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What Is an Electrical Socket?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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An electrical socket is a receptacle found as part of a building or other large structure which can be used to connect an electronic device to a circuit. These sockets are often “female,” though some sockets can utilize both “female” and “male” connectors, depending on the design of power plugs in a particular country. An electrical device usually has a cord that ends in a “male” connection, with a number of prongs designed to connect to an outlet. Once an electrical cord is plugged into an electrical socket, then current can flow through that socket, into the device, providing the charge needed to power it.

The basic design behind an electrical socket is fairly simple and common from country to country, even though specific designs often vary widely. There are usually at least two openings in the socket for plugs, though three or four openings are not uncommon, and they may be identical or slightly different in shape. The electrical socket is connected to a larger circuit, usually through one or more electrical panels found in a house or other building. Electrical current is provided to the building from an external system, either a larger power plant or some type of local generator, and flows into this control panel.

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From the panel, the current is then able to flow to each electrical socket in the building through wires made of conductive materials that are coated with rubber to keep the current from entering unintended objects. The two slots or openings in an electrical socket correspond to the way in which the current flows through a circuit. One slot is used to allow current to enter a device that is plugged into the socket, and the other slot allows the current to then flow back out into the building’s circuit where it is grounded.

In the US, older sockets and devices typically use two prongs that are equal in size. Newer devices, however, often have one prong or blade that is slightly wider than the other. The wider blade goes into the neutral connection of an electrical socket, while the narrow blade always goes into the “hot” connection.

The “hot” connection is the one through which current enters a device from a circuit. This design, called polarization, allows the manufacturer of a device to ensure the connection for the “hot” wire is better protected. Since the manufacturer can control which blade is “hot” and which is neutral, there is a reduced chance of electric shock for users of a device.

Many sockets also feature a third opening or slot, which is typically used for a ground connection. The plug for this type of socket also has a third prong or connection, and when the electrical socket is installed properly, this third slot connects to a ground wire in the socket. If a device becomes charged in any way, such as the metal housing of a washing machine coming into contact with an exposed wire within it, then the charge will follow the path of least resistance through the circuit, which should be the ground wire and not a person touching the machine.

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