Electroplay – or Playing with Electricity

     Much misinformation is sent out verbally and through the web about the fun and hazards associated with electro play. This page is dedicated to a better understanding  of the whys and the wherewithal's of the tens unit, the violet wand, electrical hazards and how these devices interact with the human body. It takes us through how electricity affects the body and what is and is not “dangerous levels of electricity” in both technical and layman’s terms.

Basic Principles of Electricity:
     Electricity is defined as the flow of electrons and the difference in potential (total electrical charge) when they leap. Electrons being a part of what makes up an atom, they are capable (at times) of moving from one atom to the next or of simply bouncing back and forth between the atoms. Although they do not actually go from one to the next (as with water flowing), the motion does set off a cascade effect. Moving electrons from one atom to the next down a sort of ‘daisy chain’ or 'chain reaction' action (compare it to dominos collapsing). When a continuous and repeated movement occurs, the electrons are said to be flowing.

     Although we are mostly familiar with the terms that are used to describe electricity, often we do not have the basic knowledge about what these things mean, where they come from and what they entail. Here are a few of the words we use and what they actually mean.

Electricity and the things that influence it can be measured in several ways:

1. Resistance (also shown in an equation as “R”, called Ohms, and shown by the scientific symbol (): Just like the name implies, resistance is the amount of fight or effort it takes to make the electrons flow through some substance (copper, water, the human body, etc.). This principle was first reviewed by a man named Georg Simon Ohm in 1867, and therefore bears his name. When we measure resistance, we say that it has “’so many’ Ohms” resistance (to the flow of current in a circuit).

2. Current (shown in an equation as “I”, also called Amperes, and referred to by the scientific symbol “A”): Current is a measure of the electrons that are moving (“flowing”) at any one time. In some instances we can call this the path or method of conduction. This path is called the ‘conductor’ and may be a wire, a pipe, or the human body. A man named André-Marie Ampère in 1881 first applied the principle of current flow.

3. Voltage (shown in electrical equations as the letter “V” or the scientific symbol  “E”) is the difference in ‘potential’ between two electrons or two points in the path of the electrons movement.
     When an electron moves from one atom to another, it leaves behind a ‘gap’ or charge because of the way the particle moves away. The electron (and, here we go recalling our school days) is considered to be of a ‘negative’ charge. When it leaves the atom, it makes it ‘more positive’. Due to the shifting electrons, there is a ‘loss’ of charge at every hole left in the entire path along the way. If someone measures (using a ‘voltmeter’) between the beginning and the end of the wire (path for the current movement) they can detect this difference in “potential”. So, from the beginning of the motion to the end of the place the electricity is “going”, there is a measurable ‘voltage’ (difference in potential from one point to another). This difference in potential aids in the flow of electrons by dragging some particles (electrons) along the way, and, shoving/pushing others as it goes.

4. Frequency (measured in Hertz and shown as “Hz” in formulaic expression) is defined as the amount of time a current ‘pulsates’.
     In measuring electricity, some kinds of voltages will alternate between high and low measurements due to the unique nature of it. This is called alternating current. At some point in the past, a null (or zero point) was set in the measurement of the frequency of electricity. When alternating current is produced, the voltage (the potential) measured will pass though that ‘null’ many times. The amount of times it does that in a given second is called the frequency.
     So, knowing this, we can understand what they mean when they talk about 60Hz. (or 60 cycles per second) voltage in our houses. This type of electricity passes through this zero point sixty times per second for every second that the potential (the voltage) exists in a circuit.

      These are the basic building blocks that will allow us to talk candidly about the issue of electricity in BDSM play. I would recommend that you understand them before we proceed, as they will continue to creep up on us when we least expect it  throughout our discussion about how the play interacts with our body and how the toys actually work.


Electrical safety:
     No matter where you go when you talk about electricity someone is going to bring up the matter of safety. And, this is definitively justifiable. Unlike so many other things we play with in leather, electricity is insidiously notorious for damaging and even killing people without warning because they did not follow some very basic safety rules.
     We all have either been or know someone who has been shocked by an appliance, an outlet, or even an electric fence. It is not a pleasant experience. It sends our heart racing, our perspiration perspiring, and gives one the cold and clammy feeling associated with a physical shock. In some instances it may knock us out and/or kill us.

Why is that?

     The body is a unique device. It actually runs on electricity at very very low levels. Your nerves, your muscles, and your brain all react to electrical impulses from outside sources in differing ways depending on everything associated with electricity and with your body in particular.

     When an electrical current reaches you, it has to pass through your main line of defense: Your skin.

     The skin is composed of several layers and is generally dry to the touch. But, because the human body is approximately 78% water, we make excellent conductors for electricity to pass through. Admittedly, if your skin is dry, if you are well rested, if you are well nourished and have plenty of fluids (contrary to what might appear obvious) it is not as good a conductor as otherwise.

     When you are tired, sweaty, hungry and thirsty, your first line of defense’s protection is lowered substantially. In a worst-case scenario (using the terms we defined above) your body's resistance may be as low as 1000 Ohms.

     Normally the resistance of your body to stop electricity is not very important, but when you are experiencing a ‘shock’ of some kind, it can make all the difference in the world.

     Electricity can cause many things to happen to your body. The worst of which is known as ventricular defibulation. Ventricular fibrillation occurs when some sort of inconsistency in your body unbalances your heart. This might be caused by low electrolyte balances, a strike to the area of the chest containing your heart, or by an electrical shock.
     When electricity passes through the nerves that control the muscles surrounding your heart, it behaves as though it were the actual signals to those muscles. Unfortunately the self-regulatory impulses already passing through these nerves try to correct this one huge impulse and get “out of whack”. This results in an erratic heartbeat that results in no flow passing (cavitation) through the heart the way that it normally would and should. Therefore no blood flow… imminent death

How much electricity can kill you? (1)

     Well we know that it takes current flow conducted to the heart muscles in this instance. And, that is going to require a ‘difference in potential’ (voltage) to be present to cause the flow.
     We know through testing that the heart will go into fibrillation with the application of 100 milliamperes (0.100A)(volunteers anyone?).
     We know through further testing that the ‘worst-case-scenario’ value of the resistance through your body to be 1000 Ohms (1K). Using this, and knowing that as the resistance goes up, the voltage or the current have to go down (all things being equal), we can guess at the amount that might be required.
     The formula (mathematically) to demonstrate how these are all related was first developed by that Ohm fellow.

V / R = I

     What it says (basically) is that if the resistance is the same all the time, and the current (I) goes up, then the voltage (V) has to go down proportionally. And, the inverse is also true. If the voltage (V) goes up then the current (I) goes down.

     Knowing this formula we can do a bit of extrapolation to figure out what is THE “deadly” combination.

     With a known heart stopping current of 0.100A and a lowest possible resistance of 1K, we end up with a formula that one asks to have the amount of voltage assessed.

So if: E / R = I
Then: E = R X I
And: E = 1000  X 0.10A
So: E = 100V

     What this means is that voltages as low as 100 volts may kill you depending on whether your body resistance is low due to fatigue, heat and/or nourishment, if the frequency is penetrative or passes over the skin. If there is a puncture of the skin, this is substantially reduced until a deadly shock might be levied at as low as 46 VAC (This is why the National Electric Code declares that voltages as low as 30VAC are to be considered high voltage applications to ensure a level above this for safety.)[5]

     So now we know how voltage, resistance and current operate within the body. What about frequency (Hz)?

     As we discussed above, frequency is the rate at which a voltage passes through a null point on a sine wave. This waveform for alternating current (and step-DC) presents a new and unique parameter to the “body affecting equation”.

Have you ever wondered why some people when struck by lightening survive?

     Scientists know that lightning’s power is in the ‘Gigawatt’ range. To give you an example of the power this entails, look at any light bulb in your house. Most of these bulbs will be less than 150 Watts. Lightening has approximately a million times that amount of power flowing through it.

     We also know that people can be killed by the amount of electricity in the average household wall socket if not careful.

     So why do some people survive to tell the tale when hit by lightening? Why do they survive when they are in their cars? Why do people (even while wearing rubber soled shoes) die when hit by lightening?

     Lightening has erratic frequencies. Parts of it have been measured at less than one hertz (one oscillation through the null point per second) up to a million Hz/sec (needless to say, measurements are incredibly tough to get properly with something as powerful and chaotic as a lightening strike). The majority of the energy produced is at this very high frequency.

     When something has a high frequency (defined as a frequency above ~200 Hz), it does an unusual thing. It is going so fast that the minor resistance provided by the skin deflects it OVER the skin, vice through it. This is called the “Skin Effect”. Therefore most of the energy from the lightening strike passes over the skin disallowing it from doing internal damage directly (there is a good chance, however, that it will heat the skin to the point where it cooks you inside).

Why is this important to a discussion about electrical toys?



As it would be redundant as hell, but I do want to ensure that folks get the word, be sure to read the safety precautions for violet wands listed at:

     During the rise of man’s fascination with electricity in the late 1800’s, the violet wand was developed as a “medical device”. Since then, it has been proven to be of no great use in that arena (therapeutically), but has persisted as a “wive’s tale” and used for every ailment imaginable.

     The violet wand is so called, because when it is operating the glass bulb on its head glows purple when it is energized (Note: for us scientific geeks, the color is produced through energy released during the intra-valent electron exchanges occurring during the forced ionization of the normally inert Argon gas (or, other gases for some of the various colors they might use) contained inside a tempered glass electrode under low pressure [2].).

     The violet wand is a relatively simple device consisting of a switch (on some models), a generator and associated electrical components (a capacitor and for producing electricity and contained in the handle) a “press-in” socket for the various shaped bulb attachments and assortment of conductors.

     The generator makes a high frequency AC out of standard household current (~120VAC 60Hz). Because the frequency is so high, it can be introduced into the bulbs and create the namesake purple light. But the light is only for show and even disbursement through the bulb to the glass barrier, because even without a bulb the electricity produced may travel through a conductor (supplied) and into (across the skin, as we discussed) a person holding it. Therefore making him the conductor (actually his skin) and allowing him to apply this “charge” from his person (generally the finger tips) and onto another person.
     This is actually fairly safe (depending on your health and whether you have a pacemaker installed) compared to other devices we like to play with in ‘leather’.

     While use of the violet wand on the human body is relatively safe, one should not allow the sparks to linger too long in one spot on the skin.  This could produce minor burns similar to sunburn, but is not necessarily life-threatening as other electrical toys may be, as described below.

     The Tens Unit is a device originated for the same purpose as the violet wand: therapeutic relief from various maladies of the human body and spirit. Except, unlike the violet wand, the tens unit actually works in some of the intended physical applications.
     The reason it works, where the violet wand failed, is in the penetrative ability of the units. The electrical pulses are able to penetrate below the layers of skin to the muscle nerves, the controlling factors for the movement of the muscles.
     In people who have issues with muscle cramps, loss of motor ability (movement) and in people with muscular skeletal disease or ‘insult’, the “forcing” of muscular movement can be exceptionally beneficial.
 With people who enjoy electrical play, the feeling that is created is one of the skin and muscles being “sucked” or moved without cognitive interaction. This in turns allows a ‘relaxation’ and simultaneous toning of the muscles because the acids and enzymes which propagate a muscle's being stressed and used do not build up as quickly (the things that make you sore and tense after strenuous exercise – the “burn”).
TENS is an acronym for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. (Transcutaneous means through the skin - from the Greek).4

     It is a low voltage penetrative unit. The unit generally uses a nine-volt battery (or alternate equivalent source) as the power. Because if this, I have heard people state that the violet want (which may drive upwards of 15000 volts) is more dangerous. But, this is untrue.
As we discussed earlier, the high frequency and exceptionally low current of the violet wand are not capable of penetrating the skin. Therefore the resultant electrical discharge from the device is equivalent to a static electrical (albeit continuous) shock. The tens unit on the other hand, takes this 9VDC charge and using electronics amplifies the output into a “step AC” (a dc voltage given frequency) and using capacitors, the voltage is boosted as well. This gives it the ability (through the low frequency [2 to 120 Hz – pulses per second] and higher than 9VDC) to penetrate beyond this tertiary layer of skin (your primary protection against electrical shock).
     Now, please understand, a well functioning and properly utilized tens unit is safe. As mentioned, the voltage is boosted, a frequency is created, and it is capable of penetrating the skin into the nerves of the muscle; however, normally the voltage and frequency produced are less than potentially viable for passing through critical areas of the body (when used correctly). That is why we (who play with electricity) often hear about the inherent potential danger of placing the two electrodes in positions that would place the heart in between (such as across the chest’s pectoral muscles).
     People do this (however) either for therapy or for fun. And, I can truly say that I have never seen any adverse effect in this (I do not, however, recommend it as you  - my friend - may be the one I hear about).

 Remember: Be safe, play safe, and have fun.

“It’s all good”

1. Applied Engineering Principles, KSO Prototype Training Review Book, rev 1. 1977, USN Kesselring Site, Saratoga Springs, NY
2. http://home.earthlink.net/~violetwands/safe.html
5. National Electrical Code (NEC), 1999; NFPA Publishing, Inc.

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