One of the most serious troubles that can occur in a circuit is a DIRECT SHORT. Another term used to describe this condition is a SHORT CIRCUIT. The two terms mean the same thing and, in this course, the term direct short will be used. This term is used to describe a situation in which some point in the circuit, where full system voltage is present, comes in direct contact with the ground or return side of the circuit. This establishes a path for current flow that contains only the very small resistance present in the wires carrying the current.
According to Ohm’s law, if the resistance in a circuit is extremely small, the current will be extremely large. Therefore, when a direct short occurs, there will be a very large current through the wires. Suppose, for instance, that the two leads from a battery to a motor came in contact with each other. If the leads were bare at the point of contact, there would be a direct short. The motor would stop running because all the current would be flowing through the short and none through the motor. The battery would become discharged quickly (perhaps ruined) and there could be the danger of fire or explosion.
The battery cables in our example would be large wires capable of carrying heavy currents. Most wires used in electrical circuits are smaller and their current carrying capacity is limited. The size of wire used in any given circuit is determined by space considerations, cost factors, and the amount of current the wire is expected to carry under normal operating conditions. Any current flow greatly in excess of normal, such as there would be in the case of a direct short, would cause a rapid generation of heat in the wire.
If the excessive current flow caused by the direct short is left unchecked, the heat in the wire will continue to increase until some portion of the circuit burns. Perhaps a portion of the wire will melt and open the circuit so that nothing is damaged other than the wire involved. The probability exists, however, that much greater damage will result. The heat in the wire can char and burn the insulation of the wire and that of other wires bundled with it, which can cause more shorts. If a fuel or oil leak is near any of the hot wires, a disastrous fire might be started.