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Tech Tips

by Jeff Jowett, Megger

A Look at Fault Currents

A n adequate grounding system is

able to deal successfully with fault

conditions. Put crudely, an electri-

cal fault is a breakdown in insulation that

sends current in an unwanted direction. The

current must return from the fault point to

its source. For personnel safety, protection

of equipment, and continued functioning

of the electrical system, such current must

be quickly diverted and normal operation


Return to source may be accommodated through the earth, through metallic conduct- ing paths, or both. When soil is the means of return, a voltage gradient develops in the vicinity of the grounding system. Magnitude of this gradient is directly proportional to soil resistivity and inversely to distance. Safe and effective grid design depends on a knowledge of current distribution and what the grid must accommodate under various conditions. A so-called “ground” may occur by a fallen conductor contacting earth, or the grounding system may be directly involved, as in a flash-over. Single-circuit transmis- sion lines and feeders tend to have faults of low magnitude. These can be difficult to clear and also make shock hazards of long duration. On double or multicircuit lines, fault currents are of greater magnitude but also clear more quickly. For grid design, in order to mitigate ground potential rise, touch potentials, and step potentials, it is necessary to begin with the ability to calculate total symmetrical ground fault current, I t :

I t = 3I




———————————————— 3R f + R 1 + R 2 + R 0 + j(X 1 + X 2 + X 0 )


I 0 is total zero sequence fault current at the location, in rms amperes

(note that 3I 0 is total ground fault current)

E is phase-neutral prefault voltage, in rms volts

R f is estimated minimum resistance, in ohms

(R f = 0 may be assumed)

R 1 + jX 1 is positive sequence equivalent fault impedance, in ohms

R 2 + jX 2 is negative sequence equivalent fault impedance, in ohms

(usually R 1 + jX 1 = R 2 +jX 2 is assumed)

R 0 + jX 0 is the zero sequence equivalent fault impedance at the fault location, in ohms

For double-line faults, between two phases and ground, the equation becomes:

I t = 3I 0 =

3E(R 2 + jX 2 ) ———————————————————————————— (R 1 + jX 1 ) (3R f + R 2 + R 0 + j(X 2 + X 0 )) + (R 2 + jX 2 ) (3R f + R 0 + jX 0 )

Total symmetrical grid current (I ), the current flowing from the grid into surrounding soil, is therefore a component of I t with its magnitude dependent upon specific conditions. The location of the fault has a major impact on current distribution. Consider first a fault within a substation on the secondary side of a typical delta/wye-grounded transformer. There already exists a low impedance metallic path through the grid from the point of the fault and the source, the transformer. Current need only travel


as far as the grid and back to the transformer. In this case, negligible current flows into surrounding soil, so overall grid current and ground potential

rise (GPR) are negligible (I


= 0). However, suppose the fault were on the

primary side. The on-site transformer does not now contribute to the fault current. It all originates from a remote source, beyond the substation. In this case, there is no direct metallic path as previously described; all of the fault current must return through the soil. Symmetrical grid current, that flowing from the grid in a radial pattern, comprises 100% of total current (I g = I t ). GPR may be high.

These cases demonstrate the extremes of current distri- bution. What if ground fault current originated from both local and remote sources? An example would be a substa- tion grounded-wye/delta/grounded-wye transformer and a remote source with a grounded-wye secondary. If a fault occurred within the substation, fault current is contributed by both local and remote sources. This situation represents a combination of the first two examples. Current from the local source circulates through the grid while that from the remote source must return through the soil. Symmetrical grid current is now a fraction of total current and is equal to the percent of total ground fault current contributed by the remote source. Finally, imagine that the fault occurs, not within the substation, but at a distant point on a transmis- sion line. Now, current divides and returns through soil to both the substation and the remote source which could be a main station or generating plant. The substation grounding grid is not involved in the latter of these tow paths. Again, the symmetrical grid current of the substation in question is some fraction of total current. In this case, it equals the percent contributed by the local source. The preceding examples represent clear-cut cases where no shield wires or feeder neutrals are present. However, this simplified condition often does not apply. Overhead shield wires and feeder neutrals provide convenient parallel paths for fault current. Feeder neutrals in wye-grounded systems are also grounded and connected to the transformer neutral bushing. Shield wires are normally grounded at intervals along the line’s length and at the substations at each end. In addition, other alternate paths may exist through convenient, continuous metal objects like fences, railroad tracks, and grounded pipes. This phenomenon of parallel current paths is known as current division, and the IEEE has dubbed this “split factor.”.Therefore, in such a system there are two cur- rent divisions to be computed: the one previously described between local and remote sources, and the division between the grounding system and the alternate current paths. Consider a fault on the primary side of the substation transformer: whereas in the simplified example grid current equaled total current, the multiple grounds downstream of the grounded wye now carry the major portion of fault current. The grid current may now be reduced to something like a third of total current. A fault on the secondary side, however, will circulate current directly through the grid between the fault point and the grounded wye. As in the simplified situation, symmetrical grid current to remote earth is negligible, but there will be a small amount due to induction from live conductors onto the overhead static wire. Because of the short path and low impedance, total fault current will be greater than in the case of a primary fault, and so this needs to be considered when sizing the conductor. Lastly, there is the case of a fault occurring remotely at some distance down the line. Most of the current will return to the source through the feeder neutral. Because of the lower impedance, total current will be greater than for a fault on the primary side. The farther the fault occurs down the line, the added impedance decreases total current and increases the amount returning through the soil by parallel

pole grounding electrodes. In this case, grid current is typi- cally only a small fraction of total current, perhaps less than ten percent, and a feeder fault is rarely a worst case for the substation grounding system. Fault clearance, then, is not a simple case of current going to ground via the on-site grid. Current divides in known and understood ways, but the details and calculation of magnitude can be complex. A thorough knowledge of current distribution is critical in grid and grounding system design. The mathematics of some typical examples will be examined in a later edition.

Source of information: Tennessee Valley Public Power Ass’n; Allen & Hoshall Architects Engineers, Nashville, TN; Alexander Publications, Newport Beach, CA.

These cases demonstrate the extremes of current distri- bution. What if ground fault current originated from

Jeffrey R. Jowett is Senior Applications Engineer for Megger in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, serving the manufacturing lines of Biddle, Megger, and Multi-Amp for electrical test and measurement instrumentation. He holds a BS in Biology and Chemistry from Ursinus College. He was employed for 22 years with James G. Biddle Co. which became

Biddle Instruments and is now Megger.