Grounded or Ungrounded Systems
Ungrounded systems may provide greater continuity of operations in the event of a ground fault. However, the second fault will most likely be more catastrophic than a grounded system fault. Whenever ungrounded systems are used in a facility, the maintenance personnel should receive training in how to detect and troubleshoot the first ground on an ungrounded system.
Electrical systems can be operated grounded or ungrounded, depending on the condition of the systems use. Electrical systems are grounded to protect circuits, equipment, and conductor enclosures from dangerous voltages and personnel from electrical shock. See NEC Sections 110-9, 110-10, 230-65, 250-1, and 250-2 that list the requirements to provide this protection.
“Grounded” means that the connection to ground between the service panel and earth has been made. Ungrounded electrical systems are used where the designer does not want the overcurrent protection device to clear in the event of a ground fault.
Ground detectors can be installed per NEC Section 250-5(b) FPN to sound an alarm or send a message to alert personnel that a ground fault has occurred on one of the phase conductors. Ground detectors will detect the presence of leakage current or developing fault current conditions while the system is still energized and operating. By warning of the need to take corrective action before a problem occurs, safe conditions can usually be maintained until an orderly shutdown is implemented.
Grounded systems are equipped with a grounded conductor that is required per NEC Section 250- 23(b) to be run to each service disconnecting means. The grounded conductor can be used as a current-carrying conductor to accommodate all neutral related loads. It can also be used as an equipment grounding conductor to clear ground faults per NEC Section 250-61(a).
A network of equipment grounding conductors is routed from the service equipment enclosure to all metal enclosures throughout the electrical system. The equipment grounding conductor carries fault currents from the point of the fault to the grounded bus in the service equipment where it is transferred to the grounded conductor. The grounded conductor carries the fault current back to the source and returns over the faulted phase and trips open the overcurrent protection device.
Note: A system is considered grounded if the supplying source such as a transformer, generator, etc., is grounded, in addition to the grounding means on the supply side of the service equipment disconnecting device per NEC Sections 250-23(a) or 250-26 for seperately derived systems.
The neutral of any grounded system serves two main purposes: (1) it permits the utilization of line- to-neutral voltage and thus will serve as a current-carrying conductor to carry any unbalanced current, and (2) it plays a vital role in providing a low-impedance path for the flow of fault currents to facilitate the operation of the overcurrent devices in the circuit. (See picture below).
Consideration should be given to the sizing of the neutral conductor for certain loads due to the presence of harmonic currents (See NEC Sections 210-4 and 310-10).
Ungrounded systems operate without a grounded conductor. In other words, none of the circuit conductors of the electrical system are intentionally grounded to an earth ground such as a metal water pipe, building steel, etc. The same network of equipment grounding conductors is provided for ungrounded systems as for solidly grounded electrical systems. However, equipment grounding conductors (EGCs) are used only to locate phase-to-ground faults and sound some type of alarm.
Therefore, a single sustained line-to-ground fault does not result in an automatic trip of the overcurrent protection device. This is a major benefit if electrical system continuity is required or if it would result in the shutdown of a continuous process. However, if an accidental ground fault occurs and is allowed to flow for a substantial time, overvoltages can develop in the associated phase conductors. Such an overvoltage situation can lead to conductor insulation damage, and while a ground fault remains on one phase of an ungrounded system, personnel contacting one of the other phases and ground are subjected to 1.732 times the voltage they would experience on a solidly neutral grounded system. (See picture below).
Note: All ungrounded systems should be equipped with ground detectors and proper maintenance applied to avoid, as far as practical, the overcurrent of a sustained ground fault on ungrounded systems. If appropriate maintenance is not provided for ungrounded systems, a grounded system should be installed to ensure that ground faults will be cleared and the safety of circuits, equipment, and that personnel safety is ensured.
High impedance grounding
Electrical systems containing three-phase, three-wire loads, as compared to grounded neutral circuit conductor loads, can be equipped with a high-impedance grounded system. High-impedance grounded systems shall not be used unless they are provided with ground fault indicators or alarms, or both, and qualified personnel are available to quickly locate and eliminate such ground faults.
Ground faults must be promptly removed or the service reliability will be reduced. See NEC Section 250-27 for requirements pertaining to installing a high-impedance grounding system. (See picture below).
Source: DOE HANDBOOK – ELECTRICAL SAFETY
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