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Ground Fault vs Short Circuit
Ground Fault vs Short Circuit

Electrical

Ground Fault vs Short Circuit: What’s the Difference?

The electrical system in a home is often more complex than many people realize at first blush. Just a few of its major components include the main service panel, circuit breakers, wiring, outlets, and switches. If you have a powered outbuilding or amateur shop, your system may also include a sub-panel.

All of those components and wiring mean that you likely will face electrical problems at some point. Two of the more common problems are short circuits and ground faults. Wondering what the difference is in the ground fault vs short circuit debate?

Keep reading for our quick explanation of the differences.

Modern Wiring Basics

Before jumping into short circuits and ground faults, a quick primer on modern wiring may prove helpful. These days, standard wiring includes three distinct wires: hot, neutral, and ground.

The hot wire carries the current to the plug or device. The neutral wire allows for a complete circuit by creating a path the goes back to the electrical source. The ground wire quite literally connects the system to the ground outside to provide somewhere safe for extra or errant electricity to go.

What Is a Ground Fault?

In any given electrical circuit, there is a certain level of resistance involved. The breaker, wiring, and even connected devices all work with that resistance as a given.

During a ground fault, the current in the hot wire unexpectedly travels to the ground. The expected resistance vanishes, which creates a massive draw of charge. This will normally cause the breaker to trip and cut off the electrical flow.

If the current travels to the actual ground wire, it’s comparatively safe. If the current grounds to the metal components of an appliance, there is a chance of powerful shocks or fire.

Common signs of a ground fault include breakers or GFCI outlets tripping regularly, buzzing in audio equipment, and powerful shocks when touching metal appliances.

What Is a Short Circuit?

In a short circuit, what typically occurs is that the hot wire comes into contact with the neutral wire. Again, you see a huge surge in electrical charge. In this case, though, the charge goes directly back to the electrical source through the neutral wire.

This will also trip the circuit breaker. Unfortunately, before the circuit breaker flips, there are often sparks where the wires touch which creates a fire hazard.

Common causes of short circuits include loose connections and pests chewing on wiring insulation.

Ground Fault vs Short Circuit

Both ground faults and short circuits happen because electricity goes somewhere it shouldn’t. The big difference in ground fault vs short circuit is where that electricity goes.

In a ground short, the electricity either jumps directly to the ground wire or it grounds somewhere nearby, like the metal components of an appliance. In a short circuit, the electricity jumps from the hot wire straight to the neutral wire.

Looking for more information about electricity and your home? Check out some of the other posts over in our Electrical section.

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