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The Earth Loop Testing of RCD Protected Circuits

Julian Grant, Product Manager - AVO INTERNATIONAL Modern installations, be they Domestic, Commercial or Industrial, rely on products offering residual current protection for the prevention of electrocution and to safeguard against electrical fires. The names of the products vary - Earth Leakage Circuit Breakers, Residual Current Circuit Breakers - but are all covered by the generic name Residual Current Device or RCD, and all work in similar ways. In a normal circuit the currents flowing in the live and neutral conductors are equal, but when an earth fault occurs and current leaks to earth, the phase and neutral currents will differ. This imbalance is detected by the RCD, which quickly trips to cut off the mains supply feeding that particular circuit. For any protection system to work correctly and effectively a good earth return path should exist within the electrical installation. This will ensure a fault current of sufficient size to operate the protective device. The resistance of this fault current path is measured using an "Earth Loop Impedance Tester", and this is done at the most remote point in the circuit to ensure worst case conditions apply. In practice the measurement of Earth Fault Loop Impedance has always created problems. This is due to the test current produced by the Earth Loop Impedance Tester being detected by the RCD, which reacts by tripping the circuit. This tripping not only makes it impossible for the Earth Loop Impedance Tester to obtain a reading, but also the interruption of the supply can have major drawbacks. In the Domestic situation tripping will probably only result in mild irritation. In other Commercial, Industrial or Medical installations removal of the mains supply may be completely unacceptable and often have dangerous implications to people, equipment and computer information. Existing methods to overcome RCD tripping Over the years several solutions have evolved to cope with this situation, all of which have their positive and negative points. Supply-side testing One method is to carry out a measurement of the External Earth Fault Loop Impedance (Ze) on the supply side of the RCD. By then performing a continuity test on the load side of the circuit, values for Phase Conductor resistance (R1), and the resistance of the Circuit Protective Conductor (R2), can be measured. Earth Fault Loop Impedance (Zs) is then calculated using the formula Zs=Ze+(R1+R2). The main disadvantage with this method is that the supply needs to be switched off when doing a continuity test and that is exactly what the Electrical Contractor was trying to avoid in the first place. Shorting out Another commonly used method is to either remove the RCD and replace it with shorting links, or leave it in place and bypass the RCD with the shorting links. Both of these methods will allow for the direct measurement of the Earth Fault Loop Impedance. However, remember that by removing or shorting the RCD a level of protection has been taken away which could have safety implications on the installation and on the Contractor doing the work. Another aspect of this method that must be considered is the effect of shorting out on the RCD itself. With conventional electro-mechanical devices it is generally accepted that shorting an RCD is unlikely to cause any damage. However, with electronic RCD's becoming more common nowadays, concerns that permanent damage may be caused have been raised. RCD Blocking

RCD Blocking To overcome the problems associated with the above two methods, Earth Loop Impedance Testers are available which "block" the RCD before applying the test current. This method effectively makes the RCD blind for the duration of the test by applying a d.c. current that saturates a small transformer in the detection circuit and this prevents it from tripping. Unfortunately, problems associated with this method are rapidly making it a non-viable option. Some concern arises that RCD's may remain affected by the blocking signal after the test has been done. This could affect its ability to trip on a real fault condition within the recommended time, should a fault appear soon after the testing is completed. Certain types of RCD and in particular the new electronic ones, will not be blocked by this type of Earth Loop Impedance Tester, and will still trip during the test. If this unexpected trip occurs then the risk may arise of potential damage to equipment, loss of computer information, and even dangerous conditions. To make matters worse, some RCD manufacturers are now saying that high current Loop Tests should not be applied to RCD's at all. This is because there is already concern over the effects of the normal 23A test current on the RCD, let alone any additional saturation currents that may be present. The solution In response to the minefield of problems that exist when trying to perform Earth Fault Loop Impedance measurements on electrical installations, test instrument manufacturers are now looking into the possibilities of producing Loop Testers with low current ranges. These will not trip RCD's rated at 30mA or above, including the modern electronic ones, and furthermore, will not affect or damage them. Many wiring regulations state that an RCD should not operate when half its rated current is applied, and usually since 30mA RCD's are used this means 15mA of test current. It is therefore safe to inject 15mA into a circuit without fear of the protection operating. The fact that this method has not been used before is largely due to the difficulty in obtaining a reliable and repeatable measurement at this low test current. The problems here occur due to the levels of electrical noise present in and around most installations and substations. These can easily exceed the small voltage drop on the mains, caused by the instrument with a test current of only 15mA, which is then very difficult to measure. Is a low test current satisfactory? Earth Loop Impedance Testers, until now, have always been supplied with only high (23A) test currents, and it was believed this ensured the Earth Loop was suitably stressed during testing in order to show up any weak links. It has subsequently been proved that there is little advantage to this since a 23A nominal test current is unlikely to identify the stranded connections or corroded joints that it was originally believed. Consider a fused lighting circuit that could quite conceivably be tested with a 23A Loop Test. The fuse protecting this circuit is thinner than a single strand of wire and is not affected by the test so why should a single strand of wire be expected to blow. The reason this does not happen is that the 23A test current from an Earth Loop Impedance tester is only applied for a total of 0.02 seconds. This is not long enough for the fuse or strand of wire to reach any significant temperature let alone melt. Probably the only advantage provided by using a high test current, when it comes to Earth Loop Impedance testing, is that it allows a large test signal to be detected by the Loop Tester. This means that the test signal from the Loop tester is likely to be high in comparison with the electrical noise present on the system and this enables lower values to be measured. Similarly the low test current method may restrict the minimum reading to 1, but considering the acceptable values of Earth Fault Loop Impedance on RCD protected circuits, specified in the IEE on site guide as