Electricity: How it Works

Electricity How It Works - This is a very common question. It can best be explained by stating this way: Single-phase electricity is what you have in your house. You generally talk about household electrical service as single-phase, 120-volt AC service. If you use an oscilloscope and look at the power found at a normal wall-plate outlet in your house, what you will find is that the power at the wall plate looks like a sine wave, and that wave oscillates between -170 volts and 170 volts (the peaks are indeed at 170 volts; it is the effective (rms) voltage that is 120 volts). The rate of oscillation for the sine wave is 60 cycles per second. Oscillating power like this is generally referred to as AC, or alternating current. The alternative to AC is DC, or direct current. Batteries produce DC: A steady stream of electrons flows in one direction only, from the negative to the positive terminal of the battery.

AC has at least three advantages over DC in a power distribution grid:

1. Large electricity generators happen to generate AC naturally, so conversion to DC would involve an extra step.
2. Electrical Transformers must have alternating current to operate, and we will see that the power distribution grid depends on transformers.
3. It is easy to convert AC to DC but expensive to convert DC to AC, so if you were going to pick one or the other AC would be the better choice.

The power plant, therefore, produces AC.

Electricity How it Works in The Power Plant: Three-phase Power

The power plant produces three different phases of AC power simultaneously, and the three phases are offset 120 degrees from each other. There are four wires coming out of every power plant: the three phases plus a neutral or ground common to all three. If you were to look at the three phases on a graph, they would look like this relative to ground:


Electricity How It Works - There is nothing magical about three-phase power. It is simply three single phases synchronized and offset by 120 degrees.

Why three phases? Why not one or two or four? In 1-phase and 2-phase power, there are 120 moments per second when a sine wave is crossing zero volts. In 3-phase power, at any given moment one of the three phases is nearing a peak. High-power 3-phase motors (used in industrial applications) and things like 3-phase welding equipment therefore have even power output. Four phases would not significantly improve things but would add a fourth wire, so 3-phase is the natural settling point.

And what about this "ground," as mentioned above? The power company essentially uses the earth as one of the wires in the power system. The earth is a pretty good conductor and it is huge, so it makes a good return path for electrons. (Car manufacturers do something similar; they use the metal body of the car as one of the wires in the car's electrical system and attach the negative pole of the battery to the car's body.) "Ground" in the power distribution grid is literally "the ground" that's all around you when you are walking outside. It is the dirt, rocks, groundwater, etc., of the earth.

Three-phase voltage, frequency and number of wires


Although single-phase power is more prevalent today, three phase is still chosen as the power of choice for many different types of applications. Generators at power stations supply three-phase electricity. This is a way of supplying three times as much electricity along three wires as can be supplied through two, without having to increase the thickness of the wires. It is usually used in industry to drive motors and other devices.

three phase electricity is by its very nature a much smoother form of electricity than single-phase or two-phase power. It is this more consistent electrical power that allows machines to run more efficiently and last many years longer than their relative machines running on the other phases. Some applications are able to work with three-phase power in ways that would not work on single phase at all.

Three phase is a common method of electric power transmission. It is a type of polyphase system used to power motors and many other devices.

This article deals with where, how and why "three phase" is used. For information on the basic mathematics and principles of three phase see three-phase. For information on testing three phase equipment (kit) please see three-phase testing.

Three phase systems may or may not have a neutral wire. A neutral wire allows the three phase system to use a higher voltage while still supporting lower voltage single phase appliances. In high voltage distribution situations it is common not to have a neutral wire as the loads can simply be connected between phases (phase-phase connection).

Three phase has properties that make it very desirable in electric power systems. Firstly the phase currents tend to cancel one another (summing to zero in the case of a linear balanced load). This makes it possible to eliminate the neutral conductor on some lines. Secondly power transfer into a linear balanced load is constant, which helps to reduce generator and motor vibrations. Finally, three-phase systems can produce a magnetic field that rotates in a specified direction, which simplifies the design of electric motors. Three is the lowest phase order to exhibit all of these properties.

Most domestic loads are single phase. Generally three phase power either does not enter domestic houses at all, or where it does, it is split out at the main distribution board.
The three phases are typically indicated by colors which vary by country.

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