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Vibrations Vol 17 No.4 December 2001


Process engineers consider variable-speed drives, especially
AC variable-speed drives, a boon. Some would like to replace
all cylinder and constant-speed drives with variable frequency
drives (VFDs, or AC servos). Simply tie an AC induction motor
to a VFD for infnitely variable speed. Add a process computer,
and the process is under control.
It is a fact that variable-speed drives optimize processing
parameters, thereby saving money. It is better to operate a motor
at one-half speed than at full- speed with constant starts and
stops. Operation at half speed allows a smooth fow of materi-
al. In addition, the number of times a motor can be started and
stopped is fnite, and it is cheaper and more effcient to operate
a motor continuously at a reduced speed.
Variables-speed drives have unique problems, however,
that present challenges to maintenance personnel. The objective
of this article is to describe some of the problems and ways
to monitor and minimize them. It is important to have some
knowledge of basic electrical theory, linear and nonlinear cir-
cuits, harmonics in power conversion, harmonic amplitudes and
limits, design parameters, and current analysis.
Basic Electrical Theory
Three forces must be overcome if current is to fow in an AC
circuit: resistance, capacitance, and inductance. The amplitude
of the AC voltage in the circuit with respect to time at a given
frequency is a sine wave. The amplitude of current fow with
respect to time as a function of resistance is also a sine wave.
This sine wave is in phase with the voltage sine wave. The
amplitude of the current fow with respect to time as a function
of capacitance is a sine wave that leads the voltage by 90. The
amplitude of current fow with respect to time as a function
of inductance is a sine wave that lags the voltage by 90. The
relationships are shown in Figure 1.
Linear and Nonlinear Circuits and Loads
The two classes of electrical circuits and loads are linear and
nonlinear. In a linear circuit the current varies in proportion to
the voltage to maintain a sinusoidal waveform. This is not the
case with a nonlinear circuit in which the three forces due to
resistance, capacitance, and inductance can vary independently
Harlow C. Hall
GM Powertrain Division
Saginaw, Michigan
Variable Frequency Drives:
Are They Heroes or Villains?
Summary. This article describes a study of harmonic
generators in an industrial environment. The fre-
quencies and amplitudes of the harmonics generated
by variable frequency drives are presented. Examples
are given.
of each other. As a result the current waveform is not sinusoidal
and harmonics form. The combination of resistance, capaci-
tance, and inductance is called impedance.
Thus, nonlinear loads cause harmonics in an electrical
circuit. In addition, the impedance of the circuit controls the
amplitude of the harmonics at any given frequency. Nonlinear
loads can be caused by anything that contains rectifers and
diodes, including AC and DC variable-speed drives, power
rectifers and inverters, arc furnaces, discharge lighting, com-
puters, and X-ray machines.
No current fows initially when a voltage is applied to a circuit
containing a diode or rectifer. As voltage increases, current begins
to fow in pulses. When voltage decreases, current stops fowing
suddenly. Each diode conducts or pulses once each AC period.
The nonlinear conduction pattern is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 1. Relationships of Current Waveforms.
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Vibrations Vol 17 No.4 December 2001
The pattern in Figure 2 is for two diodes. It is for a full-wave
rectifed single-phase circuit. For one diode one pulse would
be for a half-wave rectifed single-phase circuit; three diodes
would have three pulses in a single AC period and would indi-
cate a half-wave rectifed three-phase circuit. Six pulses would
indicate a six-rectifer bridge circuit for full-wave rectifcation
of three-phase power.
Occasionally half-wave rectifed single-phase occurs in
industry. More typical is full-wave rectifed single- and three-
phase power. Twelve-pulse circuits are created by using two
six-rectifer bridge circuits with a 30 offset in phase between
the bridges, between which one rectifer fres every 30. Such
a design has very low harmonics and thus also low mechanical
stress and noise. It is for this reason the US Navy developed a
36-pulse system in their submarines to have a very quiet mechan-
ical system.
Harmonics in Power Conversion
The diodes or rectifers in the power conversion circuit pro-
duce a characteristic harmonic pattern, regardless of how the
power is used; e.g., computers, a variable frequency drive,
radio transmitter. A change in the pattern indicates a problem.
The Table contains the characteristic harmonic patterns for
fve power conversion circuits. They range from a half-wave
rectifed single-phase circuit with one diode to a full-wave rec-
tifed three-phase circuit with three six-diode bridges, a total of
18 diodes and rectifers. Three types of harmonics are generated
during power conversion: negative sequence, zero sequence, and
positive sequence.
Negative sequence harmonics. Examples of negative
sequence harmonics include second, ffth, eighth, eleventh,
fourteenth, and seventeenth. In an AC induction motor these
harmonics oppose normal motor oppose normal motor rotation
by creating a magnetic force in the rotor that opposes this normal
rotation. As a result the motor works harder, draws more current,
and creates more heat. The mechanical impacts caused by the
reverse torque damages bearings, drive couplings, rotors, and
gears. Torsional resonance problems can also arise in drive
shafts and rotors. In addition, motor starter contacts can chatter
and fail prematurely, and solenoid operated valves can operate
erratically. Other problems can also occur.
Zero sequence harmonics. Zero sequence harmonics in-
clude the third, sixth, ninth, twelfth, ffteenth, and eighteenth
and are termed triplen harmonics because they are divisible by
three. They add current to the neutral conductor. Triplens are
additive. They can burn the coils out of solenoid-operated
valves; add heat to motors; trip circuit breakers; disrupt sensor
signals; and cause process computers to lock up, problems
with software, and overheating of transformers. The neutral
conductor is not protected from excessive current, and the
cables can burn and cause fres. This is not a complete list of
problems.
Positive sequence harmonics. Positive sequence harmon-
ics (fourth, seventh, tenth, thirteenth, sixteenth, nineteenth)
create a magnetic feld that rotates in the same direction as
Table. Harmonics Generated in Power Conversion.
Figure 3. Motor Operating at 1,800 RPM.
Figure 4. Motor Operating at 3,060 RPM.
Figure 2. Voltage and Current for a Computer.
ambient conditions. The data in Figure 5 were taken on a warm
and dry day; those in Figure 4 were taken on a cold and snowy
day. Because the system is not in a controlled environment,
such factors affect standing wave formation.
Cable length also affects the amplitude of harmonics by
affecting impedance. In Figures 3, 4, and 5 the distance between
the variable frequency drive and the motor is about 80 feet. In
Figure 6 the distance between the drive and the motor is six
feet. Both are full-wave rectifed three-phase 480-volt circuits.
The spectrum in Figure 6 contains only the fundamental power
frequency. If the amplitude axis is allowed to foat to negative
amplitude values, a characteristic harmonic pattern for a six-
pulse circuit is present, indicating that the harmonics are present
but are not amplifed.
Standing Waves
The amplifcation of voltage or current at a harmonic frequency
results from standing waves, also termed refected waves or
transmission line effects. A pulse of energy traveling along a
transmission line encounters a standing wave that refects part
of the energy in the pulse at a given frequency back toward the
source. As the refected energy tries to return to the source, it
encounters the next pulse, combines with it, and returns to the
standing wave. The standing wave again refects a portion of the
energy but more energy than before. The process of refecting
and combining continues until the amplitude of the current or
voltage reaches a limiting value. The amplitude then stabiliz-
es for that set of conditions and is dependent on impedance.
The cable between the drive and motor represents substantial
impedance and is proportional to length. If the cable surge
impedance does not match the motor surge impedance, voltage
refection occurs.
Pulse width modulation (PWM) frequency, also termed
the switching or pulse frequency, is typically in the range from
2 kHz to 10 kHz. PWM for the VFD also plays a role in the
formation of refected waves. Most VFDs are rated full load
with the PWM at about 2 kHz. As the PWM increases, the drive
must be derated to maintain the heat buildup within acceptable
limits. Thus, adjusting the PWM to optimize the circuit may
not be an option.
Figure 5. Motor Operating at 3,240 RPM.
Figure 6. Effect of Cable Length on the Amplitude of
Harmonics.
normal rotation, thereby slightly increasing torque. However,
the frequency is higher than the fundamental so that unwanted
heat results.
All harmonics produce unwanted heat somewhere in the
circuit. The quantity of heat produced is expressed as the square
of the harmonic number times the square of the current at that
frequency. When multiple triplen harmonics are present, small
amplitudes, which are additive, produce large quantities of heat.
Many production stoppages are caused by harmonics, but the
causes are not sought until the problem is very serious.
Harmonic Amplitude
The amplitude of each harmonic is a function of the circuit
impedance. As resistance, capacitance, or inductance across a
circuit changes, the amplitude of each harmonic is affected in
a different way and is usually considered a function of circuit
design. Changes are continuously made, however, as equipment
is removed or added to a process and power is removed from a
circuit. Resistance can increase as contacts age. Aging of knife
blades in a disconnect can change resistance. Such changes
affect vibration levels and circuit impedance. Amplitudes of the
harmonics in a variable frequency drive circuit are a function
of operating speed of the motor as a percentage of full speed;
see Figure 3 and Figure 4.
The motor represented in Figure 3 is operating at about
1,800 RPM with ffth and seventh harmonics. In Figure 4 the
motor is operating at about 3,060 RPM with ffth, seventh, elev-
enth, and thirteenth harmonics. Late in 2000 the amplitude of the
ffth harmonic was about 1% of the amplitude of the fundamental
power frequency. Earlier, when the motor was operating at 3,240
RPM (Figure 5) the amplitude of the ffth harmonic was 7.1% of
the fundamental power frequency. The only harmonic observed
was the ffth. Later the other three harmonics were seen (see
Figure 4).
The IEEE specifcation for harmonics on a circuit for a
computer (IEEE Standard 519-1992) states that no harmonic will
have an amplitude greater than 3% of the fundamental power
frequency. The circuit represented by the data in Figure 4 would
have passed; the earlier data shown in Figure 5 would not have
passed. Data from the same motor, same variable frequency
drive, and almost the same power level differed only by day and
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Vibrations Vol 17 No.4 December 2001
Harmonic Limits and Design Parameters
IEEE Standard 519-1992 recommends for circuits that supply
power to computers that total harmonic distortion (THD), the
total of all harmonics, not exceed 5% of the amplitude of the
fundamental frequency; that is, the main power frequency. In
addition, no single harmonic amplitude is to exceed 3% of the
amplitude of the fundamental frequency. In industry, however,
most electrical circuits supply power to some kind of computer.
Very few circuits with power conversion devices consistently
meet this specifcation. The probable result is computer glitches.
Design parameters have been established for power conver-
sion units. Full-wave rectifcation with multiple bridge circuits
electrically phase shifted to minimize harmonic distortion are
used. For three-phase power, two six-rectifer bridge circuits are
good; three are better. The VFD output is rated for the upper
end of the PWM, not the lower end, to allow greater fexibility
for tuning the VFD to an individual circuit. The length of trans-
mission lines is kept to a minimum. Placing the VFD close to
the motor minimizes impedance matching, refected waves, and
the resulting harmonics. Using isolated power sources for the
computer minimizes glitches. It is best to minimize or eliminate
the formation of harmonics during the design phase.
Current Analysis
Current spectra should be collected in a harmonic-rich envi-
ronment on critical circuits. Routes can be established and data
collected as with mechanical data except that harmonic patterns
and amplitude changes are sought. Amplitudes are a percentage
of the amplitude of the fundamental frequency. Trends can be
established, and data can be collected in dB amps (the most
sensitive scale), RMS amps, or peak amps. If dB amps are used,
the amplitude conversion for percentage of the fundamental
frequency involves logarithms.
It can be diffcult to determine the root cause of problems
caused by harmonics in a power distribution system. Problems
include failures of electronically-operated valves, conductor
insulation, bearings, drive couplings, and motor windings;
tripping of circuit breakers; pitting of contacts; and fatigue and
breakage of drive shafts.
Conclusion
The most effective way to eliminate harmonics is at the design
stage. If harmonics do exist, a good predictive maintenance
program that includes collection of current spectra and thermal
imaging should minimize problems.