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North American versus European distribution systems
North American versus European distribution systems (on photo: A beautiful daisy and the transmission tower; credit: Little_Karen via Flickr)

Layouts, configurations, and applications

Distribution systems around the world have evolved into different forms. The two main designs are North American and European. For both forms, hardware is much the same: conductors, cables, insulators, surge arresters, regulators, and transformers are very similar. Both systems are radial, and voltages and power carrying capabilities are similar.

The main differences are in layouts, configurations, and applications.

FIGURE 1 - North American versus European distribution layouts.
FIGURE 1 – North American versus European distribution layouts.

Figure 1 compares the two systems. Relative to North American designs, European systems have larger transformers and more customers per trans-former. Most European transformers are three-phase and on the order of 300 to 1000 kVA, much larger than typical North American 25- or 50-kVA single-phase units.

Secondary voltages have motivated many of the differences in distribution systems.

North America has standardized on a 120/240-V secondary system; on these, voltage drop constrains how far utilities can run secondaries, typically no more than 250 ft. In European designs, higher secondary voltages allow secondaries to stretch to almost 1 mi.

European secondaries are largely three-phase and most European countries have a standard secondary voltage of 220, 230, or 240 V, twice the North American standard.

With twice the voltage, a circuit feeding the same load can reach four times the distance. And because three-phase secondaries can reach over twice the length of a single-phase secondary, overall, a European secondary can reach eight times the length of an American secondary for a given load and voltage drop.

Although it is rare, some European utilities supply rural areas with single-phase taps made of two phases with single-phase transformers connected phase to phase.


In the European design, secondaries are used much like primary laterals in the North American design. In European designs, the primary is not tapped frequently, and primary-level fuses are not used as much. Euro-pean utilities also do not use reclosing as religiously as North American utilities.

Some of the differences in designs center around the differences in loads and infrastructure. In Europe, the roads and buildings were already in place when the electrical system was developed, so the design had to “fit in.” Secondary is often attached to buildings.

In North America, many of the roads and electrical circuits were developed at the same time. Also, in Europe houses are packed together more and are smaller than houses in America. Each type of system has its advantages.

Some of the major differences between systems are the following:


Cost //

The European system is generally more expensive than the North American system, but there are so many variables that it is hard to compare them on a one-to-one basis. For the types of loads and layouts in Europe, the European system fits quite well.

European primary equipment is generally more expensive, especially for areas that can be served by single-phase circuits.


Flexibility //

The North American system has a more flexible primary design, and the European system has a more flexible secondary design. For urban systems, the European system can take advantage of the flexible secondary; for example, transformers can be sited more conveniently. For rural systems and areas where load is spread out, the North American primary system is more flexible.

The North American primary is slightly better suited for picking up new load and for circuit upgrades and extensions.


Safety //

The multigrounded neutral of the North American primary system provides many safety benefits. Protection can more reliably clear faults, and the neutral acts as a physical barrier, as well as helping to prevent dangerous touch voltages during faults.

The European system has the advantage that high-impedance faults are easier to detect.


Reliability //

Generally, North American designs result in fewer customer interruptions. Nguyen et al. (2000) simulated the performance of the two designs for a hypothetical area and found that the average frequency of interruptions was over 35% higher on the European system.

Although European systems have less primary, almost all of it is on the main feeder backbone. Loss of the main feeder results in an interruption for all customers on the circuit. European systems need more switches and other gear to maintain the same level of reliability.

Power quality //

Generally, European systems have fewer voltage sags and momentary interruptions. On a European system, less primary exposure should translate into fewer momentary interrup-tions compared to a North American system that uses fuse saving.

The three-wire European system helps protect against sags from line-to-ground faults.

A squirrel across a bushing (from line to ground) causes a relatively high impedance fault path that does not sag the voltage much compared to a bolted fault on a well-grounded system. Even if a phase conductor faults to a low-impedance return path (such as a well-grounded secondary neutral), the delta-wye customer transformers provide better immunity to voltage sags, especially if the substation transformer is grounded through a resistor or reactor.


Aesthetics //

Having less primary, the European system has an aesthetic advantage: the secondary is easier to underground or to blend in. For underground systems, fewer transformer locations and longer secondary reach make siting easier.


Theft //

The flexibility of the European secondary system makes power much easier to steal. Developing countries especially have this problem. Secondaries are often strung along or on top of buildings; this easy access does not require great skill to attach into.

Outside of Europe and North America, both systems are used, and usage typically follows colonial patterns with European practices being more widely used. Some regions of the world have mixed distribution systems, using bits of North American and bits of European practices.

The worst mixture is 120-V secondaries with European-style primaries. The low-voltage secondary has limited reach along with the more expensive European primary arrangement. Higher secondary voltages have been explored (but not implemented to my knowledge) for North American systems to gain flexibility. Higher secondary voltages allow extensive use of secondary, which makes under-grounding easier and reduces costs.

Westinghouse engineers contended that both 240/480-V three-wire single-phase and 265/460-V four-wire three-phase secondaries provide cost advantages over a similar 120/240-V three-wire secondary (Lawrence and Griscom, 1956; Lokay and Zimmerman, 1956). Higher secondary voltages do not force higher utilization voltages; a small transformer at each house converts 240 or 265 V to 120 V for lighting and standard outlet use (air conditioners and major appliances can be served directly without the extra transformation).

More recently, Bergeron et al. (2000) outline a vision of a distribution system where primary-level distribution voltage is stepped down to an extensive 600-V, three-phase secondary system. At each house, an electronic transformer converts 600 V to 120/240 V.

Reference // El. power distribution equipment and systems – T.A.Short

About Author //

author-pic

Edvard Csanyi

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

16 Comments


  1. C J Cooney
    May 30, 2016

    This article has little basis in science or reality. It appears to be a propaganda sales job on the nasty business of Europeans running 240V to every appliance and lamp in a home. The bit about a 120V secondary only running 250′, but 240V can run a mile is easily proven false. I could point out ten more completely bogus statements.

    I’d remove this trash off your otherwise fine website.


  2. Mahmoud Heidari
    Sep 01, 2014

    I wonder how a three phase system is configured in North American Layout. Can anyone shed a light on this.
    Thanks.

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  4. elbf2801
    Nov 28, 2013

    The indicated North American Layout will cause a great source unbalance and there will be a need from time to time to check neutral current unbalance.
    European layout allows the system neutral to be kind of ungrounded unless the current trought the grounding resistor is large. In this case the ungrounded advantage vanishes.
    In some European countries Petersen Coils Grounding are used. This is expensive but allows limiting the neutral fault current.
    North American Layout allows large ground short circuit currents thus simplifying relay settings and coordination but the equipment will be strenghtened.

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