Name: Laura O.
I am a grade 9 student and we were given definitions in class based on our
unit Electricity and one of the definitions is "grounding." Can you please send me the
definition that is a bit more understandable than "zero potential (whatever that is)?"
A voltmeter has two leads and allows you to measure the difference in potential (voltage)
between two points. If you try to measure the potential of a point by placing one lead of a
voltmeter at that point, you will not get a reading. Only differences in potential are
meaningful. Just like gravitational potential energy. If you lift a five pound weight three
feet, you increase its potential energy by 15 ft-lb. This is true no matter what its potential
energy is defined to be before it was raised.
It is, nonetheless, often convenient to define a certain level, perhaps floor level, to be the
height at which the weight has zero potential energy. You are free to define the zero to be
anywhere since only the change is useful.
Similarly, you can define the electrical zero of potential to be where you like. It is usually
most convenient to define the chassis of an electronic circuit to be at zero potential and that
is then called "ground". When power is transmitted to your home, One wire is connected to the
earth and is considered to be at zero electrical potential and is called "ground" (for obvious
If you touch one pin of an electrical outlet and, at the same time, a metal faucet, you will
feel nothing if that pin is the grounded one (faucets make a good electrical connection to
ground through the pipe bringing water into your house). If you then touch the other "hot"
wire and faucet, you will get a severe electric shock due to the difference in potential.
DO NOT try this at home! If you have a voltmeter it is instructive to measure the potential
difference between a faucet (or any grounded metal object) and the pins of an electrical
outlet -- one at a time.
Best, Dick Plano, Professor of Physics emeritus, Rutgers University
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Update: June 2012