What Is a Short Circuit?

Deyan G.
Deyan G.

Updated · May 10, 2022

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The existence of electricity makes life easier and more enjoyable. Electricity unquestionably impacts everything in our personal and professional lives.

However, in the event of a short, it can become a threat to life and property.

To avoid such and to safely use electrical appliances and devices, its best to consider the following questions:  

  • What is a short circuit
  • How do I prevent it?
  • What causes a short circuit?

Let’s dive in!

What Is a Short Circuit?  

In simple terms, a short occurs when the two conductors supplying electrical power to a circuit have low resistance between them. When this happens, the current flow and voltage become excessive. The electricity goes through the shortest route and results in a short.

This can lead to damage, small-scale explosions, and even a fire. Some short circuits are accidents, while others are deliberate. For example, when using a voltage-sensing crowbar circuit protector.

Types of Short Circuits

Let's familiarize ourselves with the different types of shorts.  

Normal Short Circuit

This type of short happens when a live wire comes in contact with a neutral wire. Upon contact, there is an instant drop in resistance value, and the electric current flows through a different path creating the short.

Arc Short Circuit

This short results from electricity jumping from wire to wire. This can happen when an overheated cable melts, breaks, or blows apart.

Ground Fault Short Circuit

A type of electric short occurs when a charged wire unintentionally touches a grounded section of any equipment. Everyday items that live cables come in contact with are appliances, circuit boxes, and outlets.

Causes of Short Circuits

A variety of electrical issues can cause your wiring to short circuit

Wiring faults in home appliances

Electrical home appliances can generate shorting problems. A device’s cables become an extension of a circuit when plugged into a socket. As such, any existing faults in an appliance can cause issues in the circuit. 

A best practice is to put short circuit protection on all home appliances.  

Faults in wiring insulation or wiring

A few factors can create faults in an electrical system’s cabling or insulation. External damage, for example, is a common way wires or their insulation become more susceptible to shorts. 

Also, as electrical systems age, their components will deteriorate. This includes its wiring, which can lead to faults and, worse, electrical shorts.

Loose wire connections

Having loose cables in a circuit creates an environment where the live and neutral wires can possibly connect. That connection will result in a short.

Poor installation

You typically mount electric sockets on walls. Sometimes during home or office renovations or installations, nails or screws can come into contact with live wires. This will cause an electric short.

Carelessness 

One can’t be too careful when it comes to electricity. It is important to note that all fluids, including water, should be kept away from electrical wiring. When electrical cables contact fluids, it creates shorts that can cause minor issues or even fatal results.

Wiring left exposed to pests and rodents is often the cause of an electrical short. This is largely due to live and neutral wires coming into contact with one another after critters eat through the insulation.  

Signs of Short Circuits

Here are four things to keep an eye out for:

  • Sparks emanate from an outlet or a plugged-in electrical appliance.
  • The home appliance which you are using has exposed circuitry.
  • The outlet box has burn marks, or there is a burning smell.
  • The outlet produces a buzzing or popping sound. 

Dangers of Short Circuits

When an electrical short circuit occurs, there is an increase in electrical current without any flow impedance. Alternative pathways of electricity can include the human body if a person comes in contact with a faulty circuit. If this happens, the current travels through the body, causing an electric shock which can lead to injury or death.

Additionally, shorts result in power surges with extremely high temperatures and even electric arcs. This can cause plastic to melt and fires to develop. 

Short circuits can pose a serious risk. 

How to Fix?

When you notice there’s a shorted outlet in your home or office, there are a few things you can do to repair it. For most, it is probably best to call a professional to reduce the risk of personal injury and ensure the job gets done correctly. It is imperative to take precautions when working with electricity. 

In cases of an easy fix or no readily available service, be sure to first isolate the circuit by switching off the corresponding breaker. After stopping the flow of electricity, it is safe to work on the damaged hardware. If you’re unsure which breaker to turn off, turn off all breakers and breakout your flashlight. 

Here are a few steps on how to fix a shorted wire in an outlet:

  • After ensuring electricity is no longer flowing to the outlet’s location, carefully review for damage. 
  • Open it up using the required tools and identify the damaged wire. 
  • Next, you’ll need to remove the shorting wire from the outlet.
  • If there are burn marks on the entire length of the cable, it is best to replace it altogether. Depending on the capacity of your breaker, it is also best to replace the damaged cable with a higher-gauge one.
  • If the damage isn’t too extensive, cut off the damaged part with a wirecutter.
  • Next, get a new cable and cut out the same length of the damaged wire you removed.
  • Use butt connectors to attach the new cable to the existing one. You can also use heat shrink tubing to create an extra layer of protection.
  • Once you’ve repaired the shorted wire, return it to its position, replace the socket and turn on the circuit breaker. You can use a non-contact voltage meter to test the various components to ensure everything is in working order.

Although this is a simple fix for a common household short, you can follow similar steps to repair others. 

However, it is a best practice to obtain professional services due to the dangerous nature of working with electricity. 

Preventing Short Circuits

So, what steps can you follow to avoid shorts?

  • Reduce electricity usage during bad weather conditions

Bad weather, such as storms and lightning strikes, can cause short circuits. So, reducing power use during unstable weather can help prevent shorts. If a power surge happens, it's best to have your appliances disconnected. 

  • Install circuit breakers or interrupters

Such devices interrupt or break abnormal current flows in a circuit. There are various circuit breaker types, including ground-fault interrupters and arc-fault interrupters. 

  • Regularly monitor your home appliances and outlets

We’ve already discussed the potential problems of a shorted wire. As such, always check appliances and wiring well before use. Faults at any point within the circuit can cause a short. 

Keep an eye out for any signs of a short, including the smell or trace of burning.  You should replace older outlets and switches to prevent any shorting problems. 

  • Annual maintenance

At least once every year, invite a professional electrician to inspect the outlets, circuits, and electrical appliances in your home and office. Such experts can often detect minor faults and potential short wires. Such preventative measures can eliminate many potential problems.

  • Use only authentic and quality electrical products.

Ever heard the saying “penny wise, pound foolish”? When you think you’re saving money, you’re actually gearing up to spend more. That's what happens when you use substandard electrical products in your home or workspace. Frequently such components deteriorate quickly and result in short circuits.

Wrap Up

Let’s recap what a short circuit is.

It’s the result of low resistance between two electrical conductors. This causes an excess flow of current, known as an electrical short circuit.

Shorts are dangerous but can be prevented and repaired. You can do a quick short circuit fix on your own, but it is always best to get a professional to look at it.

FAQ.


How do I check for a short circuit in my house?

Common approaches to identify household shorts include:

  • Inspection of all sockets, switches, and appliances.
  • Examine for the tell-tale signs, including sparks, burn marks and melted plastic.
  • After locating the affected circuit, isolate it by turning off the power with the correct circuit breaker.

Having identified the short’s location, you are now poised to repair the short circuit wire

Can a short circuit fix itself?

Some shorts can cause a fuse to blow and need replacing, while others can fail and damage appliances. You’ll need to determine the problem and the best course of action.  

However, some circuits can experience issues but adjust over time. These may not require fixing. 

How does a short circuit occur?

To understand how such happens, it’s best first to know what a short circuit is.

A short is when an electrical current flows through an unplanned, faster pathway rather than following the circuit's intended path. 

As such, short circuits occur when there is little or no resistance to the electric flow.

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Deyan G.

Deyan G.

Techjury.net's manager. Deyan has been fascinated by technology his whole life. From the first Tetris game all the way to Falcon Heavy. Working for TechJury is like a dream come true, combining both his passions – writing and technology. In his free time (which is pretty scarce, thanks to his three kids), Deyan enjoys traveling and exploring new places. Always with a few chargers and a couple of gadgets in the backpack. He makes mean dizzying Island Paradise cocktails too.

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