Wiring diagrams made simple.

Figure 1
It's always great when there are more pictures than words, right? Except when those pictures are wiring diagrams. Do you know how to read a wiring diagram? If you don't, you have a lot of company. Most people don't - even people in the heating business. Wiring diagrams can look complicated. But if Figure 1 were your wiring diagram, you could easily read it. The fact is, a “real” wiring diagram can be nearly as easy once you learn what the pictures (symbols) mean. A wiring diagram is just pictures! And all of those lines are just connecting pictures together. Back Row Boys, this was made for you. A wiring diagram is made of circuits. Each circuit - no matter how simple or complex - is made up of a power supply, a load, and one or more switches. “What about all those other things?” you may wonder. “What about valves, thermostats, limits, zoning panels?” Every one of those is either a power supply, a switch or load. Let's try an animal analogy. There are endless types of dogs: collies, labs, spaniels, mongrels, etc. How are you going to classify them? If your only classifications are dogs, cats and birds, you don't have to worry about it. They're all dogs. The same is true for controls. It doesn't matter for now if it's a thermostat, a limit or a relay terminal - they're all switches. Dogs behave like dogs, not like birds. Switches behave like switches, not like power supplies. There are three types of symbols in a wiring diagram: power supplies, switches and loads. Let's start with the power supply.

Figure 2

Power Supplies

There are two different types of power supply: line voltage (usually 120V) and low voltage (24V). Boilers, furnaces and air conditioners run on line voltage. Their controls usually run on low voltage. There's a different symbol for each type. Figure 2 is the symbol for a line voltage power supply. It's easiest to just accept this as the symbol for where line voltage comes from, and let it go at that. But many of us want to know a little more. So here's what this symbol is about. There are two arrows pointing in the same direction. What are they pointing to? Intuitively, we want them to point a direction for the electricity to go. But if you try to make sense out of that idea, it just doesn't work. I've asked many engineers and no one knows for sure why that symbol is the way it is. My electrical engineer buddy, Mike, said he never thought about it - that's just the way it is. But when pressed about what it might be, he said he thinks the arrows represent the male side of a connection. They're like the plug on the end of the toaster cord; they show where the circuit plugs in. But plug into what? Before I got Mike's conjecture, I made up my own explanation. It works, too. Those two arrows are pointing to where the electricity comes from - the power plant. In real life, the connection is simply going to be to where electricity enters the building. Sometimes, but not always, the two lines from the arrows have “L1” written on one, and “L2” on the other. L1 is the “hot side” or “hot leg.” L2 is “neutral.”

Figure 3
Even though they're not always labeled, in real life it can be important to know the difference. L1 is the wire that can hurt you, and L2 isn't. The switch in the circuit (Figure 3) should be placed in the L1 leg because we need to be able to turn off the hot electricity before it gets into the circuit. If the circuit is low voltage (24V) rather than line voltage, the power supply will be a transformer. Notice that the two arrows are still there from the line voltage symbol. That side of the transformer is connected to line voltage. The left side of the transformer is low voltage (magically “transformed” inside the transformer). This second side is called the “secondary,” and it is the source of electricity for a low-voltage circuit.

Figure 4


The second symbol found in a circuit is a switch. Figure 4 shows symbols for a switch. A switch may be shown either “open” or “closed.” Open is just like a drawbridge. That means it's off, because there's no path for the electricity to go on.

Figure 5


A load is the third and final part of a circuit. A load makes it difficult for the electricity to pass through. Thus the symbol for a load usually is some sort of squiggle, symbolizing that there is resistance to the electricity's passing through. This resistance, of course, is what changes electricity into another form of energy, such as heat, light, motion, sound or magnetism. Figure 5 shows symbols for loads. When the load is a motor, you just have to imagine the squiggle inside it. When we put the three symbols together with lines, we have a complete circuit.

Figure 6
Figure 6 shows the same thing as the picture of the light bulb circuit at the beginning of this column.

Figure 7
Figure 7 is a low-voltage circuit where the transformer is the power supply, the thermostat is the switch and the zone valve is the load. More on circuits and diagrams coming soon!

Fey at ISH North America
Carol Fey is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. She will present “The Fun & Effective Way To Teach Controls Wiring To Your Employees” Thursday, Oct. 14 at 3 p.m. and repeat the session Friday, Oct. 15 at 9:45 a.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.