Voltage — electromotive force — is the potential for electron flow. The higher the voltage, the higher the potential force. But what does this really mean and how does it apply to e-stim?
Since electrons are microscopically small, we can’t see them but we can use an analogous substance — water — to illustrate many of electricity’s hidden characteristics. This isn’t a 1-for-1 correspondence, and we are talking about what can see and felt with the naked eye and body, not measured with an electron microscope or other high-tech tools.
Water as a metaphor for electrons
Imagine a water tank filled with water located at the top of a hill. Now imagine a pipe connected to the bottom of the tank of water, leading to the bottom of the hill. At the bottom of the pipe is a valve, which is now shut. The water pipe leading downhill is filled with water. There is a tank full of water connected to it at the top of the hill. What will happen when the valve is opened at the bottom of the hill? Water will flow. It flows under the influence of gravity — the water high on the hill has a greater potential energy than the open valve located many feet below. Water flows downhill, right? Of course.
A potential for movement
We can relate the potential for water to flow downhill, through the pipe, to voltage. In both, there is a potential for movement, a potential force that exists. For water, it lies in the water that is stored in the tank high on the hill. The storage of water and the height difference contribute to the potential for flow. The same characteristics apply to electrons too.
When more electrons are gathered in one location compared to another, and a wire or other conductive material is placed between them, electrons will flow from the place of higher concentration to the place of lower concentration until a balance is achieved. This difference — the potential difference — between these two quantities is what we call voltage. You can think of it like pressure. But be careful, pressure is sometimes confused with flow when in fact it’s a measure of the force itself — like voltage — not the amount of flow that is actually occurring.
Like the water filled tank high on the hill. If it was there by itself, with no pipe connected to it, it would still have the potential to move to a lower energy state, someplace down the hill. There would be pressure felt along the sides of the tank, caused by the weight of the water. And yet, with no opening, the tank of water isn’t doing much. It’s just sitting there. That hidden potential for movement is pressure. And it’s a lot like voltage.
How voltage applies to e-stim
Frankly, we don’t really talk about voltage that much when stimming. It’s not an important quantity to measure, but it does define the kinds of play we engage in. Different devices output different voltages, and some produce very high voltages that create sparks that jump across an air gap. The violet wand is one example of a device that is still in production and used by many BDSM practitioners for the tiny shocks it can produce on the skin and other areas. There are perhaps 3 voltage ranges out there in the e-stim marketplace.
Extra-low voltage devices
Extra-Low Voltage is defined as any voltage less than 50 Volts AC — or VAC — and most made-for-play erotic e-stim power units fall into this category. The ET312 can in some cases exceed this by a few volts under normal load but it’s safe to keep it in this category. Power units in this category limit the injury they can cause by their lower voltage limitation. And yet, even with the voltage limitation, they can produce a wide range of sensations, from a light tingling to painfully unbearable. This is due in part to the shape of the waveforms used to stimulate the nerve endings they are attached to. Suffice it to say — you don’t need a lot of voltage to get your stim on.
Low voltage devices
Low Voltage lies in the range of 50 – 1000 VAC and includes power sources that were not designed for erotic e-stim, including hand-crank magneto generators. These units were intended for field communications (read: military) to generate a rough and ragged AC signal that can easily ring a telephone bell located several miles away. Some say that they are an “acquired taste”— that would be putting it lightly. Such units are potentially injurious to the body unless modified with resistors to limit the output current and voltage. And they’re really painful. The frequency of the output pulses is low and painful, and causes more muscle stimulation that pleasant nerve stimulation in my experience. Not advised.
High voltage devices
High Voltage is classified as more than 1000 VAC and includes the violet wand. These units produce 35,000 – 65,000 V which is enough to cause sparks to jump from the gas-filled glass tubes to nearby skin. These devices seem to break the rule of a complete circuit — see Electro 101 — Why 2 Wires? — but there is still a circuit being completed, although it’s harder to see.
High voltages are able to leap across the air and equalize themselves into objects having lower potential energy without wires. The buzzing, arcing and crackling sounds made by these devices can be a lot of fun. When done correctly, they can feel very tingly and erotic with a low potential for injury.
The high voltages used are accompanied by very low currents, so that when combined, there is very little power being transferred from the wand to the body.
Which brings us to the concept of current.
To be continued…
The following is a chapter of an upcoming book I’m writing. Your comments are invited. —Eric
In order for current to flow, we need a complete circuit. And in most cases, this requires two (2) wires connected to the load — or in our case — some part of our body. Think of the wires as tubes with electrons being water traveling inside those tubes. One wire delivers the electrons to the skin while the other returns electrons back to the power unit. And whether the direction changes back and forth several times a second (alternating current or AC) or flows in the same direction (direct current or DC) doesn’t really matter. The fact that you need two (2) wires connected in order to feel anything is required no matter what direction the electrons are flowing.
A closed loop is the complete circuit or path followed by a signal as it is flows from a signal source to the load and back.
The concept of a closed loop in an electrical circuit may seem strange, since many things in nature flow without a definite return path. Water flowing from a faucet, for example, simply flows from the faucet — ending up in a water glass to be drunk, or for any variety of other uses. While it may go down the drain, it doesn’t have to. It could just as easily go all over the floor, or be used to water the lawn. Eventually, water from the faucet returns to some source, but it doesn’t need a definite path to get there.
The Difference Between High and Low Voltage
High voltage — electrical potentials more than 1000 volts AC or 1500 volts DC — have the ability to form an arc or a spark. At high voltages, electrons can flow through air and other materials not normally considered conductors of electrical current. Walking across a carpeted floor in a dry, heated room in the middle of winter can cause an accumulation of electrons that get suddenly discharged when we touch a metal doorknob or other grounded metal surface. In this case, the accumulation of electrons create a voltage high enough to jump the gap between our finger tip and the metal surface. In the case of high voltage, air becomes invisible conductor that completes the circuit.
In our discussion of erotic electro-stimulation, we purposely limit ourselves to low voltages which don’t have enough energy to jump through the air. These low voltages need a conductor to supply the electrons and another conductor to act as a return back to the source.
In other words, two (2) wires are needed and this explains why all low voltage electro-stim devices have two wires for each output channel connected to the body. Connecting just one of the two output wires results in no current flow. There is no means for the current to flow back — in a sense, it’s ready to go but has no way home. Connecting both wires to two (2) separated mono-polar electrodes or one (1) bi-polar electrode allows current to flow between the surfaces. Connecting just one of these and leaving the other wire free prevents current from flowing.
Monopolar and Bipolar
Bipolar electrodes have 2 conductive surfaces separated by a insulating material. Many anal and vaginal toys are bipolar, as well as some cock rings and urethral sounds. If you see two metal surfaces separated by a acrylic, plastic or rubber gap — these are insulators — and two jacks to connect to the lead wires, it’s mostly likely a bipolar device. In some cases, a bipolar may come with an attached cord and plug that connects directly to the power unit. A bipolar electrode has everything you need in one piece: two conductors and an insulated space between them. Current has a way to come from and go back to the power unit, you just insert it and it’s ready to go.
Monopolar electrodes have 1 conductive surface. An ElectroCup (E-Cup) has a single conductive surface that makes contact with the balls, and works great with the CockCap, another mono-polar electrode that contacts the head of the cock. Current flows between the two when each wire of a lead wire is connected to them. But you have to leave a space between them. If monopolar electrodes make contact with each other, you will feel only a slight tingle, if that, since most of the current prefers to take the path of least resistance — from one conductor to the other. This is called a short-circuit. Current flows from one conductor directly to another without doing any work — or in our case — causing stimulation of the nerve endings.
Closed Loops Need:
- Two (2) conductive surfaces
- Body tissue (aka “skin”) between them
- Power source
- Lead wires connected to each conductive surface
- Water-based lube
The Need for Lube
Lubricant (or lube) serves two purposes: it allows smooth movement and it increases conductivity. Dry skin is a poor conductor of electricity, but moist skin is another story. Using fresh water would also do the trick, but it tends to dry out quickly. There are two kinds of lube available: water-based and silicone-based. I enjoy the longer-lasting silicone lubes for regular play, but since silicone is an insulator, it’s bad news for electro play. Imagine getting everything wired up and ready, only to coat the metal with something that prevents current from flowing. It’s no joke — I know it happens all the time! The best lube for electro-stim is water-based and there are many kinds available. I use Gun Oil H2O and many have used K-Y jelly and other water-based lubes with great results. Select a water-based lube you like and apply a coating to every conductive surface that touches the body. For anal toys, it’s OK to use lots of lube. This keeps things moving smoothly during play.
One exception: Gel Electrodes. Conductive gel pads have a surface that sticks well to freshly-cleaned and dried skin. Using lube with these pads will contaminate the gel surface and cause them to fall off. So don’t bother using lube with these. I make it a point to wash and dry any the areas I want to stimulate with gels before getting wired up. Body oils and sweat can interfere with their performance. Clean skin keeps gels sticky, which is a good thing. And they can be used several times and re-wetted to restore the sticky surface.
What happens if I connect just one of the lead wire plugs to my body?
You won’t feel a thing. Nothing. Not even at maximum output levels. This sometimes happens unexpectedly, when a wire comes loose during a session. In this case, current has been flowing quite nicely until — for some reason — a wire gets disconnected. As soon as this happens, the flow of current is interrupted. But the current will flow in whatever manner it can, through the disconnected banana plug tip that’s now dangling off by itself somewhere. Touching it, or having it graze against your thigh (just one example) will let you know that it is still quite able to conduct electron flow! It’s best to turn the output levels down and connect the wire back to where it was attached, and then resume the session.
What about violet wands?
Violet wands produce a high-voltage, low-current output from the tip of their transformer, which is usually connected to a glass tube filled with a noble gas — xenon, neon, argon, or some mixture — that glows when it’s turned on and sends sparks to the skin when brought to the body. Seeing one in action is fascinating, beautiful and the smell of ozone is electrifying! And at first glance, it appears that some kind of magic is occurring with the violet wand. It seems to be violating our “closed loop” requirement. And yet, it’s not.
The high-voltage output of the violet wand is strong enough to produce an arc or spark in mid-air, something that low-voltage devices — all erotic electro-stim units made for play including all ErosTek units — can’t do. It’s the high voltage that jumps across the air to touch the skin and jump off the skin somewhere else to complete the circuit. It’s not a precise circuit by any stretch. The most obvious connection seems to be where the violet wand is comes close to the skin and creates a buzzing sensation with tiny sparks flying between the glass tube and body part being stimulated. The not-so-obvious return path the rest of the body and the surrounding air. The body itself has more than enough free electrons floating inside it to satisfy the violet wand’s ability to move electrons forcibly across the gap. When the voltages are small — in the case of our low-voltage applications — resistance plays a bigger role in the conduction of electron flow.