Some believe electricity can’t travel through wood, while others say it can. What’s the truth?
Wood is a material made of different elements. Most of its parts are typically non-conducting. Yet, wooden objects, especially trees, have absorbed water in their body, which is conducting.
As a general rule, wood is an insulator and does not conduct electricity. Though, depending on different factors (i.e., temperature, thickness, moisture, etc.), electrical current may flow inside the material. The most probable reason is moisture.
I’ll go into more detail below.
A Few Words About Electricity
Before moving on to the answer, I should explain what electricity is.
A molecule consists of three types of charges:
- A positive charge (protons)
- A negative charge (electrons)
- A neutral charge (neutrons)
Some electrons are bound to the molecule. Others are able to move around freely around it (free electrons).
The materials that allow the electrons’ movement are called conductors. Insulators are elements that do not allow any electron’s motion. Dielectric compounds can be both insulators and conductors, depending on their state.
The motion of the free electrons inside a conductor or dielectric material creates an electrical current.
Can Wood Conduct Electricity?
Wood is typically considered an insulator.
It is formed by cellulose fibers or lignin matrixes, which consist of restrained molecules. The tightness between the bonds does not allow free electrons to move inside the material. Thus, no electricity is conducted.
That is why power lines are built from wood. They do not allow current to pass through them, making it safe for people to come near them.
However, when a wooden surface is soaked in water, it may be able to conduct an electric current.
Why Can Electricity Travel Through the Wood?
In nature, there is no perfect conductor or perfect insulator.
That means that through a non-conducting material, a very small quantity of electricity may flow. The same applies to non-insulating compounds: a very small part of electricity is lost, due to resistance.
Wood is a non-conducting item that generally does not allow the motion of electric current.
Yet, when a block of wood is soaked with water, it allows the flow of current. In truth, the wood itself doesn’t participate in the free electrons’ motion. Since water is a good conductor, electricity flows through its molecules within the wooden item.
That is why it can be dangerous to touch power lines when it rains.
Factors that Could Make Wood Conduct Electricity
We can turn wood into a slight electric conductor by tampering with a few parameters.
- Current frequency
Like other materials, wood can change its insulating properties into conducting. All we need to do is change the temperature range in its body.
Moisture needs quantity and quality. That means the water needs to be enough to wet the whole block inside and out. It is best that it contains high levels of dissolved salts and minerals. That makes water a better conductor.
A wood’s species depends on its fibers. Species with more vertically positioned fibers are less prone to conduct electricity.
When a conductor has a specific volume, it is more probable that electricity will surpass its insulating properties. That can happen to a piece of wood that is very thin.
In cases where a wooden item is constructed along with conducting elements (i.e., metals), the wood itself might become a conductor. An example is a wooden piece coated with metal layers.
No matter the volume or species of wood, electricity may flow through a wooden block if the voltage is high enough. A common example is when a bolt of lightning strikes a tree. The water inside the tree starts boiling. That results in the branches’ cracking and possible explosions.
Can You Get Shocked by Touching Wood?
As an insulator, wood is safe to touch on many occasions.
However, when certain conditions change, it may become a bit dangerous. The most important one has to do with water. If water is involved, a wooden surface can electrically shock a person.
As an example, consider a heavy storm. During the storm, the trees are getting wet and absorb water from the rain. If one touches such a tree while a lightning bolt strikes it, electricity will pass on to that person.
Another example is fractal wood burning, an art form and technique of wood burning using high voltage. It is considered a very dangerous activity, during which someone may be severely shocked if they touch the wood.
Tips to Stay Safe
To be sure that a wooden surface is safe to touch, make sure that:
- It is thoroughly dry.
- No water sources are nearby.
- You do not mix electricity and water.
- You wear the safety gear needed (i.e., anti-electric gloves).
- You install a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) to prevent electrical shocks.
The general rule dictates that wood is not a conductor, while some people claim it is a dielectric material.
In truth, the wood’s fibers do not allow electricity to move through them. That can happen due to impurities and moisture. When the two are involved, it might be dangerous to touch a wooden piece if you suspect an electricity leak nearby. You can always stay safe by wearing safety gear.
Take a look at some of our related articles below.
- Can insulation touch electrical wires
- Does WD40 conduct electricity
- Does Isopropyl alcohol conduct electricity
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