Instrument Transformer Safety

Potential transformers (PTs or VTs) tend to behave as voltage sources to the voltage-sensing instruments they drive: the signal output by a PT is supposed to be a proportional representation of the power system’s voltage. Conversely, current transformers (CTs) tend to behave as current sources to the current-sensing instruments they drive: the signal output by a CT is supposed to be a proportional representation of the power system’s current. The following schematic diagrams show how PTs and CTs should behave when sourcing their respective instruments:

In keeping with this principle of PTs as voltage sources and CTs as current sources, a PT’s secondary winding should never be short-circuited and a CT’s secondary winding should never be open-circuited! Short-circuiting a PT’s secondary winding may result in a dangerous amount of current developing in the circuit because the PT will attempt to maintain a substantial voltage across a very low resistance. Open-circuiting a CT’s secondary winding may result in a dangerous amount of voltage developing between the secondary terminals because the CT will attempt to drive a substantial current through a very high resistance.

This is why you will never see fuses in the secondary circuit of a current transformer. Such a fuse, when blown open, would pose a greater hazard to life and property than a closed circuit with any amount of current the CT could muster.

While the recommendation to never short-circuit the output of a PT makes perfect sense to any student of electricity or electronics who has been drilled never to short-circuit a battery or a laboratory power supply, the recommendation to never open -circuit a powered CT often requires some explanation. Since CTs transform current, their output current value is naturally limited to a fixed ratio of the power conductor’s line current. That is to say, short-circuiting the secondary winding of a CT will not result in more current output by that CT than what it would output to any normal current-sensing instrument! In fact, a CT encounters minimum “burden” when powering a short-circuit because it doesn’t have to output any substantial voltage to maintain that amount of secondary current. It is only when a CT is forced to output current through a substantial impedance that it must “work hard” (i.e. output more power) by generating a substantial secondary voltage along with a secondary current.

The latent danger of a CT is underscored by an examination of its primary-to-secondary turns ratio. A single conductor passed through the aperture of a current transformer acts as a winding with one turn, while the multiple turns of wire wrapped around the toroidal core of a current transformer provides the ratio necessary to step down current from the power line to the receiving instrument. However, as every student of transformers knows, while a secondary winding possessing more turns of wire than the primary steps current down, that same transformer conversely will step voltage up. This means an open-circuited CT behaves as a voltage step-up transformer. Given the fact that the power line being measured usually has a dangerously high voltage to begin with, the prospect of an instrument transformer stepping that voltage up even higher is sobering indeed. In fact, the only way to ensure a CT will not output high voltage when powered by line current is to keep its secondary winding loaded with a low impedance.

It is also imperative that all instrument transformer secondary windings be solidly grounded to prevent dangerously high voltages from developing at the instrument terminals via capacitive coupling with the power conductors. Grounding should be done at only one point in each instrument transformer circuit to prevent ground loops from forming and potentially causing measurement errors. The preferable location of this grounding is at the first point of use, i.e. the instrument or panel-mounted terminal block where the instrument transformer’s secondary wires land. If any test switches exist between the instrument transformer and the receiving instrument, the ground connection must be made in such a way that opening the test switch does not leave the transformer’s secondary winding floating (ungrounded).

Article from Lessons In Industrial Instrumentation by Tony R. Kuphaldt – under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

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