enter image description here

We've all seen this scenario in movies; somebody has to cross a room half filled with water and there is a dangling electric wire that shoots sparks everywhere. The poor person has to cross the room but cannot do so because if the wire hits the water he is obviously electrocuted since water is a conductor.

But is it so simple in real life? If I'm really standing in water in a room, and a high voltage wire hits the water, how does the electricity flow through me to electrocute me? Only my feet are touching the water, no other bodypart of mine is touching anywhere. And realistically there probably would be some piping etc. connected to ground somewhere that would conduct the current to ground. How would I be electrocuted if the current just flows past me?

I suspect this is similar to the well known situation of somebody dropping a hair dryer into a bathtub with a person in it. Why doesn't the current in this situation flow either from the live wire to the neutral wire or through the drain to the ground? Why does simply being in "high voltage water" electrocute me? (And yes, I know the scenario is not so likely with modern appliances but let's consider this in theory).

  • 47
    \$\begingroup\$ I seriously suggest that you don’t do any testing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 11:20
  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ The answer is: it depends, there are many variables involved like: distance between you and the wire, voltage on the wire, conductivity of the water, water level, material of the bath, if the bath is metal or conductive: how well is it grounded, is it painted. I could go on for a while. All this determines the amount of current passing through the person. Also thin persons can handle less current than "less thin" persons. There can be no clear answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 11:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your ground symbol in the sketch implies that the power on the wire is referenced to ground. It may not be. The power on that line could be isolated from ground. \$\endgroup\$
    – scorpdaddy
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 12:28
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ This question reminded me of the following video on Youtube made by Electroboom: youtube.com/watch?v=dcrY59nGxBg Where he actually does an experiment to confirm this \$\endgroup\$
    – Ferrybig
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 18:32
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ "There's an exposed wire over the bathtub ... Oh yeah! Shock wire! I call it that 'cause if you take a shower and touch it.....YOU DIE!" - Ron Swanson / Andy Dwyer - Parks and Rec \$\endgroup\$
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 18:46

7 Answers 7


Oh yes. The phenomenon is called "Electrical Drowning".

In this tragic case, a girl decided to dance in a fountain, unawares that the underwater lights had a ground fault. Her muscles contracted and she fell down. One friend went in to try to grab her, and she too lost control of her leg muscles and fell down. Her two other friends tried to rescue the first two.

Firefighters showed up, one tiptoed in, lost it and his friends yanked him out. The firefighters spent 15 minutes trying to find the shutoff switch.

The problem with falling down in water is that you drown. All four girls did.

In fact, multiple victims is often the only clue to an electrical drowning.

This is why any beachside installations now require GFCI and shutoff switches, and why you should not swim near a boat on shore power.

Why electrical drownings happen

You've seen problems involving grids of resistors. That's what water is, a 3-D grid of resistors, and you also are some of the resistors.

Electrical current travels all available paths in proportion to their conductance (1/resistance). 1-10 mA is enough to start causing problems for a sensitive person; 100 mA is lethal in its own right.

Electricity wants to get back to source (the pole transformer's neutral), and the NEC standard for a grounding rod is 25 ohms. You can do the math here.

Well, I get 120 V through a 24 ohm resistor = 5 amperes. So only a tiny fraction of that current need go through you to nail you. If we rely on that article's 20 mA, then 1/250 of the current is enough to drown you.

Note also: this is not nearly enough to trip a typical 13, 15, 16 or 20 A branch circuit breaker.

However, a GFCI breaker will trip at 6-8 mA. That greatly improves the prognosis. This narrows it down to a highly improbable combination of events where the current is naturally limited to less than 6 mA, and almost all goes through you, and you're ultra-sensitive.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Many such cases, like this one, don't involve drowning. The current stops the heart (and other things). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 5:10
  • 24
    \$\begingroup\$ "That's what water is, a 3-D grid of resistors, and you also are some of the resistors." Best analogy I have ever seen to describe this issue. Bravo! \$\endgroup\$
    – JRaef
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 1:03
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ One additional point: Compared to fresh water, the human body is a particularly low resistance path, so the current will preferentially go through you. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 10:37
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Then how do you explain this? youtube.com/watch?v=dcrY59nGxBg \$\endgroup\$
    – Chloe
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 19:04
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Chloe Did not watch the whole video, but in that case, the only conductive parts are contained within the toaster - the outside of the bath is non-conductive (with the possible exception of the plughole). As concrete is conductive, the bottom of any fountain or pool is likely to be a decent ground. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 6:11

In something like water electricity does not "flow to ground" in a neat straight line. There is a potential difference between sections of water radiating out from the HV contact point. That might also mean that your feet are at different potentials, and there will be current flow which could be fatal. This is one reason why cows in fields can be electrocuted by a nearby lightning strike. The voltage difference between their feet can be thousands of volts.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ It also might not flow to ground at all. If the dangling wire, for example, was connected to a UK shaver outlet (powered by an isolation transformer) then the only available path is back the other wire to the other side of the transformer. \$\endgroup\$
    – J...
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 17:58
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Even humans can be electrocuted by a nearby lightning strike. Paradoxically, there are many aspects of a strike that are worse if it hits the ground near you than if it hits you directly (the former can stop your heart if the electrical potential is great enough, whereas the latter "just" causes burns and lung damage). \$\endgroup\$
    – forest
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 23:44
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Especially considering that most water you encounter day-to-day is fresh water. The human body is saltwater, which has a lower resistance, so electricity will preferentially flow through you. \$\endgroup\$
    – skyler
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 19:02
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding potential differences on the ground in a lightning strike: That's why you should have your feet close together (to minimize the potential difference between them and hence the current flowing through them) while you squat (to minimize the chances of a direct hit which would at least give you an instant new tatoo). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 9:26
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterA.Schneider Does squatting really do anything? I was under the impression that the height of a human on normal terrain doesn't have a significant effect on the leader trajectory. \$\endgroup\$
    – forest
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 6:07

I think that the answer is pretty simple - you are a better conductor than fresh water. I read this somewhere and it made me giggle then: "Humans are just big bags of salt water", which is true. A current of 1 mA through the heart is enough to cause a heart attack, so at 220 V, 220 kΩ resistance is not enough. You are less than 220 kΩ, especially when in water. Skin is the only insulator we have.

Just don't try it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yup, this is how you can get electrocuted--you have a considerably lower resistance than fresh water so if your body can be used to go to the ground it will--the current is happy to flow up one leg and down the other. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 3:28
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Actually this is wrong: the worst shock will happen in a slightly salty water with the same conductance as a human body. Think about impedance matching: maximum power transfer happens when Zload=Zsource. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DmitryGrigoryev You are right. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 14:54
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @DmitryGrigoryev: Maximum power transfer when the voltage is regulated happens for a matched load. Therefore, replace the source by its Thevenin equivalent, and the load should be the conjugate of the Thevenin-equivalent series impedance. That's totally unrelated to impedance equaling that of the water it displaces -- you're matching to the wrong part of the circuit. (Another statement of the issue, you are matching resistivity when you should be matching resistance) \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 5:21
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "Ugly bags of mostly water!" You made me remember a little bit of Star Trek humor. \$\endgroup\$
    – enorl76
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 18:05

how does the electricity flow through me to electrocute me?

I already posted that picture once in a question about electric eels:

enter image description here Source: phys.org Credit: Kenneth Catania

Electricity doesn't flow along a single preferred path, it flows in the entire water body with different intensities. If you happen to be in a path with high enough current, you'll get electrocuted.

An interesting corollary to this fact is that you'll get the worst shock when you and the water have comparable conductance. If the water is much more conductive than you, even high currents will only create a small voltage difference, which may not be harmful. If the water is much less conductive, the voltage difference may be huge, but the current will be limited.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a nice illustration of a tricky concept. \$\endgroup\$
    – user98663
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 14:54
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The current flowing through a body in water depends solely on its resistance and the sustained voltage, not (directly) on the resistance of the sorrounding water. The caveat "directly" is because a high resistance surrounding makes the potential difference at your body collapse (it happens in the high resistance part, and the current through your body making that drop happen may not be harmful). But the case that your body has a higher resistance than the surrounding won't have any benefit at all. (You'd need a power source though which can sustain the voltage in spite of the high currents.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 9:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ "If the water is much more conductive than you, even high currents will only create a small voltage difference". I wonder if this is really the case. If we assume that there is a fixed voltage source that can produce any current needed, than a change in conductivity will have no influence on the total voltage potential. Lets look at the case where the body resistance is much larger than the water resistance. If the total voltage potential stays the same (and the water has uniform conductivity), then the voltage drop over a smaller section would also stay the same. ... \$\endgroup\$
    – BrtH
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ ... Only when the resistance of the body is in the same range or smaller than that of the water, the voltage drop would change, because there is no more uniform conductivity. However, the voltage drop only lowers, and with it the current through the human. See this simulation: i.imgur.com/Cv9pVMW.png, the current through the human is the largest when the resistance of the water is smallest. This also holds when we use a different ratio of the resistances of R1, R4 and R6 instead of 1:1:1. \$\endgroup\$
    – BrtH
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BrtH It's all about assumptions. Your simulation assumes the voltage source can produce an unlimited current. In which case I fully agree. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 7:21

Just being in "high voltage water" won't electrocute you, just as birds can happily perch on 10+kV power lines (and linemen can be dropped onto live lines for maintenance work), since there's no path, but as you say, there's always going to be a path to ground somewhere in that water, and so there'll be currents flowing through the water. Since that means that there's potential differences across the water at different points, you'd experience that between your feet, and since the human body is a good conductor, other than the skin, which reduces greatly in resistance when wet, that would allow possibly lethal current to flow through the torso. People can and do get electrocuted standing in salty bilge water on 24V systems on boats, it doesn't take a lot of voltage if the resistance is low enough.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm pretty sure birds are safe because of their low capacitance (from their small size). It ensures very little AC current can flow through them. \$\endgroup\$
    – forest
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Electrocuted by 24V? Do you have a case reference? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 9:30
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterA.Schneider That's not entirely true for AC current. Many humans have been killed instantly by touching high-voltage AC lines. There are some horrible videos on LiveLeaks showing that, where people catch onto the wires while not grounded, sometimes even while not touching anything but the wire. The AC current is sometimes even high enough to cause burns that instantly expose bone (really). The myth that you can only be electrocuted if you are grounded, even if the voltage is obscenely high, has killed many. \$\endgroup\$
    – forest
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 4:48
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterA.Schneider You can absolutely get electrocuted with only 24V if your skin resistance is low enough (due to injuries or contact with salt water, etc.). Even 12V can be harmful. \$\endgroup\$
    – forest
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 5:40
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterA.Schneider I'm not particularly eager to go looking through videos of foolish teenagers getting themselves killed, but I believe the voltage must have been significantly higher than 20 kV given how violent the death appeared. This was also in a 3rd world country from what I remember, so protections were likely to be insufficient. From what I remember, the video was of a teenager trying to catch on to a damaged electric line and his whole body going up in flames. I'm sure you could look at BestGore or LiveLeaks with the search term "electrocution" if you really want to see... \$\endgroup\$
    – forest
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 6:31

Definitely don't try any of these things. This is definitely not intended to imply you should be complacent about any of the dangers of electricity, but there are numerous things that are often extremely wrong in movie handling of electricity, particularly in this type of scene. Often effects are used to simply make the electricity do what the story requires, so a few things:

  • Overcurrent and other fault protection: In most of the world, every circuit has over current protection and many circuits have ground fault or arc fault protection. As manufacturing capability increases, we've been able to add more ways to protect electrical installations and make them safe. In a futuristic scenario with improved technology, there is usually no reason this would have changed. Faults damage equipment, so even in a scenario where disregard for human life is written in, systems would have advanced precautions to limit property damage. At any rate, often the conductor you see creating the danger is actually a cable, with visible wires sticking out of the end, whatever the prop department thought would look cool. In many of these cases, the conductor, as presented, would have shorted between it's own conductors and tripped its overcurrent device or GFCI. In order for the conductor to stay live, something else must go wrong, like it miraculously not shorting out when being pulled loose from what it was connected to, falling, and or jiggling without shorting out on itself or touching something made of metal, or the breaker welding closed(which does occasionally happen).
  • Electricity flows more on paths of less resistance. You could place large copper wire, a wet log and a strip of asphalt side by side, and connect the same voltage at once to the ends of all three. Most of the current would flow through the copper wire, much less would flow through the wet log, and a negligible amount through the asphalt, though there would be current flow in all three. If the conductors on a broken cable have enough voltage to create CGI arcs to nearby fixtures/water/whatever things that are far away, they have enough voltage to arc to its own return conductor or ground, which is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as inches away. For its own return conductor or ground to not be the target of most arcs, a second thing has to go wrong. Those conductors have to be broken somewhere between the arcing cable and the source, somehow without damaging a single high voltage cable more than would allow it to function. Electricity will not tend to travel through a meter of air to establish an arc when a 20mm arc establishes a low impedance return path.
  • Electricity is often much more brutal and much less flashy than in the movies, and movies often portray a greater(or smaller) margin for survival than actually exists. As part of your training in electrical industries, especially in power distribution, there's a good likelihood you'll see a video of someone dying working with or around electricity. It's utterly terrible. Brutal, merciless, and not always quick. The actual speed that electricity can "change" and propagate at is fast enough to need quality examples to make it easy to comprehend. There are situations where high voltage is portrayed in movies as something that great dexterity, strength and skill can just deal with, and inevitably characters are sometimes shown doing something that would have killed or vaporized them. Sometimes with low voltage wires a character is shown killed by something that, as presented, would have a relatively low probability of being lethal. In the latter case I'm comfortable with that as laymen and professionals should treat something with a very good chance of killing them as something that will.
  • Electricity flows in loops. Each molecule, depending on bonding, nuclei, and electron shells, tends to keep roughly a certain amount of electron in each area around it. The electrons themselves are bouncing around, and when they are not held too tightly where they are, they fly freely between nearby molecules, and the limiting factor is that when/as an electron moves out of an area that "needs" an electron, forces will be exerted on other nearby electrons as well as the one flying away to pull them in and fill the gap. Depending on structure of molecule and nuclei, different materials either bind their electrons tightly(insulators) or allow them to flow more freely(conductors). When you cause electrons to flow along a wire, new ones must replace the ones that flow away. The area you are pumping the electrons to will have too many and the area you are pumping them from will not have enough. There is nowhere for the flow to go other than back to where there are too few, as all of the other molecules around have exactly enough. No loop, no current.
  • Water isn't really a good conductor. Dirty water, particularly salty water is. Pure water is not (tap water is not pure). Aside from that, if you put a generator on the shore of an ocean and strung a wire across the surface of the water to a point far out where the tip of the wire was bare, 1 meter underwater, and connected the generator to that wire and a ground rod, the generator would work to pass a current down that wire, into the water, along the earth, through the ground rod, and back to the generator, where the electrons you're pumping out need to be replaced. Because of the high(ish) conductivity of salt water, there wouldn't be high voltages/currents for too high a distance in most directions around the tip of that wire, as the flow of electrons is "attempting" to return on the shortest path possible to its source. voltage will spread out in other directions somewhat as the flowing electrons spread out to travel more freely. This is not to say that the water around the electrode is not dangerous, but to point that movies are often not specifically accurate with where current is flowing.
  • Flashy arcs and sparks - Electricity is invisible. All we can see are the effects on objects as electricity passes through them. Heat, light, motion, the occasional smell. In order to draw attention to them, arcs, sparks and flashes are often brighter than they might be in real life, or of the wrong type (explosive rather than plasma, for example). The resistivity of air is around 2100V/mm, meaning to start an arc through room temperature air, you need 2100V for every mm you want the arc to jump. Once the air starts conducting and becomes a plasma, it conducts quite well, but it takes quite a voltage to start an arc.
  • 14
    \$\begingroup\$ "•Electricity follows the path of least resistance" Not true. Give it two paths, 1000 and 1001 ohm. Does all current flow in the 1000 ohm path and no current in the 1001 ohm path? \$\endgroup\$
    – winny
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 9:15
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Winny Good point. I spouted off a safety axiom in my effort to keep things simple =P. Corrected now. Please check the rephrase if you have the time =). \$\endgroup\$
    – K H
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 23:30

You are electrocuted when a current of more than 100 mA flows through you. The wire does not do the electrocuting, it only connects you to a current source.

  1. If there is no current source, there is no current. So go ahead and grab that wire. Nothing will happen. On the other hand, if the wire is connected to a current source, like the 220 VAC power to your clothes dryer, you are likely to die.

  2. There is nothing magic about a "dangling" wire. If the wire is rigidly supported, it will kill you just as dead as if it were dangling.

  3. To determine if the electric field inside water that is conducting can kill you... that requires a 3 dimensional finite element analysis of the voltage distribution within the body of water. If the wire is hot and is touching the water, you best stay out of it. On the other hand, near the edge of the water, where it is very shallow, the current will be minimum. So you might stick your toe in and see if you can feel anything before proceeding further.

  4. You can increase the lethality by adding ions to the water. Salt will do this, or any strong acid or base.

  5. Some utility wires are not wires at all and carry no current. They are fiber optic cables and are harmless. But don't bet on it.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.