Name: Laura O.
I am a grade 9 student and we were given definitions in class based on our unit
Electricity and one of the definitions is "grounding." Can you please send me the definition
that is a bit more understandable than "zero potential (whatever that is)?"
Please forgive me if I sound a little remedial with this explanation. I just do not know how
much you know about electricity.
Yes, that one used to confuse me too. What does "potential" mean anyway?
For example: Consider an automobile. Like any other auto., this one has a battery. It also
has a ( + ) terminal and a ( - ) terminal. Electrical current flows from the ( + ) terminal
to the ( - ) terminal when a an electrical circuit is applied (car stereo, fans, pumps, etc...).
Why? Because there is a POTENTIAL VOLTAGE between the two terminals. In a car it is about
12.6 Volts. This electrical potential is just like the potential energy of water falling
from the top of Niagara Falls ( GROUND ). You can also think of "GROUNDING" as the lowest
point of voltage of a particular electrical system....Hence ... "zero potential".
Usually when someone "grounds something out" or "grounds an appliance" etc... they are
referring to attaching the outer electrical frame of the appliance, or the "whatever" to an
electrical wire that will, in the end, be tied in with the "electrical ground" of your house
or your car or whatever application it may be used in. The term "grounding" is used very
loosely among electricians and electrical engineers.
If I have done nothing but totally confused you, just try to remember that the act of
GROUNDING is to electrically attach that which you are grounding to the lowest "electrical
potential" ...mostly referred to as 0 Volt (zero) potential. This is done sometimes just
to complete a circuit. It is also done to some household appliances to prevent electrical
I hope I have been of some help to you.
Thanks for the question and thanks for using NEWTON AAS.
People have decided to label the electrical voltage of the earth, the dirt under your feet as 0
volts, and it is often called ground
potential. You have to put the zero point somewhere, this is a good place to do it.
So all other voltages are relative to this. You have to understand that a "voltage" or
electrical "potential" really means "How far am I from somewhere else that we call the
reference". Its like saying you are at an altitude of 100 feet. What you really mean is
100 feet off of the 0 foot point, the ground. When you say a wall outlet has a voltage of
110 volts (AC but ignore this), you mean that the potential, the voltage, of this wire is
110 volts (the correct unit) away from 0 volts, which again is assigned to the dirt under
your feet. You say "the voltage at one end of a battery is 6 volts relative to the other
end". You say "The wall voltage is 110 volts relative to the ground". You say "I am
standing 10 feet up, relative to the earth" -- same concept.
OK that being said, the subject of grounding comes up. And it is often tied to electrical
safety, but shows up other way too. People like to make sure that nowhere in your house or
a factory is there an exposed point that has a very high voltage (relative to what? relative
to ground!). Because a person could touch that point, while their feet are electrically
touching the ground, the dirt. If they did, then as we just said, a large voltage would be
across their body, driving a large current, and shocking them, hurting them.
The way this can actually be done, to keep you safe, is to make sure there is good electrical
connection from the outside of the box, the handle of the tool, whatever the person touches,
to the earth, to the dirt at your feet. The box is then "grounded".
That is the basic idea. The rest of what I will say is just interesting stuff, but you can
ignore me if you wish!
Often the best ground in your house, the best point tied electrically to the earth, are your
water pipes. Some people for example might tie the pole of their TV antenna (they do not
have cable!) to their water pipe, which in turn goes into the earth. If you are an electric
power company, you take grounding very seriously. You just do not go drive a stake into the
dirt, and call that ground. You lay down a mesh of wire, all around your power plant, or
your transmission lines. You put in lots of metal stakes into the actual earth, trying to
get the best possible "connection". There are books on how to do all this, that electricians
have to understand, national safety codes etc. Oh, and of course lightning strikes, it is
trying to send its electrical current also to this mysterious "ground".
Electrical potentials (voltages) are always "differences". The term "ground" or "grounding"
comes from the fact that the earth because of its size relative to other things you might
have around your lab has a GIGANTIC capacity to accept (or donate) electrons in response to
a difference in voltage of some other device -- hence the term "ground". So in most cases
whatever is attached to the earth (ground) is assigned a potential (voltage) of zero -- but
strictly speaking it is relative.
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Update: June 2012