Split-phase electric power

Split-phase electric power

A split phase electricity distribution system is a 3-wire single-phase distribution system, commonly used in North America for single-family residential and light commercial (up to about 100 kVA) applications. It is the AC equivalent of the original Edison 3-wire direct current system. Its primary advantage is that it saves conductor material over a single ended single phase system while only requiring single phase on the supply side of the distribution transformer. [Terrell Croft and Wilford Summers (ed), "American Electricians' Handbook, Eleventh Edition", McGraw Hill, New York (1987) ISBN 0-07-013932-6, chapter 3, pages 3-10, 3-14 to 3-22. ] Since there are two live conductors in the system, it is sometimes incorrectly referred to as "two phase". To avoid confusion with split-phase motor start applications, it is appropriate to call this power distribution system a 3-wire, single-phase, mid-point neutral system.

In North America, the high leg delta system allows single-phase 120 V loads and 240 V three-phase loads both to be served by the same three-phase, four-wire distribution system.


A transformer supplying a 3-wire distribution system has a single-phase input (primary) winding. The output (secondary) winding is center-tapped and the center tap connected to neutral. This 3-wire system is common in countries with a standard phase-neutral voltage of 120 V. In this case, the transformer voltage is 120 V on either side of the center tap, giving 240 V between the two live conductors.

In Europe, 230/460 V, 3-wire, single-phase systems are used to run farms and small groups of houses when only two of the three-phase high voltage conductors are available (it is cheaper to run two wires than three). Houses in the UK normally only have single-ended single-phase power and so (as with three-phase) only one active line and the neutral is taken to each house. In the case of a property with a larger demand it is usually split out at the intake point and treated as two totally separate installations since there is no need for 460 V final circuits, and standard consumer units (circuit breaker boxes), meters and distribution boards are designed around either three-phase or single-phase circuits.

In Australia and New Zealand, remote loads are connected to the grid using SWER (Single Wire Earth Return) transmission lines (it is cheaper to run one wire than two). The primary of the transformer is connected between the high voltage line and earth, the secondary is a 3-wire single-phase system as described here, the secondary voltage being 230/460 V. Single phase loads are split between the two circuits. Hot water services use both circuits.

In countries whose standard phase to neutral voltage is 120 V, lighting and small appliances are connected between a live wire and the neutral. Large appliances, such as cooking equipment, space heating, water pumps, clothes dryers, and air conditioners are connected across the two live conductors and operate at 240 V, requiring less current and smaller conductors than would be needed if the appliances were designed for 120 V operation.

No individual conductor will be at more than 120 V potential with respect to ground (earth), reducing the earth fault current when compared to a 240 V, 2-wire system that has one leg (the neutral) earthed.

In the USA, the practice originated with the DC distribution system developed by Thomas Edison. By dividing a lighting load into two equal groups of lamps connected in series, the total supply voltage can be doubled and the size of conductors cut in half if current carry capacity is determining cable size or by a quarter if cable voltage drop is the size determining factor. Since the load will vary as lamps are switched on and off, just connecting the groups in series would result in excessive voltage and brightness variation. By connecting the two lamp groups to a neutral, intermediate in potential between the two live legs, any imbalance of the load will be supplied by a current in the neutral, giving substantially constant voltage across both groups.

Split phase systems require less copper for the same voltage drop, final utilization voltage, and power transmitted than single phase systems. (Voltage drop tends to be the dominant design consideration in the sizing of long power distribution cable runs.) Just how much depends on the situation. However, the extra cores may require more insulation material and more complex processing, reducing the cost saving for lower power runs.

If the load were guaranteed to be balanced, then the neutral conductor would not carry any current (and so, would not be needed) and the system would be equivalent to a single ended system of twice the voltage with the live cables taking half the current. Assuming volt drop to be the dominant design consideration (as it tends to be for long cable runs at mains voltage) this system would use 25% of the copper of the equivalent single ended single phase system but would be wildly impractical for real varying loads. At the other extreme, if the system were designed to provide volt drop in spec when one side was fully loaded and the other completely unloaded the total copper required would be 75% of that required for a single end single phase circuit. In practice a measure between these extremes can be applied (commonly sizing the conductors for correct volt drop with a full balanced load and then making the neutral as big as the other two conductors).

A variation is the 240 V delta 4-wire system, also known as a high-leg or red-leg delta. This is a three-phase 240 V delta connected system, in which one winding of the transformer has a center tap which is connected to ground and used as the system neutral. This allows a single service to supply 120 V for lighting, 240 V single-phase for heating appliances, and 240 V three-phase for motor loads (such as air conditioning compressors). Two of the phases are 120 V to neutral, the third phase or "high leg" is 208 V to neutral.

Systems split more than two ways are technically possible with both AC and DC but have the significant disadvantage that no matter which point is tied to ground some of the wires will have a higher earth relative voltage than the utilisation voltage; therefore, such systems are not used in normal power distribution.

Construction sites

In the UK, electric tools and portable lighting at construction sites are sometimes fed from a centre-tapped system with only 55 V between live conductors and the earth. This system is used with 110 V equipment and therefore no neutral conductor is needed. The intention is to reduce the electrocution hazard that may exist when using electrical equipment at a wet or outdoor construction site. An incidental benefit is that the filaments of 110 V incandescent lamps are thicker and therefore mechanically more rugged and shock-resistant than 230 V lamps.

Technical power (balanced power)

In a so-called "technical power" system, an isolation transformer with a center tap is used to create a separate supply with conductors at a balanced 60 volts with respect to ground. Unlike a three-wire distribution system, the grounded neutral is not distributed to the loads; only line-to-line connections at 120 volts are used. A balanced power system is only used for specialized distribution in audio and video production studios, sound and television broadcasting, and installations of sensitive scientific instruments. The purpose of a balanced power system is to minimize the noise coupled into sensitive equipment from the power supply. In the United States the National Electrical Code provides rules for such installations [NFPA 70, National Electrical Code 2005, National Fire Protection Association, Inc., Quincy, Massachusetts USA, (2005). no ISBN , article 640] . Technical power systems are not to be used for general-purpose lighting or other equipment, and may use special sockets to ensure only approved equipment is connected to the system.


A split-phase motor is a type of single-phase electric motor. A split-phase motor runs on a single phase and has no special relationship to a split-phase (3-wire) distribution system.

ee also

Shared neutral


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