What’s a Live Wire?

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Live wires carry electric current and touching them can cause electric shock. Color coding is used to identify live wires, and insulation is used to prevent shorts. Safety precautions are important around live wires, especially in high voltage settings.

A live or hot wire is a conductive wire that carries electric current in the form of an oscillating voltage. Touching the wire can cause an electric shock in some settings, as a body can act as a ground and electricity will flow through the path of least resistance, your body, to reach the ground. Special precautions are needed to limit the risk of electric shock from live wires, whether they are downed electrical wires or house wiring.

By convention, many electrical codes insist on the use of color coding in wiring for safety reasons. A live wire may be black, brown, or red, depending on the region. This alerts people to the fact that it carries current and can be energized. In domestic electrical wiring, the complementary wire is the so-called “neutral”. The wire runs through the live wire to reach an appliance, moves through the circuit created by the appliance, and exits through the neutral wire.

Technically, both live and neutral wires can carry current in such circuits, and some home wiring does not differ. In other cases, an electrician may install polarized outlets, where one hole is slightly smaller than the other. The smaller hole houses the live wire, while the larger hole is the neutral. This can increase the safety of appliances plugged into the outlet, especially when coupled with the use of a grounding. Ground provides a safe path for electricity to limit the chances of electric shock.

The live wire is insulated, with the insulation level depending on the voltage. Plastics, fabrics, paper and gels can be used as insulating agents. The insulation limits contact between it and other conductors, preventing shorts. It also ensures that a live wire does not energize something like the casing of an appliance. Insulation tends to wear out over time, especially in harsh environments. It is important to periodically inspect electrical wires for signs of danger such as worn insulation or severely bent and potentially broken wires.

Safety around live wires is important, especially in the case of high voltage wires such as those used in overhead power lines and industrial facilities. Many electrical systems have automatic shutdown features to cut power in the event of a problem such as a ground fault or a dropped electrical pole. In other cases, a technician may have to manually shut off the power. Unless otherwise indicated, it should be assumed that exposed electrical wiring is live and could present a risk of electrocution.

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