Does the Voltage or the Amperage Kill You?

I hear the following phrase a lot

It's the amperage that kills you not the voltage

While there is truth to the statement it is sort of like saying “it's the size of the vehicle not the speed that kills you when it hits you”…

OK so that's a pretty bad example, but hopefully, it gets the point across. BOTH of them are needed to cause injury or death and in the case of voltage and amperage the higher the voltage the higher the amperage.

This statement about amperage being the real danger as led to many people inaccurately believing it is the size of a panel or the gauge of wire that makes something more or less dangerous… which is 100% incorrect.

Let's take a quick look at OHM's law –

Amps = Volts ÷ Ohms 

The resistance (ohms) of the human body depends on a lot of factors including things like the moisture content of the skin, what other objects the current path is traveling through, what path the current is taking through the body etc…

While the resistances vary based on these factors Ohms law still holds true that when you increase the voltage you ALSO increase the amperage.

Take a look at this chart from the CDC

Effects of Electrical Current* on the Body [3]
Current Reaction
1 milliamp Just a faint tingle.
5 milliamps Slight shock felt. Disturbing, but not painful. Most people can “let go.” However, strong involuntary movements can cause injuries.
6-25 milliamps (women)†
9-30 milliamps (men)
Painful shock. Muscular control is lost. This is the range where “freezing currents” start. It may not be possible to “let go.”
50-150 milliamps Extremely painful shock, respiratory arrest (breathing stops), severe muscle contractions. Flexor muscles may cause holding on; extensor muscles may cause intense pushing away. Death is possible.
1,000-4,300 milliamps (1-4.3 amps) Ventricular fibrillation (heart pumping action not rhythmic) occurs. Muscles contract; nerve damage occurs. Death is likely.
10,000 milliamps (10 amps) Cardiac arrest and severe burns occur. Death is probable.

*Effects are for voltages less than about 600 volts. Higher voltages also cause severe burns.
†Differences in muscle and fat content affect the severity of shock.

Let's say that a particular shock is traveling through a 20 KOhm (20,000 ohm) path in your body

At 120V this would produce a 6mA shock

At 240V it would be 12mA

At 480V it would be 24mA

It becomes clear pretty quick that higher voltage does lead to more dangerous shocks as does the resistance of the path.

High Resistance and Low Voltage = Safer

Low Resistance and High Voltage = Danger

This is why working around live electrical should only be done with insulated tools, proper PPE and in dry conditions. These all serve to keep the resistance up to reduce the likelihood of a fatal shock. The higher the voltage the more diligent you need to be.

Some people may bring up high voltage shocks from a taser or static electricity as proof that “voltage doesn't kill”.

In these cases, the power supply is either limited, intermittent or instantaneous. This means that while the voltage is high it is only high for a very short period. Unfortunately in our profession, those sorts of quick high voltage discharges aren't the big danger we face, most of the electrical work we do is on systems that will happily fry us to a crisp before the power supply cuts out.

A circuit breaker or fuse will never protect us because we draw in the milliamp range when we are being shocked as almost all fuses or breakers don't trip or blow until much higher levels are reached.

Be safe around high voltage and keep your resistance high.

— Bryan




What Causes Voltage Drop and How to Deal With It

Voltage drop is one of those topics we often mention but seldom think about in depth. From a very basic standpoint we need to know whether or not the rated voltage is being delivered to the device or appliance while under full load, which is as simple as running the equipment and measuring the voltage at the equipment feed conductors. If the measured voltage is within the rated range while under load then we are in pretty good shape… but there is still more to consider.

The voltage drop across a wire can ONLY be measured under load, simply measuring the potential at the end of a circuit without it being under load tells you almost nothing because the circuit is open.

The voltage drop measured is equal to the percentage of the total circuit resistance being measured across.

In other words… if the total applied voltage at the main panel is 240V and you are measuring 216V at the condenser while it is running that means that 90% of the resistance in the circuit is in the condenser (216V) and 10% of the total circuit resistance in in the conductors (24V) leading to the condenser (which is way too high).

You will also find that voltage drop increases the higher the current on the circuit. This happens for two reasons –

  1. Higher running current is due to lower electrical resistance in the load. When the resistance in the load is lower the resistance of the load makes up a lower percentage of the total circuit resistance and the wiring makes up more it. NOTE: Some of you get confused and think that the resistance in a load increases as the current increases… but it doesn't… just look at ohms law again. When amperage increases the electrical resistance must go down if the voltage remains constant.
  2. When most metals get hot their resistance increases. So as the wiring current increases it heats up and increases in resistance, further increasing the wires share of the voltage drop.

We care about voltage drop for two reasons –

  1. It can be be bad for our equipment resulting in poor performance and efficiency
  2. It can be an INDICATOR of other conditions that can lead to overheating and arcing which can be a safety hazard

This article includes a lot of references to the NEC (National Electrical Code) because it is the nationally adopted set of rules for high voltage electrical in the USA. The excerpts here are for training and commentary reference and should only be used by licensed professionals who have training in the entire code which can be found at the NFPA website. The NEC (NFPA) 70 is all about fire and shock prevention and 310.15(A)(3) sums up conductor design pretty nicely. I sum it up (further) as

Don't install anything in a way that's going to result in it getting hotter than it's supposed to get 

So high voltage drop occurs because the amperage is higher than it supposed to be or the resistance in the circuit is higher than it should be (or both).

What is Acceptable Voltage Drop?

The NEC recommends no more than a 5% voltage drop from the main panel all the way to the appliance under load with 2% drop allowable on the “feeder” circuits and 3% on the “branch” circuits (NEC 210.19(A) informational note #4). This is only a recommendation for design so long as all the other rules regarding conductor (wire), over-current protection and connections are followed due to the fact that is in an “informational note” in the NEC rather than a code.

From a practical standpoint we really shouldn’t see more than a 5% voltage drop on a properly sized conductor when measured under load other than during motor inrush (locked rotor). It’s most critical that we remember that voltage drop measurements are only valid when UNDER LOAD. If the equipment isn’t running then there will be no voltage drop and the measurement becomes almost meaningless.

In practice there are four primary causes of objectionable voltage drop –

  • Undersized Conductors
  • Poor Connections (Terminations)
  • Higher Than Design Circuit Current
  • Long Conductors (Long Wire Length)

Let’s look at each one individually to see what we can do to diagnose, repair and prevent these issues.

Undersized Conductors

In HVAC we need to size the majority of our conductors (wires) according to NEC Table 310.15(B)(16) which is where we get rules of thumb about wire size, primarily by looking at basic copper conductors in the 60 degree Celsius category.

When conductors are undersized for the rated ampacity of the system the result will be an overheating conductor and voltage drop which is a dangerous issue. Many techs and electricians are’t aware that section 440 of the NEC allows air conditioning system wiring to be sized according to the MCA (Minimum circuit ampacity) listed on the equipment EVEN when the brakes or fuse is larger and sized according to the listed MOCP (Maximum Over-current Protection). No matter what we do, it is critical that we abide by 310.15(A)(3) and ensure that we do not install conductors in such a way that they will overheat whether that is due to the amperage, the ambient conditions they are exposed to or the number of conductors run in a conduit. Poor Connections Higher Than Design Current Long Conductors

Poor Connections

When wires are connected using wire nuts, lugs, splices etc… they should be made with the best possible possible contact with low resistance and compatible materials that won't wear or corrode. If the connection is poor then the resistance at that point will increase resulting in heat at the point which can lead to more resistance and the issue becomes worse and worse. Poor connections not only cause voltage drop but they can also cause a safety hazard. All high voltage electrical connections and terminations should be made with NEC / UL approved materials and according to instructions. Common causes of poor connections are

  • Connecting too many wires under a lug
  • Using an unapproved connector
  • Connecting dissimilar metals together in an unapproved connector for that use (such as copper and aluminum)
  • Failing to tighten lugs or screws to the rated torque rating

Higher than Design Circuit Current

In some cases the wiring and connections are correct but the device itself is drawing above its rated current. This will lead to high voltage drop and should be corrected at the root cause in the system causing the high current.

Long Conductors

There are some interesting ramifications to long conductors with the first being that the NEC doesn't really address it… at least not directly. Like we already mentioned NEC 210.19(A) does make suggestions to keep the total voltage to below 5% and this would include drop due to wire length. The reason voltage drop due to wire length isn't as large of an issue is because it doesn't cause wire overheating. If the wire is long but still the correct size it WILL have higher resistance which WILL result in greater voltage drop but since the resistance is spread across the entire wire it won't get any hotter in one spot like a poor connection. The result will LOWER circuit amperage and possibly poor performance of the device but it won't result in a dangerous condition in the conductor.

We are often responsible to upsize conductors to prevent voltage drop for the sake of the system but not because we are REQUIRED to do so. This means that when wire lengths are long we need to pay special attention to the under load voltage drop, especially in new construction environments.

— Bryan

High Capacity Amperage Measurement

We had a situation a few months back where we needed to monitor amperage on a grocery store panel over a period of time. The trouble was, we needed data logging capability as well as accurate measurement at 600+ amps.

Finding an all in one solution proved to be quite expensive. Luckily my friend Jim Bergmann happens to own an instrument company (Redfish Instruments)  and he had a simple solution.

Use the data logging capability of the Redfish multimeter with a Fluke I800 amperage to mA (milliamp) clamp to get the job done.

This particular clamp can be used with any good quality meter that reads in the milliamp range (not to be confused with uA which is microamps often used for testing flame rectification).

Like shown below, for this clamp you connect the meter leads to the correct jacks and select the mA scale. In this particular case 1mA = 1A so the image below is showing a 320 amp measurement.

There are other accessory clamps that use the mV (Millivolt) scale rather than mA like the Redfish IDVM333 shown below.

With this clamp the output scale can be adjusted with the selector on the clamp to either 10mV AC or 1mV AC.

Again you need to make sure the leads are in the right spots based on the type of clamp reading and make sure to get in in the right scale, but once you understand how to it, it's surprisingly simple and you can use a wide variety of clamps and meters.

— Bryan

Testing Run Capacitors the Smart (and Easy) Way

When testing a run capacitor many techs pull the leads off and use the capacitance setting on their meter to test the capacitor. On a system that is not running there isn't anything wrong with this test, but when you are CONSTANTLY checking capacitors as a matter of regular testing and maintenance that extra step of pulling the connectors off can be time consuming and in these cases it is also totally unnecessary. Testing the capacitors UNDER LOAD (while running) is a great way to confirm that the capacitor is doing it's job under real load conditions which is also more accurate than taking the reading with the unit off.

First, if you are used to doing capacitor checks during the “cleaning” stage of a PM you are going to need to change your practices and do your tests during the “testing” phase. These readings will be made at the same time you are taking other amperage and voltage readings during the run test.

This method is a practical method and is a composite of two different test practices combined –

  1. Read your Volt (EMF) and Amp (Current) readings like usual and note your readings.
  2. Measure the amperage of just the start wire (wiring connecting to the start winding), this will be the wire between your capacitor and the compressor. In the case of 4 wire motors it will usually be the brown wire NOT the brown with white stripe. Note your amperage on this wire..
  3. Measure the voltage between the two capacitor terminals, for the compressor that would be between HERM and C, for the cond fan motor that would be between FAN and C. Note the voltage readings
  4. Now take the amp reading you took on the start wire (wire from the capacitor) and multiply by 2,652 (some say 2650 but 2652 is slightly more accurate) then divide that total by the capacitor volts you measured.  the simple formula is Start Winding Amps X 2,652 ÷  Capacitor Voltage = Microfarads
  5. Read the nameplate MFD on the capacitors and compare to your actual readings. Most capacitors allow for a 6%+/- tolerance, if outside of that range then replacement of the capacitor may be recommended. Always double check your math before you quote a customer. We need to make sure we are accurate when advising a repair.
  6.  Repeat this process on all of the run capacitors and you will have assurance whether they are fully functional under load or not.
  7. Keep in mind that the capacitor installed may not be the CORRECT capacitor. The motor or compressor may have been replaced or someone may have put in the wrong size. When in doubt refer to the data plate or specs on the specfic motor or compressor.

If you need a visual, here are some good videos on the topic. Note that some will use 2650, some 2652 and some 2653. It all depends on how many decimals of pi they are using in their calculation but all of them will result in an accurate enough conclusion for our use.

At first doing it this way may take a few minutes longer but in the long run you will go quicker, have fewer mistakes (forgetting to put the terminals back), have a better understanding of how the equipment is operating and get a more accurate reading.

Once you replace a capacitor always recheck your readings to ensure the new capacitor reads correctly under load.

It is also a good practice to check Capacitors you have removed with your capacitance setting on your meter as a reference point.

While this method is good, it is only as good as your tools and your math. When in doubt, double check… and always be in doubt.

— Bryan


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