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Best Practices for VFD Grounding

Minimize the damage caused by common mode noise.
by Jay Marchi

According to the U.S. National Electric Code NFPA70, Article 100B, an effectively grounded scheme
is one that is intentionally connected to earth through a ground connection or connections of
sufficiently low impedance and that has sufficient current-carrying capacity to prevent the buildup of
voltages that may result in undue hazard to connected equipment or to persons.

Grounding of a non-linear drive system is done for two basic reasons: safety and common mode
noise containment or reduction. With the advent of power electronics used in products ranging from
personal computers to variable frequency drives (VFDs), harmonic noise containment has become
even more important.

Grounding Systems
A good grounding system is an integral part of any electrical system. Older, linear systems were
designed around the linear relationships between voltage and current. However, the proliferation of
solid-state power supplies that take in incoming alternating current (AC) power, rectify it to direct
current (DC), then reconstitute it at varying voltage and current ratios at different frequencies, called
nonlinear systems, presents some new challenges for a typical ground scheme. The byproducts of
these nonlinear systems are the production of significant harmonic distortions, voltages and currents
on a system and, when referenced to ground, are described as common mode noise (CMN). CMN
can have deleterious effects on some mechanical components such as bearings and electrical and
control systems on the same ground bus.
Figure 1. Comparison of the sinusoidal current wave output of BJT (top) vs IGBT output (Graphics
courtesy of ProPump Services)

Figure 2. General schematic of a PWM VFD drive

VFDs are becoming more common in pumping systems. They offer a means of controlling pump
output more efficiently by controlling the operating speed of the electric motor driving the pump.
Before VFD technologies, matching pump speed to system load conditions was accomplished using
turbines, fluid couplings, multi-ratio gearboxes or variable speed combustion engines.

These reliable methods are still in use. But with the growing emphasis on improving operating
efficiency, the inherent inefficiency of traditional methods is driving users toward VFDs. Because the
head and flow rate of the pump can be regulated by controlling its rotating speed, the VFD controlling
the drive motor speed gives operators a wider operating range, allowing the tailoring of the pump's
output to the system's requirements, which can increase the system's overall pumping efficiency.


The VFD Evolution

Developed by Nikola Tesla in 1924, the induction motor can be directly connected to an AC three-
phase power source. The motor speed is directly proportional to the applied frequency. For example,
a two-pole pair motor with no load operating on a 60-Hertz (Hz) system would rotate at 3,600
revolutions per minute (rpm). However, the same two-pole motor operating on a 50-Hz system would
rotate at 3,000 rpm. Therefore, by controlling the frequency of the supplied power to the motor, the
motor's speed can be controlled.

Traditionally, the frequency of the power system is determined by the speed of the generator and
number of pole pairs. Like the motor, a two-pole pair generator operating at 3,600 rpm will produce
AC power at a frequency of 60 Hz. Operating the same generator at 3,000 rpm will cause the output
power to oscillate at 50 Hz. To change the power supply frequency, the speed of the generator must
be changed.

Until 1968, when Danfoss introduced their VLT5 frequency converter, the most widely used method
of providing an AC induction motor with variable frequency was using a speed-controlled DC motor
turning an AC generator to produce the desired AC frequencies. Although this system is effective
enough to control the speed of the motor within a few rpm, it is expensive to operate and has
inherent inefficiencies. By comparison, the VFD can vary the power and frequency to the motor, but
with greater flexibility and fewer moving parts.

Because of the continuously increasing capabilities of solid-state power electronics, the pulse width
modulation (PWM) VFD is becoming the drive of choice. It can work with motors that range in size
from fractional to thousands of horsepower. It can also couple reliably, offer affordability in cost per
horsepower and deliver measurable electrical energy savings.

PWM VFD Basics

The PWM-VFD is the current state-of-the-art method used to control frequency and power. VFDs
generate AC current by sequentially switching the DC current in alternating directions. The latest
solid-state electronic switches, insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) and the newer integrated
gate-commutated thyristors (IGCT), have increased the switching speeds five to 10 times over the
older bipolar junction transistor (BJT). The faster the switching, the smoother the current sine waves
to the motor. That switching generates significant amounts of CMN that must be contained and
dissipated by the power and ground systems. To keep these stray currents from damaging or
interfering with system components, the ground grid must provide a low impedance path for CMN
Figure 3. Common mode current paths in a VFD drive system

Figure 4. Recommended grounding practices

Power Equipment Ground Loop

A power equipment (PE) ground (protective earth) terminal usually serves as safety equipment
ground for AC and DC drives. The CMN currents are replete throughout the entire VFD circuit
(shown in green in Figure 3), and any ungrounded components can accumulate electrical charges
because of current leakage that results in voltages greater than the recognized safe touch potential
of 50 volts (V). The direct path of CMN currents between the drive and motor frame is shown in red in
Figure 3.

The lack of direct connection between the drive and motor frame is typically the reason for the
inducted voltages in excess of the acceptable National Electrical Manufacturer's Association (NEMA)
standard of 300 millivolt voltage on the motor shafts. This problem is also the primary cause of
bearing damage in motors that are not equipped with means to resist or shunt the CMN currents from
the motor.

True Earth Ground Loop

The true earth (TE) ground loop is the most familiar ground system. All structures have it primarily for
safety because a short circuit in an ungrounded system could be fatal. Commercial building structure
steel is usually the best connection for zero voltage TE potential because girders are connected in a
low impedance grid pattern that has multiple column paths into ground. In most private homes,
ground connections are established by bonding to copper water piping or embedded ground rods.

However, installing a VFD system and relying solely on the TE ground may be problematic.
Depending on the impedance (resistance to AC current), some higher-frequency CMN currents may
not pass back to the drive and build up voltages above the safe touch potential of 50 V. The stray
CMN currents can cause damage to anything in the VFD circuit.


1. Wiring and Grounding Guidelines for Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) AC Drives, Installation
Instructions Rockwell Automation Publications DRIVES-1N001M-EN-P-March 2014
2. Bill Howe, Avoiding the Hazards of Pulse-Width Modulated Adjustable-Speed Drives, E Source
Inc. Tech Memo TM-93-6, 1993
3. David Bezesky and Scott Kreitzer, NEMA Application Guide for AC Adjustable Speed Drive
Systems, IEEE Paper PCIC-2001-7

About the Author

Jay Marchi is a 1985 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in
electrical design engineering technology. Marchi is employed by ProPump Services, an engineering
and diagnostic consulting firm located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Marchi is a specialist with more
than 26 years of experience in rotating equipment diagnostics and system analysis.


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