One of my favorite songs by The Wombats is “Greek Tragedy.” In the music video, a girl becomes madly obsessed by the band members that she is beginning stalking and eventually killing them. During her killing spree, she throws a toaster in a bathtub with one of the band members in it, killing him on the spot.
While this is just acting, it got me thinking, what would happen if you dropped a toaster into a bathtub?
There are many outcomes here, depending on the circumstances.
First, is the bathtub empty? If so, then nothing serious will happen. If you throw a toaster into an empty tub, it will probably make a loud clattering sound and probably crack or break.
What if the bathtub is filled with water? If the bath is full to the overflow and you dropped a toaster inside, it would just make a splashing sound and drown your bathroom floor. That is if the toaster is not plugged in, as this will have an entirely different outcome.
If the toaster is plugged in and set to “toast”, and thrown into the tub filled with water to the overflow, it will create sparks and a sizzling sound.
In this scenario, the overflowing water creates a path to the ground, allowing most of the power flowing through the toaster to pass through the heating elements and back to the other side of the circuit.
If there is someone in the tub, they would likely be electrocuted and even die.
However, fatality is rarer than you may imagine. Don’t believe everything you see in a movie, and it is quite impossible to murder someone by dropping a toaster into a bathtub. But this doesn’t mean it is safe to do it.
To explain the danger that is linked with throwing a toaster into a bathtub, I allow me to tap into my rather fading physics knowledge.
Electricity current flows circularly, thus why it is known as a circuit. When a gadget is on, the power travels through the hit wire as well as through whatever the available electrical load, and then back via the return wire. Most household electric devices use alternating current. This means that the current stops and reverses flow 60 times per second, creating something like a sine wave if you graphed this phenomenon.
This also means that half of the time, the current flows via the hot wire and then back through the return wire and vice versa.
I may have thrown you off by now, at least, but understanding the “hot” and “return” wires is vital in understanding the toaster and bathtub debacle.
An electric device requires “hot” and “return” for grounding purposes.
Not all alternating current systems are grounded, and those that are not are referred to as isolated systems. These are safer compared to grounded systems. A good example is the wiring at the hospital.
If you touch isolated systems, you will not get shocked.
While this is seemingly the best way to run electricity, it is simply not possible to have an entire house with only isolated ground systems because external interferences such as trees could ground the system and cause massive problems.
This short concept explains why a toaster and a tub is not the right combination. One of the wires (return) is directly connected to the earth ground. This means that all your drain and water system pipes are connected electrically to the “return” wire in your electrical system.
So when you throw a toaster into a tub, there will be two ground pathways that the current can take back to the circuit – through the toaster, which is the natural way, or through the water and ultimately through the drainage pipes and into the ground.
This is a shock hazard, so every building is required to feature a ground fault interrupter in any location that is bound to have water, such as the kitchen and bathroom. This ensures that when you drop your toaster in a bathtub, the interrupter will identify that the electricity flowing off through the pipes is not the same as the electricity coming back. Thus the outlet will pop off.
But what if this is an old house that does not have interrupters.
In this case, if you throw a toaster in the bathtub, the electricity will flow back to the toaster and then to the circuit. And electricity will flow via the water, the person in the tub, and the drainage and water pipes to the earth ground. The shock may prompt the victim to throw the toaster out of the bathtub or jump out of the bathtub.
So even if it is an old building, the amount of shock is not enough to kill someone, but still risky.