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power measurement


Power measurement in AC circuits can be quite a bit more complex than with DC circuits for the simple reason that phase shift complicates the matter beyond multiplying voltage by current figures obtained with meters. What is needed is an instrument able to determine the product (multiplication) of instantaneous voltage and current. Fortunately, the common electrodynamometer movement with its stationary and moving coil does a fine job of this.

Three phase power measurement can be accomplished using two dynamometer movements with a common shaft linking the two moving coils together so that a single pointer registers power on a meter movement scale. This, obviously, makes for a rather expensive and complex movement mechanism, but it is a workable solution.

An ingenious method of deriving an electronic power meter (one that generates an electric signal representing power in the system rather than merely move a pointer) is based on the Hall effect. The Hall effect is an unusual effect first noticed by E. H. Hall in 1879, whereby a voltage is generated along the width of a current-carrying conductor exposed to a perpendicular magnetic field: (Figure


Hall effect: Voltage is proportional to current and strength of the perpendicular magnetic field.

The voltage generated across the width of the flat, rectangular conductor is directly proportional to both the magnitude of the current through it and the strength of the magnetic field. Mathematically, it is a product (multiplication) of these two variables. The amount of “Hall Voltage” produced for any given set of conditions also depends on the type of material used for the flat, rectangular conductor. It has been found that specially prepared “semiconductor” materials produce a greater Hall voltage than do metals, and so modern Hall Effect devices are made of these.

It makes sense then that if we were tobuild a device using a Hall-effect sensor where the current through the conductor was pushed by AC voltage from an external circuit and the magnetic field was set up by a pair or wire coils energized by the current of the AC power circuit, the Hall voltage would be in direct proportion to the multiple of circuit current and voltage. Having no mass to move (unlike an electromechanical movement), this device is able to provide instantaneous power measurement: (Figure


Hall effect power sensor measures instantaneous power.

Not only will the output voltage of the Hall effect device be the representation of instantaneous power at any point in time, but it will also be a DC signal! This is because the Hall voltage polarity is dependent upon both the polarity of the magnetic field and the direction of current through the conductor. If both current direction and magnetic field polarity reverses — as it would ever half-cycle of the AC power — the output voltage polarity will stay the same.

If voltage and current in the power circuit are 90o out of phase (a power factor of zero, meaning no real power delivered to the load), the alternate peaks of Hall device current and magnetic field will never coincide with each other: when one is at its peak, the other will be zero. At those points in time, the Hall output voltage will likewise be zero, being the product (multiplication) of current and magnetic field strength. Between those points in time, the Hall output voltage will fluctuate equally between positive and negative, generating a signal corresponding to the instantaneous absorption and release of power through the reactive load. The net DC output voltage will be zero, indicating zero true power in the circuit.

Any phase shift between voltage and current in the power circuit less than 90o will result in a Hall output voltage that oscillates between positive and negative, but spends more time positive than negative. Consequently there will be a net DC output voltage. Conditioned through a low-pass filter circuit, this net DC voltage can be separated from the AC mixed with it, the final output signal registered on a sensitive DC meter movement.

Often it is useful to have a meter to totalize power usage over a period of time rather than instantaneously. The output of such a meter can be set in units of Joules, or total energy consumed, since power is a measure of work being done per unit time. Or, more commonly, the output of the meter can be set in units of Watt-Hours.

Mechanical means for measuring Watt-Hours are usually centered around the concept of the motor: build an AC motor that spins at a rate of speed proportional to the instantaneous power in a circuit, then have that motor turn an “odometer” style counting mechanism to keep a running total of energy consumed. The “motor” used in these meters has a rotor made of a thin aluminum disk, with the rotating magnetic field established by sets of coils energized by line voltage and load current so that the rotational speed of the disk is dependent on both voltage and current.

Power quality measurement

It used to be with large AC power systems that “power quality” was an unheard-of concept, aside from power factor. Almost all loads were of the “linear” variety, meaning that they did not distort the shape of the voltage sine wave, or cause non-sinusoidal currents to flow in the circuit. This is not true anymore. Loads controlled by “nonlinear” electronic components are becoming more prevalent in both home and industry, meaning that the voltages and currents in the power system(s) feeding these loads are rich in harmonics: what should be nice, clean sine-wave voltages and currents are becoming highly distorted, which is equivalent to the presence of an infinite series of high-frequency sine waves at multiples of the fundametal power line frequency.

Excessive harmonics in an AC power system can overheat transformers, cause exceedingly high neutral conductor currents in three-phase systems, create electromagnetic “noise” in the form of radio emissions that can interfere with sensitive electronic equipment, reduce electric motor horsepower output, and can be difficult to pinpoint. With problems like these plaguing power systems, engineers and technicians require ways to precisely detect and measure these conditions.

Power Quality is the general term given to represent an AC power system’s freedom from harmonic content. A “power quality” meter is one that gives some form of harmonic content indication.

A simple way for a technician to determine power quality in their system without sophisticated equipment is to compare voltage readings between two accurate voltmeters measuring the same system voltage: one meter being an “averaging” type of unit (such as an electromechanical movement meter) and the other being a “true-RMS” type of unit (such as a high-quality digital meter). Remember that “averaging” type meters are calibrated so that their scales indicate volts RMS, based on the assumption that the AC voltage being measured is sinusoidal. If the voltage is anything but sinewave-shaped, the averaging meter will not register the proper value, whereas the true-RMS meter always will, regardless of waveshape. The rule of thumb here is this: the greater the disparity between the two meters, the worse the power quality is, and the greater its harmonic content. A power system with good quality power should generate equal voltage readings between the two meters, to within the rated error tolerance of the two instruments.

Another qualitative measurement of power quality is the oscilloscope test: connect an oscilloscope (CRT) to the AC voltage and observe the shape of the wave. Anything other than a clean sine wave could be an indication of trouble: (Figure


This is a moderately ugly “sine” wave. Definite harmonic content here!

Still, if quantitative analysis (definite, numerical figures) is necessary, there is no substitute for an instrument specifically designed for that purpose. Such an instrument is called a power quality meter and is sometimes better known in electronic circles as a low-frequency spectrum analyzer. What this instrument does is provide a graphical representation on a CRT or digital display screen of the AC voltage’s frequency “spectrum.” Just as a prism splits a beam of white light into its constituent color components (how much red, orange, yellow, green, and blue is in that light), the spectrum analyzer splits a mixed-frequency signal into its constituent frequencies, and displays the result in the form of a histogram: )


Power quality meter is a low frequency spectrum analyzer.

Each number on the horizontal scale of this meter represents a harmonic of the fundamental frequency. For American power systems, the “1” represents 60 Hz (the 1st harmonic, or fundamental), the “3” for 180 Hz (the 3rd harmonic), the “5” for 300 Hz (the 5th harmonic), and so on. The black rectangles represent the relative magnitudes of each of these harmonic components in the measured AC voltage. A pure, 60 Hz sine wave would show only a tall black bar over the “1” with no black bars showing at all over the other frequency markers on the scale, because a pure sine wave has no harmonic content.

Power quality meters such as this might be better referred to as overtone meters, because they are designed to display only those frequencies known to be generated by the power system. In three-phase AC power systems (predominant for large power applications), even-numbered harmonics tend to be canceled out, and so only harmnics existing in significant measure are the odd-numbered.

Meters like these are very useful in the hands of a skilled technician, because different types of nonlinear loads tend to generate different spectrum “signatures” which can clue the troubleshooter to the source of the problem. These meters work by very quickly sampling the AC voltage at many different points along the waveform shape, digitizing those points of information, and using a microprocessor (small computer) to perform numerical Fourier analysis (the Fast Fourier Transform or “FFT” algorithm) on those data points to arrive at harmonic frequency magnitudes. The process is not much unlike what the SPICE program tells a computer to do when performing a Fourier analysis on a simulated circuit voltage or current waveform.





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