March 20, 2017

Don’t let harmonics get you down

In 1976, it was discovered that the bacteria causing Legionnaires disease, an atypical strain of pneumonia, had always been present in water, but it was the precise temperature of the water in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that facilitated the bacteria’s maximum reproduction levels. This is just one example of the unintended consequences of technology.

A similar and more recent story comes from the world of industry and features the growing problem of harmonic currents and utility level voltage distortion, as a result an increasing number of non-linear loads in industrial and commercial environments. Here, John Mitchell, global business development manager of CP Automation, shares his top tips for companies that want to commission or replace harmonic filters.

Active versus passive

The first thing you should decide is whether you need a passive or an active harmonic filter. The traditional option is an electro-mechanical or semiconductor controlled passive filter, used to minimise power quality problems in the network. These filters operate mainly on a fixed basis and are tuned to a harmonic order close to the order to be eliminated.

Often new equipment is specified to meet a THID%, but the problem for many plants is they do not know how bad their site is already. It’s almost like fixing a sticky plaster to a deep wound. Instead, companies should look at what is physically and commercially viable in the long term.

When making a decision, you can also consider a mixed solution. By fitting passive filters on many applications, you should be able to add a smaller active solution, which can save a lot of costs depending on the plant.

One drawback of passive filters is that they are most efficient when the load is operating above 80%.

On the other hand, active harmonic filters continuously monitor the network and inject exactly the right amount of compensation current when it is needed. The filter compensates the harmonic current or voltage drawn by each load. This allows current waveform to be restored instantaneously and lowers current consumption.

For installations in which current load changes constantly, active harmonic filters work best. They can filter harmonics over a wide range of frequencies and adapt to any type of load.

Regardless of what type of harmonic filter you decide to use, make sure it has the relevant UL certifications for the environment in which it's going to run. If unsure, you should always refer to an expert.

Holistic approach

Before commissioning a harmonic filter for your application, it’s important to assess the entire system, calculate the harmonics and size the right solution for your specific set up. It is not enough to look at one troublesome application individually; instead, you need to look at the plant or entire operation as a whole. Often what looks like the problem can actually be an effect rather than a cause.

Companies should identify and understand all the components installed on site when it comes to both linear and non-linear loads. They should also be aware of the transformer size and the rated short-circuit breaking current. Only after understanding the system in its entirety, can a company make an informed decision on what type of harmonic filter it needs, as well as what capacity and additional features the filter should have.

CP Automation recommends performing a survey of the plant and capturing as much information as possible over several days. After this initial analysis, we can recommend the most appropriate product and install it without significant disruptions.

After the harmonic filter has been live for a several days, another survey should be performed to check if all problems have been resolved. This ensures the product is appropriate and it gives companies real peace of mind.

The increasing levels of harmonic currents in industrial and commercial applications are certainly an unintended consequence of rapid technology uptake. Luckily, like the Legionnaires disease bacteria problem, the solution is simple, sustainable and inexpensive. Moreover, if you’re unsure of what harmonic filter your system needs, help is never too far away.

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