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Understanding the Differences Between Bonding, Grounding,
and Earthing
Electrical Construction and Maintenance
Larry Ray and S. Frank Waterer, Square D Engineering Services/Schneider Electric
Thu, 2009-01-01 12:00
voiding con!usion can help custo"ers "a#i"i$e process upti"e, sa!ety, and pro!its
%he i"portance o! &onding and grounding in co""ercial, industrial, and institutional &uildings cannot &e
overstated. %he grounded circuits o! "achines need to have an e!!ective return path !ro" the "achines to
the po'er source in order to !unction properly. (n addition, non)current)carrying "etallic co"ponents in a
!acility, such as equip"ent ca&inets, enclosures, and structural steel, need to &e electrically interconnected
so voltage potential cannot e#ist &et'een the". %he &ene!its !or the &uilding o'ner are "any * "a#i"i$ed
equip"ent protection, eli"ination o! shock ha$ard potential, increased process upti"e, and reduced costs
through avoiding e#pensive "achine servicing. +o'ever, trou&les can arise 'hen ter"s like ,&onding,-
,grounding,- and ,earthing- are interchanged or con!used in certain situations.
Earthing is the attach"ent o! a &onded "etallic syste" to earth, typically through ground rods or other
suita&le grounding electrodes. %he .E/ prohi&its earthing via isolated ground rods as the only "eans o!
equip"ent grounding. .evertheless, so"e "anu!acturers o! sensitive "achinery actually encourage this
practice in their installation "anuals, in order to reduce ,no pro&le" !ound- service calls associated 'ith
"achine errors and re&ooting.
An illustration
0nderstanding the di!!erences &et'een &onding/grounding and earthing is &est illustrated 'ith an e#a"ple.
"anu!acturer o! "olded co"ponents 'as replacing !ailed printed circuit &oards in a co"puteri$ed
nu"erically controlled 1/./2 "achine. !ter a thunderstor", the "achine3s sel!)diagnostic syste"
occasionally registered a co"ponent pro&le". %he "achine 'ould not start, delaying the day3s production
cycle. 4lant electronics technicians identi!ied and replaced !ailed circuit &oards, then returned the /./
"achine to operation. +o'ever, each occurrence cost thousands o! dollars in repairs and lost production.
/alled upon to recti!y the pro&le", personnel !ro" the engineering services organi$ation o! a "a5or
electrical distri&ution equip"ent "anu!acturer o&served that although the plant had grounded the /./
"achine in accordance 'ith the "anu!acturer3s installation "anual, the ground 'as in clear violation o! the
.E/. %his apparent contradiction de"onstrates a distur&ing !act6 So"e grounding practices that are
designed to decrease data errors in sensitive "achines can actually violate grounding codes and standards,
causing equip"ent da"age and introducing sa!ety ha$ards. (t3s also i"portant to note that the con!licting
require"ents can &e overco"e, &ut never &y co"pro"ising e"ployee sa!ety.
Key concepts and terms
0nderstanding the di!!erence &et'een &onding/grounding and earthing requires i"plicit understanding o!
several i"portant concepts and ter"s, including those outlined &elo'.
Safety grounding and machine operation
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%he pro&le" e#perienced &y the plant in the e#a"ple is not unco""on. 7anu!acturers o! sensitive
"achines have discovered that isolated ground rods can decrease the nu"&er o! nuisance pro&le"s, such as
re&ooting, data errors, and inter"ittent shutdo'ns. %his decrease is due to the reduced a"ount o! voltage
transients or ,noise- on the ground rod, as co"pared to a co""on &uilding grounding syste". 8ecause o!
the reduction in data errors attri&uted to the ground rod, so"e "anu!acturers include isolated ground rods
in their installation instructions. So"e even i"ply the "achine 'arranty 'ill not &e honored i! the ground
rod is not installed.
During thunderstor"s or ground !aults, ho'ever, an isolated ground rod &eco"es a lia&ility, creating shock
ha$ard potential !or e"ployees and high potential rises on sensitive "achine co"ponents. Figure 1 1click
here to see Fig. 12 illustrates the e#tre"ely large transient voltages that can develop &et'een driven ground
rods due to lightning currents and earth resistance. lthough ground !aults in the "achine itsel! "ay not
dra' enough current to trip overcurrent protective devices, they can create touch ha$ard potential !or
rticle 9:;.:< o! the 9;;= .E/ speci!ically prohi&its the use o! isolated ground rods, or earthing, as the sole
"eans o! equip"ent grounding, although so"e have used other sections o! the .E/ to 5usti!y this practice.
%he ,.E/ +and&ook- provides the !ollo'ing co""entary associated 'ith rt. 9:;.> 1?&5ectiona&le
,n increase in the use o! electronic controls and co"puter equip"ent, 'hich are sensitive to stray currents,
has caused installation designers to look !or 'ays to isolate electronic equip"ent !ro" the e!!ects o! such
stray circulating currents. /irculating currents on equip"ent grounding conductors, "etal race'ays, and
&uilding steel develop potential di!!erences &et'een ground and the neutral o! electronic equip"ent.
, solution o!ten reco""ended &y ine#perienced individuals is to isolate the electronic equip"ent !ro" all
other po'er equip"ent &y disconnecting it !ro" the po'er equip"ent ground. (n this corrective action, the
equip"ent grounding "eans is re"oved or non"etallic spacers are installed in the "etallic race'ay syste"
contrary to !unda"ental sa!ety grounding principles covered in the require"ents o! rt. 9:;. %he electronic
equip"ent is then grounded to an earth ground isolated !ro" the co""on po'er syste" ground. (solating
equip"ent in this "anner creates a potential di!!erence that is a shock ha$ard. %he error is co"pounded
&ecause such isolation does not esta&lish a lo')i"pedance ground)!ault return path to the po'er source,
'hich is necessary to actuate the overcurrent protection device.-
Bonding/grounding vs. earthing
(solated connections to earth are not required !or sensitive "achine operation. (ssues crop up 'hen
equip"ent &onding/grounding and earthing are con!used. (n the 0nited States, the ter" ,grounding- is
used to re!er to at least !ive or "ore grounding)related syste"s, including6
System type
%his re!ers to the "eans &y 'hich po'er source voltage relationships are esta&lished. 4o'er sources
!all into !our general categories6 %rans!or"ers, generators, electric utilities, and static po'er
converters. %hese syste"s "ay &e con!igured as 'ye or delta, and the "eans &y 'hich they are
inter!aced 'ith the grounding syste" deter"ines the syste" type. %he "ost co""on @)phase syste"
type is the solidly grounded 'ye, 'hich is esta&lished &y connecting a properly rated conductor 1also
kno'n as the "ain or syste" &onding 5u"per2 !ro" the A; ter"inal o! the source 1usually a
trans!or"er2 to the grounding syste".
Equipment grounding (bonding)
Resolving the issue
%he &est "eans o! equip"ent grounding is to route a grounding conductor, suita&ly si$ed, along the
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sa"e route as the po'er and neutral conductors, !ro" source to "achine. %he .E/ does allo' use o!
"etallic conduit and other su&stitutes, &ut so"e industry e#perts &elieve these syste"s are less
e!!ective and should &e avoided.
Grounding electrode (earthing)
%his ter" re!ers to the "ethod &y 'hich the !acility grounding syste" is connected and re!erenced to
earth. %he "ost co""on grounding electrode !or s"all !acilities is a "etallic ground rod, &ut earthing
syste"s !or larger &uildings can * and should * &e "ore ela&orate and include the "eans &y 'hich
to inspect and test these syste"s periodically. grounding electrode syste" that is &uried in earth or
encased in concrete and then !orgotten is o!ten the source o! increasing pro&le"s as the &uilding ages
and the grounding electrodes deteriorate.
Lightning abatement
So"e !acilities use air ter"inals 1also kno'n as lightning rods2 to direct lightning strikes a'ay !ro"
po'er equip"ent, &ut these devices are o!ten connected to the grounding syste" in such a 'ay that
they have the opposite e!!ect * unintentionally &ringing lightning energy into !acility structural steel,
lo')voltage trans!or"er 'indings, and, su&sequently, sensitive &uilding loads.
Signal-reference grounding
Sensitive electronic "achines rely on the grounding syste" !or re!erence o! lo')"agnitude signals.
%here!ore, it3s o!ten crucial to provide "ultiple grounding paths, rather than rely on a single
equip"ent grounding conductor &et'een the po'er source and the sensitive load. %his ensures that
spurious voltages on the grounding syste" are "aintained 'ell &elo' the level at 'hich they "ight &e
con!used 'ith sensitive "achine re!erence signals. %he &est guide !or signal)re!erence grounding is
(EEE Standard BB;;)9;;>, ,Reco""ended 4ractice !or 4o'ering and Crounding Electronic
.ote that earthing is not required !or sensitive "achine operation. 7odern aircra!t, !or e#a"ple, are packed
'ith sensitive co"puters and electronic devices, 'hich operate correctly 'ithout an attach"ent to earth.
%hey rely on a &onded "etallic syste" * the airplane !ra"e'ork, skin, structural supports, race'ays, and
grounding conductors * to serve as the ground re!erence. (! this &onded syste" rises in voltage 'ith respect
to earth, all "achines on&oard e#perience the increase together. %he net result is that the "achines see no
voltage potential di!!erences 'ith respect to each other. ?nce the airplane lands, any voltage potential
&et'een the plane and earth "ust &e discharged &y an electrode that &ypasses the ru&&er tires.
Resolving the issue
%he i""ediate solution to the e#a"ple plant3s illegal ground rod 1click here to see Fig. 2 'as to re"ove the
shock ha$ard. %his 'as done &y connecting a grounding conductor 1B/; copper2 !ro" the ground rod to the
nearest part o! the &uilding grounding syste" * in this case, the structural steel. %his connection eli"inated
the shock potential during stor"s &y reducing the resistance &et'een the ground rod and the &uilding
grounding syste".
%he ne#t step 'as to eli"inate the 'iring errors and install a ground 'ire !ro" the source to the /./
"achine 1click here to see Fig. !2. %he pri"ary reason that the isolated ground rod 'as e!!ective in
decreasing operating pro&le"s 'as the &uilding3s &onded syste" e#perienced voltage transients, i"posed
on it due to 'iring errors. ?ne co""on error is the i"proper connection o! neutral 'ires to ground &uses or
ground 'ires to neutral &uses. %his error allo's neutral currents to !lo' on the &onded syste", there&y
creating voltage transients. .eutral 'ires are only allo'ed to &e connected to the &onded syste" at a service
entrance or at a step)do'n trans!or"er 1called a separately derived source &y the .E/2. .otice in Fig. 9 that
the plant had installed &oth a voltage regulator and a noise suppression device ahead o! the /./ "achine.
%hese devices are o!ten applied to solve the nuisance operating pro&le"s &rought on &y ground syste"
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transients. Suppression devices are not a cure)all, ho'ever. (n !act, they3re so"eti"es unnecessary 'hen
'iring and grounding pro&le"s are corrected !irst.
?nce the spurious ground rod had &een connected to the rest o! the &onded syste", operating issues had to
&e addressed, 'hich involved correcting the 'iring errors identi!ied in the site survey. For the e#a"ple
!acility, these steps 'ere adequate. For other situations, you should re!er to the !ollo'ing checklist6
/onnect the ground rod to the &onded syste" and install a grounding conductor !ro" the po'er
source to the sensitive load to eli"inate the sa!ety ha$ard and allo' an e!!ective ground)!ault return
/orrect 'iring and grounding errors on the po'er syste" serving the sensitive "achine. 9.
(nstall a step)do'n trans!or"er 1i.e., a separately derived source2 to serve only the process "achine.
Derive a ne' neutral to the ground &onding point at the load side o! the trans!or"er.
ny re"aining operating pro&le"s are pro&a&ly caused &y co""unications ground loops. Cround
loops, 'hich are introduced &y co""unication 'iring &et'een sensitive "achines !ed !ro" di!!erent
po'er sources, "ay require "ore ela&orate correction sche"es, such as optical isolation.
Taking the next step
(n su""ary, the plant in the e#a"ple had installed a /./ process "achine in accordance 'ith the
"anu!acturer3s reco""endations. 0n!ortunately, those reco""endations included the require"ent !or a
separate ground rod to serve as the only "eans o! equip"ent grounding. While this practice "ay reduce
data errors in sensitive process "achines, it violates the .E/, creates a shock ha$ard !or e"ployees, and
causes a potential di!!erence that "ay da"age sensitive electronic co"ponents.
Electrical engineers and contractors can help custo"ers avoid situations like this &y providing proactive
counsel in this area. %he &est place to start is to gather as "uch in!or"ation as possi&le * !ro" the 9;;=
.E/, se"inars/con!erences, trusted electrical equip"ent "anu!acturers, and online sources. With that
kno'ledge in hand, you have yet another reason to call on a custo"er and resolve an issue o! critical
Ray, P.E., is director of Schneider Electric's Square D Engineering Services, Raleigh, N.C. He can be
reached at larry.rayDus.schneider)". aterer is an Engineering !ello" for Schneider Electric's
Square D Engineering Services, Norcross, #a. He can be reached at !rank.'atererDus.schneider)".
Sidebar: Knowledge is Power
n electrical engineer or contractor 'ho understands the various ele"ents o! proper grounding, &onding,
and earthing syste"s is &est positioned to counsel custo"ers on appropriate practices in this area. keen
understanding o! .E/ require"ents could also help you develop a reputation as &eing the one to contact
'ith any &onding/grounding)related questions. Such e#pertise could also lead to !uture &usiness.
Source "#L$ http6//ec"'e&.co"/&onding)a"p)grounding/understanding)di!!erences)&et'een)&onding)
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