Category Archives: Harmonic Distortion of AC Power

Harmonic Distortion of AC Power

Initial post: 6/7/202
Minor edits: 6/8/2020

I’m posting this here because it came up on a boating club Forum that I follow.  As I have said often, my “target audience” is people in boating that do not have much prior background in matters of electricity.  This topic is a bit arcane, and does tend to be an advanced topic.  But at the same time, it does show up as a symptom that affects some boaters in some situations, so I offer it here for awareness.

Here is the question that started the discussion:

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“I would like to elicit opinions from the electrically minded of us regarding the following.  When running my NL 9Kw gen at anchor my Dometic/Cruisair heat pumps (240V, 16000 btu) work fine with just one of my Magnum Energy MS2812 (2800W, 125A charger) active to charge the batteries. But, when the 2nd charger is activated (now balanced loads on the gen legs), the heat pump compressors stop active function (no heating/cooling), fan drops to minimum level, but, amp load is unchanged. The above occurs whether 1 or all 3 Dometic units are running (this is not about trying to start one of the compressor motors with the gen loaded).  I have not noted this interference when the battery charging load is minimal.  The gen amp output at 100% is 37.5/240V.  Max charger demand is 17A both legs.  All 3 heat pumps together draw 13-14A. There is no problem if the water heater is run (240V/10A) with the heat pumps on and just one charger (brief test – 40A on one leg).

“It seems as though there must be some type of electrical interference that is occurring when the 2nd charger is added to the circuit affecting the heat pump compressor motor function. Any ideas as to what this might be and how it can be tested for? Emails were sent to NL and Dometic with no response. Thanks!”

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Here is my response to this question, edited for completeness, which I offer to others who may be experiencing similar intermittent, “weird” symptoms:

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What you are describing sounds like a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary (but not “extraordinary”) problem called Harmonic Distortion.  Here’s the electrical theory of HD in four sentences: A pure resistance – water heater heating element, light bulb, running motor – draws current in linear proportion to its impedance (according to Ohm’s Law).  Electronic devices do not follow Ohm’s Law;  they can and do draw current in short bursts within the AC sine wave voltage cycle.  These electronic devices are called “non-linear” loads.  Since in non-linear loads, current does not follow Ohm’s Law against voltage, the apparent internal impedance of the source can cause the waveshape of the AC voltage to distort (dip, flatten at the top and bottom), rather than be or remain a pure sine wave, clean as the driven snow.

So in your situation, the inverters are AC loads being used for battery charging, but the battery charger’s internal DC circuits are non-linear, “switch-mode” devices.  That creates non-linear current demand on the input AC waveform that is reflected back into the source.  The system doesn’t fail on shore power because the apparent impedance of the shore power source is many, many, many times less than the apparent impedance of the genset.  That doesn’t mean the phenomena isn’t there on shore power.  It just means the source is big enough to overcome the magnitude of the non-linear load component.  On shore power, the ratio of load impedance to source impedance is sort of analogous to David-on-Goliath.   But with the much smaller capacity of the genset, the aggregate effect of the switch-mode current demand can affect the shape of the genset’s output voltage sine wave.  Here, the ratio of load impedance to source impedance is definitely David-on-David.  What tends to happen with Harmonic Distortion is that the positive and negative peaks of the AC sine wave flatten, although more complex distortion is possible in extreme cases, even to the point of approaching a square wave with a flat top and very low peak voltage.

You mentioned in your post that you have a 9kW NL genset.  Nine kilowatts is somewhat under-sized for a 250V, 50A boat.  The power that can be absorbed by a 240V, 50A load is 12000 Watts, or 12 kW.  What you have is NOT “bad” from the perspective of genset loading or the perspective that you rarely need the entire capacity of the generator anyway.  But, if what you have is a symptom related to Harmonic Distortion, the smaller genset will have a higher apparent impedance than a larger genset would have.  The higher the apparent impedance of the source, the more likely it is that Harmonic Distortion would present itself as a noticeable and annoying symptom.

My conjecture that this is Harmonic Distortion is easily confirmed with an oscilloscope.  In the old days, that was the only way to see it.  But today, you can confirm it easily it if you have a means to read TRUE RMS voltage and a means to measure the TRUE PEAK voltage.  The peak of a 60Hz sine wave should be 1.414 times the RMS value.  I use an Ideal SureTest 61-164 or 61-165 circuit tester for this task.

So let’s assume you have a stable 60Hz voltage at 118V when running on the genset.  And we must also assume you have a stable 60hZ frequency, ±2 hZ, when running on the generator.  Multiply the 118 x 1.414, and the peak of the voltage waveform should be 167V.  If you then measure the actual peak, and it’s – let’s say – 156V, then you know you have Harmonic Distortion taking place, and the wave form isn’t a pure sine wave.

Now, the tolerance of the inverter/charger(s), the SMX Controller electronics and the blower drive electronics of the heat pump to AC voltage waveform shape, for which they, themselves, are responsible for distorting in the first place, may not be favorable.  That is a vicious circle.  It’s creating something that it, itself, can’t live with.  Since the genset is also feeding the Dometic SMX heat pump control unit and the blower and compressor control electronics of the heat pumps, those circuit boards can also be impacted by distortion of the voltage waveform.  Symptoms across the onboard system can be unpredictable, and can vary from attachment to attachment.  Pure resistance loads will not be affected, but electronic devices can be to varying extents.

Harmonic Distortion and Power Factor are two of the most challenging problems power utility companies have to manage.  A distorted AC voltage sine wave waveform is called “dirty power,” and it costs utilities a lot of money to manage.  Buildings with banks of computers and servers cause huge HD problems on the power grid, often affecting their neighbors and neighborhood.  Virtually all electronic devices cause Harmonic Distortion, right down to the family flat screen TV and stereo.  Power quality is a huge problem at the level of commercial power utilities serving residential neighborhoods.

And by the way, from the perspective of the 9kW NL generator itself, the higher apparent impedance and distorted wave shape will cause additional heat in the windings of the genset.  That heat is not related to useful work done by the generated power.  It amounts to excessive waste heat of which the genset’s cooling system has to dispose.  This can be worse than having unbalanced 120V loads on each side of the genset.

The fix?  You’d need a bigger capacity generator; i.e., one with lesser internal impedance.  With a lower reflected impedance, the genset would maintain the shape of the waveform for equivalent non-linear loads.  Or, your can just choose to live with it…

I have not written about Harmonic Distortion or Power Factor for my website because it’s definitely not a beginner’s/layman’s topic.  (Well, I have now, haven’t I?)  And even if you have HD, there’s little that can be practically done.  But if you want to read more about HD, click here for a fairly readable and reasonably good explanation from Pacific Gas & Electric; and click here for a better explanation of non-linear loads.  Start on page 3, at the heading called “ELECTRICAL HARMONICS.”  Skip the math; you don’t need it to understand the concepts.

Hope this helps.  And of course, this is only a guess on my part…   Cough, cough, choke, choke…

I wish I could recommend something practical that would make this better, but in the current system configuration, I think it’s a permanent restriction.

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Understanding Harmonic Distortion is complex and it’s definitely an advanced problem in an electrical distribution system.  What I’ve written above is just the very tip of the the technical iceberg.  But, although relatively rare, HD can produce observable symptoms related to the performance of boat AC electrical attachments.  It can affect the quality of sound from an entertainment system or produce what looks like interference (snow, lines) on a TV.  And, it can affect the operation of other types of equipment, like network routers, DVRs and printers.  If you have these symptoms and all else has been ruled out, consider Harmonic Distortion as a possible cause.  If you have these symptoms, it will be necessary to call in a skilled professional electrical technician to troubleshoot and confirm the diagnosis.  The tools that are necessary are expensive, and the skills to appreciate and understand the causes are advanced.  This is not a job for a residential electrician.