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Since the neutral point of an electrical supply system is often connected to earth ground, ground and neutral are closely related. Under certain conditions, a conductor used to connect to a system neutral is also used for grounding (earthing) of equipment and structures. Current carried on a grounding conductor can result in objectionable or dangerous voltages appearing on equipment enclosures, so the installation of grounding conductors and neutral conductors is carefully defined in electrical regulations. Where a neutral conductor is used also to connect equipment enclosures to earth, care must be taken that the neutral conductor never rises to a high voltage with respect to local ground.

Contents

Definitions

Ground or earth in a mains (AC power) electrical wiring system is a conductor that provides a low impedance path to the earth to prevent hazardous voltages from appearing on equipment (the terms "ground" (North American practice) and "earth" (most other English-speaking countries) are used synonymously here). Normally a grounding conductor does not carry current.

Neutral is a circuit conductor (that carries current in normal operation), which is connected to earth (or ground) generally at the service panel with the main disconnecting switch or breaker.

In a polyphase or three-wire (single-phase) AC system, the neutral conductor is intended to have similar voltages to each of the other circuit conductors. By this definition, a circuit must have at least three wires for one to serve as a neutral.

In the electrical trade, the conductor of a 2-wire circuit that is connected to the supply neutral point and earth ground is also referred to as the "neutral". This is formally described in the US and Canadian electrical codes as the "identified" circuit conductor. [1]

The NEC and Canadian electrical code only define neutral as the first of these. In North American use, the second definition is used in less formal language but not in official specifications. In the UK the IET definition of a neutral conductor is one connected to the supply system neutral point, which includes both these uses.

All neutral wires of the same electrical system should have the same electrical potential, because they are all connected together through the system ground. Neutral conductors are usually insulated for the same voltage as the live conductors, with interesting exceptions [2].

Circuitry

Neutral wires are usually connected together at a neutral bus (bar) within panelboards or switchboards, and are "bonded" to earth ground at either the electrical service entrance, or at transformers within the system. For electrical installations with three-wire single phase service, the neutral point of the system is at the center-tap on the secondary side of the service transformer. For larger electrical installations, such as those with polyphase service, the neutral point is usually at the common connection on the secondary side of delta/wye connected transformers. Other arrangements of polyphase transformers may result in no neutral point, and no neutral conductors.

Wiring colours

The insulation of a neutral wire is coloured blue in the EU including the UK (although legacy cabling is black in house wiring), but white or grey in the USA. For large diameter wires or "mains", the insulation of neutral conductors may be coloured black, as are also the phase or hot conductors, but are distinctively designated by applying coloured tape -- again blue in the EU (including the UK), and white or grey in the USA.

Earthing systems

The names for the following methods of earthing are those defined by IEC standards, which are used in Europe and many other regions. For a more detailed explanation, see earthing systems. Different terminology is used in North America, but the basic principles should be the same everywhere.

Different systems are used to minimize the voltage difference between neutral and local earth ground. In some systems, the neutral and earth join together at the service intake (TN-C-S); in others, they run completely separately back to the transformer neutral terminal (TN-S), and in others they are kept completely separate with the house earth having its own rod and the neutral being rodded down to earth within the distribution network (TT). In a few cases, they are combined in house wiring (TN-C), but the dangers of broken neutrals (see below) and the cost of the special cables needed to mitigate this mean that it is rarely done nowadays.

Combining neutral with earth

Voltages created in grounding (earthing) conductors by currents flowing in the supply utility neutral conductors can be troublesome. For example, special measures may be required in barns used for milking dairy cattle. Very small differential voltages, not usually perceptible to humans, may cause low milk yield, or even mastitis (inflammation of the udder). So-called "tingle voltage filters" may be required in the electrical distribution system for a milking parlour.

Connecting the neutral to the equipment case provides some protection against faults/shorts, but may produce a dangerous voltage on the case if the neutral connection is broken.

Combined neutral and ground conductors are commonly used in electricity supply companies' wiring and occasionally for fixed wiring in buildings and for some specialist applications where there is little choice like railways and trams. Since normal circuit currents in the neutral conductor can lead to objectionable or dangerous differences between local earth potential and the neutral and to protect against neutral breakages, special precautions such as frequent rodding down to earth, use of cables where the combined neutral and earth completely surrounds the phase conductor(s), and thicker than normal equipotential bonding must be considered to ensure the system is safe.

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Fixed appliances on three-wire circuits

In the USA, the cases of some ovens and clothes dryers were grounded through their neutral wires as a measure to conserve copper during the Second World War. This practice was removed from the NEC in the 1996 edition, but existing installations may still allow the case of such appliances to be connected to the neutral conductor for grounding. Note that the NEC may be amended by local regulations in each state and city. This practice arose from the three wire system used to supply both 120 volt and 240 volt loads. Because ovens and dryers have components that use both 120 and 240 volts there is often some current on the neutral wire. This differs from the protective grounding wire, which only carries current under fault conditions. Using the neutral conductor for grounding the equipment enclosure was considered safe since the devices were permanently wired to the supply and so the neutral was unlikely to be broken without also breaking both supply conductors. Also, the unbalanced current due to lamps and small motors in the appliance was small compared to the rating of the conductors and therefore unlikely to cause a large voltage drop in the neutral conductor.

Portable appliances

In North American practice small portable equipment connected by a cord set may have only two conductors in the attachment plug. A polarised plug is used to maintain the identity of the neutral conductor into the appliance but it is never used as a chassis/case ground. The small cords to lamps, etc., often have one or more ridges or embedded strings to identify the neutral conductor, or may be identified by color. Portable applicances never rely on using the neutral conductor for case grounding.

In places where the design of the plug and socket cannot ensure that a system neutral conductor is connected to particular terminals of the device, portable appliances must be designed as if both poles of each circuit may reach full voltage with respect to ground.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Article 100 - Definitions, NFPA 70 National Electrical Code, 2005 Edition, International Electrical Code Series.
  2. ^ For example, in North American practice an overhead service-entrance cable has two insulated conductors which are wrapped around and supported by the bare neutral conductor

References

[1] Rick Gilmour et al., editor, Canadian Electrical Code Part I, Nineteenth Edition, C22.1-02 Safety Standard for Electrical Installations, Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, Ontario Canada (2002) ISBN 1-55324-690-X

[2] NFPA 70, National Electrical Code 2002, National Fire Protection Association, Inc., Quincy, Massachusetts USA, (2002). no ISBN

[3] IEE Wiring Regulations Regulations for Electrical Installations Fifteenth Edition 1981, The Institution of Electrical Engineers, (1981) Hitchin, Herts. United Kingdom

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