What is Electrical Power?

What is electrical power? What is the formula for electrical power? What is watts, volts and amps? This article introduces and illustrates these electrical basics and in particular the power formula. As this is not a text book, the formula is not proved or derived.  The power formula is simply introduced and used to show some of the important principles needed in understanding and fault finding electrical or electronic things.

If you are a self-confessed electrical illiterate, then you are encouraged to read through this so that you are familiar enough to come back and use this as a future reference.

Those of you who have mental blocks when you see anything technical, or see formulas, tables and graphs, be assured there are not too many here, only the minimum necessary to illustrate the fundamental principles of electrical power are used.

What is Power?

Let’s start by asking a question: Which of these vehicles is more powerful?what is electrical power?

Certainly a tractor has a lot pushing or pulling force, or grunt, so can obviously be deemed powerful, but it can’t go very fast. A racing car, on the other hand, goes extremely fast and is called powerful accordingly, but it can’t pull heavy loads. A sports car can’t pull as much as a tractor, and can’t go as fast as a racing car, but is none the less, very powerful.

So it boils down to our definition of power. We could simply say the power of the vehicle is the combination of its ability to push (or pull) and its speed. That is, if we had a figure for the pushing (or pulling) force of a certain vehicle (we’ll call this “grunt”), and we knew its speed, then we could derive the formula:

Power of Vehicle  =  Grunt x Speed

If the following substitutions are made to get “electrical” power:

Grunt = Current                           Speed = Voltage

then the formula for electrical power looks like this:

 Electrical Power = Current x Voltage

This simple formula is one of the most important ones you will need to know for electrical work.

Knowing the common symbols and units of measurement for these characteristics is useful, and can make you sound like you really know your stuff.

NameSymbolUnits of Measurement
PowerPwatts (W)
CurrentIamperes or amps (A)
VoltageVvolts (V)

*Text books often use “E” as the symbol for voltage. This is technically correct as the proper name for voltage is Electro-Motive Force, or EMF, which the “E” symbolises. However for ease of comprehension “V” will be used, which is easier to associate with the common understanding of Voltage

That is, the formula can be written as:

P = I x V

This means that for an appliance (such as a light), which draws 1.5 amps at 12 volts, the power used by the light is calculated with this formula, therefore:

Power of Light = 1.5 amps x 12 volts = 18 Watts

If you know the wattage (power) of a 12 volt light is 18 watts, then obviously the formula can be changed around to calculate the current drawn by the light. That is:

Current = Power divided by voltage

or

I = P/V

What’s it all mean?

OK, enough theory for the moment. What does all this mean in practice? Try and follow these examples:

Example 1: You have a 60 watt, 240 volt light bulb. How much current does it draw?

I = P/V therefore Current = 60/240 = 1/4 amp.

Example 2: You have another 60 watt light bulb, but this is from your car, so it is rated at 12 volts. How much current dos this one draw?12 volt light bulb

I = P/V therefore Current = 60/12 = 5 amps.

This doesn’t mean that one light is more powerful than the other, as both draw 60 watts of electrical power. However, it shows the relationship between voltage, current and electrical power. That is, for a given power (say 60 watts), if the voltage is low (12 volts), the current must be high (5 amps), and if the voltage is high (240 volts), the current will be low (¼ amp). A bit like our illustration of a tractor and a racing car: if you don’t have speed (voltage) you will need grunt (current) to get up a hill (e.g. a tractor). Similarly, if you don’t have grunt (current), you will need speed (voltage) to get up the same hill (e.g. a fast car). Please note, that like a tractor or car, don’t use the light bulb designed for one job to try to do the job of the other. In other words, don’t plug your 12 volt light into 240 volts.

 

Practical Points to note

1) An appliance only draws as much electrical power as it requires, you can’t push more electrical power into something than what it needs.

Example: If a light is rated at 60 watts, and you have a 1000 watt generator, then that is fine, but the light will only draw its 60 watts.

 

2) An appliance only draws as much current as it requires, you can’t make it take more Amps than it needs.

Example: If an electronic device is rated at 6 volts, 0.3 amps, and the power supply (battery eliminator or “plug pack” supply) is rated at 6 volts, 0.5 amps, then that too is fine, but the device will only draw the 0.3 amps it requires.

 

3) An appliance will generally work on slightly higher or slightly lower voltage than its rating. Normally, you should try to supply the correct voltage to all appliances.

 

4) If an appliance is rated at 1500 watts, it needs 1500 watts (at its specified voltage) of electrical power to work properly.

Example: If you have an electric drill rated at 1500 watts, and you try to run it from a 1000 watt generator, then it won’t work properly, and could even damage the drill and/or the generator.

 

5) The power rating of an appliance refers to either the power it puts out or the power it takes in.

Example 1: A generator rated at 1000 watts means it is capable of supplying up to 1000 watts of electrical power, at the specified voltage (like 220 volts).

Example 2: A light bulb rated at 60 watts, means it takes in 60 watts of electrical power to operate properly.

Example 3: A 300 watt inverter (say 12 Volts to 110 Volt) indicates it puts out 300 watts of electrical power at 110 volts, which means it will draw more than the 300 watts (due to efficiency losses) from the 12 volt battery (Note: 300 watts at 12 volts is 25 amps!)

 

6) The power rating of a light suggests the electrical power drawn, not the amount of light it puts out. A 20-watt fluorescent tube can put out more light than a 45-watt light bulb, because the fluorescent is more efficient at converting the electrical power to lighting power than the light bulb.

 

7) Transformers and motors are often measured in VA (Volts-Amps) or kVA (kilo Volt-Amps, i.e. 1000 volt-amps). For most purposes this rating can be equated to electrical power in watts, although in the strict technical sense there are differences (due to the current being out of phase with the voltage in an inductive circuit).

 

8) The electrical power required for an appliance is measured in watts or VA. This is normally written underneath or on the back of the appliance. To calculate the current drawn by an appliance, divide the figure for watts, by the voltage.

When you don’t have a calculator handy, “ball park” figures can be used. For ease of calculation, try using the following figures:

For 240 volts use 250 volts e.g. 1000/250 = 4 amps

For 220 volts use 200 volts e.g. 1000/200 = 5 amps

For 110 volts use 100 volts e.g. 1000/100 = 10 amps

Exercise: Inspect 10 different appliances around your house or office and determine how much current they each draw. Use the following table or one like it.

9) To see how many amps you are drawing, simply add the amps of each appliance you are using together.

Example: Your iron draws 4 amps, your room heater draws 10 amps, together they are drawing 14 amps.

 

10) A 4 way power board normally has a switch that cuts out when 10 amps or more is going through it. So if you have your heater and iron plugged into the one board, it will cut out and neither will work.

A simple calculator for these formula is available here.

In the next article we will see how simple the dreaded Ohms law really is…

 

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for a simple and understandable way of explaining electrical theory. I had been wondering why my christmas tree lights which are 12 volts are connected to a 220 volt power supply without an adapter. Since there are 18 of these lights it appears that the voltage is shared between the bulbs. How does this work and if some of the bulbs are blown does it put pressure on the remaining ones.
    Regards
    John

    • Hi John,

      In a series configuration, if one of the bulbs blows they all stop working, as the circuit is broken at that bulb. That’s why series circuits are not used that much in general use.

      Geoff

  2. Hello Geoff,

    Thanks for your very useful and enjoyable article. I’m keen to learn the basics of electrics and wiring, particularly for automotive applications. At the moment I’m trying to wire a new earth from a side light on my car, but I’m unsure about what cable to purchase for this, as I see that 12v automotive cable is rated for amps. It’s a 4w bulb, running off a 12v battery, so it’s 0.333 amps. Does that mean I can use any cable that is rated above 0.333 amps? Or, because it’s an earth wire, does it not really matter?

    Many thanks,

    Darren

    • Hi Darren,

      Welcome to the wonderful world of electrical/electronics.

      You are correct your calculation of the required current. In theory the cable you select only needs to carry that. However you also need to have a fuse that will protect that cable. A fuse is suppose to protect the cable, therefore the fuse needs to be less than the maximum current carrying capability of the cable. So if the lights are all protected by a 10 amp fuse, the cable should be able carry at least 10 amps.

      hope this helps

      Geoff

  3. Hi Geoff

    Thanks this article answered questions I had about Wattage.
    So devices only use what power it needs to work. I live in Kenya (240v) and I bought a cordless Drill which is charged by 50 watt 110v charger from the States. So I got a step down converter with 300watt rating. My only concern is am wasting 250watts. Am hoping this is not so?

    • Jambo Muya,

      You are right. Having a step down transformer rated at 300 watts means it can feed up to 300 watts of load. So in your case if your charger only draws 50 watts, that is all you will draw from the transformer, and that is all you will draw from Kenya Power (plus a little more – as transformers are not 100% efficient).

      hope this helps,

      Geoff

    • Hi Colin,

      Assuming the tubes are 58 watts each that would give a total load on the inverter of 290 watts. This will certainly not over load the inverter. However some inverters require a minimum load to “turn on”. So check the specs to see if that is the case on your inverter.

      Geoff

  4. If I connect 10 x 24 volt batteries 100AH I would have 240 volts 100AH, correct me please if I am wrong.
    Solar panels charging the batteries
    Stand by generator.
    Could I run a boat like a house?
    Appliances, lighting, iron, fridge freezer, washing machine, hoover, possibly a tumble dryer. + tv, computer,
    Is this pie in the sky, or could it be done?
    Very best regards
    Colin

    • Hi Colin,
      This probably falls into your category of “if it was that easy everyone would be doing it”.

      Apart from the size and weight of the batteries, and the huge solar array you would need to charge them, you are only producing DC voltage, where as the motors in the washing machine and hoover at least would require AC.

      Not my area of expertise, but I would think a normal house solar system with a good inverter would be better. An inverter takes DC and inverts it to AC. They also often operate from a lower voltage, but not necessarily. The new Tesla powerwalls could be a good place to start for efficient batteries, but being new they are currently expensive.

      Good luck with it all.

      Geoff

  5. Hi Geoff –
    Thank you for the very nice basic info for a person like me! One question – if an appliance needs 1500 watts, is it safe to plug it into a regular wall outlet in the home, or do I need a beefed up wall outlet?

    • Hi,
      Thanks for your question – I like basic questions as it means I need to modify the article to include the answer.

      The answer to your question will depend on the voltage, the cable and the fuse or circuit breaker. As you don’t say which country you are in I can’t say for certain. For countries with 240 volts, most power circuits are designed for 10 amps, or 2400 watts, so 1500 watts is fine.

      Geoff

  6. Thanks for this it has helped me a lot. If I increase the voltage of a battery bank from 12 volts to 48 volts I reduce the number of amps used. 60watt bulb @ 48 volts=1.25 amps. Will/does this mean a saving in power used ?
    Is it better to run a solar system on as high a voltage as you can 24 volts being better than 12 as less amps needed
    Thanks again

    • Hi Francis,
      60 watts of power is 60 watts of power no matter what the voltage and current. Using your example: 12 volt @ 5 amps is the same power as 48 volts @ 1.25 amps, both draw 60 watts of power from the battery, so no power saved. Also the lamp would need to cope with 48 volts.

      Installing a solar system for 24 volts makes some sense. Not to save power, but by halving the current in the wires will halve the voltage loss in (long) cables. Again, all lights, fans and inverters would need to be designed for 24 volts.

      hope this helps

      Geoff

  7. When calculating amps, watts etc and using a 200 amp 12 volt battery through an inverter producing 220 volts, how does the formula work. Do i assume that i ignore the inverter voltage and just take the voltage of the battery? My interest is to work out how long a battery will last without recharging.

    • Hi Paul,
      There are a number of factors to take into account.

      Firstly, a 200 Amp 12 volt battery is actually a 200 Amp Hour 12 volt battery, meaning it will nominally give you 1 amp for 200 hours, or 2 amps for 100 hours. Also keep in mind, most car batteries are not designed to be slowly discharged – they are designed for quick massive discharge (at startup) and quick recharging (meaning you will not get necessarily get 2 amps for a full 100 hours). A deep cycle battery is designed more for slow discharge and recharge, and would be better for your situation.

      When dealing with an inverter, we need to keep in mind the input and out are different. Let’s say the inverter is delivering 240 watts at 220 volts. That is, it delivering just over 1 amp. However its current drain on the battery is going to be a lot more. The same 240 watts at 12 volts is 20 amps, plus a bit more since inverters are not 100% efficient. Also the load on the battery taken by the inverter will depend on the load on the inverter. That is, a 500 watt inverter doesn’t draw 500 watts if it is only driving a 50 watt light (it would only draw the 50 watts plus efficiency loss).

      In summary the formulas still work, you just need to apply them correctly.

      Hope this helps you think it through, and not confuse you too much

      Geoff

  8. Hi Geoff,

    Great explanation of the basics!

    Any chance you could explain 3 phase power and the advantages and disadvantages of this compared to single phase?

    • Hi Will,
      Thanks for the kind comments on this article.

      Explaining 3 phase power is not easy – that is why it is hard to find a simple explanation. There is a lot a maths involved to understand it fully – an engineers delight!

      Suffice to say, in a domestic situation, you can simply regard it as three different supply lines which you can use. Its real benefit is for motors (and other high power things like welders) as there is always one of the phases around full voltage at any one time – unlike single phase which goes from full voltage to zero 100 times a second. With 3 phase, as one phase starts to full to zero another phase is approaching full voltage.

      Without maths, this is about the simplest I can make, sorry.

      Geoff

  9. Hi Geoff,

    Apologies if this is answered somewhere on your website already. I’ve heard that you can save power around the home by switching off power points when not in use. Is there any truth to this?

    Cheers

    • Hi Patrice,
      Thanks for your question. If nothing is plugged into the power point, then no power is being used, whether the switch is on or off. If something is plugged in, then it may use power, even if you think it is turned off. A lot of modern electronic devices go into “standby” mode, where they are mostly off, but are also waiting to be turned on by a remote control, so they obviously draw some power in this standby state. How much power they draw is dependent on their design. In general, most modern devices are designed to draw very little standby power. This is spelled out in greater detail in the articles “The Cost of Standby Power“, and “Phone & Ipod Chargers“.
      Hope this helps.

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