16 June 2012

I Am Shocked by How Little I Understand Electricity

As ardent followers of this blog well know, we now have lots of power on JOY. You know this because I've said so repeatedly. We know this because the guys at SALT said so repeatedly. Our solar panels generate 654 watts, our house battery bank has or is or is rated at or generates or stores over 1500 amp hours...of something. On top of that, we have (had) a 5 kilowatt diesel generator. Doubtless, it will be a generator again someday. It currently serves as a 392 pound stern weight, handy in the event a whale or some other leviathan runs up JOY's butt.
Our extended stint in Marathon while JOY was being laden deep with all her power-producing apparatus afforded me a glimpse of boating culture I might never have seen otherwise and the value of this opportunity has not been lost om me. Having taken a few weeks of a graduate level anthropology class, I have a keen understanding of human nature. I know, for instance, that people reveal what is important to them by what they opt to discuss.  For instance, women lean toward discussing feelings. Men gravitate toward the more concrete. Specifically, those things which can be argued about ad nauseum. Sports, politics, highways, I've been privy--and too frequently sucked in--to conversations surrounding all of these. Getting involved always proves to be a foolish move because I am profoundly unequipped to have these kinds of debates. I can't ever remember any particulars with which to defend my position and I have a most unhelpful knack for finding merit in my unintended opponent's opinion. I can only imagine how ultimately unsatisfying it must be to argue with me.

To this list of endlessly debatable topics, I can now add "power". Men everywhere argue about sports and politics; Angelenos debate the California highway system and boaters discuss power. AC versus DC, solar versus wind, flooded versus AGM, these are the questions that occupy boating men's minds. As for boating women, they discuss feelings. Actually, I have no idea what boating women discuss because I keep getting sucked into power discussions with the men. Once again I find myself singularly unqualified to participate in such discussions. Only in this instance it's not because of an opinion deficit on my part, but rather a flawlessly complete lack of understanding of the subject. Take, for example, our so-we-are-told state-of-the-art solar panels. SALT tells us that we are very fortunate to have the "real estate" on which to mount such large powerhouses of sun power. Six hundred fifty-four watts, the SALT guys say, with a tinge of astonishment bordering on reverence in their voices. It has caused much envy in them, all living on monohulls as they do, none of which even comes close to having the square footage necessary to support such an astounding abundance of wattage. This has produced in me an acutely hollow pride. I think we must be pretty darn cool to have more watts of solar power than they've ever installed on a boat before. They are so impressed with their achievement that they've attached to our panels plaques stating the total wattage thereupon along with their website address--a small advertising request we were happy to accommodate. In truth, my boat proudness is feigned, fabricated on demand. I lack the one element necessary to foster in me a geniune sense of insufferable arrogance--I haven't a clue what a watt is. All right, I'm being less than truthful. I do know what a watt is. It is a measure of power equivalent to one volt times one amp. However, beneath this thin veneer of knowledge, I am, as it were, at sea. In place of "one volt times one amp," I might just as well say "one apple times one orange;" "Tuesday times Friday;" "Libya times Baltimore." Or "apple times Baltimore."

I have spent an embarrassing amount of time researching this to still be so utterly confounded. Ironically, the greatest impediment to my comprehension is how plainly different these two whatever-they-ares are in the minds of those dear people who post explanations on the Internet. I am quite sure it is inconceivable to them how thoroughly they have flummoxed me. Conceptually, we exist in parallel universes. Theirs has harnessable energy; mine comes with two sticks a magnifying glass and some dried grass.

The most common analogy used to distinguish amps and volts is a garden hose. Volts are likened to the pressure of the water in the hose and amps to, in some cases, the flow of the water and in other cases, the volume. Let's leave aside for a moment the conceptual confusion between water flow and water volume, and focus instead on the more pressing issue of water pressure. Except that we're not talking about water, we're talking about electrons. So volts, then, are units of electron pressure. And here the analogy disintegrates. The water pressure that ultimately spurts out of my hose is generated by the local water utility. But what generates or otherwise causes the electron pressure in my batteries? Come to think of it, what exactly is being pressurized in my batteries, electrons? Chemicals? Are the electrons in the chemicals or are they stored somewhere else? Where? However it is that the local utility company puts the water under pressure, I presume they are monitoring it so that my hose (not to mention my municipality) doesn't burst. As for my batteries, they're on their own. How and with what they get pressurized and what's watching to make sure they don't blow up and how whatever's watching is watching is beyond me.

And then there're amps. Amps, according to what I've read are a measure of current. So, is current a thing like a potato, or a bunch of things put together like a paintbrush, or a force like gravity? This current is the result of electrons jumping from positively charged atom to positively charged atom across a resistor, typically a wire. But what gets them going and why do they keep wanting to move? (Why did the electron cross the wire?) Why don't they just find a proton and stay put?  What happens to them when they get to the other end? Do they double back across the wire or do they just keep going around and around forever, or until you turn off whatever it is that the elections are in? Can they leak out of the wire when they're not on a forced march? If so, how do you trap new ones?

These two entities...or concepts...or things combined, amps and volts, conjure an image of either a thing under pressure, like a potato shooting out of a gun, or else a force under pressure, which is two abstract concepts interacting. Therefore, if the latter scenario is true, a watt must be metaphorically equivalent to democracy multiplied by magnetism or to enthusiasm repeatedly added to centrifugal force.

Moving on, if something either produces or consumes amps, does that mean constantly or over time? If our shore power cords are rated at 30 amps does that mean a constant flow of thirty amps or thirty amps an hour or a week? If a car travels at 65 miles, it's traveling 65 miles per something. But if amps inherently imply a time factor, what then are amp hours? On the other hand, if they don't imply a unit of time, why isn't it meaningless to talk about amp hours? Why isn't that like asking how many gravities per hour?

Ah, but we're not done yet. There are still ohms to contend with. Ohms are a measure of resistance. So, ohms aren't things either; they're how much less you get of thing-or-force times pressure. This is fairly easy to follow as long as you can think inside out. To recap: an ohm is a unit of how much a thing-or-force times pressure can't do something. The more it/they can't do it, the higher the ohms--or maybe it's the other way around. The most popular illustration of this is to imagine holding in the air the probes of a multimeter. Since electrons can't be pressured into jumping into open space, or if they can, there's no way to get them to aim themselves at the other probe, the air between the two probes is said to offer infinite resistance. Why this couldn't have been conceptualized the other way around, why air couldn't be said to offer zero conductivity rather than infinite resistance, I can't even guess. But I suppose if all one has is nothing, it's comforting to know that one has an endless supply of it.

Putting this swirling nonmass of concepts together then, electrical power is generated by pushing a certain number of electrons through a substance that more or less doesn't want them going through it. It seems intuitively obvious to me that it would be more efficient to push them through a medium that wanted them, but maybe then there'd be no way to stop things from blowing up.

Actually, I think this has helped. I think I understand this much better now. In fact, the next time some guy asks me how many amp hours my house battery bank stores (or generates?), I will feel confident in replying that it's about as much as a centrifugally democratized spud gun divided by somewhere between zero enthusiasm and infinite apathy.

It just goes to show that things are really never that hard if only you take the time to think them through.

Now onto a study of weather.

Click on the monkey's fist to read others bloggers on this topic.

The Monkey's Fist


  1. I have a ''feeling'' you have not listened to me or too much based on this electrifying AMPlitude of NEGatitivity of DIRECTed yet ALTERNATING subject, i would ELECT to OHMit your CURRENT state of mind of you know WATT i mean...


  2. Dear Sir,

    Though we have had AMPle time to pay OHMage to your POWERful comment, we are CURRENTly unable to DIRECT it to our Comment Department due to unexpected RESISTANCE. Please ACcept our apologies for this reVOLTing development.