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Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 Experiences on pollution level measurement in Mexico Gerardo
Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 Experiences on pollution level measurement in Mexico Gerardo

Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66

Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 Experiences on pollution level measurement in Mexico Gerardo

Experiences on pollution level measurement in Mexico

Gerardo Montoya-Tena, Ramiro Hernandez-Corona´

, Isa´ıas Ram´ırez-Vazquez´

Instituto de Investigaciones El´ectricas, Reforma 113 Cuernavaca, Mor., Mexico

Received 4 March 2004; received in revised form 6 April 2005; accepted 11 April 2005 Available online 7 July 2005


The pollution on overhead insulators is influenced by the pollutant type as well as by the climate of the site. In Mexico, due to its orography and diversity of lands, there are several areas where the failures on the overhead insulation are mainly caused by the pollution. Since the decade of 1980s, various studies have been performed to solve or at least alleviate such transmission and distribution power line pollution- related problems. This paper presents a description of several studies conducted by the Mexican Electrical Research Institute “Instituto de Investigaciones Electricas”´ (IIE) together with the Mexican electrical utility “Comision´ Federal de Electricidad” (CFE), from the elaboration of a contamination map to the development of a system for measuring leakage current, which is used as a tool for the in-service diagnostic of insulators installed on lines of transmission. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

Since the second half of the 20th century, demand for electrical energy has grown more quickly than generation. In order to satisfy the demand of the user, electrical companies had to implement several measures to improve the efficiency of their electrical systems. Some of these measures were the nominal voltage increase on both transmission and distribu- tion systems and the reduction of the failures on the overhead insulators used in lines and substations. With the application of these measures, several problems arose. One of these prob- lems was the effect that overhead insulators undergo due to the action of polluted environments. In fact, the first investi- gations defined the contamination as one of the most frequent causes of failure on overhead insulators [1]. At present, con- tamination is one of the main failure causes on the electrical systems of most countries. The contamination mechanically degrades the insulators and affects some of the electrical characteristics of the insulat-

Corresponding author.

E-mail addresses: (G. Montoya-Tena), (R. Hernandez-Corona),´ (I. Ram´ırez-Vazquez).´

0378-7796/$ – see front matter © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


ing material, as the flashover withstand voltage. The flashover withstand voltage of a contaminated insulator is lower than that of a clean insulator, under the same climate conditions, so the flashover risk increases. The problems of contamination on electrical insulators take place when the environment that surrounds them con- tains diverse substances, especially saline and industrial ones, which are deposited on insulators, forming a polluting layer on their surface. In dry conditions, this layer does not cause great problems, but under the presence of light rain, humid- ity, dew or fog, the dielectric characteristics of the insulator surface are decreased, allowing the flow of leakage current (LC) between the insulator electrodes (Fig. 1). The LC can increase itself until causing a failure on the high-tension electrical system. The probability and speed of this failure type depends on the type and material of the insulator, the climate of the area, the type and level of contamination, as well as the voltage under which the insu- lator is working. Other effects that the contamination causes are the corrosion and the erosion of the insulator. On poly- meric insulators, other phenomena, both from the formation of dry bands and the establishment of the pyrolysis effect, must be taken into account to analyze the insulator perfor- mance.

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al. / Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 59 Fig. 1. Contaminated insulator showing leakage

Fig. 1. Contaminated insulator showing leakage current marks on its surface.

2. Alternatives considered around the world

Around the world, different research works about the pol- lution flashover process on insulators have been developed. From these works, alternatives to decrease the effects caused by the pollution on insulators have been obtained. The inves- tigation lines for solving the pollution problem have mainly been focused on the search for new materials, coatings or insulator profiles [2–4]. For controlling the pollution problem, two alternatives have been established: design and maintenance (Fig. 2). In the first alternative, the insulator type and material are cho- sen according to the pollution level in the area in which the insulator is to be used. In the second alternative, effi- cient maintenance plans are designed. These alternatives vary depending both on the type and amount of pollutant deposited on the insulator and on the feasibility of their application. Nowadays, due to the necessity of a greater efficiency on the application of resources, the diagnostic of insulator in real time has great relevance, since excessive maintenance

real time has great relevance, since excessive maintenance Fig. 2. Investigation lines. is avoided, and consequently,

Fig. 2. Investigation lines.

is avoided, and consequently, the maintenance is only per- formed before a failure on the insulator may occur. It is clear that the selection of the methodology for the diagnostic must carefully be selected and be validated. In Mexico, the LC as

a tool for diagnostic on transmission lines is used [5].

2.1. Insulator material and design

The design of insulators for use under contaminated envi- ronments has been based on the properties of the insulating materials as well as on knowledge and experience gained during the development of the electrical industry.

2.1.1. Porcelain and glass

Initially, glass and porcelain, also known as ceramic insu- lations, were the most commonly used materials for manufac- turing of insulators. Both their dielectric characteristics and ease of molding resulted in all insulators being made from these materials for many years. The problem with this type of insulation is that the leakage distance (LD) of a ceramic insulator is fixed and depends on its profile. Therefore, when

a longer LD is required for polluted areas, there are two possi-

bilities to meet such requirement: one is adding insulator units to the insulator string and another is increasing the specific leakage distance (SLD) by using another insulator profile, as for example, super-anti-fog insulator instead of standard one. However, both alternatives cause the insulator to become increasingly heavier, which sometimes imposes a mechanical restriction on the application of ceramic insulators in exist- ing transmission structures. Another disadvantage of ceramic insulators, especially those manufactured of glass, is their low resistance to vandalism. There are zones where contamination is so heavy that it requires heroic solutions in order to maintain continu- ity of electrical service. In these zones, a SLD of about


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et al. / Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 Fig. 3. Polymeric insulator. 60 mm/kV

Fig. 3. Polymeric insulator.

60 mm/kV for the insulator is usually recommended. In most of cases, this recommendation is applied at substations by increasing the length of the insulator string, namely adding insulator units, in order to obtain the required SLD. In oth- ers cases, when it is not possible to increase the length of the insulator string, using insulators with very large LD (super-anti-fog profiles) is the most viable option, as it is carried out on transmission lines with vertical insulator strings.

2.1.2. Polymeric insulators Polymeric insulators were first installed in Germany in the mid-1960s. Polymeric insulators are also known as non- ceramic or synthetic insulators and have several advantages over ceramic insulators, such as lightweight, good perfor- mance under contamination conditions, facility of handling and installation, higher resistance to vandalism and a high mechanical resistance having less weight. The main disad- vantage of these insulators is that their aging directly affects their in-service life. For this reason, in some countries these insulators have not been used as a general practice. There- fore, their specifications and criteria of selection are not well defined. To date, there are several very mature technologies for the manufacture of polymeric insulators, placing the applica- tion of these insulators in a more solid position. Currently, the experience in the market has shown the development of poly- meric insulators into three main areas: suspension insulators (transmission), distribution insulators and post-type insula- tors for line (Fig. 3). One of the main properties of polymeric insulators is superficial hydrophobicity, which has an important effect on their performance. On a hydrophobic surface, water forms drops and hence it does not allow a continuous film of water to form on the insulator (Fig. 4). This property reduces the leak- age current magnitude flowing on the insulator surface and the probability of formation of dry bands is also decreased.

the probability of formation of dry bands is also decreased. Fig. 4. Hydrophobicity effect on polymeric

Fig. 4. Hydrophobicity effect on polymeric insulators.

For this reason, polymeric insulators may have longer life and better performance than ceramic insulators, in wetted and polluted conditions.

2.1.3. Composite grease and hydrophobic coatings

The performance of ceramic insulators in a contaminated environment can considerably be improved by the use of hydrophobic coatings, mainly made from silicone, either in the form of grease or film, applied on the conventional insu- lator. This practice has been satisfactorily used in order to decrease the flashover risk by contamination for more than 30 years. However, this alternative is relatively expensive and requires periodic maintenance to remove and reapply the coating. The frequency of this activity can vary from months to several years, depending on the type and level of contami- nation and the environmental conditions. At the present time, the use of grease has practically been replaced by the appli- cation of films.

2.2. Maintenance

In many cases, a good insulator profile design may reduce the number of outages caused by pollution. Nevertheless, in areas with severe contamination environments or low rain probability, maintenance of the insulators is required. This maintenance is normally made into one of the following ways:


periodic washing of live or dead line;


periodic cleaning done by hand on dead line;


periodic cleaning, using dry abrasive material on live or dead line;


massive replacement of insulators.

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al. / Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 61 Fig. 5. Insulation washing on live

Fig. 5. Insulation washing on live line.

2.2.1. Insulator washing

Washing by water jet has shown itself to be the most eco- nomic method to remove pollution from the insulator surface. Washing is very effective when the pollutant deposited on the

insulator is either dust, salt, dirt or acid, because these pol- lutants do not adhere strongly themselves to the insulating surface. In some areas, the natural washing performed by rain is sufficient in order to prevent flashover on the insulator due to contamination. Nevertheless, in regions where rain is not frequent, it is necessary to wash the insulator during the dry seasons. The frequency of washing depends on the contamination level, the environmental conditions and the insulator profile. Where frequent washing is required, mainly in substations, it

is economically recommended to install a system of pipes in

towers or systems with permanent nozzles to facilitate wash-

ing (Fig. 5). The insulators must be washed before they accumulate critical contamination levels. This can be determined by means of:


experience of pollution flashover occurred over the last years;


measurements of equivalent salt deposit density (ESDD) on witness insulators installed near the transmission line;


surface discharges observed on the insulator during crit- ical conditions;


presence of radio interference;


measurements of leakage current on the insulators installed on the transmission line.

2.2.2. Cleaning done by hand

Cleaning insulators by hand is effective in removing con-

tamination deposits from insulator surface. However, it is

a tedious, time-consuming and expensive process. Further-

more, in most cases this process requires de-energization of the transmission or distribution line. In Mexico and other countries, this practice is normally used on insulators where washing by water jet cannot be performed, because the water jet system may be near energized equipment, where the access

is difficult or where the pollutant is strongly adhered to the insulator surface. For washing done by hand, biodegradable solvents have been used to remove easily the contaminant accumulated on the insulator over a period of up to several years.

2.2.3. Cleaning using abrasive material The insulator cleaning on either live or dead line by means of abrasive material jet is also effective, efficient and eco- nomic, in order to remove from the insulator surface pollutant deposits or hardened composite greases. Abrasive materials used commonly are fine lime dust, milled cob and nut peel, which are sufficiently abrasive for cleaning the insulator with- out damaging its surface. The technical–economic part for every insulator cleaning alternative must be analyzed. For the case of polymeric insu- lators, the cleaning alternative must be discussed with the insulator manufacturer, since the insulator surface may be damaged if water jet pressure is too high or a solvent is used.

2.3. Diagnostics of insulators in polluted zones

The complexity of the contamination problem requires monitoring the surface state of the insulator at the normal conditions under which it operates. At present, different in- service diagnostic techniques are being applied to the practice in order to measure directly or indirectly the pollution sever- ity on insulators. Then, this pollution severity is correlated with the pollution flashover risk. If there is flashover risk, insulation replacement or maintenance activities are carried out. Different techniques for determining the contamination severity on insulators have been developed and applied for many years in different countries. Some of these techniques are: ESDD, surface conductance, leakage current and surface resistance. Selection of the diagnostic technique depends on pollu- tant kind, insulator type and, mainly, cost associated with the diagnostic equipment. The ESDD technique is very well known and has been used by the IIE in several projects in order to determine the pollution levels on insulators installed in different zones of the country. This technique is expensive and requires much time and, furthermore, it cannot be used for some pollutant types. The surface resistance technique considers that it is possi- ble to determine the flashover risk as a function of the value of the surface resistance on a witness insulator energized at low voltage and exposed to the same pollution and environmental conditions as the insulators of the transmission line. Based on laboratory results, it has been established that insulators naturally polluted on transmission lines have a high flashover risk if the surface resistance decreases to some hundreds of kilo-Ohms. One disadvantage of this method is the variabil- ity of results obtained, which depend on the pollutant type and the hardware used to connect the witness insulator at low voltage.


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et al. / Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 Fig. 6. Leakage current system. On

Fig. 6. Leakage current system.

On the other hand, pollutant accumulation depends on the magnitude of the electric field distributed on the surface of the insulator. This effect is practically null on an insulator energized at low voltage (hundreds of volts). Due to the disadvantages of the method of surface resis- tance, a diagnostic methodology to determine the critical contamination condition on insulators at nominal voltage was developed. This methodology is based on the measurement of leakage current on the transmission line insulator, namely on insulator strings energized at line voltage. In Mexico, this technique has been validated by the IIE both in field and lab- oratory. A system to record the number and magnitude of the peaks of leakage current was designed and developed by the IIE. The system was evaluated at the salt fog chamber of the laboratory using different insulator profiles. Later, it was installed on some transmission lines having pollution prob- lems. The results obtained from laboratory and field show that, as the number of the peaks of leakage current increases, the flashover risk also increases. Hence, the technique can be used to monitor the operational state of the insulator under pollution and moisture conditions. At present, the Mexican electrical utility CFE has installed 39 leakage current systems on its 115 kV, 230 kV and 400 kV transmission lines (Fig. 6). According to the analysis of the leakage current data recorded by the system, it helps to determine when main- tenance works must be performed on the transmission line insulators, in order to avoid an outage by pollution.

3. Studies carried out in Mexico

The severity of the contamination level directly depends as much on the climatology as on the type of pollutant of the region. Consequently, in Mexico there are different pollution types and levels, due to its orography and diverse climates. For this reason and according to failures statistics, pollution is the second cause of transmission line outages in Mexico.

Since the 1980s, the IIE, together with the CFE, has conducted several research projects about the pollution phe- nomenon on overhead insulators. One of the first projects performed was the development of a guide to optimize the selection and use of overhead insulators exposed to contam- inated conditions. Twenty test stations were built in several locations throughout the country to continuously monitoring insulators used on distribution and transmission lines. One of the main results obtained was the elaboration of a pollu- tion map of the Mexican Republic. Another important result was the establishment of the advantages and disadvantages of methods used for measuring the contamination level [6]:

method of ESDD for insulator evaluation in field and method of the clean fog chamber for insulation evaluation in labora- tory [7]. The method of dust collectors was also considered in this project. In 1993, eight new test stations were built, using only distribution type insulators [8]. In this project, the surface resistance method was evaluated as a tool to determine the pollution level on the overhead insulators. A mathematical model to compute the surface resistance value of the polluted layer during the following 4 h, from the measured values, was developed [9]. The disadvantage of this methodology is that the surface resistance is measured on a witness insulator energized at low voltage, and not on insulator holding to high voltage conductor of the distribution line (Fig. 7). In 1995, a measurement system of leakage current (SIPICO) for diagnosing state of the insulator installed on transmission lines was designed and developed. By apply- ing this system, maintenance tasks are only carried out when values of leakage current representing a flashover risk are measured [10,11]. From this way, continuity of the electrical service is maintained. During the years in which the system has been working, it has demonstrated its effectiveness for the diagnostic of insulators (Fig. 8). In 1996, research projects to evaluate the performance of hydrophobic coatings, new insulator profiles and polymeric materials in polluted conditions were developed [12]. In these projects, it was concluded that the standardized tests cannot

[12] . In these projects, it was concluded that the standardized tests cannot Fig. 7. Measurement

Fig. 7. Measurement of surface resistance.

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al. / Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 63 Fig. 8. System of leakage current

Fig. 8. System of leakage current installed on a transmission line.

be used to determine the long-term performance of polymeric insulators, and therefore, it was necessary to develop a test method to evaluate the aging on such insulators. Also, an insulating support made of silica-filled epoxy resin (polymeric concrete) was designed and manufactured, in order to replace the pin usually used by insulators on dis- tribution networks (Fig. 9). The results obtained from the prototype tests showed that this new insulation design pro- vides excellent performance. Nowadays, this technology has been transferred to a company that commercializes this prod- uct. In 1998, the IIE found that leakage current depends not only from the ESDD but also on the non-soluble deposit density (NSDD) of the pollutant layer [13]. A preliminary correlation between the leakage current and the NSDD and ESDD for a pin post-type insulator was obtained, as shown in Fig. 10. Each curve shows the performance of the insulator for different NSDD values as a function of the ESDD values. It can be observed that the LC values increase as the NSDD values increase. In 1999, the leakage current monitoring system was modi- fied according to experience gained in field. The new version of the system can monitor 16 insulator strings instead of 8 strings, display graphs of leakage current in real time and show the number of the peaks of leakage current classified by magnitude range. Therefore, this version is more adequate for performing tests in laboratory. During 2000, the IIE developed a methodology to evaluate accelerated aging of polymeric insulators. The methodol- ogy is mainly based on polluting the insulators with several substances, such as kaolin, lime, fertilizer and natural field pollutants. Once the insulators are polluted, they are evaluated inside a salt fog chamber by applying cycles of salt fog, clean fog, drying and constant voltage [14]. The results showed clear evidence of tracking, erosion, chalking and puncture on the insulators (Fig. 11). Flashover takes place on the early

insulators ( Fig. 11 ). Flashover takes place on the early Fig. 9. Base made of

Fig. 9. Base made of polymeric concrete.

damaged insulators in a relatively short time with respect to the test time of 5000 h recommended by IEC 61109. This means that is necessary to modify the standard continuous 5000 h salt fog test to determine the long-term performance of polymeric insulators.

determine the long-term performance of polymeric insulators. Fig. 10. Correlation between leakage current (LC) and

Fig. 10. Correlation between leakage current (LC) and equivalent salt deposit density (ESDD), for different non-soluble values (NSDD).


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et al. / Electric Power Systems Research 76 (2005) 58–66 Fig. 11. Cracks formed on different

Fig. 11. Cracks formed on different zones of one insulator evaluated by the method developed by the IIE.

In 2003, the IIE applied visual corona and electrical field techniques to check out the operational state of the polymeric insulators installed on 230 and 400 kV Mexican transmission lines [15–18]. These techniques were applied live using the following equipment: DayCor II Corona Camera for visual corona and Polymeric Insulator Tester for electrical field [18]. The camera DayCor II shows the position, type and mag- nitude of corona activity, which may mean degradation or damage on the insulator. The insulator tester graphically illus- trates the position in which the electric field distribution along insulator string is changed by a damage or conductive defect on the insulator. The obtained results from the visual corona and electri- cal field measurements showed that the polymeric insulators were in good operational conditions, because no corona was observed and electrical field distribution was normal. Based on these results, it was concluded that both techniques may be applied to periodically monitor the operational state of the polymeric insulators.

4. Alternatives used in Mexico

In Mexico, the reliability of transmission lines under pol- luted conditions has been maintained by means of some of the alternatives used all around the world, which were already described in this paper. Nevertheless, there is no unique and definitive solution for the different pollutant levels and types that may be found in certain places. Hence, sometimes, it is necessary to combine alternatives for solving the pollution problem. The most common alternatives that have been applied in Mexico are insulator profiles having longer LD (anti-fog type), insulation washing or replacement and application of

silicone greases. During the last few years, in zones with extremely severe pollution problems, other alternatives have been used, as for example, aerodynamic insulator profiles (flat type), hydrophobic coatings and polymeric insulators. The application of this last alternative has decreased both the number of line outages from pollution and the need for pre- ventive maintenance. All these actions have been monitored by means of the leakage current system.

4.1. Insulators with longer LD

The alternative of profiles with longer LD is used on several Mexican transmission lines. Since the performance of these insulator types depend on their geometry and on weather conditions, it was necessary to evaluate different pro- files having the same leakage distance, in order to choose the best one. The evaluations were carried out at the IIE laboratory, using a pollutant similar to that found at the zones where the insulators would be installed. Four insulator types were evaluated: standard, flat, anti-fog and super-anti-fog. The per- formed tests allowed the establishment of the specific leakage distance required by the insulator for the pollution level of each zone simulated in the laboratory. For example, for the Monterrey zone, an insulator with 50 mm/kV specific leakage distance is required.

4.2. Hydrophobic coatings

In Mexico, hydrophobic coating application on ceramic insulators (glass and porcelain) increased transmission line reliability and decreased maintenance costs, because washing was not required for a longer time. Although this alterna- tive has shown to be effective during many years and has

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been the most frequent used along the country, its applica- tion is very expensive. Another disadvantage is that the useful life of the coating is unknown, so the coating is periodically replaced, and therefore, the associated costs of this alternative are increased.

4.3. Polymeric insulators

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the first generations of polymeric insulators installed on Mexican transmission lines caused many outages, due to deficient design of the insula- tors. For this reason, from 1981 to 1995, polymeric insulators had not been considered as an alternative solution for the pol- lution problem. During the 1990s, the technology of polymeric insulators matured. The application of this new insulator generation in the field all around the world has shown good performance, mainly in very polluted zones where conventional insulation either has presented failures or cannot be used due to its phys- ical limitations. Based on the mentioned above, in 1995 the IIE together with CFE started a project to install silicone rubber poly- meric insulators on a 230 kV transmission line exposed to exceptional pollution. This was because the transmission line located in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, was requiring that its conventional insulators were washed two times per month during 9 months in order to maintain electrical service con- tinuity. Hence, it was decided to replace the conventional insulators with polymeric ones. After 2 years of service, it was not necessary to make any maintenance, however, it was observed a strong degradation on several polymeric insula- tors caused by aging. These insulators were removed and replaced by others having a better profile design. To date, all the insulators have been working very well for more than 5 years without having been washed. This is an example of how a polymeric insulator can be a good alternative to improve transmission line performance in very polluted zones, and to decrease maintenance costs. As seen, polymeric insulators may improve transmission line performance and save maintenance costs in a significant way during the time in which the insulators do not fail. There- fore, their application must be determined both by means of technical–economic and cost-benefit analyses Based upon the good obtained results, in 1998 sev- eral polymeric insulators made by five manufacturers were installed on a 400 kV transmission line located in Tampico, Tamaulipas, to solve the pollution problems caused by a ther- moelectric generating power plant. Since then, line outages from pollution have not been recorded and maintenance work has not been required.

5. Conclusions

Due to the different types and levels of pollutants deposited on the overhead insulators of the electrical net-

work, the contamination problem does not have a unique and simple solution. There are several alternatives to solve the problems caused by pollution. Among the main ones are the increase of the SLD, the use of coatings and the installation of polymeric insulators. The combination among different alternatives is necessary in order to diminish the electric network outages caused by very severe contamination. Such combinations must be analyzed by means of cost-benefit criterion. Additionally, it is necessary to use live-line diagnostic techniques to know the operational state of the insulator, especially in very high pollution zones. From this way, main- tenance can be optimized and the electrical system reliability can be maintained. In Mexico, both leakage current and ESDD techniques are combined to monitor the pollution level on transmission lines. The leakage current technique has demonstrated to be an effective tool for diagnosing the pollution level on overhead insulators.


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