How dangerous is your home electrical system?

In this thread, DrumGod claims that he used to check for hot wires by “the tried-and-true touching the wire and swearing method”.
Now, I have done some basic home wiring (new switches, outlets, etc) and have always treated the bare wires in a similar manner in which I would treat enriched plutonium. That is, with exteme, almost paranoid caution. I had always thought that ‘touching a hot wire’ pretty much = ‘dead’.
I realize that when dealing with electricity, too much caution is better than not enough, but am I being overly ridiculous? Does grabbing a hot wire @ 120 (or so) volts really just make you say “Ouch, dammit!!”? If so, how much voltage until you are pretty much worm food?

Thanks for any input and maybe I can rest easier when replacing a light switch now.

Electricity = Plutonium is pretty much how I treat home wiring as well.

I don’t think getting electrocuted by your home wiring is an automatic death sentence. In fact, I think you are more likely to survive than not (that comes from anecdotal evidence from my father-in-law who is an electrician and has zapped himself on more than one occasion yet he’s still around). That said it might kill you depending on certain factors so why take the chance? At the very least I bet it will hurt a good deal so again why would someone want to do it that way?

I’m pretty sure you can get a voltage meter sufficient to measure house witing for less than $50. Money well spent if you have the need to do this stuff yourself. Cheaper than a trip to the hospital.

I once made a boneheaded move that resulted in a jolt of household wiring current coursing through my body. And frankly, I doubt the ‘touching the wire and swearing’ method is very widely used. Yeah, I survived, uninjured actually. But (a) it hurt like hell, and (b) my arm was numb and virtually unusable for about half an hour. This is not a mistake I will ever repeat.

(I did swear, though. :slight_smile: )

[major nitpick]Actually, since electrocute means “to kill by electric shock” it would indeed be an automatic death sentence. The proper word in this case would be shocked.[/major nitpick]

Sorry, that and the misuse of decimated are two of my pet peeves.


Nothing personal to anyone, but this sounds to me like the “hit my head to see if it’s big enough” method of selecting a hammer. Voltmeters that can read 115VAC can be had for less than ten bucks, and test lights are even cheaper. The odds are against it, but you can kill yourself though electrocution or heart attack if you touch a hot wire, and even a minor electrocution isn’t a fun thing.

I guess the academic way of looking at it would be to multiply the costs of death or hospitalization (and time off from work) by the odds of something happening, and no matter how you value your life I’ll bet the number you get will be well above the cost of a meter.

I have always heard that one should remain especially vigilant not to close an electrical circuit with your body in such a way that the current travels through your chest. As I understand it, the risk of death is greatly multiplied if the heart is involved.

Duh, but still, worth mentioning.

I’ve been zapped by house wiring far too many times. While it’s far from fun (hurts like hell) I doubt it will kill unless you’re taking a bath while rewiring.

Okay, when I started typing my above post, the post by cornflakes mentioning heart attacks wasn’t there. I really do need to stop getting work done while I’m posting. :slight_smile:

No, a split second zap is very unlikely to kill you, but that ultimatley depends on the conditions and your health. In your post, you ask if grabbing a hot wire is likely to kill you, which is a different story than just touching it quickly.

Grabbing a hot wire is especially bad because the body tends to “go fetal” in response to a shock. This serves us well if we merely touch a wire because drawing the arms toward the body usually disengages contact. With a grab the automatic response is bad since we tend to clench our hands: which can lead to prolonged exposure.

Worst shock I ever got (and this includes a not-for-electrical-engineers machines lab) was at home. We had an old, dead TV in a wooden cabinet that we wanted to salvage. The thing had been sitting idle for several weeks when I cut the discharge wire coming off the screen. The shock threw me back a few feet. I hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t been using insulated tools. :eek:

Completely off-topic, but good luck on “decimated.” I think that now falls into the “lost cause” category.

Thanks for the catch on electrocuted. Noted for future reference.

Again while WAY off topic what is the problem with decimated? I most often see it used as definition #3 (below) but so if that was a late entry it now seems to be accepted as a proper use of the word (unless there is another way people use it I am unaware of).

I do wiring & I don’t mind the shock too much. I asked the elec comp guy when he came cause I was getting shocked taking a bath & he said he does mind getting shocked. So I guess its a matter of personal preference or being dumb as a kid where my brothers would dare me to put my finger in the socket & I would :slight_smile:

With a grab the automatic response is bad since we tend to clench our hands: which can lead to prolonged exposure.

Yes. One fellow told me years ago that if he had to check a wire manually, he would brush it with the backs of his fingers. If the wire were hot, his hands would clench, pulling his fingers away from it. If you touch a live wire with the palm side of your fingers, you might indeed end up grabbing it, highly increasing the risk of burn or electrocution.

110 will not kill unless you are grounded and/or connected to the neutral line in such a way as the current will pass through your heart.

The classic is the guy on a ladder, using a (shorted) metal-cased drill in his right hand and holding onto a bare pipe with his left - the current will travel from the drill, throught the heart, and into the pipe (gound).

And yes, I’ve been bit a couple of times myself.

That’s why I labeled it a lost cause. That third definition was an incorrect usage of the word (and to some of us, it still is incorrect), but the error has been repeated so often, by so many people, that it’s become part of the language. The word, as you can see by its derivation, meant “to reduce by a tenth,” implying that nine-tenths of whatever was there is still there. The way it’s used now, it means to be reduced almost to the vanishing point, almost completely wiped out.

Remember, dictionaries don’t define how a language should be used - they simply reflect the way a language is used.

It won’t necessarily kill you (though it surely could,) but it sure as hell won’t do you any good. As a kid, I was holding onto the stripped ends (one end in each hand) of an AC power cord that I was about to connect to something. My younger brother thought that I was already finished and helpfully plugged the damned thing in to the socket - 110Volts as I was born and raised in the US. I could not let go. I was paralyzed and jittering uncontrollably until he realized that people don’t normally buzz at 60 cycles and unplugged me. That hurt like a son of a bitch, and I had nightmares of being paralyzed and buzzing for years.
I always treat electricity with great respect. I was lucky to survive my zap.
110Volt AC buzzes if you just get a quick jolt. 240 (like we have here in Germany) burns and kicks.


Hearts are weird things. They have a “vulnerable period” for a few milliseconds just before every heart beat. If you zap yourself just right, AND if you also get the timing just right… you DIE.

It’s like playing Russian Roulette with a couple of hundred empty chambers and only one bullet. Zap! Hey, that didn’t kill me. ZAP! Hey that didn’t kill me. Etc.

Keep doing it for long enough and you’ll get a suprise. An electronics tech who does this won’t survive til retirement.

For electronics people, the proper way to educate yourself is to maintain EXTREME FEAR of 120V. That way you’ll slowly develop good habits, and you’ll never get zapped.

This will save you from testing the “russian roulette” heart fibrillation phenomenon personally. But even more important, it will keep you alive when working with voltages which are far higher than 120V. If you get used to zapping yourself with “high” voltage in line-powered equipment, then you never develop proper high-voltage habits, so you’d better keep your hands out of RF power equipment or big photoflash systems.
In some situations, high voltage kills on contact. If you spend your life being scared of 120VAC, then you’ll be ready when you encounter 1,200VAC.

I’ve been stung several times. As explained above, the danger is multiplied by not being able to get away from the current. Water, ladders, and pipes are good examples of such a danger. Trying to keep one hand in your pocket is more of a reminder than a prevention.

A less common danger involves giving your brain a shock. I’ve only heard of it once, but the fellow involved got a good shock to the head and it resulted in a sort of lobotomy.

I’m sure the ‘brush and cuss’ technique mentioned is used after you’ve cut the power, after you’ve tested the circuit, and just before you grab the wire, you give it a touch with the back of your hand. (Just in case you made a maistake and power was till on.)

(that was an accident, but I liked it :slight_smile: )

I can’t help but laugh at one of the comments in this thread, but not for the reasons you think.