How does current flow and return in a home electric hot water heater? I only see two black hot wires and no white return wire. — DT, Waianae, HI
Your hot water heater is powered by 240 volt electric power through the two black wires. Each black wire is hot, meaning that its voltage fluctuates up and down significantly with respect to ground. In fact, each black wire is effectively 120 volts away from ground on average, so that if you connected a normal light bulb between either black wire and ground, it would light up normally. However, the two wires fluctuate in opposite directions around ground potential and are said to be “180° out of phase” with one another. Thus when one wire is at +100 volts, the other wire is at -100 volts. As a result of their out of phase relationship, they are always twice as far apart from one another as they are from ground. That’s why the two wires are effectively 240 volts apart on average.
Most homes in the United States receive 240 volt power in the form of two hot wires that are 180° out of phase, in addition to a neutral wire. 120-volt lights and appliances are powered by one of the hot wires and the neutral wire, with half the home depending on each of the two hot wires. 240-volt appliances use both hot wires.