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What is an Overcurrent?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 17, 2024
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An overcurrent exists when too much current runs through a wire or conductor. It can result in overheating, overloading of the circuit, or even a short circuit or fire. A number of devices exist to prevent overcurrents from occurring and to contain the effects if and when they do occur.

A current is the amount of electricity running through something. All wires, fuses, fuse boxes, conduits, and other electrical components have a recommended current strength and a maximum current strength. The recommended current refers to the ideal amount of current needed for efficient operation. The maximum current is the maximum amount of current that still allows for safe operation — anything in excess is an overcurrent.

There are several circumstances than can result in an overcurrent. Plugging a machine that needs a large current into an outlet that can only manage a small current will cause an overcurrent, as will plugging in too many small machines, the sum total of which exceeds the maximum current of the outlet. A machine that is properly matched with its outlet can still cause an overcurrent if it malfunctions or is affected by an additional source of electricity, such as a lightening strike. Improper wiring can also lead to current overload.

A number of devices exist to manage currents. A power conditioner regulates the amount of power going to critical machines so that, if the current is interrupted, the machine will continue to get the power it needs. A power suppressor can be placed between a machine and an outlet to block the exchange if the machine suddenly puts out or attempts to pull an excess amount of current. Likewise, circuit breakers are designed to shut off power to a particular circuit if the current exceeds safe limits. There also are temperature sensors that monitor the heat expended by a power exchange and alert workers if a circuit gets too hot.

If current management systems are installed properly and do their jobs, they will shut off power before a dangerous situation occurs. If not, the results of an overcurrent can range from blown fuses and damaged machines to shock and electrical fires. Workers can be injured or killed, and property damage can be extensive and expensive to repair. Further, if the company knowingly risked the current overload by ignoring sensors, overloading circuits, or failing to install and maintain preventatives, it may be subject to employee lawsuits and to cancellation or refusal to pay from its liability insurer.

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