When normal operation is compromised, a distribution transformer can cause several issues for the home(s) or business it serves. Certain conditions internal and external to the transformer can cause problems that manifest differently, from damaged electronics to fires inside or outside the home.
We ended our last installment about the U.S. electrical grid by highlighting the most expansive portion of it, the distribution of power to businesses and homes. Specifically, we reviewed the distribution transformers that serve as the final point of voltage ‘step down’ before electricity reaches a home.
With Millions of Transformers in Service, Problems are Not Rare
Conditions internal and external to a transformer can cause problems that manifest in different ways – problems that most often impact your home’s electrical power supply. Some impacts can be negligible. Others, much more severe. Generally, issues can arise from several conditions. Some of the more common conditions include the following:
- Gradually loosening connections from temperature fluctuations, vibrations, or age.
- Deterioration of insulating materials can lead to arcing and overheating.
- ‘Shorts’ caused by mother nature – weather, insects, or animals – bridging two or more points together that should not touch.
- Power surges (high electrical currents) from too much demand, upstream grid issues, or lightning strikes.
- Various other problems from mechanical failures or contamination.
If you’re thinking one condition can influence and produce another effect – you’re right. External issues such as surges can overheat conductors and compromise insulation, gradually leading to internal arcing and possible failure.
Transformers are expensive, and it often takes time for the responsible electric utility to repair problems that may occur. Testing to find faults is a key part of the maintenance of transformers. Electrical companies do performance testing, maintenance, and failure testing on their transformers. However fault conditions are often not detected by a utility – leaving the impacted homeowner(s) in a peculiar position.
Transformer Problems and Your Home
It is challenging enough to identify electrical problems within the home when a fault condition outside your home (and therefore outside of your direct control) is actually to blame. A transformer that is not operating well can masquerade as an issue inside the home.
You can learn more here about common signs of electrical issues inside a home.
Dangerous conditions inside the home can occur when a transformer does not operate as designed. Examples of these conditions include, but are not limited to, the following:
- ‘Floating’ voltage conditions – sags or swells, where the normal safe operating voltage falls below or climbs above recommended levels, respectively, and continuing for an extended period.
- Extreme voltage changes – brownouts or surges, more intense versions of sags or swells, producing brief but extreme spikes far outside normal safe operating voltage.
One specific example is quite common: Regardless of age, a recently installed or serviced transformer can develop an issue referred to as a ‘loose neutral.’ This condition often results in both of the abnormal voltage conditions listed above.
How Transformer Faults Reach Your Home
To better appreciate how transformer faults can impact your home, it is good to know the basics of how your transformer connects to your home.
Four wires connect your home to the transformer. 2 of those are the ground and neutral. The other 2 are the ‘hot’ wires. Your home receives two hot wires – or ‘phases’ – from your transformer. Each phase serves as one of two ‘branches’ emanating out from your main electrical panel. The electrician who designed and installed your electrical system did so in a measured way. They distributed it across your home to ensure the safe balancing of all loads.
The Problem with Loose Neutrals
While designed to operate in the same way, one phase in your home can be impacted individually from the other. For example, a loose neutral can affect each phase differently. Put another way, one-half of your home can experience low voltage conditions while the other half is experiencing the opposite: high voltage conditions.
What makes these ‘fault conditions’ so insidious is that they can go unnoticed until something adverse happens. For example, an appliance or device fails to operate due to permanent damage. Or worse, an electrical fire develops inside a wall or ceiling. In other cases, the condition may reveal itself before a major incident. A common one is random dimming (or intensifying) of lights not related to other appliances turning off or on (e.g. your HVAC system). And of course, extreme conditions could ignite a fire in or nearby the transformer itself.
Ting expertly detects signals related to a loose neutral and can help determine if it is originating within your home, or from an outside element such as the transformer serving your home.
We’ve identified countless transformer and related connection issues for our customers. We’ll cover what you can do if you suspect an issue with the electric utility’s transformer servicing your home – and how Ting can help – in our next installment.
You’re like most people – prevention and awareness are key to your mission of protecting your family and home. That’s why we developed Ting: to provide you a simple way to employ the most significant advancement in electrical ‘awareness’ and fire safety for the home. It’s like having an electrician watching over your home 24×7.