I was following a tutorial on power supply transformers and at the very beginning I have encountered the following illustration:

enter image description here

I added the names TG and HG for the LV transformer ground and the local ground nearby the house.

In the illustration it is not clear to me whether there is an actual wire between HG and TG or the soil establishes the connection.

My question is: in a modern power system would there be an actual wire between TG and HG or it is the soil itself provides the path?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Where on this planet are you, or whose rules are you concerned about for that matter? Or are you looking for a global view of the subject? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 24, 2018 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Im looking for the global view or should I say the modern view. I mean 21st century, modernity might mean something started far before. \$\endgroup\$
    – pnatk
    Dec 24, 2018 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is getting much more confusing than I thought. \$\endgroup\$
    – pnatk
    Dec 24, 2018 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the red roof. <g> \$\endgroup\$ Dec 24, 2018 at 14:43

4 Answers 4


There's more than one way to skin this cat, even to this very day

While there is a global standard for mains earthing systems, IEC 60364 to be precise, it does not set out a single means of mains earthing. Instead, it defines three basic ways of performing the mains earthing function, and divides one up further into three subcategories:

  • Terra-Terra (TT)
  • Isolation-Terra (IT)
  • Terra-Network (TN):
    • Combined (TN-C)
    • Separate (TN-S)
    • Combined/Separate (TN-C-S)

Furthermore, an earthing impedance is used in some applications, instead of a solid wire from the earthing point to the earth electrode. Special hardware for fault detection and clearance (such as earth fault detectors or residual-current/ground-fault protection devices) may also be required, depending on the system.

We will now discuss these systems in turn, starting with the TT system, since that is what your illustration depicts. Keep in mind that there is no One True Way -- each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and local standards vary.

Terra-Terra (TT) -- everyone gets their own earth

TT earthing

Your illustration, reproduced above, depicts the Terra-Terra (TT) earthing system, where every consumer (fed structure) in the system has its own local earth electrode, with no metallic connection to the utility's earthing system. Due to the fact that dirt is a lousy conductor of electricity compared to copper, using a TT system requires a residual-current device to be used for the main disconnect/protection at the consumer (consumer unit or main switchgear), which made it impractical up until about 50 years ago when RCDs started becoming widely available.

However, it does have some advantages when it comes to controlling conducted noise entering the grid, which makes it attractive for telecommunications and large-scale computing plants. It may also be found in environments where the integrity of metallic earth bonding paths cannot be guaranteed, such as where outdoor circuits are frequent, although some local standards (such as in North America) forbid this earthing system, while others (such as in Japan, Denmark, and France) heavily favor it.

Isolated-Terra (IT) -- look ma, no earth!

IT earthing

There is actually nothing in electrical theory that requires an electric circuit to be connected to earth itself -- otherwise, you would not be able to plug your laptop into a socket on an airplane to charge it! Some fixed mains installations also omit the earthing electrode connection to the mains earthing point, as depicted above, and use what is called an IT earthing system (or "ungrounded system" in North American parlance) as a result. This is common in continuous industrial process areas where high reliability is required, or to provide extra protection against shock in places like operating rooms, as the first fault in an IT system does not result in current flowing through the fault in an ideal situation. (In other words, if you poked an IT-earthed system, you'd become the proverbial "pigeon on a powerline", until somebody else poked it at the same time that is.)

Instead of a RCD to detect and disconnect earth faults, an IT system uses an earth detector (insulation monitoring device) that sounds an alarm to operators if an earth fault is detected on the network. This allows for an orderly process shutdown in a continuous industrial process, or for fault-finding to take place while the process is "live". However, it requires special procedures to ensure that the first fault is found and cleared before a second fault is introduced, as that second fault will cause fault currents to flow through both faults, the first fault taking the place of an earth electrode. Furthermore, the higher transient overvoltages on IT systems place more stresses on insulation, raising the risk of a fault due to insulation breakdown.

Some smaller-scale setups (such as in laboratories and worksites) use an isolation transformer to provide a local IT-earthed grid, without an insulation monitoring device. This is done to provide an additional degree of protection against shock, but, save for laboratories that work on mains-referenced electronics, has been rendered largely obsolete by sensitive residual-current/ground-fault protection devices. Local regulations rarely, if ever, mandate IT earthing save for certain sensitive applications (such as power to surgical operating rooms); however, it may be permitted as a legacy of older installations (Norway) or under trained supervision in industrial environments (North America).

Terra-Network -- all the earths together now, please

The final, and most common, earthing system in use is the Terra-Network (TN) earthing system, in its various flavors. In these systems, a metallic path is provided between the utility earth electrode and the consumer's earth electrode, providing for easy automatic disconnection (via the circuit overcurrent protection device) of faults to earthed metalwork while keeping insulation stresses low. The nature of this metallic path, though, varies between the subtypes of TN earthing:

TN-C earthing

  • In a "combined" or TN-C system, the consumer earth electrode is connected to the neutral wire, and no separate earth termination is provided to the consumer, as illustrated above. Chassis earths are connected to neutral (or not connected at all) in a TN-C system, and no separate earthing terminals are provided at receptacles in this system. TN-C systems are pretty universally obsolete, though, due to the inability to provide effective residual-current protection on a TN-C network for some classes of faults as well as the hazards a break in the combined earth/neutral conductor poses. As a result, they are only seen as a legacy of older installations (particularly in North America, where installations made prior to the 1960s may not have any effective protective earth bonding whatsoever).

TN-S earthing

  • The opposite of a TN-C system is the "separate" or TN-S earthing system, where the neutral-earth bond is performed at the utility end of the service, with separate protective earth and neutral conductors carried all the way from the utility to the consumer, and the consumer earth electrode connected to the incoming protective earth, as seen above. This incurs extra costs for the utility in some cases, and also has the risk that the protective earth in the utility service may silently fail and leave the user unprotected from shock, but provides a relatively low-noise connection to earth via the mains. As a result of the costs and risks incurred, though, true TN-S earthing is also largely obsolete, and generally only seen in older installations, although a few locales (India, apparently) still use it for new work.

TN-C-S earthing

  • It is also possible to combine features of the above systems to yield a hybrid of the two, called a TN-C-S earthing system. In such a setup, protective earth and neutral are connected to each other and to the consumer earth electrode at a point downstream of the utility, as shown above (this is what Dave Tweed's answer depicts, as well). Typically, this point is where the consumer accepts the service from the utility, immediately adjacent to the utility's metering hardware in a main consumer unit (electrical panel) or main switchgear. Outbuildings fed from this main panel may have their own earth electrode systems, but will not have a neutral-to-earth bonding connection (unless the outbuilding is being fed TN-C instead of TN-S, as in older installations in North America). As a result of its low cost and relatively good safety properties (both automatic disconnection and residual-current detection work well, and damage to utility wiring will not pose a shock hazard within consumer installations), this is the most common form of TN earthing, and is used (and mandated in new work) in most places where TN systems are deployed (such as North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel, as well as the parts of Europe that do not use TT earthing instead).

Impedance earthing -- a halfway point between "earth" and "no earth"

In some environments, it is desirable to control the magnitude of earth fault currents for safety or reliability reasons. As a result, impedance earthing schemes are seen in some applications, where a resistor or coil is connected between the mains network's earthing point and the earth electrode. This practice limits the magnitude of both fault current and transient overvoltage to more reasonable values for the applications it is deployed into, and also allows for residual-current disconnection to be employed reasonably; however, it does require some of the same care that an IT-earthed network requires, and also cannot be used for general utility service due to the inability to have multiple earthing points on such a network. This limits its utility to industrial and institutional applications where the customer provisions their own transformer, providing a mains network section, complete with earthing point, that is entirely under customer control

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for very nice answer. One last question. Is the reason for the neccesity of RCD in a TT system earth leakege currents? If so How are these currents created? \$\endgroup\$
    – pnatk
    Dec 25, 2018 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @panicattack -- it's because a TT system cannot disconnect power in the case of a ground fault without sensing current flow through the leakage path from the utility hot, through the fault, through the local earth system, through a bunch of not-all-that-conductive dirt, and then back up the utility earth electrode to close the circuit. In a TN system, though, there is a low-resistance fault path from the utility hot, through the fault, through the local PE conductor system to the earth/neutral bond point, then back to the utility neutral through that bond, resulting in a breaker trip. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 25, 2018 at 15:13

The idea of earthing one conductor at the transformer is to "neutralise" it so that its voltage stays close to zero relative to the Earth. The advantage is that now only the live wires require fuses to make the circuits safe. (Of course, there are scenarios where a fuse on the neutral might make the circuit even safer.)

The idea of providing an earth/ground connection at the house is to tie the metal cases or touchable parts of mains-powered equipment to Earth. In the event that a live conductor touches the earthed case a large current will flow back to the transformer neutral terminal but through the earth path. This does two things:

  • It keeps the voltage on the case low and hopefully low enough to prevent lethal shock.
  • If the fault contact is low enough resistance a high fault current will flow and blow the fuse or circuit breaker.

My question is: in a modern power system would there be an actual wire between TG and HG or it is the soil itself provides the path?

Generally, no, there is no earth wire return. It adds cost with little benefit.


Both. Here's a better diagram:


simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

The neutral connection (the center tap of the transformer) is grounded at both ends of the cable that runs between the pole and the house service entrance. These are the ONLY places that neutral is bonded to ground — every other place, they are kept strictly separated.

Note that this illustrates the typical US arrangement with 240V split across two live wires, L1 and L2. The typical European arrangement would simply eliminate L2 (or in a 3-phase hookup, add an L3), but everything else remains the same.

Added: The LV side of the pole transformer is grounded for safety. Without it, the whole secondary circuit could "float" to a relatively high voltage as a result of capacitive coupling through the transformer.

The LV side is grounded in two places for redundancy. Safety is not compromised if either one of the ground connections is broken for some reason.

  • \$\begingroup\$ OP has drawn a single-phase transformer without centre-tap and is asking if copper is run between the "ground stake at the pole" and "ground stake at sevice entrance". There is no location information in his/her user profile though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Transistor
    Dec 24, 2018 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Transistor: ... and the answer is "yes" -- the neutral wire serves exactly that purpose. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave Tweed
    Dec 24, 2018 at 14:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The typical european arrangement is nowadays three phases of 120 ° phase shift. A single phase is used only in very old electrical installations. Two phases with 180 ° shift is used in America but not in Europe. \$\endgroup\$
    – Uwe
    Dec 24, 2018 at 14:39
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Uwe: Not all across Europe. In Ireland (where I am) and UK the standard domestic supply is single-phase 230 V. \$\endgroup\$
    – Transistor
    Dec 24, 2018 at 15:35
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Harper. Nope. I'm in a rural Ireland about 8 km from the 38 kV substation / switchyard in the nearest town. Distribution is at 20 kV 3-phase but splits into three 20 kV single-phase circuits about half way from town. There are only two wires to the pole-mounted transformer which is feeding, I think, my house and three others. Supply voltage is very stable although I used to be able to see some flicker when the single-phase air compressor ran in the garage next door. I think this was pretty much solved when the network was upgraded from 10 kV some years ago. \$\endgroup\$
    – Transistor
    Dec 24, 2018 at 23:13

The general method in residential wiring worldwide is to wire the system as an "isolated system" of hot(s) and/or neutral, with one key exception. And then safety earthing comes along in an extra wire. In normal operation, hot and neutral is entirely isolated from safety earth. It only comes into play when something goes awry.

When something goes awry, the ground wire has several functions.

  • it gives an alternate path back to source, to prevent you from being the alternate path.
  • if the fault is a hot to ground short, it will allow a large amount of current to low, enough to trip the overcurrent device - fuse or circuit breaker.
  • if the circuit is RCD protected, it provides an alternate path back to source that bypasses the RCD, assuring an RCD trip.

Just one problem. Current flows in loops, and wants to return to source, not ground. Ground isn't source, neutral is!

Enter the neutral-ground equipotential bond

This is another multi-function feature that makes the above work, though that's not its primary reason for existence. It is carefully placed in one specific location, the electrical service point basically at the main service shutoff and before the RCD. You would never have two equipotential bonds in a service, for very good reason.

In the above fault conditions, this neutral-ground bond is how fault currents return to source. Since it's before the RCD, this current will bypass and thus trip the RCD.

But its main reason to is to "render safe" the isolated system by giving its conductors a specific bias relative to earth. You don't want your two conductors floating 5000V and 5230V from earth, because that would be quite demanding on the insulation in all your appliances. You don't want any conductors being more than 230V from earth, so you pick a conductor and bond it to earth.

And you want this to be the earth near you. That's why each building needs its own grounding/earthing rod. Earth 100m away may be at a different potential.

That "grounded conductor" is still a working conductor, it's just been guaranteed to be quite near ground. So it gets a special name: "Neutral". And it's generally conceived of as a current return.

Neutral is not mandatory, US 240V appliances do not use it, nor do much of the Philippines, nor do UK construction worksite outlets. All have a center ground, with earth pegged halfway between the conductors and not connected to either one. This makes all conductors dangerous, but only "half as dangerous".

Anyway, the earthing at the pole may not even exist, if you have a supply transformer on your site. But the two earthings are for different reasons, or to be more precise, different customers. The one at the pole is to prevent capacitive coupling or leakage in the transformer from floating the secondary up to primary voltage. It applies to the earth at the pole. Your ground rod at your house is to keep your mains voltage within 230V of your water plumbing or other naturally grounded things, to avoid challenging the insulation in those devices.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.