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Ground-Fault Current: Problems and Solutions

With separately derived systems, you must adhere to special rules on neutral-to-ground
connectionsFind more articles on Ground Fault
Mar 1, 2007Edited by John DeDad, senior director, editorial and EC&M development | Electrical
Construction and Maintenance

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When designing ground-fault protection (GFP) for a power distribution system, you should always consider
the nature of the power source. If the power source is from a separately derived system, you must follow
certain rules and guidelines in order for the GFP to work properly and protect the system. Per the National
Electrical Code (NEC), we know that an engine generator set (gen-set) is a separately

When designing ground-fault protection (GFP) for a power distribution system, you
should always consider the nature of the power source. If the power source is from a
separately derived system, you must follow certain rules and guidelines in order for the
GFP to work properly and protect the system.

Per the National Electrical Code (NEC), we know that an engine generator set (gen-set)
is a separately derived system. The effect of a gen-set and its transfer switch on the
operation of GFP equipment requires close attention, mainly because of the multiple
neutral-to-ground connections.

Let's take a detailed look at what's involved and see how to avoid the pitfalls of
improper designs and installations. The following is excerpted from EC&M Books'
“Practical Guide to Ground Fault Protection” and updated to the requirements of the
2005 NEC.

NEC issues. Section 250.20(B) establishes when the power system shall be grounded,
while 250.20(D) requires the grounding of separately derived systems. However,
according to FPN No. 1, when the neutral conductor of an alternate power source is
solidly connected to the service supplied system, that alternate power source is not
considered a separately derived system. What does this mean?

If a separately derived source meeting the requirements of 250.20(B) includes an


alternate power source whose neutral conductor is solidly connected to that of the
preferred source, the alternate source neutral is considered grounded through the
ground at the preferred source service disconnect. In other words, sometimes the
neutral of a gen-set power source will be grounded at the gen-set neutral; other times,
it won't. (To see what you must consider before deciding when to ground the neutral,
see “When You Should Ground and Switch the Gen-Set Neutral” sidebar on page 31
and “When You Should Not Ground the Gen-Set Neutral” sidebar on page 32.)

Problems from multiple neutral-to-ground connections. Two major problems


arise from these connections.

Incomplete ground-fault sensing. Consider a 3-pole transfer switch with zero-


sequence GFP at the service, as shown in Fig. 1. Suppose a fault occurs between one of
the phase conductors and the metallic conduit enclosing these conductors. The
resulting ground-fault current has two paths it can follow in returning to the
transformer neutral.

<b>Fig. 1.</b> Schematic of separately derived system (gen-set) showing multiple neutral-to-ground
connections and resulting incorrect ground-fault protection (GFP) sensing. The ground-fault current flowing
on Path 2 will pass through the transformer GFP sensor just as though it were normal load current, and the
zero-sequence GFP will sense only the fault current flowing on Path 1, resulting in incomplete sensing of the
total fault current.

Path 1 is directly back to the transformer along the equipment grounding conductor.
Path 2 is along the equipment grounding conductor to the point where the gen-set is
grounded, then to the gen-set neutral, and finally along the neutral conductor back to
the transformer neutral.

Keep in mind that a zero-sequence GFP acts when it senses a predetermined value of
current imbalance. So, the current following Path 2 will pass through the transformer
GFP sensor just as though it were normal load current, and the zero-sequence GFP will
sense only the fault current following Path 1. As a result, you would have incomplete
sensing of the total fault current.
<b>Fig. 2.</b> Schematic of separately derived system showing path of unbalanced neutral currents, due to
unbalanced loads. Neutral current flowing on Path 2 would have the same effect on the ground-fault sensor
as ground-fault current, causing it to initiate a GFP trip, even though a fault or short-circuit current does not
exist.

Nuisance tripping. Now, consider a 3-pole transfer switch and zero-sequence GFP with
an unbalanced load, as shown in Fig. 2. Again, the unbalanced current in the neutral
has two paths to follow. Path 1 is directly to the service neutral. Path 2 is to the gen-set
neutral, through the gen-set grounding electrode and — by way of metallic equipment
enclosures, conduit, fittings, etc. — back to the service neutral.

The current through Path 2 would have the same effect on the ground-fault sensor as
ground-fault current. Therefore, an unbalanced load would affect the sensitivity of the
GFP sensor and could cause it to trip the breaker even though a fault or short-circuit
current does not exist.
<b>Fig. 3.</b> Schematic of separately derived system using a 4-pole transfer switch, which provides
complete isolation of service and gen-set neutral conductors, thereby eliminating both improper sensing and
nuisance tripping caused by multiple neutral-to-ground connections.

The problem with both GFP connections discussed above is that the neutrals of the
transformer and gen-set are tied together in the transfer switch. There are three
possible solutions to overcome the above-mentioned problems.

Solution 1: 4-pole transfer switch. This type of transfer switch provides complete
isolation of service and gen-set neutral conductors, thereby eliminating both improper
sensing and nuisance tripping caused by multiple neutral-to-ground connections. Fig.
3 shows how the 4-pole transfer switch provides isolation in the event of a ground
fault. As you can see, there is only one way the fault current can get back to the
transformer neutral. With the neutrals thus isolated, you can add conventional GFP to
the gen-set output.

<b>Fig. 4.</b> Schematic of separately derived system using an isolating transformer. An unbalance of the
critical load will have no effect on the GFP at the incoming service, and ground-fault currents would not be
transmitted through the delta-wye transformer.

Be careful here because this may cause other problems. When the transfer switch
interrupts the load from one source, currents in the individual lines and neutral may
not all clear at the same instant. It's possible that current in the neutral conductor,
which is usually less than the line currents, will clear first. As such, the transfer switch
may be momentarily connecting the load to a power source with the neutral
disconnected. If the load is unbalanced, abnormal voltages could occur across each
phase of the load for as long as 10 milliseconds. At the same time, inductive loads could
cause additional high transient voltages in the microsecond range.
Solution 2: Isolation through a delta-wye transformer. If you have a 3-phase,
4-wire critical load that's relatively small compared to the rest of the non-critical load,
you can use an isolating transformer on the load side of the transfer switch (Fig. 4).
This requires that both line-side power sources of the transfer switch are 3-phase, 3-
wire.

An unbalance of the critical load will have no effect on the GFP at the incoming service.
Furthermore, ground-fault currents would not be transmitted through the delta-wye
transformer. Also, the primary protective device “sees” any increase in primary current
due to ground faults simply as an overload.

There are two items to take note of with this solution. First, it does not provide
protection against ground faults on the secondary side of the isolating transformer.
Second, because the transfer switch is not located directly ahead of the load, it does not
provide emergency power protection should the isolating transformer fail.

Cost wise, you'll have to evaluate the economics of supplying a standard 3-pole transfer
switch with a small isolating transformer versus other approaches. It may be that the
cost of the isolating transformer is less than the extra cost of a modified transfer
switch. You'll also have to consider the cost savings resulting from a minimal
installation of neutral conductors. In applications such as hospitals and commercial
buildings, the 4-wire lighting load usually accounts for a substantial percentage of the
total essential load. Therefore, adding a transformer in such cases is seldom
economically feasible.

<b>Fig. 5.</b> Schematic of separately derived system using a transfer switch with overlapping neutral
contacts. There is no possible flow of fault current through the neutral conductor that would detract from or
effectively reduce ground-fault detection. Also, there is no possible flow of unbalanced current through the
gen-set neutral to alter the pickup of the ground-fault sensor and possibly cause nuisance tripping.

Solution 3: Transfer switch with overlapping neutral contacts. Transfer


switches are available that permit the overlapping of neutral transfer contacts. This
connects the neutrals of the normal and emergency power sources, but only during the
period of transfer. With a conventional solenoid-operated, double-throw transfer
switch, the time during which the neutrals are connected can be less than the operating
time of the ground fault sensor, which is usually set anywhere from six to 24 cycles.

Figure 5 shows a typical system using a 3-pole transfer switch with overlapping
contacts for isolating the neutral conductors. There is no possible flow of fault current
through the neutral conductor that would detract from or effectively reduce ground-
fault detection. Furthermore, there is no possible flow of unbalanced current through
the gen-set neutral to alter the pickup of the ground-fault sensor and possibly cause
nuisance tripping.

The load neutral is always connected to either source of power. Because there is no
momentary opening of the neutral conductor when the transfer switch operates,
abnormal and transient voltages are kept to a minimum. Also, there is no erosion of
the overlapping contacts due to arcing. This ensures current-carrying integrity and no
increase in neutral circuit impedance. Because the overlapping contacts are not
required to interrupt current, the cost of adding such contacts to a transfer switch is
generally less than adding a fourth pole.

There is more than one downside to this solution, focusing primarily on retrofitting
existing transfer switches. First, it may be difficult to adapt overlapping contacts to
transfer switch assemblies having interlocked molded-case circuit breakers because of
the relatively fixed mechanical configurations of these units. In addition, their slower
operating transfer time could become a limiting factor. Finally, there may be
insufficient space within the cubicle housing a conventional transfer switch for an
overlapping contact assembly, or the transfer operating mechanism may be
inadequate. That said, retrofitting overlapping neutral contacts to an existing transfer
switch has proven economically feasible in some applications So, don't dismiss this
solution as a retrofit possibility without at least making a concerted analysis.

The handling of ground-fault currents with separately derived systems depends a great
deal on the application, the system configuration, and obviously the associated costs.
Also, to reduce the magnitude of fault current, there are resistance-grounding systems
that come packaged with a grounding resistor, disconnect switch, detection device, and
controls. Furthermore, if the neutral is not available, the package may include a
neutral-deriving transformer bank.

Industry interest in GFP. The interest in GFP has not diminished throughout the
various Code cycles. In fact, electrical contractors, plant facility electrical maintenance
personnel, and electrical engineers have all demanded more complete and concise
information on the subject. The dollar value of equipment loss, production downtime,
and personal liability associated with ground-fault arcing can be staggering.

In spite of the effective and skilled application of conventional overcurrent devices, the
problem of ground faults continues to exist. Thus, in the interest of safety, electrical
system design must also account for protection against ground faults. This requires a
thorough and detailed understanding of the broad and complex nature of fault current
flow in electrical systems.

Sidebar: When You Should Ground and Switch the Gen-Set Neutral

When the service falls under the requirements of 230.95, you should ground the
neutral at each source, and switch it where the Code requires ground-fault detection
coordination. When the service rating equals or exceeds 1,000A (833kVA), 230.95
requires ground-fault protection on the service disconnect. But what if your load is
important enough to justify an alternate power source and transfer switch? In that
case, you may want to expand the ground-fault protection scheme to second-level
branch-circuit protection, according to 230.95(C), FPN No.2.

When the NEC requires ground-fault protection — and you have an alternate power
supply — you must switch the neutral. If you have a service larger than 1,000A, the
NEC requires ground-fault protection at the main service disconnect. If the gen-set
neutral grounding runs via a solid connection to the main service neutral, and the gen-
set experiences a ground fault while feeding the load, the main service disconnect will
open. This will not disconnect the arc fault from the gen-set, and coordination will be
lost.

If the neutrals of the two sources are separately grounded, you must switch the load
neutral conductor to the source feeding the load, per 230.95(C), FPN No. 3. Ground-
fault current will return only to the source from which it originates, providing for
coordination of the ground-fault protection scheme.
It's not always necessary to separately ground the gen-set neutral conductor. However,
if you do, you may need to switch a load neutral along with its phase conductors when
transferring loads between power sources, particularly when you use ground-fault
protection. The NEC requires ground-fault protection for 480/277V, 3-phase, 4-wire,
wye-connected services rated 1,000A or more, but it's optional in other configurations
that don't include ground-fault protection. However, where a branch-circuit neutral
conductor transfers between sources, the switching means should assure the neutral
conductor switching contact doesn't interrupt current.

When You Should Not Ground the Gen-Set Neutral

Among the reasons not to separately ground a gen-set neutral is the fact that the NEC
doesn't require ground-fault sensing. Generally, solid connection of the gen-set neutral
to the preferred service neutral will preclude separately grounding the gen-set neutral.

Now, it's possible to ground the gen-set source neutrals of power systems that don't fall
under 250.20(B) by connecting them to the preferred source service neutral.
Therefore, for 480/277V, 3-phase, 4-wire, wye-connected power systems rated less
than 1,000A (833kVA), you can connect the gen-set neutral conductor directly to the
preferred service neutral. You can also connect the gen-set neutral conductor directly
to the preferred service neutral for all 208/120V, 3-phase, 4-wire, wye-connected
power systems.

With power shortages and telecommuting on the rise, so is the number of residences
with standby gen-sets. The ground prong of these receptacles is connected to the gen-
set frame, which is connected to the gen-set winding neutral point. Consequently, any
fault or inadvertent current path between the frame and a phase conductor will cause
the receptacle to disconnect. When the premises wiring is connected to the gen-set, the
neutral becomes effectively grounded when the neutral conductors are connected.

If the service is 480/277V, 3-phase, 4-wire, wye-connected — and the gen-set is


permanently installed — you can eliminate the need for neutral switching. If you limit
such a service to less than 833kVA, you can solidly connect the gen-set neutral to the
service neutral — the bonding jumper between the main service switchboard neutral
and ground bus grounds the service neutral.