Electrical problems are complex in any setting. While residential electrical issues are often serious and require the attention of a professional, the problems that can plague a large commercial building are more complicated. Ground faults, a potential issue in any equipment that works with very small signals, are one common problem.
Unfortunately, dealing with ground faults (or even recognizing their existence) can often be challenging. While ground loops and other ground faults are a topic requiring an expert, this article will help explain some of the basics so you can recognize the warning signs in your building.
How Do Unintended Ground Connections Cause Problems?
Modern mains electrical systems use the concept of a "safety ground." A safety ground provides a path to Earth that, at least under normal conditions, does not carry any current. When there's a fault in the system, the safety ground carries the excess current to Earth until your building's breaker trips. This design protects your building's wiring and prevents fire.
However, ground loops can occur due to unintended connections in the ground circuit. The ground circuit in your building may cross and connect in many places, and more sensitive systems can unintentionally connect to the safety ground network. This situation commonly becomes an issue when dealing with audio equipment, computer networking, or highly sensitive healthcare devices.
Grounds loops effectively create "noise" on these systems, leading to problems ranging from relatively minor to mission-critical. For example, many hospital devices that deal with very small signals require isolated grounds to avoid ground loops. However, ground loops can also cause problems with less crucial equipment, introducing noise on audio systems or even damaging computers.
What Should You Do About Ground Loops?
Addressing a ground loop depends on the specific problems you're experiencing and the technology in your building. For example, addressing a ground loop in a hospital is a much different problem from addressing one in a data center or office building. The answer may be to install isolated grounds for highly sensitive equipment, although this practice is somewhat outdated with modern devices.
However, ground loops may also indicate an underlying issue with the wiring in the building. Ground loops can occur due to relatively minor wiring faults. These faults may be insufficient to trip a breaker, but they can introduce potential differences on the safety ground circuit. As a result, small amounts of current may flow through the circuit and create noise on connected systems.
While ground loops don't typically pose a safety hazard, they can seriously affect your building's operations or damage equipment. A qualified electrician can help you determine if you may have a ground loop issue and, if so, recommend the best strategies to repair the problem or minimize its effects.
For more information, contact an electrician.