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Home / Technical Articles / Comparison Of Cable Insulating Materials
XLPE Insulated Power Cable
XLPE Insulated Power High Voltage Cable

Electrical insulation materials are employed over the metallic conductors of underground cables at all voltage ratings. Polymeric materials are employed as the insulation, but the nature of the polymer may vary with the voltage class.

Since paper insulation was used first in the power industry, and was later replaced in low and medium voltage applications, any comparison of properties usually employs the paper-fluid system as the standard.

Transmission cables, which are defined as cables operating above 46 kV, have traditionally used paper / oil systems as the insulation. The paper is applied as a thin film wound over the cable core. Some years back, a variation of this paper insulation was developed, the material being a laminate of paper with polypropylene (PPP or PPLP).

Since the advent of synthetic polymer development, polyethylene (PE) has been used as an insulation material, and in most countries (France being the exception) the use of polyethylene was limited to the crosslinked version (XLPE).

XLPE is considered to be the material of choice due to its ease of processing and handling, although paper / oil systems have a much longer history of usage and much more information on reliability exists.

Major Differences Between Paper and Polyolefinic Insulations

Paper / CellulosePolyethylene
Carbon / hydrogen/oxygenCarbon / hydrogen/oxygen
More polar / medium lossesLess polar, low losses
Chains linearChains branched
Partially crystalline / Relatively constantPartially crystalline / Varies with grade employed
No thermal expansion on heatingSignificant thermal expansion
Not crosslinkedNot crosslinked
Thermal degradation via cleavage at weak linkDegrades at weak links


Crosslinked PolyethyleneEthylene Propylene Rubber
Carbon / hydrogenCarbon / hydrogen
Less polar, low lossesLosses due to additives
Chains branched, crosslinkedChains branched, crosslinked
Slightly less crystalinevs PELeast crystaline of all
Same thermal expansion as PESlight thermal expansion
Degrades at weak linksSame as XLPE

This table provides a comparison of the properties of paper, polyethylene, crosslinked polyethylene, and ethylene propylene rubber insulations. Only the paper is a natural polymer and is therefore processed differently. Paper is obtained fi-om a wood or cotton source.

The synthetic polymers are produced by polymerization of monomers derived from petroleum. All consist of carbon and hydrogen, but paper also contains oxygen. The latter is present as fuctional hydroxyl or ether groups. The contribute a measure of polarity that is absent in the synthetic polymers. (Polarity means increased dielectric losses.)

Of special note is the concept of thermal expansion during heating. While all of the synthetic polymers undergo thermal expansion during heating, this does not occur with cellulose-although the oil will do so. How these insulations respond on aging is a well studied subject since it is directly related to reliability of the cable after installation and energization. When cellulose degrades, it does so at a “weak link,” the region of the oxygen linkage between the rings. When this happens, the DP is reduced.

On the other hand, polyolefins degrade by a completely different mechanism–oxidative degradation at specific sites.

Protection against degradation is imparted to  polyolefins by adding an antioxidant to the pellets prior to extrusion. Note that adding antioxidants to oil to prevent it from degradingis rather common. One further point should be noted on the chart: the different response of the insulation types to dc testing. DC testing of cables has traditionally been performed to ascertain the state of the cable at specific times during their use, such as before peak load season. This is a technique that was adopted for PILC cables many years ago.

This was later carried over to extruded dielectric cables. Research and development in the past few years has shown that PE and XLPE may be harmed by the use of a dc test, but this does not occur with paper-oil systems.

EPR cables have not been studied to the same extent and no conclusions can be drawn at this time about the effect of dc testing on the insulation.

Advantages of polyethylene

  • Low permittivity (low dielectric constant)
  • Low tan delta (low dielectric loss)
  • High initial dielectric strength

Advantages of crosslinked polyethylene (in addition to the ones above)

  • Improved mechanical properties at elevated temperature
  • No melting above 105 “C but thermal expansion occurs
  • Reduced susceptibility to water treeing

Advantages of EPR

  • Reduced thermal expansion relative to XLP
  • Reduced sensitivity to water treeing
  • Increased flexibility

Advantages of PILC

  • Lack of sensitivity to dc testing
  • Known history of reliability

Particular advantages of synthetic polymer insulations over PILC

  • Reduced weight
  • Accessories more easily applied
  • Easier to repair faults
  • No hydraulic pressure / pumping requirements
  • Reduced risk of flame propagation
  • Reduced initial cost

Some of these advantages are electrical and some are not. Care must be taken in seeking to compare EPR to XLPE to TR-XLPE. There are many different EPR formulations.

The nature of the non-polymeric additives, including fillers, plays a major role in influencing properties as well as the nature of the mixing process. What is clear is that any EPR formulation will have higher losses than a non-mineral filled PE or XLPE system. Some EPR systems may have very high losses. This may influence resistance to water treeing. However, EPR systems are generally ‘‘softer” due to their lack of crystallinity and therefore easier to handle in the field-especially at very low temperatures.

Disadvantages to PILC include the fact that lead is usually used as an outer sheath and the motivation not to use lead for new installations is very high. Paper is also highly susceptible to deterioration from moisture.

Author: Bruce S. Bernstein

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Edvard Csanyi

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 facilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming.


  1. Bhaskar Sen
    May 15, 2018

    want simple comparison between Bakelite/Teflon/DMS/Ebonite as insulation material

  2. Bharat Sehgal
    Jan 16, 2015

    Dear Sir,
    Pl help me to get enriched knowledge on Extra high voltage XLPE cables.CCV insulation process and xlpe property testing

  3. ali
    Dec 21, 2014

    Dear Sir or Madam
    I can get acquainted with a large transformer insulation test methods.

  4. Stojce
    Nov 15, 2011

    Transmission cables, which are defined as cables operating above 46 kV, have traditionally used paper / oil systems as the insulation.
    In the present time the PLC is already gone in history PVC/SWA/XLPE cable is in use .and accessories is following such as jointing with cross bonding ,fiber optic for thermal record and cable connectors all the system is in practical use … and so many advance on side of XLPE cables …
    The above is follow with standard for AC testing and commissioning what is different than for PLC cables
    Note: for the transfer of huge amount of power on long distance, already have systems DC current transmission and convertors DC/AC for the start and end of the T.Line above 400 kV… and etc.

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