How to locate underground faults on cable?

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Cable fault on two cables
Cable fault on two cables

A  common approach to test cable and determine insulation integrity is to use a Hi-pot test. In a hi-pot test, a DC voltage is applied for 5 to 15 min. IEEE-400 specifies that the hi-pot voltage for a 15-kV class cable is 56 kV for an acceptance test and 46 kV for a maintenance test (ANSI/IEEE Std. 400-1980). Other industry standard tests are given in (AEIC CS5-94, 1994; AEIC CS6-96, 1996; ICEA S-66-524, 1988). High-pot testing is a brute-force test; imminent failures are detected, but the amount of deterioration due to aging is not quantified (go/no-go test).

The DC test is controversial – some evidence has shown that hi-pot testing may damage XLPE cable (Mercier and Ticker, 1998). EPRI work has shown that dc testing accelerates treeing (EPRI TR-101245, 1993; EPRI TR-101245-V2, 1995).

For Hi-pot testing of 15-kV, 100% insulation (175-mil, 4.445-mm) XLPE cable, EPRI recommended:

  • Do not do testing at 40 kV (228 V/mil) on cables that are aged (especially those that failed once in service and then are spliced). Above 300 V/mil, deterioration was predominant.
  • New cable can be tested at the factory at 70 kV. No effect on cable life was observed for testing of new cable.
  • New cable can be tested at 55 kV in the field prior to energization if aged cable has not been spliced in.
  • Testing at lower dc voltages (such as 200 V/mil) will not pick out bad sections of cable.

Another option for testing cable integrity: ac testing does not degrade solid dielectric insulation (or at least degrades it more slowly). The use of very low frequency AC testing (at about 0.1 Hz) may cause less damage to aged cable than DC testing (Eager et al., 1997) (but utilities have reported that it is not totally benign, and ac testing has not gained widespread usage).

The low frequency has the advantage that the equipment is much smaller than 60-Hz AC testing equipment.

Fault Location

Utilities use a variety of tools and techniques to locate underground faults. Several are described in the next few paragraphs [see also EPRI TR-105502 (1995)].

Divide and conquer

On a radial tap where the fuse has blown, crews narrow down the faulted section by opening the cable at locations. Crews start by opening the cable near the center, then they replace the fuse. If the fuse blows, the fault is upstream; if it doesn’t blow, the fault is downstream.

Crews then open the cable near the center of the remaining portion and continue bisecting the circuit at appropriate sectionalizing points (usually padmounted transformers). Of course, each time the cable faults, more dam-age is done at the fault location, and the rest of the system has the stress of carrying the fault currents. Using current-limiting fuses reduces the fault-current stress but increases the cost.

Fault indicators

Faulted circuit indicators (FCIs) are small devices clamped around a cable that measure current and signal the passage of fault current. Normally, these are applied at padmounted transformers. Faulted circuit indicators do not pinpoint the fault; they identify the fault to a cable section.

Figure 1 - Typical URD fault indicator application
Figure 1 - Typical URD fault indicator application

After identifying the failed section, crews must use another method such as the thumper to precisely identify the fault. If the entire section is in conduit, crews don’t need to pinpoint the location; they can just pull the cable and replace it (or repair it if the faulted portion is visible from the outside). Cables in conduit require less precise fault location; a crew only needs to identify the fault to a given conduit section.

Utilities’ main justification for faulted circuit indicators is reducing the length of customer interruptions. Faulted circuit indicators can significantly decrease the fault-finding stage relative to the divide-and-conquer method. Models that make an audible noise or have an external indicator decrease the time needed to open cabinets. Utilities use most fault indicators on URD loops. With one fault indicator per transformer (see Figure 1), a crew can identify the failed section and immediately reconfigure the loop to restore power to all customers. The crew can then proceed to pinpoint the fault and repair it (or even delay the repair for a more convenient time).

For larger residential subdivisions or for circuits through commercial areas, location is more complicated. In addition to trans-formers, fault indicators should be placed at each sectionalizing or junction box. On three-phase circuits, either a three-phase fault indicator or three single-phase indicators are available; single-phase indicators identify the faulted phase (a significant advantage). Other useful locations for fault indicators are on either end of cable sections of overhead circuits, which are common at river crossings or under major highways. These sections are not fused, but fault indicators will show patrolling crews whether the cable section has failed.

Fault indicators may be reset in a variety of ways. On manual reset units, crews must reset the devices once they trip. These units are less likely to reliably indicate faults. Self-resetting devices are more likely to be accurate as they automatically reset based on current, voltage, or time. Current-reset is most common; after tripping, if the unit senses current above a threshold, it resets [standard values are 3, 1.5, and 0.1 A (NRECA RER Project 90-8, 1993)]. With current reset, the minimum circuit load at that point must be above the threshold, or the unit will never reset. On URD loops, when applying current-reset indicators, consider that the open point might change.

This changes the current that the fault indicator sees. Again, make sure the circuit load is enough to reset the fault indicator. Voltage reset models pro-vide a voltage sensor; when the voltage exceeds some value (the voltage sensor senses at secondary voltage or at an elbow’s capacitive test point). Time-reset units simply reset after a given length of time. Fault indicators should only operate for faults – not for load, not for inrush, not for lightning, and not for backfeed currents. False readings can send crews on wild chases looking for faults. Reclose operations also cause loads and transformers to draw inrush, which can falsely trip a fault indicator.  An inrush  restraint feature disables tripping for up to one second following energization. On single-phase taps, inrush restraint is really only needed for manually-reset fault indicators (the faulted phase with the blown fuse will not have inrush that affects downstream fault indicators). Faults in adjacent cables can also falsely trip indicators; the magnetic fields couple into the pickup coil. Shielding can help prevent this.

Several scenarios cause backfeed that can trip fault indicators. Downstream of a fault, the stored charge in the cable will rush into the fault, possibly tripping fault indicators.

McNulty (1994)  reported that 2000 ft of 15-kV cable created an oscillatory current transient that peaked at 100  A  and decayed in 0.15 msec. Nearby capacitor banks on the overhead system can make outrush worse. Motors and other rotating equipment can also backfeed faults. To avoid false trips, use a high set point. Equipment with filtering that  reduces the indicator’s sensitivity to transient currents also helps, but too much filtering may leave the faulted-circuit indicator unable to detect faults cleared rapidly by current-limiting fuses.

Self-resetting fault indicators can also falsely reset. Backfeed currents and voltages can  reset fault indicators. On a three-phase circuit with one phase tripped, the faulted phase can backfeed through three-phase transformer connections, providing enough current or enough voltage to reset faulted-circuit indicators. On single-phase circuits, these are not a problem. In general, single-phase application is much easier; we do not have backfeed problems or problems with indicators tripping from faults on nearby cables.

For single-phase application guidelines, see (IEEE Std 1216-2000). Fault indicators may have a threshold-type trip characteristic like an instantaneous relay (any current above the set point trips the flag), or they may have a time-overcurrent characteristic which trips faster for higher currents. Those units with time-overcurrent characteristics should be coor-dinated with minimum clearing curves of current-limiting fuses to ensure that they operate. Another type of fault indicator uses an adaptive setting that trips based on a sudden increase in current followed by a loss of current.

Set the trip level on fault indicators to less than 50% of the available fault current or 500 A, whichever is less (IEEE P1610/D03, 2002). This trip thresh-old should be at least two to three times the load on the circuit to minimize false indications. These two conditions will almost never conflict, only at the end of a very long feeder (low fault currents) on a cable that is heavily loaded.

Normally, fault indicators are fixed equipment, but they can be used for targeted fault location. When crews arrive at a faulted and isolated section, they first apply fault indicators between sections (normally at padmounted transformers). Crews reenergize the failed portion and then check the fault indicators to identify the faulted section. Only one extra fault is applied to the circuit, not multiple faults as with the divide and conquer method.

Section testing —  Crews isolate a section of cable and apply a dc hipot voltage. If the cable holds the hi-pot voltage, crews proceed to the next section and repeat until finding a cable that cannot hold the hi-pot voltage. Because the voltage is DC, the cable must be isolated from the transformer.

In a faster variation of this, high-voltage sticks are available that use the AC line voltage to apply a dc voltage to the isolated cable section. Thumper – The thumper applies a pulsed dc voltage to the cable. As its name implies, at the fault the thumper discharges sound like a thumping noise as the gap at the failure point repeatedly sparks over. The thumper charges a capacitor and uses a triggered gap to discharge the capacitor’s charge into the cable. Crews can find the fault by listening for the thumping noise. Acoustic enhancement devices can help crews locate weak thumping noises; antennas that pick up the radio-frequency interference from the arc discharge also help pinpoint the fault. Thumpers are good for finding the exact fault location so that crews can start digging. On a 15-kV class system, utilities typically thump with voltages from 10 to 15 kV, but utilities some-times use voltages to 25 kV.

While pulsed discharges are thought to be less damaging to cable than a steady dc voltage, utilities have concern that thumping can damage the unfailed sections of cable. When a thumper pulse breaks down the cable, the incoming surge shoots past the fault. When it reaches the open point, the voltage doubles, then the voltage pulse bounces back and forth between the open point and the fault, switching from +2 to –2E  (where  E  is the thumper pulse voltage).

In tests, EPRI research found that thumping can reduce the life of aged cable (EPRI EL-6902, 1990; EPRI TR-108405-V1, 1997; Hartlein et al., 1989; Hartlein et al., 1994). The thumping discharges at the failure point can also increase the damage at the fault point. Most utilities try to limit the voltage or discharge energy, and a few don’t use a thumper for fear of additional damage to cables and components (Tyner, 1998). A few utilities also disconnect transformers from the system during thumping to protect the transformer and prevent surges from propagating through the transformer (these surges should be small). If the fault has no gap, and if the fault is a solid short circuit, then no arc forms, and the thumper will not create its characteristic thump (fortunately, solid short circuits are rare in cable faults). Some crews keep thumping in an effort to burn the short circuit apart enough to start arcing.

With cable in conduit, the thumping may be louder near the conduit ends than at the fault location. Generally, crews should start with the voltage low and increase as needed. A DC hi-pot voltage can help determine how much voltage the thumper needs.


Also called Time-domain reflectometry (TDR), a radar set injects a very short-duration current pulse into the cable. At discontinuities, a por-tion of the pulse will reflect back to the set; knowing the velocity of wave propagation along cable gives us an estimate of the distance to the fault.

Depending on the test set and settings, radar pulses can be from 5 ns to 5 µs wide. Narrower pulses give higher resolution, so users can better differ-entiate between faults and reflections from splices and other discontinuities (Banker et al., 1994). Radar does not give pinpoint accuracy; its main use is to narrow the fault to a certain section. Then, crews can use a thumper or other pinpoint tech-nique to find the failure. Taking a radar pulse from either end of a cable and averaging the results can lead to an improved estimate of the location. Radar location on circuits with taps can be complicated, especially those with multiple taps; the pulse will reflect off the taps, and the reflection from the actual fault will be less than it otherwise would be.

Technology has been developed to use above-ground antennas to sense and pinpoint faults based on the radar signals.


Radar and thumper

After a fuse or other circuit interrupter clears a fault in a cable, the area around the fault point recovers some insulation strength. Checking the cable with an ohm meter would show an open circuit. Likewise, the radar pulse passes right by the fault, so the radar set alone cannot detect the fault. Using radar with a thumper solves this problem. A thumper pulse breaks down the gap, and the radar superimposes a pulse that reflects off the fault arc. The risetime of the thumper waveshape is on the order of a few microseconds; the radar pulse total width may be less than 0.05 µsec.

Another less attractive approach is to use a thumper to continually burn the cable until the fault resistance becomes low enough to get a reading on a radar set (this is less attractive because it subjects the cable to many more thumps, especially if crews use high voltages).

Boucher (1991) reported that fault indicators were the most popular fault locating approach, but most utilities use a variety of techniques (see Figure 2). Depending on the type of circuit, the circuit layout, and the equipment available, different approaches are sometimes better.

FIGURE 2 - Utility use of fault-locating techniques (204 utilities surveyed, multiple responses allowed).
FIGURE 2 - Utility use of fault-locating techniques (204 utilities surveyed, multiple responses allowed).

When applying test voltages to cables, crews must be mindful that cables can hold significant charge. Cables have significant capacitance, and cables can maintain charge for days.


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About Author


Edvard Csanyi

Edvard - Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry fascilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming. Present on