Basic Electrical Terms and Definitions

For a better understanding of electricity, one must have in-depth knowledge of the basic electrical terms & definitions. We will discuss the frequently used basic electrical terms and definitions in this post.

Alternating Current (AC) 

An electric current that changes its direction many times a second at regular intervals. Alternating current, abbreviation AC, the flow of electric charges that periodically reverses. It starts, say, from zero, grows to a maximum, decreases to zero, reverses, reaches a maximum in the opposite direction, returns again to the original value, and repeats this cycle indefinitely.


An instrument that measures the flow of electrical current in amperes. It is always connected in the series with the circuit. An ammeter is used to measure the magnitude of the current. The ammeter has very low resistance and the voltage drop across the ammeter is very low and this does not affect the measurement accuracy.


The maximum amount of electric current a conductor or device can carry before sustaining immediate or progressive deterioration.

The ampacity of a conductor is conductor’s ability to dissipate heat without being damaged the conductor or its insulation. The current flowing in the conductor more than its ampacity cause heating of the conductor and its insulation. The ampacity of the conductor depends on;

  • The insulation temperature rating,
  • Electrical resistance of the conductor material
  • The ambient temperature,
  • Capability of the insulated conductor to dissipate heat to the surrounds.

The larger diameter conductor has the greater ampacity.

Ampere-Hour (Ah)

Ah is the unit of measure for battery capacity. It is nothing but the multiplication of the current (in amperes) by the time (in hours) during which current flows. For example, a battery that provides 20 amperes for 10 hours. Then, the battery capacity is 20 X 10 = 200 Ah.

Ampere (A) A unit of measure for the intensity of an electric current flowing in a circuit. One ampere is equal to a current flow of one coulomb per second. (I =Q/t) Therefore, 1A = 1C/Sec.

Ampere (A) 

Ampere is the unit of measurement of the electric current in a circuit. The ampere depends on the number of electrons passing through a circuit. The more the number of electrons passing through an electric circuit shows more electric current through the circuit. The flow of an electric current in a circuit is equal to the rate of flow of electrons( I=Q/t). In other words, therefore, 1A = 1C/Sec.

It’s the flow of a number of electrons in time, specifically 6.24 x 1018 electrons, per second. Perhaps more usefully, one amp flows when you have a voltage of 1 Volt driving 1 ohm. That’s the basis of Ohm’s law. It is called the unit of the electrical current measurement.

Apparent Power 

The combination of reactive power and true power is called apparent power, and it is the product of a circuit’s voltage and current, without reference to the phase angle. Apparent power is measured in the unit of Volt-Amps (VA) and is symbolized by the capital letter S.


The movable part of a generator or motor. It is made up of conductors which rotate through a magnetic field to provide voltage or force by electromagnetic induction. The pivoted points in generator regulators are also called armatures.

A rotor is the part of the motor that rotates. It can have bars that conduct current, it can be wound, or it is just a rotor.

An armature has bars that conduct current and brushes that provide an electrical path for the current. A wound rotor has slip rings to provide an electrical path for the current. A rotor may also have permanent magnets or just laminated bars that react electromagnetically with the stator. The armature is generally referred to when talking about DC motors.


Capacitance is the property of two closely placed but not touching metal plates to hold an electrical charge given to them by being connected to an external EMF. They will hold this charge until it is released into a load connected between them. The capacitance is measured in Farads and is proportional to the area the plates have in common and inversely proportional to the distance between them. It can be increased by inserting different insulators between them.


A capacitor is a passive two-terminal electrical component used to store electrical energy temporarily in an electric field. The forms of practical capacitors vary widely, but all contain at least two electrical conductors (plates) separated by a dielectric (i.e. an insulator that can store energy by becoming polarized).

A dielectric can be glass, ceramic, plastic film, air, vacuum, paper, mica, oxide layer, etc. Capacitors are widely used as parts of electrical circuits in many common electrical devices. Unlike a resistor, an ideal capacitor does not dissipate energy. Instead, a capacitor stores energy in the form of an electrostatic field between its plates.

In a nutshell, a device is used to store an electric charge, consisting of one or more pairs of conductors separated by an insulator. Commonly used for filtering out voltage spikes.


A closed path in which electric current flows. The circuits can be in series, parallel, or in any combination of the two.

Circuit Breaker 

A circuit breaker is a switching((ON/OFF/TRIP) device that is used for:

  1. For switching ON/ OFF the load
  2. For interrupting the circuit under the fault condition

When the load is switched on or off, the arc is produced between the contacts of the breaker. To quench the arc, the circuit breaker has a medium in which the make/ break of the contacts takes place. The circuit breaker can be of one of the following types; minimum oil circuit breaker, air circuit breaker, SF6, and vacuum type.


Conductors have the ability to carry an electric charge which is current. Current is the movement of charge in the material. Good conductors have a low resistance to the flow of current. If the resistance to the flow of current is very high, then we have an insulator. Metal is a good conductor of current – some metals are better than others. Copper and aluminum wire are the most common conductors.


Air is not a perfect insulator, and even under normal conditions, the air contains many free electrons and ions. When an electric field intensity establishes between the conductors, these ions and free electrons experience forced upon them. Due to this effect, the ions and free electrons get accelerated and moved in the opposite direction.

The charged particles during their motion collide with one another and also with the very slow-moving uncharged molecules. Thus, the number of charged particles goes on increasing rapidly. This increases the conduction of air between the conductors and a breakdown occurs. Thus, the arc establishes between the conductors. This is known as the corona.

occur naturally in high-voltage systems unless care is taken to limit the electric field strength.

Current (I) 

Current is the rate at which electrons flow past a point in a complete electrical circuit. At its most basic, current = flow. An ampere, or amp, is the international unit used for measuring current. It expresses the number of electrons (sometimes called “electrical charge”) flowing past a point in a circuit over a given time.


The change in an alternating electrical sine wave from zero to a positive peak to zero to a negative peak and back to zero. See Frequency.


The average value of energy over a specified period of time.

Dielectric constant — A quantity measuring the ability of a substance to store electrical energy in an electric field.

Dielectric strength — The maximum electric field that a pure material can withstand under ideal conditions without breaking down (i.e., without experiencing failure of its insulating properties).

Diode — A semiconductor device with two terminals, typically allowing the flow of current in one direction only. Diodes allow current to flow when the anode is positive in relation to the cathode.

Direct Current (DC) — An electric current that flows in only one direction.

Electrolyte — Any substance which, in solution, is dissociated into ions and is thus made capable of conducting an electrical current. The sulfuric acid-water solution in a storage battery is an electrolyte.

Electromotive Force — (EMF) A difference in potential that tends to give rise to an electric current. Measured in volts.

Electron — A tiny particle that rotates around the nucleus of an atom. It has a negative charge of electricity.

Electron theory — The theory which explains the nature of electricity and the exchange of “free” electrons between atoms of a conductor. It is also used as one theory to explain direction of current flow in a circuit.

Farad — A unit of measure for capacitance. One farad is equal to one coulomb per volt.

Ferroresonance — (nonlinear resonance) a type of resonance in electric circuits which occurs when a circuit containing a nonlinear inductance is fed from a source that has series capacitance, and the circuit is subjected to a disturbance such as the opening of a switch. It can cause overvoltages and overcurrents in an electrical power system and can pose a risk to transmission and distribution equipment and to operational personnel.

Frequency — The number of cycles per second. Measured in Hertz. If a current completes one cycle per second, then the frequency is 1 Hz; 60 cycles per second equals 60 Hz.

Fuse — A circuit interrupting device consisting of a strip of wire that melts and breaks an electric circuit if the current exceeds a safe level. To restore service, the fuse must be replaced using a similar fuse with the same size and rating after correcting the cause of failure.

Generator — A device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy.

Ground — The reference point in an electrical circuit from which voltages are measured, a common return path for electric current, or a direct physical connection to the Earth.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) — A device intended for the protection of personnel that functions to de-energize a circuit or portion thereof within an established period of time when a current to ground exceeds some predetermined value that is less than that required to operate the overcurrent protective device of the supply circuit.

Henry — A unit of measure for inductance. If the rate of change of current in a circuit is one ampere per second and the resulting electromotive force is one volt, then the inductance of the circuit is one henry.

Hertz — A unit of measure for frequency. Replacing the earlier term of cycle per second (cps).

Impedance — The measure of the opposition that a circuit presents to a current when a voltage is applied. Impedance extends the concept of resistance to AC circuits and possesses both magnitude and phase, unlike resistance, which has only magnitude.

Inductance — The property of a conductor by which a change in current flowing through it induces (creates) a voltage (electromotive force) in both the conductor itself (self-inductance) and in any nearby conductors (mutual inductance). Measured in henry (H).

Inductor — A coil of wire wrapped around an iron core. The inductance is directly proportional to the number of turns in the coil.

Insulator — Any material where the electric current does not flow freely. Insulative materials, such as glass, rubber, air, and many plastics have relatively high resistance. Insulators protect equipment and life from electric shock.

Inverter — An apparatus that converts direct current into alternating current.

Kilowatt-hour (kWh) — The product of power in kW and time in hours. Equal to 1000 Watt-hours. For example, if a 100W light bulb is used for 4 hours, 0.4kWhs of energy will be used (100W x 1kW / 1000 Watts x 4 hours). Electrical energy is sold in units of kWh.

Kilowatt-hour Meter — A device used to measure electrical energy use.

Kilowatt (kW) — Equal to 1000 watts.

Load — Anything which consumes electrical energy, such as lights, transformers, heaters, and electric motors.

Load Rejection — The condition in which there is a sudden load loss in the system which causes the generating equipment to be over-frequency. A load rejection test confirms that the system can withstand a sudden loss of load and return to normal operating conditions using its governor. Load banks are normally used for these tests as part of the commissioning process for electrical power systems.

Lightning – A flash of light caused by an atmospheric electrical discharge between two clouds, or between a cloud and the earth.

Lightning Arrester – A device used to protect an electrical component from over-voltage.

Mutual Induction — Occurs when changing current in one coil induces a voltage in a second coil.

Ohm — (Ω) A unit of measure of resistance. One ohm is equivalent to the resistance in a circuit transmitting a current of one ampere when subjected to a potential difference of one volt.

Ohm’s Law — The mathematical equation that explains the relationship between current, voltage, and resistance (V=IR).

Ohmmeter — An instrument for measuring the resistance in ohms of an electrical circuit.

Open Circuit — An open or open circuit occurs when a circuit is broken, such as by a broken wire or open switch, interrupting the flow of current through the circuit. It is analogous to a closed valve in a water system.

Parallel Circuit — A circuit in which there are multiple paths for electricity to flow. Each load connected in a separate path receives the full circuit voltage, and the total circuit current is equal to the sum of the individual branch currents.

Piezoelectricity — Electric polarization in a substance (especially certain crystals) resulting from the application of mechanical stress (pressure).

Polarity — A collective term applied to the positive (+) and negative ( – ) ends of a magnet or electrical mechanisms such as a coil or battery.

Power — The rate at which electrical energy is transferred by an electric circuit. Measured in Watts.

Power Factor — The ratio of the actual electrical power dissipated by an AC circuit to the product of the r.m.s. values of current and voltage. The difference between the two is caused by reactance in the circuit and represents the power that does no useful work.

Protective Relay — A relay device designed to trip a circuit breaker when a fault is detected.

Reactive Power — The portion of electricity that establishes and sustains the electric and magnetic fields of AC equipment. Exists in an AC circuit when the current and voltage are not in phase. Measured in VARS.

Rectifier — An electrical device that converts an alternating current into a direct one by allowing a current to flow through it in one direction only.

Relay — An electrical coil switch that uses a small current to control a much larger current.

Reluctance -The resistance that a magnetic circuit offers to lines of force in a magnetic field.

Resistance — The opposition to the passage of an electric current. Electrical resistance can be compared to the friction experienced by water when flowing through a pipe. Measured in ohms.

Resistor -A device usually made of wire or carbon. The resistor opposes the flow of electric current.

Rotor — The rotating part of an electrical machine such as a generator, motor, or alternator.

Self Induction -The change in electric current cause induced voltage in an inductor.

Semiconductor — A solid substance that has a conductivity between that of an insulator and that of most metals, either due to the addition of an impurity or because of temperature effects. Devices made of semiconductors, notably silicon, are essential components of most electronic circuits.

Series-Parallel Circuit — A circuit in which some of the circuit components are connected in series and others are connected in parallel.

Series Circuit — A circuit in which there is only one path for electricity to flow. All of the current in the circuit must flow through all of the loads.

Service — The conductors and equipment used to deliver energy from the electrical supply system to the system being served.

Short Circuit — When one part of an electric circuit comes in contact with another part of the same circuit, diverting the flow of current from its desired path.

Solid-State Circuit — Electronic (integrated) circuits which utilize semiconductor devices such as transistors, diodes, and silicon-controlled rectifiers.

Transistor — A semiconductor device with three connections, capable of amplification in addition to rectification.

True Power — Measured in Watts. The power manifested in tangible forms such as electromagnetic radiation, acoustic waves, or mechanical phenomena. In a direct current (DC) circuit, or in an alternating current (AC) circuit whose impedance is a pure resistance, the voltage and current are in phase.

VARS — A unit of measure of reactive power. Vars may be considered as either the imaginary part of apparent power or the power flowing into a reactive load, where voltage and current are specified in volts and amperes.

Variable Resistor — A resistor that can be adjusted to different ranges of value.

Volt-Ampere (VA) — A unit of measure of apparent power. It is the product of the rms voltage and the RMS current.

Volt (V) — A unit measure of voltage. One volt is equal to the difference of potential that would drive one ampere of current against one-ohm resistance.

Voltage — An electromotive force or “pressure” that causes electrons to flow and can be compared to water pressure which causes water to flow in a pipe. Measured in volts.

Voltmeter — An instrument for measuring the force in volts of an electrical current. This is the difference of potential (voltage) between different points in an electrical circuit. Voltmeters that have a high internal resistance are connected across (parallel to) the points where voltage is to be measured.

Watt-hour (Wh) — A unit of electrical energy equivalent to the power consumption of one watt for one hour.

Watt (W) — A unit of electrical power. One watt is equivalent to one joule per second, corresponding to the power in an electric circuit in which the potential difference is one volt and the current one ampere.

Wattmeter — The wattmeter is an instrument for measuring the electric power (or the supply rate of electrical energy) in watts of any given circuit.

Waveform — A graphical representation of electrical cycles which shows the amount of variation in amplitude over some period of time.

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