An insulator prevents electrical currents from flowing, except occasionally in tiny amounts. Most gases are good electrical insulators. Glass, dry wood, paper, and plastics are other examples. Pure water is a good electrical insulator, although it conducts some current with even the slightest impurity. Metal oxides can be good insulators, even though the metal in pure form is a good conductor.

Electrical insulators can be forced to carry current. Ionization can take place; when electrons are stripped away from their atoms, they move more or less freely. Sometimes an insulating material gets charred, or melts down, or gets perforated by a spark. Then its insulating properties are lost, and some electrons flow. An insulating material is sometimes called a dielectric. This term arises from the fact that it keeps electrical charges apart, preventing the flow of electrons that would equalize a charge difference between two places. Excellent insulating materials can be used to advantage in certain electrical components such as capacitors, where it is important that electrons not flow.

Porcelain or glass can be used in electrical systems to keep short circuits from occurring. These devices, called insulators, come in various shapes and sizes for different applications. You can see them on high-voltage utility poles and towers. They hold the wire up without running the risk of a short circuit with the tower or a slow discharge through a wet wooden pole.