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Power Substation / Transmission and Distribution

Reliability Or Unreliability Of Capacitor Banks,

Failure Modes and Case Ruptures

Reliability Of Capacitor Banks

Several problems contribute to the overall reliability or unreliability of
capacitor banks. In a detailed analysis of Kansas City Power & Light’s
automated capacitor banks, Goeckeler reported that blown fuses are
KCP&L’s biggest problem, but several other problems exist.

Reliability Or Unreliability Of Capacitor Banks, Failure Modes and Case Ruptures (photo credit:

Their automation with two-way communications allowed them to readily

identify bank failures. The failure rates in Table 1 are high, much higher
than most distribution equipment.

Capacitor banks are complicated, they have a lot of equipment to fail.

Yet, failure rates should be significantly better than this.

An EPRI survey on capacitor reliability found wide differences in

utilities’ experience with capacitors (EPRI 1001691, 2002).
Roughly one-third of survey responses found feeder capacitors
“very good,” another one-third found them “typical of line
equipment,” and the final third found them “problematic”.
Table 1 – Maintenance Needs Identified by Kansas City Power & Light’s
Capacitor Automation System Based on Two Years of Dat

Problem Annual percent

Primary fuse to capacitor blown (nuisance fuse 9.1
Failed oil switches 8.1
Hardware accidentally set to “Local” or “Manual” 4.2
Defective capacitor unit 3.5
Miscellaneous 2.4
Control power transformer 1.5
TOTAL: 28.8
The survey along with follow-up contacts highlighted several issues:

Misoperation of capacitor fuses

Many utilities have operations of fuses where the capacitor bank is

unharmed. This can unbalance circuit voltages and reduce the number of
capacitors available for
var support.

Review fusing practices to reduce this problem.


Controllers were found “problematic” by a significant number of utilities.

Some utilities had problems with switches and with the controllers
Lightning and faults

In high-lightning areas, controllers can fail from lightning. Controllers

are quite exposed to lightning and power-supply overvoltages during
faults. Review surge protection practices and powering and grounding of

Lightning can cause secondary-side surges by transference

through distribution transformers, flashing from the primary
conductors to the secondary conductors, directly striking the
secondary conductors, or shifting the ground potential.

Lightning surges can also reach the secondary conductors through

distribution transformers. Surge transference is influenced by many
factors including the voltage, turns ratio, electrostatic coupling and
electromagnetic coupling of the windings, and the connected loads

Whenever possible, ground loops in the

controller power wiring should be avoided.
However, ground loops cannot always be
eliminated, especially when the capacitor
controller and control power transformer are not
located on the same pole.
Figure 0 – Controller power on the same pole: A ground
loop created by grounding the control power transformer
output and the capacitor controller neutral terminal.

Human element

Many controllers are set up incorrectly unfotunately. Some controllers are

hard to program, but this is no excuse for bad setting.

And, field crews often do not have the skills or proper attitudes toward
capacitors and their controls. At some utilities, crews often manually
switch off nearby capacitors (and often forget to turn them back on after
finishing their work).
To reduce these problems, properly train
crews and drive home the need to have
capacitors available when needed.

How Capacitors Fail?

Capacitors can fail in two modes – Low current, progressive failure and
high current, low-impedance failure.

1. Low current, progressive failure

The dielectric fails in one of the elements within the capacitor (see Figure
1). With one element shorted, the remaining elements in the series string
have increased voltage and higher current (because the total capacitive
impedance is lower).

With more stress, another element may short out. Failures can
cascade until the whole string shorts out. In this scenario, the current
builds up slowly as elements successively fail.
Figure 1 – Capacitor unit with a failed element

2. High current

A low-impedance failure develops across the capacitor terminals or from

a phase terminal to ground. A broken connector could cause such a

Progressive Failure

Most failures are progressive. Sudden jumps to high current are rare.
To detect progressive failures quickly, fusing must be very sensitive. Film-
foil capacitors have few case ruptures — much less than older paper

An EPRI survey of utilities (EPRI 1001691, 2002) found that film-foil

capacitor ruptures were rare to non-existent. This contrasts sharply
with paper capacitors, where Newcomb (1980) reported that film/paper
capacitors ruptured in 25% of failures.
Paper and paper-film capacitors have an insulating layer of paper
between sheets of foil. When a breakdown in a pack occurs, the arc
burns the paper and generates gas. In progressive failures, even though
the current is only somewhat higher than normal load current, the
sustained arcing can create enough gas to rupture the enclosure.

Arc Flash Hazard Mitigation in Metal-Enclosed Power Capacitor Banks and…

Before 1975, capacitors predominantly used polychlorinated biphenyls

(PCB) as the insulating liquid. Environmental regulations on PCB greatly
increased the costs of cleanup if these units ruptured (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency 40 CFR Part 761 Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
Manufacturing, Processing, Distribution in Commerce, and Use

The environmental issues and safety concerns

led utilities to tighten up capacitor fusing.
In modern film-foil capacitors, sheets of polypropylene film dielectric
separate layers of aluminum foil. When the dielectric breaks down, the
heat from the arc melts the film; the film draws back; and the aluminum
sheets weld together.

With a solid weld, a single element can fail and not create
any gas (the current is still relatively low). In film-foil
capacitors, the progressive failure mode is much less likely to
rupture the case. When all of the packs in series fail, high
current flows through the capacitor. This can generate enough
heat and gas to rupture the capacitor if it is not cleared quickly.

Figure 2 shows capacitor-rupture curves from several sources. Most

case-rupture curves are based on tests of prefailed capacitors. The
capacitors are failed by applying excessive voltage until the whole
capacitor is broken down.

The failed capacitor is then subjected to a high-current short-circuit

source of known amperage for a given time. Several such samples are
tested to develop a case-rupture curve.
Figure 2 – Capacitor rupture curves

The case-rupture curves do not represent all failure modes. Such curves
do not show the performance during the most common failures: low-
current and progressive element failures (before all elements are
Although, thankfully, rare, high-current faults more severe than those
tested for the rupture curves are possible. An arc through the insulating
dielectric fluid can generate considerable pressure. Pratt et al. (1977)
performed tests on film/foil capacitor units with arc lengths up to 3 in. (7.6
cm) in length. They chose 3 in. as the maximum realistic arc length in a
capacitor as the gap spacing between internal series section terminals.

Under these conditions, they damaged or ruptured several

units for currents and times well below the capacitor rupture
curves in Figure 2. Also consider other equipment at a
capacitor bank installation.

Capacitor switches, especially oil switches, are vulnerable to violent

failure. This type of failure has not received nearly the attention that
capacitor ruptures or distribution transformer failures have.

Figure 3 – High-voltage disconnect switch / exterior / for detuned capacitor banks

600 – 630 A, max. 170 kV

Potential transformers, current transformers, controller power-supply

transformers, and arresters: these too can fail violently. Any failure in
which an arc develops inside a small enclosure can rupture or explode.

In areas with high fault current, consider applying current-limiting fuses.

These will help protect against violent failures of capacitor units, switches,
and other accessories in areas with high fault current.

Table 1 – Number of Series Sections in Different Voltage Ratings

Unit Voltage [V]
2,400 2 2 2
7,200 4 4 4
7,620 5 5 4
13,280 8 8 7
13,800 8 8 –
14,400 8 8 8
When one element fails and shorts out, the other series sections have
higher voltage, and they draw more current. Capacitor packs are
designed with a polypropylene film layer less than one mil thick (0.001 in.
or 0.025 mm), which is designed to hold a voltage of 2000 V.

Table 2 shows the number of series sections for several capacitors as

reported by Thomas (1990).

More recent designs could have even fewer groups. One manufacturer
uses three series sections for 7.2 to 7.96 kV units and six series
sections for 12.47 to 14.4 kV units. As series sections fail, the
remaining elements must hold increasing voltage, and the capacitor
draws more current in the same proportion.
Figure 4 – Per-unit current drawn by a failing
bank depending on the portion of the bank that is
failed (assuming an infinite bus). This is also the
per-unit voltage applied on the series sections
still remaining.

Figure 4 shows the effect on the per-unit current drawn by a failing unit
and the per-unit voltage on the remaining series sections.

If a capacitor bank has multiple units on one phase and all units are
protected by one fuse (group fusing), the total bank current should be
considered. Consider a bank with two capacitor units. If one unit loses
half of its series sections, that unit will draw twice its nominal current.

The group — the two units together — will

draw 1.5 times the nominal bank load. (This
is the current that the fuse sees.)

Capacitor bank used at grid sub station 33 kV

capacitor bank used at grid sub station 33 kv electrical voltage level

References //

Electric power distribution equipment and systems by T.A. Short

(Purchase hardcopy from Amazon)
Lightning Protection of Distribution Capacitor Controllers by F. D.
Crudele, Member, IEEE, P. E. Sutherland, Senior Member, IEEE
and T. A. Short, Senior Member, IEEE

About Author

Edvard Csanyi

Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized

for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking
(<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry
fascilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming. Present on Google+