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The integrity of an overhead transmission line is directly related to the mechanical and electrical quality of the

insulators that keep the line in the air. Insulators account for only 5% to 8% of the direct capital cost of the line, yet
are associated with more than 70% of line outages and up to 50% of line maintenance costs. They fail most commonly
from surface contamination, aging, manufacturing defects and damage due to mishandling.
The United States is one of the few countries with the benefit of extensive service experience with all three prevailing
insulator technologies: porcelain, toughened glass (ceramic) and nonceramic (NCI, which is also known as composite
and polymer).
These technologies can be compared by selection criteria, service experience, reliability and maintenance. The user,
and the customer, is the ultimate beneficiary if the selection is done on a technical level. Each technology has distinct
technical advantages and limitations. The demands of reliability are the highest at transmission voltages of 69 kV and
In a recent Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) study, annual losses
resulting from system outages were shown to be as much as the sum of the losses caused by hurricanes and
earthquakes, and these outages have been increasing at an alarming rate.
The fact that the bulk of the transmission line infrastructure in this country is more than 30 years old is worrisome.
While most utilities have not yet adopted a proactive approach to insulator replacements, some are looking at longterm implications for system reliability.

Insulator History
Before the 1950s, insulator technology was largely limited to porcelain. In the early 1950s, toughened-glass insulators
were introduced in Europe and achieved rapid expansion worldwide. This technology was introduced in North
America between 1950 and 1960 and rapidly gained popularity in the 1960s through 1980s, as major high-voltage
grids were still being completed. During the 1970s, NCI insulators were introduced, and gained rapid growth and
acceptance in the 1980s.
The relatively quick adoption of composites in the United States was facilitated by the specific topology of the
transmission network, which uses post-type line construction to a much larger extent than most other countries. In
fact, the United States quickly became the largest world market for composite insulators, while a more conservative
approach to their introduction was adopted in Canada, Europe and the rest of the world.
According to the EPRI/DOD survey, the most common reason given by users in the United States for NCI use was
their light weight. The survey also revealed the average age of composite insulators in the United States is seven years.

life-cycle cost considerations become important in determining which insulator type would be most economical. Selecting the Right Insulator Type The table above lists some of the most significant properties of the three technologies. Other situations in which the choice might not be as straightforward include selecting insulators for critical transmission lines where maintenance has to be performed under energized (live/hot line/bare-hand work) conditions. but inspection is desirable after installation • Perception that it is less attractive to and not easily damaged by vandals Limitations • Weight • Hidden defects • Susceptible to vandalism • In-service defect detection techniques not yet foolproof • Negative perception that glass is fragile • Weight • Attractive to vandals • Brittle fracture remains an issue • Aging due to the organic nature of components • Not easily interchangeable due to multitude of designs. and for how long? What would it cost to perform a field test. In locations with little rain but heavy contamination problems. . it should not be surprising that many users still consider NCIs to be new technology. experience has shown that composite insulators can provide superior contamination performance because of the hydrophobic property of the housing material. Longevity and ease of inspection over the life of the line also become important criteria. Commonly Accepted Advantages and Limitations of Different Insulator Technologies Insulator Type Advantages • Long history of use • Performance quantified Porcelain • Easily interchangeable • Reduced right of way with line posts • Long history of use • Performance quantified Toughened Glass • Damaged units easy to spot • Easily interchangeable • Reduced right of way with line posts • Good contamination performance • Lightweight Composite/NCI • Reduction in installation costs. especially when compared to the service experience of more than 30 to 40 years obtained with porcelain and toughened glass.Thus. There are several situations for which the selection of a particular insulator technology is not difficult. which result in significant variations in inspection-practices costs. In locations where contamination is not a problem. all three technologies will work well. This choice is also difficult in contaminated locations with frequent wetting. fundamental differences exist among the three basic insulator technologies. where the hydrophobicity advantage of composite insulators can be quickly lost. assuming there is a method for testing each unit to determine whether the insulator is healthy or defective? In this regard. Some of these differ from what they were perceived to be when the technologies were first introduced. Which ones should be replaced and which ones can be left as is. manufacturing techniques and corona rings • Can have hidden defects • Live-line techniques not yet developed Tens of millions of such insulators are on our lines that were built mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. Making decisions on replacing aged insulators is another instance. In such cases.

but also new installations for potential problems. working under de-energized conditions may no longer be an option on many lines. One of the greatest needs facing insulator technology today is a quick and economic method for detecting defective insulators in service. Thus. There are substantial technological gaps among the three basic insulator technologies. Northwestern Energy . because of faulty work practices. Many design and manufacturing techniques change over time. The photos above show an instance where the core of the composite insulator is exposed and an example of a mechanical failure resulting in a dropped line because of brittle fracture or rod burning is a possibility. it is not possible to ascertain the presence of defective units in a string with the same level of confidence as glass. consequently. and any harm done by vandals or from internal sources (inclusions or impurities that can lead to shattering in the early stages of life) is evident by noting the missing bells. Although desirable. Degradation during service (aging) could be accelerated because of improper design and application of corona rings. workers will need to be assured there will be no chance of insulator failure while they are working on the lines. For glass insulation. the flaws of insulators out in the field might not be consistent with the flaws of NCI units now being installed. This means that maintenance work involving insulators must be performed under hot or energized conditions.The high-voltage transmission network in the country is heavily loaded with many lines already close to full capacity. These cracks can seriously degrade the electrical and mechanical properties of the unit. Accurate inspection of NCIs remains a technical challenge. there is no room for confusion. Defects can arise during the manufacturing process prior to energization. With porcelain insulators. Available hot line tools can detect certain types of internal defects in porcelain. and during service. For composite insulators. the rings could be installed incorrectly. the unit is good. for porcelain insulators. Due to the multitude of corona ring designs and attachment procedures that exist. There is a need to inspect not only insulators in service. Internally defective units are weeded out in the manufacturing process. we are significantly behind with regard to spotting defective units. especially under dry conditions. Utilities have access to recommended work practices and standards for live-line work with porcelain and glass insulators. These require the establishment of a minimum number of healthy bells in a suspension string. If the dielectric shell is intact. Therefore. establishing if a bell insulator is healthy or defective can be done with the unaided eye. internal cracks and punctures are known to propagate without initial visible manifestations to the outside observer. which is when most maintenance would most likely be performed.

handling and installing glass insulators as with porcelain. Unless they are washed off by rain. This is not surprising given the fact that the residual strength of toughened-glass insulators remains around the rated mechanical strength of a new unit.S. The relatively low level of contamination can be withstood even with a significant reduction in the leakage distance.Northwestern Energy (Sioux Falls. Vandalism is a problem for a small area of about 1 sq mile (2. the utility can tolerate up to 10 missing bells. On 500-kV lines. in a V-string. one string has a large number of bells that have been damaged by vandals. The system was built with porcelain insulators. Toughened-glass insulators were first used for the 500 kV in 1979. The other string has only a few that have been shot and is therefore not a concern. U. unlike porcelain. Obviously. this has not happened. due to the low level of contamination in this area. the whole shell is missing. Most of the service territory for this voltage can be classified as light pollution (IEC Level 1). The utility follows the same care when storing. Composite insulators are used for replacements and for building new lines at this voltage and at the lower voltages (161 and 69 kV). Insulators located near cooling towers of power plants are also subjected to pollution problems and require washing on an annual basis. The 230-kV system is much older than the 500-kV system. South Dakota. Due to the ease of visual detection of failed units. and composite insulators are used extensively on its subtransmission lines at voltages of 161 to 69 kV (161. they may require removal by dry cleaning methods using baking soda. The utility performs helicopter patrol of its 500-kV lines four times a year. as it is easy to detect which units need removal. However. The experience has been positive. Porcelain insulators dominate the 230-kV system. The main impediments for using composite insulators at higher voltages are the lack of methods for live-line working and the inability to identify faulty insulators. The photo of the 500-kV insulator string shows an extreme situation where. Two factors permit this large number of broken units in a string: With a glass insulator. 115 and 100 kV). there is no need to do any further tests to establish the functionality of the unit and string. The utility uses 22 standard suspension bells on each of the V strings. if the bell is defective or shot. A few locations have contamination problems from bird droppings. The utility does bare-hand maintenance on its 500-kV lines. this string can flashover under wet conditions because of the remarkable reduction in the leakage distance.) uses toughened-glass insulators almost exclusively at 500 kV. This is the main reason for choosing glass insulators.5 sq km). Composite insulators have been used for about 25 years in this service territory. . There have been no line drops. even under the most extreme case. This number has been established by experience. It has been Northwestern's experience that glass insulators do not chip. in which insulators are routinely shot.

S. The service experience with composite is less than three years. The utility has used NCIs at 500 kV in coastal areas but discontinued its use in those applications because of some early failures. Department of Energy and has lines that traverse the states of Oregon.S. . 150 at 500 kV Electric Co. California. vandalism is fairly Administration Idaho. kV vandalism Bonneville Power Oregon. The utility is not using any glass insulators as replacements or for new construction at 500 kV because of the vandalism problem. Contamination in the form of salt-fog is an issue for lines close to the coast.) uses both porcelain and glass insulators for its 500. 7000 at 500 kV. Nebraska Mostly clean (IEC Level 1). Most of the service areas are clean. as it is widespread in its service territory. the contamination level is fairly low and corresponds to IEC Level 1. NCIs are limited to vandalism areas on the 500-kV line. Washington. Vandalism is a major concern. Wyoming kV widespread Oklahoma Gas and Oklahoma and Eastern Mostly clean (IEC Level 1). very few locations Northwestern Energy 500 at 500 kV.Pacific Gas and Electric Co. At 230 kV. 5300 at 230 Mostly clean (IEC Level 1).S. a fog-type unit increases the leakage distance of the strings. The 500-kV network was constructed more than 25 years ago with almost equal numbers of porcelain and glass insulators. very few locations 2400 at 345 kV. Washington. U. Service Experience Among Participating Utilities Circuit Miles of Description of Service Area for Utility State(s) Served Transmission Lines Contamination and Vandalism Montana. 1000 at 230 kV South Dakota with vandalism Pacific Gas and Electric 1328 at 500 kV. The photo shows a 230-kV structure in a coastal location with glass and porcelain insulators on the same tower. The utility follows the same care when storing. Presently in these areas. Composite insulators are being used in these areas and in areas with high contamination. Arkansas with vandalism Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. In contaminated areas using 34 units. On 500-kV lines. Oregon. The utility is presently studying the use of composite insulators at 500 kV. Nevada and California. and sufficient rain allows for natural cleaning of the insulators. U. 1500 at 230 Mostly clean (IEC Level 1). Bonneville Power Administration BPA (Portland. A 60-mile (97-km) section of 230-kV lines has been built with composite insulators in an effort to gain more experience with this technology. A major concern with composite insulators is longevity and lack of methods for hot-line working. Montana and sections of Wyoming. Composite insulators are used extensively at voltages below 230 kV. composite insulators are also used in coastal locations with contamination problems. PG&E (San Francisco. Idaho.and 230-kV network. handling and installing glass insulators as with porcelain. few locations with California Co.) is part of the U. fog-type bells coated with a silicone product are now used. 34 bells of standard leakage distance units are used for noncontaminated areas. Vandalism is a problem particular only to a few locations and is not widespread. Utah. whereas for most inland locations. The 230-kV network predominantly uses porcelain insulators.

However. The authors can be contacted at the institutions listed below. and damaged units are easy to identify and replace. the utility plans on using toughened-glass insulators in these locations for several reasons.Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. The insulators exhibit a safe behavior even when damaged. and account for all new construction and replacement since 1995. At 345 kV. Today.'s (Oklahoma City. The authors are industry experts and utility engineers with decades of practical experience. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The transparent nature of glass makes it a harder target than porcelain. the utility has had to change out the porcelain insulators on a regular basis. OG&E Electric Services. glass and NCI — which are available for one of the most critical elements of high-voltage line: insulators. Since no single technology provides “the magic solution” to high-voltage line insulation selection. utilities shows that sometimes diametrically opposite approaches can solve similar problems. Positioned for the Future Since the introduction of NCI insulators nearly 30 years ago. Oklahoma. Composite insulators are used extensively for subtransmission and distribution. Ravi Gorur.) 500-kV system uses almost all porcelain insulators. at least once a year. In an interesting move. professor of electrical engineering. porcelain insulators account for about 80%. Northwestern Energy . senior designer. 500-kV bare-hand Wayne David Shaffner. in a context of growing concerns over the condition and reliability of our transmission grid. The utility does not want to use composite insulators in these locations because of a fear that damaged insulators would be hard to spot and could result in dropping the conductor. In one river crossing location. thus removing the guesswork. U. They have agreed to pool their experiences on high-voltage insulators and share their findings with the industry at large. The good news is that the line has not dropped.S.S. The utility has evidence from experience that missiles from small weapons damage porcelain more easily than glass. U. it is not possible to tell by a simple visual inspection if the remaining porcelain bells are electrically and mechanically sound or defective. Arizona State University. the industry is therefore well positioned to derive maximum advantage from actual service experience acquired with all three technologies — porcelain. vinsonjr@oge. utilities have been quick to adopt this technology. senior consulting electrical engineer.ravi.S. Richard Vinson. The service area is characterized by light pollution (IEC Level 1). Vandalism is limited to a few isolated locations. utilities should carefully evaluate the actual performance experience of each technology and weigh them on their own merits. The experiences of a typical cross-section of U.gorur@asu. and the rest are composite insulators.

senior structural engineer. .Don Ruff. dlruff@bpa.