Explore the fascinating world of electrical grounding in this video. Dive into the importance of grounding in electrical circuits, which serves as a crucial reference point for voltage measurements and a preventive measure against voltage imbalances. Discover why high voltage systems connected to the power grid require grounding, and how ground faults can lead to voltage shifts and increased costs.
Learn about the potential hazards of ungrounded power systems, and how they can lead to higher voltages and dangerous situations. Understand the role of soil resistivity in conducting electricity and how adding substances like salt water can enhance conductivity.
This video also sheds light on the different types of faults that grounding systems address, namely step potential and touch potential. Step potential refers to the voltage difference that can occur between two points on the ground during a fault, which can be dangerous if a person comes into contact with the ground at different points.
This video is not just about theory; it also delves into the practical aspects of electrical grounding. Learn from powerline technicians who are trained to hop on one foot to reduce the chance of step potential.
The video also acknowledges the invaluable help the author receives in making these engineering videos, and the practical engineering team's role in providing lunch.
This video is sponsored by HelloFresh, a service that delivers recipes and makes cooking more convenient and enjoyable. Try HelloFresh and make your cooking experience a joy. Thank you for watching and don't forget to subscribe for more interesting content on electrical engineering!
Imagine this scenario. You have a diesel-powered generator on a stand that's electrically isolated from the ground. Run a wire from the energized slot of an outlet to an electrode driven into the ground. Don't connect anything to the ground or neutral slots. Now imagine starting the generator. What happens? Does current flow from the energized wire into the ground or not? Your answer depends completely on your mental model of what the Earth represents in an electrical circuit. After all, the idea of a circuit is just an abstraction of some really complicated electromagnetic processes. And that's even more true on the grand scale of the power grid.
Grounding is one of the most confusing and misunderstood aspects of the grid, so you can be pardoned for being a little perplexed. For example, if I run a wire from the positive side of a battery into the ground, nothing happens. But when an energized power line falls from a pole, there's definitely current flowing into the ground then. Cloud-to-ground lightning strikes move huge electrical currents into or out of the Earth. But my little thought experiment of a generator connected to a grounding electrode won't create any current at all. I'll explain why in a minute. Even on an electrical diagram, ground is just this magical symbol that hangs off the circuit willy-nilly.
But connections between an electrical circuit and the ground serve quite a few different and critical purposes. And I have some demonstrations set up in the studio to help explain. I think you're going to look at the power grid in a whole new way after this, but just don't try these experiments at home. I'm Grady, and this is Practical Engineering. In today's episode, we're talking about electrical grounding. Why do we ground electrical circuits in the first place? Why do we ground electrical circuits in the first place? Maybe the easiest way to answer that question is to show you what happens when we don't.
For as much importance as it gets in the electrical code, it might surprise you that it's not always such a big deal, and in some cases can even be beneficial. After all, lots of small electrical circuits lack a connection to the ground, even if part of the circuit is literally called ground. In that case, the term really just refers to a common reference point from which voltages are measured. That's one thing that can be confusing about voltage. It doesn't actually refer to a single wire or trace or location, but the difference in electrical potentials between two points.
For convention, we pick a common reference point, assume it has zero potential to make the math simple, and call it ground, even if there's no reference to the actual ground below our feet. On small, low-voltage devices like battery-powered toys, the difference in potential between components on the circuit board and the actual earth isn't all that important. But that's not true for high-voltage systems connected to the grid. Let me show you why. This is a diagram of a typical power system on the grid. The coils of a generator are shown on the left. When a magnetic field rotates past these coils, it generates electric current on the conductors.
And, very generally, this is how we get the three-phase AC power that's the backbone of most electrical grids today. Look at nearly any transmission line and you'll see three main conductors that, again, very generally correspond to this diagram. But what you don't see here is a connection to ground. Let me put another diagram underneath where distance is equal to voltage. You can see our three conductors all have the same phase-to-phase voltage, and they have the same phase-to-ground voltage, too. Everything is balanced. But, in this example, that connection to the ground isn't very strong, resulting just from the electromagnetic fields of the alternating current, called capacitive coupling. But watch what happens during a ground fault.
This could be a tree branch knocking down a power line, or a conductor being blown into contact with a steel tower, or any other number of problems that lead to a short between one phase and ground. Now, all of a sudden, that weak coupling force keeping the phase-to-ground voltages balanced is overpowered, and all the phases experience a voltage shift with respect to the ground. But the phase-to-phase voltages don't change. In fact, a ground fault on an ungrounded power system usually doesn't cause any immediate problems. The motors and transformers and other loads on the system don't really care about the phase-to-ground voltage because they're hooked up between phases.
This is one benefit of an ungrounded power system. In many cases, it can keep working even during a ground fault. But, of course, there are some downsides, too. In the example I showed, the phase-to-ground voltages of the two unfaulted conductors rise to almost twice what they would be in a balanced condition. Here's why that matters. Higher voltage requires more insulation, which means more cost. Especially on large transmission lines where insulation means literally holding the conductors great distances away from each other and the ground, those costs can add up quick.
It might seem like an esoteric problem for an electrical engineer, but in practice, it just means that ungrounded power systems can be a lot more expensive, a problem anyone can understand. But that's just the start. Look back at our diagram and you can see the faulted phase potential is equal to ground potential. In other words, their difference is zero. There's no voltage, and when you have zero voltage, you also have zero current. No electricity is flowing from the conductor into the ground. Or at least not very much is. You still have the capacitive coupling between the unfaulted conductors that allows a little bit of current to flow, but it's not much.
And that matters because nearly all the devices that would protect a system from a problem, like a ground fault, need some current to flow. If you know much about wiring and buildings, you might be familiar with the classic example of a toaster with a metal case. It could be any appliance, but let's use a toaster. Under normal conditions, current flows from the live or hot wire through a heating element and into the neutral wire to return to the grid, completing the circuit. But if something comes loose inside the toaster, the live or energized side of your electrical supply could come into contact with that metal case, making it energized too.
This could start a fire or, in the worst case, shock someone who touches the case. So many appliances are required to have another conductor attached to the housing, giving the current a parallel low resistance return path. That low resistance means lots of current will flow, triggering a breaker to shut off the circuit. And it's not just the breakers in your house that work this way. Nearly all the protective devices, called relays, that monitor parts of the power grid for problems rely on fault current to tell the difference between normal electrical loads and short circuits. The simplest way to do that is make sure the fault current is much higher than normal loads.
In the case of the damaged toaster, that fault current flowed through a conductor that's called ground but is actually just a parallel wire that connects to the neutral in your electrical panel. But in the case of substations and transmission lines, the fault current path is the actual ground. Let's look back at the diagram and convert it to a grounded system. If I add a strong bond to the ground at the generator, things don't look much different in the unfaulted condition. But as soon as you add a phase to ground short circuit, the diagram looks much different. First, the other phases don't experience a shift in their phase to ground potential.
But secondly, there's now a path for fault current to flow through the ground back to the source. And that's the answer to the question in the title of the video. Electrical current, in nearly all cases, doesn't flow into the earth, it flows through the earth. The ground is really just another wire, although not a great one. Let me show you an example. I have a narrow acrylic box full of dry sand. I put a copper rod into the sand on either side of the box and connected a circuit with a light bulb so that current has to flow across the sand from one electrode to the other.
When I turn on the switch, nothing happens. It turns out the dry sand is a pretty good insulator. In fact, soil and rock vary widely in how well they conduct electrical current. The resistivity changes with soil type, seasons, weather, temperature, and moisture content. For example, let's try to wet this sand and see if it makes a difference. Still nothing. Even completely saturating the sand with tap water, only a tiny current flows. You can barely see anything in the light bulb, but the current meter shows a tenth of an amp now.
Soil resistivity also changes with the chemical constituents in the soil, which is why I'm having trouble getting any current to flow through the sand. There just aren't enough electrolytes. Even with a layer of standing water on top of the sand, it doesn't conduct much current at all. If I add just a little bit of salt water to that standing water, immediately you see the resistivity goes down and the light bulb is able to light. And if I let that salt water soak into the soil, now the sand is able to conduct electricity too. This resistivity of soil to conduct current is pretty important.
Earth isn't a great wire, but what it lacks in conductivity it makes up for in size. You can kind of imagine current flowing from a ground electrode into the surrounding soil as a series of concentric shells, each representing a drop in voltage between the faulted conductor and the ground potential. Each shell has more surface area for current to flow and so has lower resistance, until eventually there's practically no resistance at all. But up close to the electrode, the shells are spaced tightly together toward a single point or line. That spacing is related to the resistance of the soil, and it can represent a pretty serious safety issue. Here's a little demonstration I set up to show how this works.
This is a length of nichrome wire connected between mains voltage with a few power resistors in between to limit the current. When I flip the switch, electrical current flows through the wire, simulating a ground fault. This length of nichrome wire is resistive to the flow of current just like the soil would be in a ground fault condition. You can see it heat up when I flip the switch. That means the electric potential along this wire is different at every point. I can show that just by measuring the voltage with a meter at a few different locations. Remember that voltage is the difference in potential between two points, or in the case of Zapp-McBody slam here, between two feet.
When Zapp steps on the wire, his legs are at two different electric potentials, and unfortunately human bodies are better conductors than the ground. That difference in electric potential creates a voltage that drives current up into one leg and down out of the other. In this case, I just have that voltage turning on a little light, but depending on how high that voltage is, and how well Zapp is insulated from it, this step potential can be a matter of life or death. In fact, powerline technicians are often encouraged to hop on one foot away from a ground fault to reduce the chance of a step potential. It sounds silly, but it might save their life.
Similarly, power technicians often come into contact with the metal cases around equipment regularly. So, if a ground fault happens on a piece of equipment and the resistance of the grounding system is too high, there can be a voltage between the ground and the metal case, again creating the possibility of a voltage across a person's body, called touch potential. The engineers who design power plants, substations, and transmission lines have to consider what touch potentials and step potentials can be safely withstood by a person and design grounding systems that make sure that they never exceed that level.
For example, most substations are equipped not just with a single grounding electrode, but a grid of buried conductors to minimize resistance in the earth connection. You might also notice that many substations use crushed rock as a ground surface. That's not just because linesmen don't like to mow the grass, it's because crushed rock, like the dry sand in my demo, doesn't conduct electricity well and minimizes the chance of standing water. But not all power systems use the ground just as a safety measure. There are systems where the earth is actually the primary return path for current to flow. The ground is essentially the neutral line.
Electrical distribution systems called single-wire earth return, or SWER, are used in a few places around the world to deliver electrical power in rural areas. Using the earth as a return path can save costs since you only have to run a single wire, but of course there are safety and technical challenges too. Similarly, there are some high-voltage transmission lines across the world that use direct current, like a battery, instead of AC. We'll save a detailed discussion of these systems for another day because there's a lot of fascinating engineering involved. But I did want to mention them here because many of these lines are equipped with really elaborate grounding systems.
Although most high-voltage DC transmission lines use two conductors, positive and negative, some only use one with the return current flowing through the earth or the sea. And even the bipolar lines often include grounding systems so they can use ground return during an outage or an emergency if one pole is out of service. For example, the Pacific-DC intertie that carries power from the Pacific Northwest into Los Angeles has elaborate grounding systems at both ends. In Oregon, over a thousand electrodes are buried in a ring with a circumference of 2 miles or 3. 2 kilometers. In California, the grounding system consists of huge electrodes submerged in the Pacific Ocean a few miles off the shore.
Unlike AC return currents that generally follow a path that matches the transmission line, DC currents can flow through the entire earth. In essence, the electrodes are completely decoupled. That does mean they're susceptible to some environmental issues though. They create magnetic fields that can affect compass readings and magnetosensitive fish like salmon and eels. In the ocean electrodes, the current can cause electrolysis, breaking down seawater into toxic chemicals like chloroform and bromoform. And stray electrical currents into the ground can flow into pipelines and other buried structures causing them to corrode. This is also a problem with some electric trains that use the rail as a return path.
You may have heard that electricity takes the path of least resistance, but that's not really true. Electricity takes all the paths it can in accordance with their relative conductivity. So even though a big steel rail is a lot more conductive than the earth, return current from traction motors can and does flow into the ground, sometimes corroding adjacent pipelines and occasionally interfering with buried telecommunication lines too. I've conveniently left out lightning from this discussion until now. Unlike a conventional circuit where current is always moving, lightning is a type of static electricity. It's not flowing until it is.
And unlike fault current that only uses the ground as a conduit, the current from a lightning strike really does flow into the ground, or most frequently out of the ground and into the atmosphere, restoring an imbalance of charge created by the movement of air or water or something else. We really don't understand lightning that well. But an additional and vital reason we ground electrical systems is so that if lightning strikes, that current has a direct path to the ground. If it didn't, it might arc across gaps or build up charge in the system, creating a fire or damaging equipment. It's not just lightning, ground faults, and circuit return current that flows through the earth.
Lots of other natural mechanisms cause current to flow below our feet, including solar wind, changes in Earth's magnetic field, and more. These are collectively known as telluric currents, and they intermingle below the surface with the currents that we send into the ground. A common question I get about the electrical grid is how to know specifically which power plant serves a city or a building. It's kind of like asking what tree or plant created the oxygen that you breathe. Technically, it's more likely to be one close to you than very far away, but that's not quite how it works.
Power gets intermingled on the grid, that's why it's called the grid in the first place, and it just flows along the lines in accordance with differences in potential. And the ground works in a similar way. You can't necessarily draw lines of current flow between sources and loads, lightning strikes, and telluric phenomena. The truth of how current flows in the ground is a little more complicated than that. It all kind of mixes together down there, to some extent, but above the surface, it really isn't so complicated. Current doesn't flow to the ground, it flows through the ground and back up.
If there is electricity moving into the ground from an energized conductor, go back to the source of that conductor and see what's happening. For the grid, it's probably a transformer or electrical generator, in either case a simple coil of wire. And the electrical current flowing out of the coil has to be equal to the electrical current flowing into it, whether that current is coming from one of the other phases, a neutral line, or an electrode buried in the ground. I hope you've noticed some improvements in practical engineering videos over the past year or two, and that's all due to the help I have making these videos now.
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