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Basic Electrical Terms


Electrical current passing through air across a gap.

Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI)

A breaker that shuts off current in a circuit instantly when an arc fault is detected.


The device that provides the current for fluorescent lights. Ballasts have become quite small, allowing the creation of compact fluorescent bulbs that can be used in place of incandescent bulbs.


A piece of rigid metal within a panel or fusebox which distributes electricity to the various circuits by means of their connection to it.


Cable is a set of wires, usually encased in an outer protective sheath.


The actual or intended path of current between points of differing voltage. In the case of a household 120 volt circuit, the path is between a hot wire at the breaker and a neutral wire connected to the grounded neutral bar in the panel. In a sense each loop that current makes (through a single light, for instance) is a circuit, but the most common meaning is the "branch circuit," defined as everything fed (or interrupted) by a given breaker or fuse.

Circuit Breaker

A circuit breaker is an automatic switch that stops the flow of electricity when an overload or short circuit occurs.

Circuit breakers are essential to manage the electrical load (the amount of electricity one circuit is designed to handle safely). Standard household circuit breakers can manage 15 to 20 amp circuits in each individual breaker. This amount is typically what is needed to power most light fixtures and small appliances. Larger appliances such as stove, microwaves, dishwashers, washers & dryers require a high rated circuit breaker, typically a 20 to 30 amp circuit rating.

Unlike fuses, circuit breakers can usually be reset and reused.


The terminal of a three-way switch (or the wire attached to it) which makes internal contact with one or the other of the traveler terminals, depending on the position the switch is moved to.


The flow of electrons in a wire or other conductor. This is measured in amps (amperes).


Equipment which does not itself consume significant electricity, but interrupts or passes it on. For example, a switch, a receptacle, a thermostat, a breaker, a fuse.


A switch that controls lighting level by altering the voltage it passes through to the light fixture. A dimmer normally gets warm when operating but will overheat if running more wattage than for which it is designed.


An electrician is a tradesman who specializes in the installation, maintenance and repair of electrical wiring in buildings, machines and other equipment. Some electricians specialize in electrical circuitry on boats, airplanes and other mobile platforms.

The most basic types of electrician include residential wiremen who install and maintain electrical circuitry in residential properties; inside wiremen who install and maintain circuits and equipment in a commercial or industrial facility; and outside lineman who construct and maintain power transmission lines.

Electrical Contractor

An electrical contractor is a business that employs electricians to design, install, and maintain electrical systems. In most of the United States, separate licensing requirements exist for electricians and electrical contractors. Electricians are typically not allowed to perform work for the public unless under the employment of an electrical contractor.


A device that interrupts current to its circuit by melting apart.


Like a panel, a usual main source of the circuits in a home. It contains fuses rather than breakers.


The earth or any object that makes an electrical connection with the earth, which has an arbitrary zero potential energy level.

Ground Fault

A ground fault is an unintentional electrical current between a power source and a grounded surface. Ground faults most often occur when equipment is damaged or defective resulting in live electrical parts that are no longer adequately protected from unintended contact. If your body provides a path to the ground for this current you could receive an electrical shot, serious burns or electrocution.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) Receptacle

A GFCI receptacle is an inexpensive outlet designed to stop electricity when a fault is detected. When wired and functioning properly, GFCIs protect people from electrical shock. GFCI outlets are easily identified by the two buttons in the middle: a RESET button (often red) and a TEST button (often black).


A short piece of wire within a box, connecting two wirenuts or two device terminals. It passes a function (hot, switched, neutral) from the one place to the other.

Kilowatt Hour

A kilowatt-hour (kWh) is a unit for measuring energy. This is what you pay for when you buy energy from the local utility company.


The return conductor in a circuit. It usually has white insulation. More properly called the grounded conductor because it returns current to ground at the service panel. Note that this is different from the green-sheathed or bare copper grounding conductor that does not carry current except in case of equipment fault.

Open Circuit

A circuit in which the flow of current is interrupted due to an open breaker or fuse. May be intentional or unintentional (as caused by a short).


Any point along a circuit where a light or appliance receives its final connections to the hot and neutral of the circuit. The outlet may consist of a receptacle for a cord to plug into, or it may be a box at which the item using the electricity is "hard-wired."


To run equipment or wire in excess of its normal full-load rating.


Also called panel box, breaker box or electrical panel. It is the metal box containing breakers for circuits. The main panel is the central source for the facility and receives power the power company. There can be subpanels in a home, fed from the main panel and containing some of the facility’s circuit breakers.

Phantom Voltage

Very minor voltage which many testers will detect. It may register as a lower or a full voltage found on a wire that is connected neither to hot nor to neutral/ground.

Short Circuit

An accidental connection between two conductors or between a conductor and ground or some other unintended surface.


The part of a light fixture that receives the bulb or tube.

Solar Energy

Solar energy systems create usable power from sunshine. There are two basic kinds of systems: Photovoltaic or PV uses sunlight to generate electricity. It’s the same technology found on pocket calculators, just on a larger scale. PV systems can be designed to generate the majority of the electricity used in your home, or just a portion of it.


An unanchored electrical connector joining two or more wires directly.


A screw or other pressure device to which one or more wires are connected for passing electrical current.


Switching system in which a light(s) is controllable from more than one location by two or more switches. Also a type of light bulb and socket.


The pair of wires in a three-way switch system that are run (within the same cable) from one switch device to the next, attaching at each.


The measure of electrical pressure.


The basic measure of electricity. Wattage is directly proportional to current and to voltage and is mathematically the product of the two: amps x volts = watts. When applied to devices, it indicates the maximum watts the device is designed to deliver or control (rather than use).

Before you hire someone to complete electrical work in your home or business, please take a few minutes to read Reviews from Nisat Electric customers as well as electrician licensing regulations and Nisat Electric's Licensure in the State of Texas.

Call Nisat Electric at (214) 809-9977!