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How Does an Electric Kettle Work?

man pouring hot water from electric kettle to the cup

We take a lot of things for granted in our modern society, but electricity has got to be near the top. Nearly every convenience of the modern world has electricity to thank. The internet, cars, television, and the electric kettle that faithfully boils our water for coffee every morning all could not exist without electricity. While an electric kettle might not be as impressive as the internet, the internet doesn’t help us make coffee in the morning, so we’re going to give the nod to the kettle and explain how it works.

In this short guide, we’re going to give you a working knowledge of how electric kettles work. We’ll cover their basic operation before going more in-depth and taking a look at how they manage to boil water more quickly than a standard stovetop. Thomas Edison would be proud.

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Basic Function

Electric kettles operate on the principle that current running through a wire generates heat. In most circuits, this heat is unwanted, and great engineering pains are taken to ensure that wires don’t get too hot. Of course, in an electric kettle, the opposite is true, and engineers design heating elements to produce as much heat as possible with minimal current and power usage.

The core component in an electric kettle is the heating element, a thick coil of water designed to handle high currents. When a large current passes through the heating element, it heats up, and the kettle uses this heat to boil water. The simplest design puts the heating element in direct contact with water, maximizing the heat transfer between the element and your water.

Many electric kettles also come with an automatic shutoff feature that turns off the current when your water is boiling. This saves you energy and is safer than letting the current flow uninterrupted until you remember to shut it off. The mechanism is as simple as a thermostat like the one you have in your house. When the thermostat detects a high enough temperature, it triggers a switch to open a circuit, stopping the flow of current.

Why Electric Kettles Boil Water Quickly

If you want to heat water as quickly as possible, you need to minimize the amount of energy you lose during the heating process. On one end of the spectrum, we have heating over an open fire. If you’ve ever tried to boil water over a campfire, you know how painfully long it takes. It’s not hard to believe that a large amount of heat is lost to the surrounding air over a campfire since there is no means of containing the heat generated by a chaotic fire.

We can do much better by using a stovetop to boil water instead. When you put a traditional kettle on the stove—either an electric stove or a gas-powered stove—it directly contacts the heat source. Electric stovetops use a heating element just like electric kettles, although a traditional kettle is less direct. To see why, consider that as the stovetop heats up, the bottom of the kettle has to heat up first before the water starts to feel the heat. Since the contact between the bottom of a traditional kettle and the stovetop isn’t perfect, some heat is lost in the process.

Now we’re ready to understand why electric kettles are so efficient and can heat water so quickly. By putting the heating element in direct contact with the water, we cut out the middleman, and all of the heat generated by the heating element gets transferred to the water, heating it. What’s more, once we understand how electric kettles work, we can make them boil water even more quickly by using thicker coils in the heating element and letting them use more power.

An electric kettle is limited only by the amount of power it can draw from the outlet and the material used in the heating element. The vast majority of heating elements are made from a mixture of 80% nickel and 20% chromium. This combination provides enough electrical resistance to heat sufficiently and also resists oxidation, meaning it will last longer without burning out.

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Conclusion

If you’re tired of waiting for your stovetop kettle to boil water, an electric kettle is a perfect alternative. The technology used in electric kettles has been around for over half a century and is a great example of good engineering. Using a heating element in direct contact with the water in the kettle means nearly all of the heat generated in the heating element is efficiently transferred to the water, meaning you get to enjoy your coffee faster.

Electric kettles are largely safe to use, and most come with an automatic shutoff feature that switches the current off when your water boils. Many electric kettles also have an idle timer that turns the entire unit off after a set period, reducing the risk of forgetting to shut it off before heading off to work.

SEE ALSO: How to Clean an Electric Kettle (With Pictures)


Featured Image Credit: Halfpoint, Shutterstock

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Sean Brennan

Sean’s obsession with coffee started when he received his first French press as a gift almost ten years ago. Since then, his love of coffee – and the number of coffee gadgets he owns – has grown considerably. A scientist by training, there is no stone he has left unturned in the never-ending quest for the perfect cup of coffee. He has spent many hours tuning his pour-over technique, thinking about how to best compare grind quality, and worrying about whether the Nicaraguan or Kenyan beans will make the best cold brew. These days he favors the Hario V60, and starts each day by hand grinding his coffee before enjoying a cup prepared with care and attention to detail.

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