords, bent or broken plugs, or frayed wires

Questions about your electrical system? Contact Valley online.

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