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Discussion of Return Voltage on Cable during Isolation Grounding

David Mewkalo, Drew Klebine

I.

Introduction

As members of Duquesne Light Companys Asset Management team, we have been given the
task to resolve safety concerns regarding underground maintenance and to assess different
grounding methods to determine which is the safest. Two work methods for safely grounding a
circuit that have become widely used are the isolation method and the use of remote grounds.
During recent years, the preferred work method, especially when working on underground
cable, has been isolation. This is because use of remote grounds can be extremely hazardous
when there is a fault on the cable, causing ground potential rise. The Occupational Safety and
Health Administrations (OSHA) guidelines warn against the use of remote grounds due to the
safety hazard it causes [1]. Meanwhile, the isolation method provides separation from the
source of energy by switching out the part of the circuit that needs to be maintained, allowing
the worker to work in a relatively hazard-free work zone. But even the isolation method is not
completely safe. In some cases it has failed due to a DC voltage that rises on the cable even
after it has been grounded. This voltage is often times a surprise to the workers who had
previously believed that the cable was fully grounded. It should be noted that the term
isolation used in this context does not mean that there is no physical contact between the
circuit and the isolated cable. The cable bonds and grounded shields are still connected, but
switched out.
After investigating other sources of research on power cable behavior, the source of this return
or recovery voltage has been determined to be energy stored in the insulation of the cable.
When an electric field is applied to the dielectric, it polarizes and is able to store energy. The
return voltage on the cable is proportional to the initial voltage on the cable. Therefore, on
higher voltage distribution circuits the return voltage on an isolated cable may be several
hundreds of volts, creating a potential hazard to workers. This report suggests alternative
methods to effectively eliminate the problem of return voltage so that cables can be completely
isolated during maintenance, avoiding the hazards of both ground potential rise and dielectric
relaxation.

II.

Remote Grounding versus Isolation

Two common safety techniques used for line maintenance are remote grounding and isolation.
Remote grounding involves grounding both the source and load sides of a circuit that needs to
be worked on. The safety concern that arises with this setup is the ground potential rise during
fault conditions. Because of the resistance of the surface of the earth, a fault is not
instantaneously sent to absolute ground (zero volts). Rather, the voltage of the fault decays
exponentially to zero as a function of distance either on the surface of the earth and/or on the

line that is remotely grounded. This can result in touch and/or step potentials on the workers in
the area. In touch voltage tests for underground distribution systems, a maximum voltage of
220V was measured on a cable. These tests involved 25 kV lines installed in a duct bank with
nine total ducts, and each duct contained one line composed of three 750 MCM twisted XLPE
aluminum cables. The underground fault current measured was 4.8 kA [2]. In another scenario,
authors Suresh and Paranthaman discuss the details of a worker who was killed on an 11 kV
line that was remotely grounded during a fault condition [3].
Isolation is the method of removing, or isolating, the part of a circuit that needs maintenance by
means of switching that section out of the main circuit. This method is preferred because it
eliminates the effect of ground potential rise. However, the problem with isolation is the
phenomenon of a DC voltage rise after removing the grounds, which has been shown through
testing. The goal of our research is to come up with a method to eliminate this hazard, so that
isolation can be used without the concern for a voltage rise. This also means that ground
potential rise will no longer be an issue, since remote grounds will not be used.
Another method that is worth noting but is not common in underground networks is work-site
grounding or personal protective grounding. This method creates an equipotential zone by
using a conducting mat, or wire in the case of overhead cable, placed underneath the worker
and connected to the cable under maintenance. This protects the worker by eliminating the
voltage difference across his or her body. In a test on the effectiveness of different types of
remote grounding methods, Brian Erga notes that the use of personal protective grounding is
drastically safer than bracket grounding, which includes working grounds on both ends of the
line or cable [4]. The difficulty with work-site grounding is that it is complicated to assemble
when work space is limited, as is the case with underground cable vaults. Therefore, for our
situation, work-site grounding is not realistic.

III.

Current Grounding Procedure

Since OSHA recommends against using remote grounds, we will work with the isolation method
instead [1]. A simplified procedure for the present grounding method at DLC is as follows:
1. Disconnect the cable from the source end, either through a switch or manual disconnect.
2. Disconnect the cable from the load end, either through a switch or manual disconnect.
3. Ground the cable using a single grounding line or spud on all conductors and then
remove the grounds.
When working in an underground vault, these steps may actually be completed without having a
worker enter the vault. Once this procedure has been followed the once energized cable is now
proven to be de-energized and safe to perform maintenance on. However, a problem arises
after Step 3, when a return voltage appears on the cable after the grounds are removed.
Once the cable is disconnected during steps 1 and 2, the alternating voltage on the cable is
interrupted during its oscillation and a DC voltage is left stagnant. This voltage is often referred
to as trapped AC charge. For example, for a 23 kV circuit, in which the line-to-ground voltage of

the cable being worked on is 13.2 kV, the trapped AC charge can be as high as 18.6 kV as
shown in Equation 1.

13.2 kV x 2=18.6 kV

(1)

This voltage produces a static electric field that polarizes the insulation in the cable. The
polarization remains in the insulation even after the voltage is removed through grounding. This
effect is called dielectric absorption. It is to be noted that the return voltage does not appear on
an isolated cable that is still connected to a transformer. This is because the transformers
grounds are still connected, which will prevent any possible DC voltage from returning on the
cable.

IV.

Dielectric Absorption and Relaxation

The energy that is stored in the insulation material is formed through the polarization of the
materials dipoles. When a DC charge is applied to the cable, the voltage creates an electric
field that polarizes the insulation. Due to the physical phenomenon called dielectric absorption,
the polarization does not completely disappear when the voltage is removed through grounding.
This is because the polarization and electric field are related through a hysteresis curve, similar
to that of ferromagnets [5]. Because the insulation material is left in a polarized state even after
the grounding, the polarization induces the return voltage onto the cable. The process is
reciprocal: the voltage induces a polarization, and the polarization can induce a voltage.
Dielectric absorption and many of the ideas behind it can be dated back as early as 1823 when
James Clerk Maxwell developed the basic theories of dielectrics with the help of Poisson.
Maxwell found that absorption depends on impurity concentrations and the mixtures of two or
more dielectrics. Whitehead dives more into the details of all of the different theories of
dielectric behavior as they developed throughout history. Some of the important conclusions
that he came to were that absorption and residual voltages show up mostly in solid dielectrics,
and are largely affected by the composition of different impurities. It was shown that purely
homogeneous materials show no absorption, but those do not exist in the real world [5].
However, since Whiteheads article was written in the 1920s, many of the theories proposed
may have already been altered and expanded upon. Whiteheads paper even concludes saying
that there is still a need for further study on dielectric absorption, especially in the case of
alternating currents [5].
How the dielectric behaves in a cable depends on what type of insulation material is used. A
majority of the cables that Duquesne Light uses are PILC and EPR. PILC cables are more
reliable and can tolerate diagnostic tests such as DC testing. However, extruded cables, such
as XLPE and TR-XLPE, are being used more commonly as of late because of their benefits and
concerns of workers exposure to lead.
Even though EPR and PILC have higher permittivities and dissipation factors than the extruded
cables, they are more satisfactory for higher temperatures. When extruded cables are exposed

to high temperatures, the dielectrics begin to melt, lose their crystalline structure, and their
physical strength is reduced [6]. Since EPR has no crystallinity, increased temperature only has
a small effect on the physical and electrical properties of the insulation. As for PILC, the oil that
the paper is impregnated in experiences some thermal expansion and may even form wax over
time [6].
In normal capacitors, the effects of dielectric absorption are measured in terms of a percentage.
This percentage represents the percent of the initial voltage that returns to the cable after
grounding.

Dielectric absorption=

return voltage
x 100
initial voltage

(2)

Depending on the type of capacitor the dielectric absorption usually ranges from 0.01% to 10%
[7]. If it is assumed that the cable exhibits some capacitive effects through the insulation, but is
not a perfect capacitor, and that the trapped AC charge is 18.6 kV, then according to the range
given above, the return voltage may range between 1.86 V and 1.86 kV. These values are only
estimations and are assuming that a cable acts identically to a capacitor.
Time plays a critical role in the value of the absorption levels because it may take a long time for
the return voltage to reach its maximum. In regards to safety, we only care about limiting the
maximum return voltage because that is the most dangerous voltage that the worker may
contact over time. Time also comes into play when considering how long to keep the isolated
cable grounded before removing the grounds, as this may affect the maximum return voltage.
It is obvious that a return voltage may be hazardous to anyone working on the cable. In terms of
insulation from this voltage, a pair of insulated gloves may protect the worker depending on the
rating of the gloves. Normal working gloves used by our workers are Class 1 which has a
maximum voltage rating of 7,500 V, although when splicing underground cable these gloves
cannot always be used. But the goal of grounding is to make the cable safe for use regardless
of the rating of the gloves or any other personal protective equipment (PPE). Therefore, a
sufficient method for the removal of the return voltage must be developed.

V.

Previous Testing Results

Many researchers and utility workers have made measurements on different types of grounding
methods. These tests, however, compare different styles of temporary grounding, such as
worksite grounding or bracket grounding. All of these use remote grounds which OSHA does not
recommend.
There are people who have used return voltage testing as a method for determining the aging of
cables and the effects of water treeing [8, 9, 10]. They are able to determine the quality of the
cable based on the shape of the return voltage curve. Although it serves a different purpose,

this type of research shows that it is possible to generate a return voltage on a cable. We have
also confirmed this practice through our own cable testing.
In a series of experiments conducted by Duquesne Light, several cables in their distribution
circuits were tested for return voltage using the isolation method. When a cable is deenergized, grounded, and the grounds are removed, there is a significant DC voltage rise that
could be hazardous to the worker that appears on the line. This phenomenon was proven
experimentally with cable testing done by DLC throughout March and April of 2014. The exact
procedure of the experiments varies slightly, but the general procedure is as follows.
The lines were cleared for service using the isolation method outlined above. The clearance
points were visual openings in switches on each side of the cable to be tested. Once the cable
was isolated, both the AC and DC voltage on each phase were checked. The results never
showed an AC voltage, as should be expected, but did show a DC voltage which is the trapped
AC charge. The phases were then tapped to ground using an ammeter to measure the amount
of current dissipated. After this the voltages were checked for a second time. Again, no AC
voltages were found and slightly lower DC voltages were present. The phases were grounded
again for 20 seconds and the return voltage was measured after the ground was removed. The
results show return voltages that range between 1 V 68 V DC.
During a separate test, Matt Wehman was able to capture values of the return voltage over
time. The test was conducted in a similar manner to the ones described previously. A graph of
the data points is displayed below in Figure 1. Notice that the peak return voltage is 148 V,
significantly higher than the values collected during the previous experiments.

17,740 Volts, 20 second ground


160
140
120
100
80
60
40
20
0
Return Voltage (V)

Time (mm:ss)

Figure 1: Return Voltage on cable


While these return voltages are not very high, they can still cause harm to an unsuspecting
worker who may not be wearing the proper protective equipment. In an effort to better
understand how the cables polarize and store energy, even when grounded, a model of the

cable was created using two types of simulation software. The modeling was based off of
discussions in articles by Ken Kundert and Dev Paul [7,11]. These models were able to
generate the appropriate curves for the cable activity, but unfortunately the magnitudes of the
voltages and timescale were not similar to the ones obtained through experiment. The difficulty
with the software that was used is that it did not effectively model a true cable. However, one
important observation that was deduced from our models was that the more times that the cable
was touched off to ground, the lower the return voltage was each time it came back.

VI.

Safety Concerns

Since safety is of utmost importance, it is crucial that we define what voltage and stored energy
levels are safe for our workers. According to Dalziel, who performed many tests and
experiments to determine the effects of electric shock on people, the current threshold of
sensation for humans is 5.2 mA. Anywhere above this level, people start to feel a sense of
warmth for DC and some tingling for AC [12]. The important value to know is the let-go
current, which is the maximum current that a person can tolerate and still be able to voluntarily
control his or her muscles. Dalziel found the average DC let-go current to be 76 and 51 mA for
men and women, respectively. He also found the maximum reasonably safe DC release
voltage to be 104 volts hand-to-hand [12]. A key point to make is that these numbers assume
that the amount of energy flowing through the person is from an unlimited source. In our case,
the energy is limited, since the cable is not isolated from the power source. Therefore, these
numbers may not apply in our situation, but they are important to keep in mind.
According to the DOE Handbook of Electrical Safety from 2013, a capacitor at a voltage level
between 100 and 400 volts is safe if the energy stored on it does not exceed 1 joule [13]. After
calculating the capacitance of a cable using equation 8 in the next section and using equation 3
to calculate the stored energy, our cables were found to have extremely low stored energy
levels (in the millijoule range for our scenario).

1
E= C V 2
2

(3)

Using worst case scenario numbers, such as 400V on a 10,000 foot cable, the energy stored is
62.088 mJ with a calculated capacitance of 77.61*10^(-8) (using 500 MCM EPR cable in the
calculation). Since this number is nowhere near the 1 joule limit, it is safe to say that this
voltage is not physically hazardous to the worker.
If a worker were to touch this 400V cable, the initial current through him or her would be
approximately 0.5 A, which is much higher than the let-go current found by Dalziel [12].
However, in our scenario, this current would decay exponentially since the amount of energy is
limited, meaning that the 0.5 A is just the initial value of the exponential decay. And after
calculating a very small RC time constant (using the capacitance of the cable and the resistance

of the worker), this current would completely dissipate in about 2 milliseconds. This means that
the current is not physically hazardous to the worker as well.
Even though the voltage and current in this situation are not physically harmful, they may still
startle the worker, causing a possible injury from the workers reaction to the discharge.

VII.

Cable Modeling

Figure 2: Dielectric Polarization Equivalent Circuit


In order to effectively determine the maximum return voltage on the cable, the cable must be
modeled with an equivalent circuit. Figure 2 shows the equivalent circuit to represent the
polarization process within the cable insulation [8]. R0 and C0 represent the capacitance and
resistance of the insulating material, and the Rns and Cns series components represent the dipole
time constants [14]. The number of these series components and the value of each component
depend on detailed insulation parameters and experimental analysis. The Maxwell model gives
a better representation of the dielectric; however, it is used exclusively for two layer dielectrics
[10].
The natural resistance (R0 measured in ohms/meter) of the dielectric material can be calculated
as shown in Equations 4, 5, 6 and 7 [15].

G 0=

R 0=

1
1
, =
G0

2
b
ln( )
a

(4)

(5,6)

ln
R 0=

a
2

()

(7)

In those equations, G0 is the conductance per unit length, and are the conductivity and
resistivity of the insulating material, respectively, and a and b are the inner and outer radius,
respectively, of the conductor for a coaxial cable shown in Figure 2 [15]. Equation 6 was
derived from the inverse of equation 3, since the resistance is the reciprocal of the conductance.

Figure 3: Dielectric Spacing of a Coaxial Cable


In order to effectively determine the RC time constant of the cable, the value of the capacitance
per unit length (farads/meter) can be calculated from Equation 8 [15].

C0 =

2
b
ln
a

(8)

()

In Equation 8, is the permittivity of the dielectric calculated as the relative permittivity times the
permittivity of free space. These equations can be used to calculate the capacitance and
resistance of the insulating material.

VIII.

Proposed Ideas

A majority of the time and focus has been spent on solving the problem of the unwanted voltage
rise from dielectric absorption. If a method to eliminate this issue can be developed and
implemented, it will prove the isolation method to be safer than remote grounding.
As testing shows, when the unwanted DC voltage is grounded out, a smaller magnitude voltage
returns on the cable once the ground is removed a second time. This process continues as the
ground is applied and then removed from the cable until the voltage eventually dies out. This
means that the DC voltage could be completely removed by repeatedly touching and removing
the ground from the cable. Rainer Patschs experimental results of this idea are shown in

Figure 3 [9]. The number of discharges and length of each discharge will be similar to the
procedure shown in the figure. However, the exact timing that will be written in the future
maintenance procedure will be determined from our own experimental results.

Figure 4: Return voltage curves of XLPE cable without and with multiple short circuits
In order to decrease the maximum return voltage on the cable, an external resistance can be
added parallel to the insulation. Creating a resistive path to ground may help dissipate the
voltage, without having to worry about ground potential rise. Rainer Patsch proved the
effectiveness of this idea through his experimental testing with different return voltage methods,
as shown in Figure 4 [9]. Different values of external resistance will be used in our experimental
testing to determine which resistance is necessary to bring the maximum discharging current to
a safe level of less than or equal to 40 mA. This number was chosen from Dalziels analysis on
current limitations [12].

Figure 5: Return voltage curves of XLPE cable without and with multiple short circuits
with a 2 G external resistance in parallel
There are more ideas, however, that need further investigation. For example, if a constant
external voltage from a battery is applied to a line during isolation, this may force the
polarization of the insulating material to change to a safe and manageable orientation. There is
also interest to see what would happen if a square wave, or even a small voltage sinusoid is

applied to the cable. These different external sources may cause the dielectric to avoid its
natural relaxation tendencies. Another idea involves a switching device that is designed to
switch in a path to ground whenever a certain voltage threshold on the cable is reached.

IX.

Conclusion

The preferred method of grounding energized cables, isolation, has a significant drawback that
could be dangerous to workers. Because of polarization that occurs in the insulation, a voltage
is able to return to the cable that was originally at ground potential. Tests conducted by DLC
employees experimentally show that this phenomenon occurs on the cables in their
underground distribution circuits. The maximum voltage recorded in these tests was 148 V. This
return voltage is above the limit we set at 100 V and could cause harm to workers, especially if
they are unaware that it is present.
Our proposed solution involves the use of an external resistor connected between the cable and
shield while discharging the cable multiple times. The resistor will decrease the maximum return
voltage to a safe level, while also preventing the current from getting too high. The use of
multiple touches to ground will eventually discharge all of the stored energy in the insulation.
Our other idea includes adding external sources (DC, AC, and square wave) to the cable to see
what happens. No tests have yet been conducted on any of these methods, but a testing
procedure has been written to test our main idea. If the opportunity arises to test the ideas
proposed in this paper, it may lead to a clearer understanding of what ideas do and do not work.

X.

References

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