Short circuit

# Short circuit

Overview
A short circuit in an electrical circuit
Electrical network
An electrical network is an interconnection of electrical elements such as resistors, inductors, capacitors, transmission lines, voltage sources, current sources and switches. An electrical circuit is a special type of network, one that has a closed loop giving a return path for the current...

that allows a current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

to travel along an unintended path, often where essentially no (or a very low) electrical impedance
Electrical impedance
Electrical impedance, or simply impedance, is the measure of the opposition that an electrical circuit presents to the passage of a current when a voltage is applied. In quantitative terms, it is the complex ratio of the voltage to the current in an alternating current circuit...

is encountered.
Discussion

Encyclopedia
A short circuit in an electrical circuit
Electrical network
An electrical network is an interconnection of electrical elements such as resistors, inductors, capacitors, transmission lines, voltage sources, current sources and switches. An electrical circuit is a special type of network, one that has a closed loop giving a return path for the current...

that allows a current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

to travel along an unintended path, often where essentially no (or a very low) electrical impedance
Electrical impedance
Electrical impedance, or simply impedance, is the measure of the opposition that an electrical circuit presents to the passage of a current when a voltage is applied. In quantitative terms, it is the complex ratio of the voltage to the current in an alternating current circuit...

is encountered.
The electrical opposite of a short circuit is an "open circuit
Open-circuit voltage
Open-circuit voltage is the difference of electrical potential between two terminals of a device when there is no external load connected, i.e. the circuit is broken or open. Under these conditions there is no external electric current between the terminals, even though there may be current...

", which is an infinite resistance between two nodes. It is common to misuse "short circuit" to describe any electrical malfunction, regardless of the actual problem.

## Definition

A short circuit is an abnormal low-resistance
Electrical resistance
The electrical resistance of an electrical element is the opposition to the passage of an electric current through that element; the inverse quantity is electrical conductance, the ease at which an electric current passes. Electrical resistance shares some conceptual parallels with the mechanical...

connection between two nodes of an electrical circuit that are meant to be at different voltages. This results in an excessive electric current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

(overcurrent
Overcurrent
In electricity supply, overcurrent or excess current is a situation where a larger than intended electric current exists through a conductor, leading to excessive generation of heat, and the risk of fire or damage to equipment. Possible causes for overcurrent include short circuits, excessive load,...

) limited only by the Thévenin equivalent resistance
Thévenin's theorem
In circuit theory, Thévenin's theorem for linear electrical networks states that any combination of voltage sources, current sources, and resistors with two terminals is electrically equivalent to a single voltage source V and a single series resistor R. For single frequency AC systems the theorem...

of the rest of the network and potentially causes circuit damage, overheating, fire
Fire
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition....

or explosion
Explosion
An explosion is a rapid increase in volume and release of energy in an extreme manner, usually with the generation of high temperatures and the release of gases. An explosion creates a shock wave. If the shock wave is a supersonic detonation, then the source of the blast is called a "high explosive"...

. Although usually the result of a fault, there are cases where short circuits are caused intentionally, for example, for the purpose of voltage-sensing crowbar circuit protectors
Crowbar (circuit)
A crowbar circuit is an electrical circuit used to prevent an overvoltage condition of a power supply unit from damaging the circuits attached to the power supply. It operates by putting a short circuit or low resistance path across the voltage source, much as if one dropped a tool of the same name...

.

In circuit analysis (see image), the term short circuit is used by analogy to designate a zero-impedance
Electrical impedance
Electrical impedance, or simply impedance, is the measure of the opposition that an electrical circuit presents to the passage of a current when a voltage is applied. In quantitative terms, it is the complex ratio of the voltage to the current in an alternating current circuit...

connection between two nodes. This forces the two nodes to be at the same voltage. In an ideal short circuit, this means there is no resistance and no voltage drop across the short. In simple circuit analysis, wires are considered to be shorts. In real circuits, the result is a connection of nearly zero impedance
Electrical impedance
Electrical impedance, or simply impedance, is the measure of the opposition that an electrical circuit presents to the passage of a current when a voltage is applied. In quantitative terms, it is the complex ratio of the voltage to the current in an alternating current circuit...

, and almost no resistance. In such a case, the current drawn is limited by the rest of the circuit.

## Examples

A common type of short circuit occurs when the positive and negative terminals of a battery
Battery (electricity)
An electrical battery is one or more electrochemical cells that convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy. Since the invention of the first battery in 1800 by Alessandro Volta and especially since the technically improved Daniell cell in 1836, batteries have become a common power...

are connected together with a low-resistance
Electrical resistance
The electrical resistance of an electrical element is the opposition to the passage of an electric current through that element; the inverse quantity is electrical conductance, the ease at which an electric current passes. Electrical resistance shares some conceptual parallels with the mechanical...

conductor
Electrical conductor
In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is a material which contains movable electric charges. In metallic conductors such as copper or aluminum, the movable charged particles are electrons...

, like a wire
Wire
A wire is a single, usually cylindrical, flexible strand or rod of metal. Wires are used to bear mechanical loads and to carry electricity and telecommunications signals. Wire is commonly formed by drawing the metal through a hole in a die or draw plate. Standard sizes are determined by various...

. With low resistance in the connection, a high current exists, causing the cell to deliver a large amount of energy
Energy
In physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity. It is often understood as the ability a physical system has to do work on other physical systems...

in a short time.

A large current through a battery can cause the rapid buildup of heat, potentially resulting in an explosion or the release of hydrogen
Hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

gas and electrolyte
Electrolyte
In chemistry, an electrolyte is any substance containing free ions that make the substance electrically conductive. The most typical electrolyte is an ionic solution, but molten electrolytes and solid electrolytes are also possible....

(an acid
Acid
An acid is a substance which reacts with a base. Commonly, acids can be identified as tasting sour, reacting with metals such as calcium, and bases like sodium carbonate. Aqueous acids have a pH of less than 7, where an acid of lower pH is typically stronger, and turn blue litmus paper red...

or a base
Base (chemistry)
For the term in genetics, see base A base in chemistry is a substance that can accept hydrogen ions or more generally, donate electron pairs. A soluble base is referred to as an alkali if it contains and releases hydroxide ions quantitatively...

), which can burn tissue, cause blindness or even death. Overloaded wires can also overheat, sometimes causing damage to the wire's insulation, or a fire. High current conditions may also occur with electric motor
Electric motor
An electric motor converts electrical energy into mechanical energy.Most electric motors operate through the interaction of magnetic fields and current-carrying conductors to generate force...

loads under stalled conditions, such as when the impeller of an electrically driven pump
Pump
A pump is a device used to move fluids, such as liquids, gases or slurries.A pump displaces a volume by physical or mechanical action. Pumps fall into three major groups: direct lift, displacement, and gravity pumps...

is jammed by debris; this is not a short, though it may have some similar effects.

In electrical devices, unintentional short circuits are usually caused when a wire's insulation
Electrical insulation
thumb|250px|[[Coaxial Cable]] with dielectric insulator supporting a central coreThis article refers to electrical insulation. For insulation of heat, see Thermal insulation...

breaks down, or when another conducting material is introduced, allowing charge to flow along a different path than the one intended.

In mains
Mains electricity
Mains is the general-purpose alternating current electric power supply. In the US, electric power is referred to by several names including household power, household electricity, powerline, domestic power, wall power, line power, AC power, city power, street power, and grid power...

circuits, short circuits may occur between two phases
Polyphase system
A polyphase system is a means of distributing alternating current electrical power. Polyphase systems have three or more energized electrical conductors carrying alternating currents with a definite time offset between the voltage waves in each conductor. Polyphase systems are particularly useful...

, between a phase and neutral
Ground and neutral
Since the neutral point of an electrical supply system is often connected to earth ground, ground and neutral are closely related. Under certain conditions, a conductor used to connect to a system neutral is also used for grounding of equipment and structures...

or between a phase and earth
Ground and neutral
Since the neutral point of an electrical supply system is often connected to earth ground, ground and neutral are closely related. Under certain conditions, a conductor used to connect to a system neutral is also used for grounding of equipment and structures...

(ground). Such short circuits are likely to result in a very high current and therefore quickly trigger an overcurrent protection device. However, it is possible for short circuits to arise between neutral and earth conductors, and between two conductors of the same phase. Such short circuits can be dangerous, particularly as they may not immediately result in a large current and are therefore less likely to be detected. Possible effects include unexpected energisation of a circuit presumed to be isolated. To help reduce the negative effects of short circuits, power distribution transformers are deliberately designed to have a certain amount of leakage reactance
Leakage inductance
Leakage inductance is the property of an electrical transformer that causes a winding to appear to have some inductance in series with the mutually-coupled transformer windings...

. The leakage reactance (usually about 5 to 10% of the full load impedance) helps limit both the magnitude and rate of
rise of the fault current.

A short circuit may lead to formation of an arc
Electric arc
An electric arc is an electrical breakdown of a gas which produces an ongoing plasma discharge, resulting from a current flowing through normally nonconductive media such as air. A synonym is arc discharge. An arc discharge is characterized by a lower voltage than a glow discharge, and relies on...

. The arc, a channel of hot ionized plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

, is highly conductive and can persist even after significant amount of original material of the conductors was evaporated. Surface erosion is a typical sign of electric arc damage. Even short arcs can remove significant amount of materials from the electrodes.

## Aerial bundled conductors

Low voltage aerial power lines use uninsulated wires, as they rely on their wide spacing to provide the necessary insulation. However, wind can blow the wires together, or branches can bridge the gaps, resulting in sparks that can ignite bushfires. To reduce this problem, Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

has seen the introduction of aerial bundled conductors, where the three phase wire plus earth wire are insulated and then wrapped together. Now dangerous sparks cannot occur.

## Damage

Damage from short circuits can be reduced or prevented by employing fuses
Fuse (electrical)
In electronics and electrical engineering, a fuse is a type of low resistance resistor that acts as a sacrificial device to provide overcurrent protection, of either the load or source circuit...

, circuit breaker
Circuit breaker
A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to detect a fault condition and, by interrupting continuity, to immediately discontinue electrical flow...

s, or other overload protection, which disconnect the power in reaction to excessive current. Overload protection must be chosen according to the prospective short circuit current in a circuit. For example, large home appliance
Home appliance
Home appliances are electrical/mechanical machines which accomplish some household functions, such as cooking or cleaning. Home appliances can be classified into:*Major appliances, or White goods*Small appliances, or Brown goods...

s (such as clothes dryers) typically draw 10 to 20 amperes, so it is common for them to be protected by 20–30 ampere circuit breakers, whereas lighting circuits typically draw less than 10 amperes and are protected by 15–20 ampere breakers. Wire gauge
Wire gauge
Wire gauge is a measurement of how large a wire is, either in diameter or cross sectional area. This determines the amount of electric current a wire can safely carry, as well as its electrical resistance and weight per unit of length...

s are specified in building and electrical codes
Building code
A building code, or building control, is a set of rules that specify the minimum acceptable level of safety for constructed objects such as buildings and nonbuilding structures. The main purpose of building codes are to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the...

, and must be carefully chosen for their specific application to ensure safe operation in conjunction with the overload protection.

In an improper installation, the overcurrent from a short circuit may cause ohmic heating of the circuit parts with poor conductivity (faulty joints in wiring, faulty contacts in power sockets, or even the site of the short circuit itself). Such overheating is a common cause of fire
Fire
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition....

s. An electric arc, if it forms during the short circuit, produces high amount of heat and can cause ignition of combustible substances as well.

## Related concepts

In electronics
Electronics
Electronics is the branch of science, engineering and technology that deals with electrical circuits involving active electrical components such as vacuum tubes, transistors, diodes and integrated circuits, and associated passive interconnection technologies...

, the ideal model (infinite gain
Gain
In electronics, gain is a measure of the ability of a circuit to increase the power or amplitude of a signal from the input to the output. It is usually defined as the mean ratio of the signal output of a system to the signal input of the same system. It may also be defined on a logarithmic scale,...

) of an operational amplifier
Operational amplifier
An operational amplifier is a DC-coupled high-gain electronic voltage amplifier with a differential input and, usually, a single-ended output...

is said to produce a virtual short circuit between its input terminals because no matter what the output voltage is, the difference of potential between its input terminals is zero. If one of the input terminals is connected to the ground, then the other one is said to provide a virtual ground
Virtual ground
Virtual ground is a node of the circuit that is maintained at a steady reference potential, without being connected directly to the reference potential...

because its potential is (ideally) identical to that of the ground. An ideal operational amplifier also has infinite input impedance
Input impedance
The input impedance of an electrical network is the equivalent impedance "seen" by a power source connected to that network. If the source provides known voltage and current, such impedance can be calculated using Ohm's Law...

, so unlike a real short circuit, no current flows between the terminals of the virtual short. Due to these differences, the terminology can be confusing; one textbook parenthetically suggests that "virtual open circuit" may be equally suitable because no current flows.