There are three basic reasons for grounding a power system: personal safety, protective device operation, and noise control. All three of these reasons will be addressed.

Personal Safety
The most important reason for grounding a device on a power system is personal safety. The safety ground, as it is sometimes called, is provided to reduce or eliminate the chance of a high touch potential if a fault occurs in a piece of electrical equipment.

Touch potential is defined as the voltage potential between any two conducting materials that can be touched simultaneously by an individual or animal. Figure 29.2 illustrates a dangerous touch potential situation.  

The ‘‘hot’’ conductor in the piece of equipment has come in contact with the case of the equipment. Under normal conditions, with the safety ground intact, the protective device would operate when this condition occurred.

However, in Fig. 29.2, the safety ground is missing. This allows the case of the equipment to float above ground since the case of the equipment is not grounded through its base. In other words, the voltage potential between the equipment case and ground is the same as the voltage potential between the hot leg and ground. If the operator would come in contact with the case and ground (the floor), serious injury could result.

In recent years, manufacturers of hand held equipment, drills, saws, hair dryers, etc. have developed double insulated equipment. This equipment generally does not have a safety ground. However, there is never any conducting material for the operator to contact and therefore there is no touch potential hazard. If the equipment becomes faulted, the case or housing of the equipment is not energized.

Protective Device Operation
As mentioned in the previous section, there must be a path for fault current to return to the source if protective devices are to operate during fault conditions. The National Electric Code (NEC) requires that an effective grounding path must be mechanically and electrically continuous (NEC 250–51), have the capacity to carry any fault currents imposed on it without damage (NEC 250–75).

The NEC also states that the ground path must have sufficiently low impedance to limit the voltage and facilitate protective device operation. Finally, the earth cannot serve as the equipment-grounding path (NEC-250–91(c)).

The formula to determine the maximum circuit impedance for the grounding path is:
Ground Path Impedance = Maximum Voltage to Ground (Overcurrent Protection Rating x 5)

Noise Control
Noise control is the third main reason for grounding. Noise is defined as unwanted voltages and currents on a grounding system. This includes signals from all sources whether it is radiated or conducted.

As stated, the primary reason for grounding is safety and is regulated by the NEC and local codes. Any changes to the grounding system to improve performance or eliminate noise control must be in addition to the minimum NEC requirements.

When potential differences occur between different grounding systems, insulation can be stressed and circulating currents can be created in low voltage cables (e.g., communications cables). In today’s electrical environment, buildings that are separated by large physical distances are typically tied together via a communication circuit.

An example of this would be a college campus that may cover several square miles. Each building has its own grounding system. If these grounding systems are not tied together, a potential difference on the grounding circuit for the communication cable can occur.

The idea behind grounding for noise control is to create an equipotential grounding system, which in turn limits or even eliminates the potential differences between the grounding systems. If the there is an equipotential grounding system and currents are injected into the ground system, the potential of the whole grounding system will rise and fall and potential differences will not occur.

Supplemental conductors, ground reference grids, and ground plates can all be used to improve the performance of the system as it relates to power quality. Optically isolated communications can also improve the performance of the system.

By using the opto-isolators, connecting the communications to different ground planes is avoided. All improvements to the grounding system must be done in addition to the requirements for safety.

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