Ground Rod Does Not Assist in Clearing a Fault

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By Mike Holt, Published in EC&M Magazine

Contrary to the belief of many in the electrical industry, grounding metal parts of an electrical system to a ground rod DOES NOT assist in removing dangerous voltage from a line-to-ground fault by opening the circuit overcurrent protection device for systems that operate at not more than 347 volts to ground! To understand this, we need to review four basic electrical fundamentals:

(1)   Electrons leaving the power supply are attempting to return to the source, they are not trying to go to ground!

(2)   The time it takes for an overcurrent protection device to open is inversely proportional to the magnitude of the fault current (the greater the ground-fault current, the less time it will take for the overcurrent device to open).

(3)   Unsafe voltage can cause the heart to go into ventricular fibrillation in less than one second, resulting in death in a matter of minutes.

(4)   To protect against the dangers of electric shock, unsafe voltage on metal parts of the electrical system and the building must be removed by opening the circuit's overcurrent protection device in less than one second.

To open the circuit protection device in less than one second, the fault current returning to the source must quickly rise to approximately 6x (fast acting fuses) to 10x (other devices) the rating of the circuit overcurrent protection device. The following demonstrates the impedance required to clear a 120 volt fault depending on the overcurrent protection device rating.

Protection Rating

Fault Required

Impedance = E/I

15 amperes 150 amperes 120V/150A = 0.8 ohms
20 amperes 200 amperes 120V/200A = 0.6 ohms
50 amperes 500 amperes 120V/500A = 0.24 ohms
100 amperes 1000 amperes 120V/1000A = 0.12 ohms

Note: A GFCI protection device is not an overcurrent protection device and it is designed to open where the fault is as little as 5 mA.

To insure that dangerous voltage is removed in less than one second, the fault current path must be permanent and electrically continuous, be capable of safely carrying the maximum fault likely to be imposed on it, and have a very low impedance to facilitate the operation of overcurrent devices [110-10, 250-2(d)]. The low impedance path is created when metal parts of the electrical system are bonded together [250-90] and to the power supply system grounded (neutral) conductor in accordance with Section 250-24 for service equipment and Section 250-30(b) for separately derived systems, Figure 1.

Naturally, the earth cannot be use as the intended return path to clear a fault because its high resistance (one billion times that of copper, IEEE Std. 142 Section 2.2.8) will only allow a few (1 to 10) amperes to flow back to the source [250-2(d) and 250-54].

Note: Metal parts of the electrical system are grounded (connected to the earth) to prevent the destruction of electrical components from superimposed voltage from lightning and voltage transients and to help prevent the build-up of static charges on equipment and material.