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What is an Electric Receptacle?

By W. Joyner
Updated May 17, 2024
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An electric receptacle is a component of an electrical system that conducts electricity to any device plugged into it. Also referred to as an electrical outlet, the electric receptacle is connected to a power source through wiring. A receptacle is a male component which connects to a matching female module. It is one of the most common items found in an electrical wiring system.

Electric receptacles are available in a variety of styles and power ratings. They commonly have slots or holes, or a combination of the two, into which devices are plugged. The slots or holes have metal contacts that are connected to electrical wiring and which serve to conduct electricity. Electrically operated devices have cords attached to them with metal prongs that connect to the slots in the electric receptacle. In some devices, the prongs are built directly into the device itself.

Lower capacity receptacles have either two or three wired metal contacts in them. Receptacles carrying higher levels of current might be equipped with more than three wired contacts. The metal contacts are most commonly made of brass or steel. Steel contacts are usually plated with either zinc or nickel for improved conductivity.

When a device is plugged into an electric receptacle, the metal prongs from the device come into contact with the metal plates of the receptacle. By way of this connection, electricity flows from the receptacle into the appliance through one of the wires. Another wire in the system is used to carry excess current back through the receptacle to its original source.

An electric receptacle is rated according to the amount of electrical current, expressed as volts, it is able to transport. The most common electrical outlet used in the United States is known as a duplex receptacle which carries up to 120 volts of current. In many European countries, the more frequently used outlet is one which conducts up to 220 or 230 volts, known as a europlug.

For safety purposes, most receptacles include a contact known as a ground. The ground connection serves to provide some modicum of protection in the event of an electrical short. An electrical short occurs when the current is misdirected from its intended path. This is most often the result of one of the wires breaking loose from the contact inside the receptacle. In this event, the ground wire should intercept the misdirected current and carry it safely to ground.

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