Ground and neutral

 

 

As 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.
Neutral is a circuit conductor that normally completes the circuit back to the source. Neutral is usually connected to ground (earth) at the main electrical panel, street drop, or meter, and also at the final step-down transformer of the supply. That is for simple single panel installations; for multiple panels the situation is more complex. In a polyphase (usually three-phase) AC system, the neutral conductor is intended to have similar voltages to each of the other circuit conductors, but may carry very little current if the phases are balanced.
The IEC standard (IEC 60364) codifies methods of installing neutral and ground conductors in a building, where these earthing systems are designated with letter symbols. The letter symbols are common in countries using IEC standards, but North American practices rarely refer to the IEC symbols. The differences are that the conductors may be separate over their entire run from equipment to earth ground, or may be combined over all or part of their length. Different systems are used to minimize the voltage difference between neutral and local earth ground. Current flowing in a grounding conductor will produce a voltage drop along the conductor, and grounding systems seek to ensure this voltage does not reach unsafe levels.
In the TN-C system, a common conductor provides both the neutral and protective grounding. The neutral conductor is connected to earth ground at the point of supply, and equipment cases are connected to the neutral. The danger exists that a broken neutral connection will allow all the equipment cases to rise to a dangerous voltage if any leakage or insulation fault exists in any equipment. This can be mitigated with special cables but the cost is then higher.
This practice arose from the three-wire system used to supply both 120 volt and 240 volt loads. Because these listed appliances often have components that use either 120, or 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 appliances was small compared to the rating of the conductors and therefore unlikely to cause a large voltage drop in the neutral conductor.
Another specialized distribution system was formerly specified in patient care areas of hospitals. An isolated power system was furnished, from a special isolation transformer, with the intention of minimizing any leakage current that could pass through equipment directly connected to a patient (for example, an electrocardiograph for monitoring the heart). The neutral of the circuit was not connected to ground. The leakage current was due to the distributed capacitance of the wiring and capacitance of the supply transformer. Such distribution systems were monitored by permanently installed instruments to give an alarm when high leakage current was detected.
A system could be made entirely ungrounded. In this case a fault between one phase and ground would not cause any significant current. In fact, this is not a good scheme. Commonly the neutral is grounded (earthed) through a bond between the neutral bar and the earth bar. It is common on larger systems to monitor any current flowing through the neutral-to-earth link and use this as the basis for neutral fault protection.
In split-phase wiring, for example a duplex receptacle in a North American kitchen, devices may be connected with a cable that has three conductors, in addition to ground. The three conductors are usually coloured red, black, and white. The white serves as a common neutral, while the red and black each feed, separately, the top and bottom hot sides of the receptacle. Typically such receptacles are supplied from two circuit breakers in which the handles of two poles are tied together for a common trip. If two large appliances are used at once, current passes through both and the neutral only carries the difference in current. The advantage is that only three wires are required to serve these loads, instead of four. If one kitchen appliance overloads the circuit, the other side of the duplex receptacle will be shut off as well. This is called a multiwire branch circuit. Common trip is required when the connected load uses more than one phase simultaneously. The common trip prevents overloading of the shared neutral if one device draws more than rated current.