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Basic Understanding of Harmonics in Electrical Systems

Stephen David Hearn, PE

By simple definition Harmonics are any “Non-Linear” Current or Voltage in an electrical distribution system. An Electrical
Harmonic shouldn’t be thought of as an acoustic or vibration harmonic, but simply any electrical device that draws current un-
proportionally to voltage. Harmonics are commonly produced by devices that rectifies AC Voltage into a DC Voltage. Common
Harmonic producing devices are VFDs, Lighting, and Computers. To create a DC voltage from an AC sine wave a Bridge
Rectifier circuit is used to maintain a DC Charge on a capacitor. Figure 1 shows a simplified single phase Bridge Rectifier circuit
found in most electronic devices.

Figure 1 – Common Single Phase Bridge Rectifier Circuit

With this circuitry the DC Bus will only charge when the AC sine wave voltage is greater than the DC capacitor voltage, this
results current draw only at the peaks of the sine waves instead of the whole sine wave. A Rectifier circuit found in Three Phase
applications is shown in Figure 2. Again the DC Capacitor will only charge when the Phase to Phase voltage is greater than the
bus DC voltage. With a three phase Bridge Rectifier circuit the DC Link Capacitor charges at +/- AB peak, +/- BC peak, and +/-
CA peak. This rectifier circuit is commonly called a 6-Puse Bridge Rectifier, because there are 6 pulses of current per cycle of an
AC sine wave.

Figure 2 – Common Three Phase Bridge Rectifier Circuit ( 6-Pulse Bridge )

These rectifier circuits serve very important purposes in Commercial and Industrial Facilities, and usually operate unnoticed with
no issues to the electrical system. When discovering harmonics in your facility you shouldn’t be alarmed, but gain an
understanding of where the harmonics are originating from and what issues they may cause to the rest of the equipment on your
distribution system. ©2010 Hearn Engineering, LLC. All rights reserved. Page 1

When do Harmonics Cause Problems?

Current Harmonics

These important bridge rectifier circuits produce current harmonics. Current Harmonics do have an affect on the electrical
equipment supplying harmonic current to the device (transformers, conductors). Current Harmonics can cause issues with
distribution equipment with has to handle the current from the utility transformer all the way down to the device, but generally
don’t affect other equipment connected to the electrical system. Harmonic currents can cause excessive heating to transformers.
For electrical systems feeding single phase loads the third harmonic has gained attention in design consideration and transformer
selection for causing the neutral conductor to draw excessive current.

Voltage Harmonics

Voltage Harmonics can affects sensitive equipment throughout your facility. Voltage Harmonics arise when Current Harmonics
are able to create sags in the voltage supply. When any device draws current it creates a voltage dip which is required for current
to flow. This voltage dip is visible with larger loads when turning on a hair dryer or a table saw and seeing the lights dim down.
The amount of sag depends on many factors like transformer impedance wire size. Current Harmonics create Voltage Harmonics,
but the magnitude of the Voltage Harmonics depends on the “Stiffness” of your electrical distribution’s “System Impedance”.

An example to help understand Current Distortion verse Voltage Distortion is the common CFL light bulb. This low cost light
bulb may have a 75% Current THD (Total Harmonic Distortion). This means that 75% of the current drawn by the bulb is
considered “Harmonic Current”. These light bulbs usually do not affect other devices in your home because even though the
current drawn by the Bridge Circuit is rich in harmonic current it creates very little sag in your home’s voltage supply and if you
had a voltage analyzer attached you would probably see a Voltage THD of well less than 1 percent.

Avoiding Harmonic Issues:

If possible it is best to select equipment with a low Current THD, and the result would be reduced Voltage THD. If you are not
able to purchase equipment with a low Current THD there may be options available to you like adding line chokes or isolations
transformers to reduce the harmonic currents. If you are unable to reduce Current Distortions and are having issues with the
affects of Voltage Distortion there are options, such as Tuned Capacitor to supply Harmonic Current, or possibly redesigning your
systems distribution to reduce system impedance.

Solutions for Mitigating Harmonics:

There are many solutions to alleviating the affects of harmonics, below are some commonly applied solutions:

Reduce Current Harmonics:

 Add Line Chokes to Harmonic Producing Equipment
 Add Isolation Transformer to Harmonic Producing Equipment
 Use 12-Pulse or 18-Pulse Rectifier circuits instead of 6-Pulse

Reduce Voltage Harmonics:

 Add Tuned Capacitor Banks to Supply Harmonic Current
 Change Transformer Size/Impedance

 Isolate Sensitive Loads instead of Mitigating Harmonics ©2010 Hearn Engineering, LLC. All rights reserved. Page 2