Ground Fault Protection

What is a Ground Fault?

A ground fault is an inadvertent contact between an energized conductor and ground or equipment frame. The return path of the fault current is through the grounding system and any personnel or equipment that becomes part of that system. Ground faults are frequently the result of insulation breakdown. It’s important to note that damp, wet, and dusty environments require extra diligence in design and maintenance. Since water is conductive it exposes degradation of insulation and increases the potential for hazards to develop.

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What is the purpose of grounding?

The primary purpose of grounding electrical systems is to provide protection against electrical faults. However, this was not realized until the 1970’s. Until then, most commercial and industrial systems were ungrounded. Although ungrounded systems do not cause significant damage during the first ground fault, the numerous disadvantages associated with ground faults resulted in a change to the grounding philosophy. There are other advantages for a grounded system, such as reduction of shock hazards and protection against lightning.

Electrical faults can be broken down into two categories: phase-to-phase faults and ground faults. Studies have shown that 98% of all electrical faults are ground faults (Source: Woodham, Jack, P.E. “The Basics of Grounding Systems” May 1, 2003). Where fuses can protect against phase-to-phase faults, additional protection, such as protection relays, are typically required to protect against ground faults.



Exposure to moisture


Shorting by tools, rodents, etc.


Exposure to dust


Other mechanical damage


Exposure to chemicals


Normal deterioration from age


Table 1

As as example, in the toaster circuit below, the black or hot wire is shorted to the metal casing of the toaster. When the circuit closes, all or part of the current is channeled through the toaster frame and then the green ground wire. When sufficient current flows (typically 6 x 15 A = 90 A), the circuit breaker will open. A protection relay could be installed to detect currents as low as 5 mA, which would open the circuit breaker at a significantly lower level, hence, much quicker than the traditional circuit breaker.

Although the example above shows a solidly grounded single-phase circuit, the philosophy is the same on three-phase circuits discussed later. Relays and monitors are specifically designed to look for the leading initiators shown in Table 1 by detecting low-level changes in current, voltage, resistance or temperature.