Earthing Systems

Earthing System in Electrical Power Supply System

Created by: Glen Zhu | Updated Date: December 02nd, 2022

TN-C, TN-S, TN-C-S, TT and IT Earthing System

The basic power supply systems used in the power supply for construction projects is three-phase three-wire and three-phase four-wire systems etc, but the connotation of these terms is not very strict. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has made uniform provisions for this, and it is called TT system, TN system, and IT system. Which TN system is divided into TN-C, TN-S, and TN-C-S system. The following is a brief introduction to various power supply systems.

Power supply system

According to the various protection methods and terminologies defined by IEC, low-voltage power distribution systems are divided into three types according to the different grounding methods, namely TT, TN, and IT systems, and are described as follows.

TN-C power supply system

The TN-C mode power supply system uses the working neutral line as the zero-crossing protection line, which can be called the protection neutral line and can be represented by PEN.

TN-C-S power supply system

For the temporary power supply of the TN-C-S system, if the front part is powered by the TN-C method, and the construction code specifies that the construction site must use the TN-S power supply system, the total distribution box can be divided at the rear part of the system. Out of the PE line, the features of the TN-C-S system are as follows.

1) Working neutral line N is connected with the special protection line PE. When the unbalanced current of the line is large, the zero protection of the electrical equipment is affected by the neutral line potential. The TN-C-S system can reduce the voltage of the motor housing to the ground, but it cannot completely eliminate this voltage. The magnitude of this voltage depends on the load imbalance of the wiring and the length of this line. The more unbalanced the load and the longer the wiring, the greater the voltage offset of the device housing to ground. Therefore, it is required that the load unbalance current should not be too large, and that the PE line should be grounded repeatedly.

2) The PE line cannot enter the leakage protector under any circumstances, because the leakage protector at the end of the line will cause the front leakage protector to trip and cause a large-scale power failure.

3) In addition to the PE line must be connected to the N line in the general box, the N line and the PE line must not be connected in other compartments. No switches and fuses shall be installed on the PE line, and no earth shall be used as the PE. line.

Through the above analysis, the TN-C-S power supply system is temporarily modified on the TN-C system. When the three-phase power transformer is in good working ground condition and the three-phase load is relatively balanced, the effect of the TN-C-S system in construction electricity use is still feasible. However, in the case of unbalanced three-phase loads and a dedicated power transformer on the construction site, the TN-S power supply system must be used.

TN-S power supply system

The TN-S mode power supply system is a power supply system that strictly separates the working neutral N from the dedicated protection line PE. It is called the TN-S power supply system. The characteristics of the TN-S power supply system are as follows.

1) When the system is running normally, there is no current on the dedicated protection line, but there is unbalanced current on the working zero line. There is no voltage on the PE line to the ground, so the zero protection of the metal shell of the electrical equipment is connected to the special protection line PE, which is safe and reliable.

2) The working neutral line is only used as a single-phase lighting load circuit.

3) The special protection line PE is not allowed to break the line, nor can it enter the leakage switch.

4) If the earth leakage protector is used on L line, the working zero line must not be grounded repeatedly, and the PE line has repeated grounding, but it does not pass through the earth leakage protector, so the leakage protector can also be installed on the TN-S system power supply L line.

5) The TN-S power supply system is safe and reliable, suitable for low voltage power supply systems such as industrial and civil buildings. The TN-S power supply system must be used before the construction works begin.

TT power supply system

The TT method refers to a protective system that directly grounds the metal housing of an electrical device, which is called a protective earthing system, also called a TT system. The first symbol T indicates that the neutral point of the power system is directly grounded; the second symbol T indicates that the conductive part of the load device that is not exposed to the live body is directly connected to the ground, regardless of how the system is grounded. All grounding of the load in the TT system is called protective grounding. The characteristics of this power supply system are as follows.

1) When the metal shell of the electrical equipment is charged (the phase line touches the shell or the equipment insulation is damaged and leaks), the grounding protection can greatly reduce the risk of electric shock. However, low-voltage circuit breakers (automatic switches) do not necessarily trip, causing the earth-leakage voltage of the leakage device to be higher than the safe voltage, which is a dangerous voltage.

2) When the leakage current is relatively small, even a fuse may not be able to blow. Therefore, a leakage protector is also required for protection. Therefore, the TT system is difficult to popularize.

3) The grounding device of the TT system consumes a lot of steel, and it is difficult to recycle, time, and materials.

At present, some construction units use the TT system. When the construction unit borrows its power supply for temporary use of electricity, a special protection line is used to reduce the amount of steel used for the grounding device.

Separate the newly added special protection line PE line from the working neutral N, which is characterized by:

1) There is no electrical connection between the common grounding line and the working neutral line;

2) In the normal operation, the working zero line can have current, and the special protection line does not have current;

3) The TT system is suitable for places where ground protection is very scattered.

TN power supply system

TN mode power supply system This type of power supply system is a protection system that connects the metal housing of the electrical equipment with the working neutral wire. It is called the neutral protection system and it is represented by TN. Its features are as follows.

1) Once the device is energized, the zero-crossing protection system can increase the leakage current to a short-circuit current. This current is 5.3 times larger than that of the TT system. Actually, it is a single-phase short-circuit fault and the fuse of the fuse will blow. The trip unit of the low-voltage circuit breaker will immediately trip and trip, making the faulty device powered off and safer.

2) The TN system saves material and man-hours and is widely used in many countries and countries in China. It shows that the TT system has many advantages. In TN mode power supply system, it is divided into TN-C and TN-S according to whether the protection zero line is separated from the working neutral line.

Working principle:

In the TN system, the exposed conductive parts of all electrical equipment are connected to the protective line and connected to the ground point of the power supply. This ground point is usually the neutral point of the power distribution system. The power system of the TN system has one point that is directly grounded. The exposed electrically conductive part of the electrical device is connected to this point through a protective conductor. The TN system is usually a neutral-grounded three-phase grid system.

Its characteristic is that the exposed conductive part of the electrical equipment is directly connected to the grounding point of the system. When a short circuit occurs, the short-circuit current is a closed loop formed by the metal wire. A metallic single-phase short circuit is formed, resulting in a sufficiently large short-circuit current to enable the protective device to act reliably to remove the fault. If the working neutral line (N) is repeatedly grounded, when the case is short-circuited, part of the current may be diverted to the repeated grounding point, which may cause the protection device to fail to operate reliably or to avoid the failure, thereby expanding the fault.

In the TN system, that is, the three-phase five-wire system, the N-line and the PE-line are separately laid and insulated from each other, and the PE line is connected to the housing of the electrical device instead of the N-line. Therefore, the most important thing we care about is the potential of the PE wire, not the potential of the N wire, so repeated grounding in a TN-S system is not a repeated grounding of the N wire. If the PE line and N line are grounded together, because the PE line and N line are connected at the repeated grounding point, the line between the repeated grounding point and the working ground point of the distribution transformer has no difference between the PE line and the N line.

The original line is the N line. The neutral current that is assumed is shared by the N line and the PE line, and part of the current is shunted through the repeated grounding point. Because it can be considered that there is no PE line on the front side of the repeated grounding point, only the PEN line consisting of the original PE line and N line in parallel, the advantages of the original TN-S system will be lost, so the PE line and N line cannot be Common grounding. Due to the above reasons, it is clearly stated in the relevant regulations that the neutral line (ie N line) should not be grounded repeatedly except for the neutral point of the power supply.

IT system

IT mode power supply system I indicates that the power supply side has no working ground, or is grounded at high impedance. The second letter T indicates that the load side electrical equipment is grounded.

The IT mode power supply system has high reliability and good security when the power supply distance is not long. It is generally used in places where no blackouts are permitted, or places where strict continuous power supply is required, such as electric power steelmaking, operating rooms in large hospitals, and underground mines. The power supply conditions in underground mines are relatively poor and the cables are susceptible to moisture. Using the IT-powered system, even if the neutral point of the power supply is not grounded, once the device is leaking, the relative ground leakage current is still small and will not damage the balance of the power supply voltage.

Therefore, it is safer than the neutral grounding system of the power supply. However, if the power supply is used for a long distance, the distributed capacitance of the power supply line to the earth cannot be ignored. When a short-circuit fault or leakage of the load causes the device case to become live, the leakage current will form a path through the earth and the protection device will not necessarily act. This is dangerous. Only when the power supply distance is not too long is it safer. This type of power supply is rare on the construction site.

The meaning of the letters I, T, N, C, S

1) In the symbol of the power supply method stipulated by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the first letter represents the relationship between the power (power) system and the ground. For example, T indicates that the neutral point is directly grounded; I indicates that the power supply is isolated from the ground or that one point of the power supply is connected to the ground via a high impedance (for example, 1000 Ω;) (I is the first letter of the French word Isolation of the word “isolation”).

2) The second letter indicates the electrically conductive device exposed to the ground. For example, T means that the device shell is grounded. It has no direct relation with any other grounding point in the system. N means that the load is protected by zero.

3) The third letter indicates the combination of working zero and protective line. For example, C indicates that the working neutral line and the protection line are one, such as TN-C; S indicates that the working neutral line and the protection line are strictly separated, so the PE line is called a dedicated protection line, such as TN-S.

In an electrical network, an earthing system is a safety measure that protects human life and electrical equipment.  As earthing systems differ from country to country, it is important to have a good understanding of the different types of earthing systems as the global PV installed capacity continues to increase. This article aims at exploring the different earthing systems as per the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard and their impact on the earthing system design for Grid-Connected PV systems.

Purpose of Earthing

Earthing systems provide safety functions by supplying the electrical installation with a low impedance path for any faults in the electrical network. Earthing also acts as a reference point for the electrical source and safety devices to correctly work.

Earthing of electrical equipment is typically achieved by inserting an electrode into a solid mass of earth and connecting this electrode to the equipment using a conductor. There are two assumptions that can be made about any earthing system:

1) Earth potentials act as a static reference (i.e. zero volts) for connected systems. As such, any conductor which is connected to the earthing electrode will also possess that reference potential.

2) Earthing conductors and the earth stake provide a low-resistance path to ground.

Protective Earthing

Protective earthing is the installation of earthing conductors arranged to reduce the likelihood of injury from electrical fault within the system. In the event of a fault, the non-current carrying metal parts of the system such as frames, fencing and enclosures etc. can achieve high voltage with respect to earth if they are not earthed. If a person makes contact with the equipment under such conditions, they will receive an electric shock.

If the metallic parts are connected to the protective earth, the fault current will flow through the earth conductor and be sensed by safety devices, which then safely isolate the circuit.

Protective earthing can be achieved by:

  • Installing a protective earthing system where conductive parts are connected to the earthed neutral of the distribution system via conductors.
  • Installing overcurrent or earth leakage current protective devices which operate to disconnect the affected part of the installation within specified time and touch voltage limits.

The protective earthing conductor should be able to carry the prospective fault current for a duration which is equal to or greater than the operating time of the associated protective device.

Functional Earthing

In functional earthing, any of the live parts of the equipment (either ‘+’ or ‘-‘) may be connected to the earthing system for the purpose of providing a reference point to enable correct operation. The conductors are not designed to withstand fault currents. In accordance with AS/NZS5033:2014, functional earthing is only permitted when there exists a simple separation between the DC and AC sides (i.e. a transformer) within the inverter.

Types of earthing configuration

Earthing configurations can be arranged differently at the supply and load side while achieving the same overall outcome. The international standard IEC 60364 (Electrical Installations for Buildings) identifies three families of earthing, defined using a two-letter identifier of the form ‘XY’. In the context of AC systems, ‘X’ defines the configuration of neutral and earth conductors on the supply side of the system (i.e. generator/transformer), and ‘Y’ defines the neutral/earth configuration on the system’s load side (i.e. the main switchboard and connected loads). ‘X’ and ‘Y’ can each take the following values:

T – Earth (from French ‘Terre’)

N – Neutral

I – Isolated

And subsets of these configurations can be defined using the values:

S – Separate

C – Combined

Using these, the three earthing families defined in IEC 60364 are TN, where the electrical supply is earthed and the customer loads are earthed via neutral, TT, where the electrical supply and customer loads are separately earthed, and IT, where only the customer loads are earthed.

TN earthing system

A single point on the source side (usually the neutral reference point in a star-connected three-phase system) is directly connected to earth. Any electrical equipment connected to the system is earthed via the same connection point on the source side. These type of earthing systems require earth electrodes at regular intervals throughout the installation.

The TN family has three subsets, which vary by method of segregation/combination of earth and neutral conductors.

TN-S: TN-S describes an arrangement where separate conductors for Protective Earth (PE) and Neutral are run to consumer loads from a site’s power supply (i.e. generator or transformer). The PE and N conductors are separated in nearly all parts of the system and are only connected together at the supply itself. This type of earthing is typically used for large consumers who have one or more HV/LV transformers dedicated to their installation, which are installed adjacent to or within the customer’s premises.

Figure 1 – TN-S System

TN-C: TN-C describes an arrangement where a combined Protective Earth-Neutral (PEN) is connected to the earth at the source. This type of earthing is not commonly used in Australia due to the risks associated with fire in hazardous environments and due to the presence of harmonic currents making it unsuitable for electronic equipment. In addition, as per IEC 60364-4-41 – (Protection for safety- Protection against electric shock), an RCD cannot be used in a TN-C system.

Figure 2 – TN-C System

TN-C-S: TN-C-S denotes a setup where the supply side of the system uses a combined PEN conductor for earthing, and the load side of the system uses a separate conductor for PE and N. This type of earthing is used in distribution systems in both Australia and New Zealand and is frequently referred to as multiple earth-neutral (MEN). For a LV customer, a TN-C system is installed between the site transformer and the premises, (the neutral is earthed multiple times along this segment), and a TN-S system is used inside the property itself (from the Main Switchboard downstream). When considering the system as a whole, it is treated as TN-C-S.

Figure 3 – TN-C-S System

In addition, as per IEC 60364-4-41 – (Protection for safety- Protection against electric shock), where an RCD is used in a TN-C-S system, a PEN conductor cannot be used on the load side. The connection of the protective conductor to the PEN conductor has to be made on the source side of the RCD.

TT earthing system

With a TT configuration, consumers employ their own earth connection within the premises, which is independent of any earth connection on the source side. This type of earthing is typically used in situations where a distribution network service provider (DNSP) cannot guarantee a low-voltage connection back to the power supply. TT earthing was common in Australia prior to 1980 and is still used in some parts of the country.

With the TT earthing systems, an RCD is needed on all AC power circuits for suitable protection.

As per IEC 60364-4-41, all the exposed conductive parts that are collectively protected by the same protective device shall be connected by the protective conductors to an earth electrode common to all those parts.

Figure 4 – TT System

IT earthing system

In an IT earthing arrangement, there is either no earthing at the supply, or it is done via a high impedance connection. This type of earthing is not used for distribution networks but is frequently used in substations and for independent generator-supplied systems. These systems are able to offer good continuity of supply during operation.

Figure 5 – IT System

Implications for PV system earthing

The type of earthing system employed in any country will dictate the kind of earthing system design required for Grid-Connected PV systems; PV systems are treated as a generator (or a source circuit) and need to be earthed as such.

For example, countries employing the use of a TT type earthing arrangement will require a separate earthing pit for both DC and AC sides due to the earthing arrangement. In comparison, in a country where TN-C-S type earthing arrangement is used, simply connecting the PV system to the main earthing bar in the switchboard is enough to meet the requirements of the earthing system.

Various earthing systems exist throughout the world and a good understanding of the different earthing configurations ensures PV systems are earthed appropriately.

How to choose surge protective devices used for earthing systems in low-voltage electrical power supply systems (IEC/EN System)

Class of SPD

In the IEC system, SPDs are tested to various Test Classes, intended to assess and assure their suitability for use in different locations and circumstances. Strictly speaking, the Class refers to the type of test, not to the SPD. However, in common usage, SPDs are referred to by their Class, for example, a Class I SPD is an SPD that has been tested to Class I requirements (of a specified severity), and so on.

The Test Classes are as follows:

Class I / Type 1 – Tested with simulated partial conducted lightning current impulses. These SPDs would be used at points of high exposure, such as where the line close to the SPD might be directly struck by lightning, or at the point of entry to a building fitted with a direct strike Lightning Protection System (LPS).

Class II / Type 2 – Tested with shorter duration current impulses. These SPDs would be installed where the surge currents are expected to be less. This could be at the main power entry point of a building in a non-exposed location (surrounded by taller buildings, for example), or at sub-panels within the building.

Class III / Type 3 – Tested with voltage impulses. These SPDs would be installed at equipment to be protected, and are only expected to handle residual voltages surges that “got past” upstream Class I or II SPDs, and the associated small surge currents. Often, for convenience, Class II protectors are used at these locations as well.

In the illustration above, the type of SPDs installed at the Main Distribution Board, Distribution Boards, and the Equipment to be protected would be as follows:

Building Situation MDB DB Equipment
Highly exposed, of fitted with LPS Class I / Type 1 Class II / Type 2 Class III / Type 3
Less exposed, no LPS Class II / Type 2 Class II / Type 2 Class III / Type 3

There are a number of IEC/EN standards that work together to provide a system of classifying the power system, the over-voltages that can occur at different points in the system, the performance and application of SPDs, and the relative susceptibility of end use equipment to lightning surges. The most directly relevant are the IEC/EN 62305 series standards dealing with both lightning protection and surge protection, and the IEC/EN 61643 series standards covering testing, selection, and application of SPDs.

Fitting SPDs at all three locations may not be necessary, depending on the building size, and wiring length. Generally, SPDs are always fitted at the point of entry, and in smaller equipment rooms may just be, additionally, at the equipment. In larger buildings, spread over multiple floors or large areas, SPDs would usually be provided at the distribution boards, and additionally at sensitive or critical equipment.

SPDs are primarily rated according to how large a surge current magnitude they can handle, and how well they limit the voltage while conducting that surge current. These parameters are

Test Class Parameter Description
Class I / Type 1 Impulse Current, Iimp This current impulse has a 10/350μs waveform
Class II / Type 2 Nominal Discharge Current, In This current impulse has a waveform of 8/20 μs, and is nominal because the SPD has to successfully handle a sequence of 15 of these impulses.
Maximum Discharge Current, Imax This current impulse has a waveform of 8/20 μs, and is the maximum 8/20 μs impulse the SPD can handle. It is an optional parameter.
Class III / Type 3 Open circuit voltage of the combination wave generator, Uoc
All Classes Voltage Protection Level, Up

It is possible to test one SPD type at more than one Test Class. SPDs are marked and specified with the parameters they have been successfully tested to.

SPD Classes and Categories

SPD Selection and Application of Earthing Systems (IEC/EN System)

Having determined the Class of SPD required, the correct voltage and configuration needs to be determined. The standard IEC 60364-1 details the following system configurations. In the descriptions that follow, Un is used for the nominal systems voltage, and Uc is used for the maximum continuous operating voltage (this is a parameter of an SPD).

TNC Earthing System

In this system, the neutral and protective earth conductor are combined in a single conductor throughout the system. This conductor is referred to as a PEN, a “Protective Earth & Neutral”. All exposed conductive equipment parts are connected to the PEN.

SPDs installed Description Example product
Phase to PEN (“3+0”) At least 1.1 x Un SLP40-275/3S

For example, on a 230 V Ph-N system, Ph-PEN protection should have a Uc rating of at least 255 V. Generally an SPD with a Uc rating of at least 275 V would be selected for 220 to 240 V systems. Often, to allow for power supply voltage fluctuations, a Uc of at least 1.3 x Un is recommended, such as a Uc of 300 V for a 230 V system, or LSP’s unique trigger release technology would be chosen.

TNS Earthing System

In this system, a separate neutral and protective earth conductor are run throughout. The Protective Earth (PE) conductor is normally a separate conductor, but can also be the metallic sheath of the power cable. All exposed conductive equipment parts are connected to the PE conductor.

SPDs installed Description Example product
Phase to PE (“4+0”), or At least 1.1 x Un SLP40-275/4S
Phase-N, and N-PE (“3+1”) SLP40-275/3S+1

For example, on a 230 V Ph-N system, Ph-PE (or Ph-N) protection should have a Uc rating of at least 255 V. Generally an SPD with a Uc rating of at least 275 V would be selected for 220 to 240 V systems. Often, to allow for power supply voltage fluctuations, a Uc of at least 1.3 x Uo is recommended, such as a Uc of 300 V for a 230 V system, or LSP’s unique trigger release technology would be chosen.

TNCS Earthing system

In this system, the supply is configured as per TNC, while the downstream installation is configured as per TNS. The combined PEN conductor typically occurs between the substation and the entry point into the building, and earth and neutral are separated in the Main Distribution Board. This system is also known as Protective Multiple Earthing (PME) or Multiple Earthed Neutral (MEN). The supply PEN conductor is earthed at a number of points throughout the network and generally as close to the consumer’s point-of-entry as possible.

SPDs installed Description Example product
MDB: Phase to PEN (“3+0”) At least 1.1 x Un FLP12,5-275/3S
DB: Phase to PEN (“4+0”), or FLP12,5-275/4S
Phase-N, and N-PE (“3+1”) FLP12,5-275/3S+1

For example, on a 230 V Ph-N system, Ph-PE (or Ph-N) protection should have a Uc rating of at least 255 V. Generally an SPD with a Uc rating of at least 275 V would be selected for 220 to 240 V systems. Often, to allow for power supply voltage fluctuations, a Uc of at least 1.3 x Un is recommended, such as a Uc of 300 V for a 230 V system, or LSP’s unique trigger release technology would be chosen.

TT Earthing System

A system having one point of the source of energy earthed and the exposed conductive parts of the installation connected to independent earthed electrodes. The incoming supply neutral is not earthed at the main distribution board.

SPDs installed Description Example product
Phase to N, N-PE (“3+1”) At least 1.1 x Un FLP12,5-275/3S+1, SLP40-275/3S+1

For example, on a 230 V Ph-N system, Ph-N protection should have a Uc rating of at least 255 V. Generally an SPD with a Uc rating of at least 275 V would be selected for 220 to 240 V systems. Often, to allow for power supply voltage fluctuations, a Uc of at least 1.3 x Un is recommended, such as a Uc of 300 V for a 230V system, or LSP’s unique trigger release technology would be chosen.

In the TT system, in order for overcurrent protective devices (fuses and circuit breakers) to operate in an intended manner, it is important that SPDs must not connect directly from phase to protective ground, but from phase to neutral and neutral to ground. Therefore, the Neutral-to-PE SPD carries both the PE to neutral impulse current and the PE to phase impulse currents. This SPD is recommended to be a GDT (Gas Discharge Tube) due to its generally superior energy handling characteristics.

TT Earthing System

A system having no direct connection between live parts and earth, but all exposed conductive parts of the installation being connected to independent earthed electrodes. The source is either floating or earthed through a high impedance (to limit fault currents). This means that during a Phase to Earth fault, the systems continue to operate. This is detected, and maintenance efforts commenced to rectify the fault. However, during this time, the Phase to Earth voltage rises to the usual Line to Line voltage, and installed SPDs must withstand this during this time. Most installed IT systems do not utilize a neutral conductor – equipment is powered from line to line. The IT system is typically used in older installations in countries such as Norway and France. It is also used in special applications, such as intensive care wards of hospitals and special industrial applications.

SPDs installed Description Example product
Phase to PEN (“3+0”) At least 1.73 x Un SLP40-275/3S
SPDs installed Description Example product
Phase to PEN (“4+0”) At least 1.73 x Un FLP12,5-275/4S, SLP40-275/4S

For example, on a 230 V Ph-N system, Ph-PE and N-PE protection should have a Uc rating of 440 V (allowing for the L-L voltage and a 10% tolerance). Often an additional safety margin is applied, to allow for instabilities that can occur in the ungrounded IT system, such as a Uc of 480 V.

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