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Home / Technical Articles / Earthing facts and terms you should always remember

Earthing purpose

While working as an electrical engineer, I learned that there are a dozen things you must remember, especially the ones that concern the safety. Whether you are in the electrical design field or in execution, you must admit that earthing is one of the fundamentals that you must never forget. Let’s talk about earthing.

Earthing facts
Earthing facts

Generally, earthing is always some reference for various concepts in electrical engineering and that’s very interesting. This technical article will put all the earthing facts on the table in order to remind all of us engineers. So, let’s start.

Earthing systems have the following general purpose: Protection of life and property in the events of 50-Hz-faults (short circuits and earth faults) and transient phenomena (lightning, switching operations).

The general layout of a complete earthing system with sections for low voltage, high voltage and buildings and building services is shown in Figure 1. The most important definitions related to earthing are grouped below.

Earth is the term for the earth as a location and for the earth as material, e.g. the soil types of humus, clay, sand, gravel, rock. Reference earth (neutral earth) is that part of the earth, particularly the surface outside the area of influence of an earth electrode or an earthing system, in which there are no detectable voltages resulting from the earthing current between any two random points.

Earth electrode is a conductor embedded in the ground and electrically connected to it, or a conductor embedded in concrete that is in contact with the earth over a large area (e.g. foundation earth).

Components of a ground electrode
Components of a ground electrode

Earthing conductor is a conductor connecting a system part to be earthed to an earth electrode, so long as it is laid out of contact with the ground or is insulated in the ground.

If the connection between a neutral or phase conductor and the earth electrode includes an isolating link, a disconnector switch or an earth-fault coil, only the connection between the earth electrode and the earth-side terminal of the nearest of the above devices is deemed to be an earthing conductor.

Main earthing conductor is an earthing conductor to which a number of earthing conductors are connected.

It does not include:

  1. Earthing conductors joining the earthed parts of the single units of three-phase assemblies (3 instrument transformers, 3 potheads, 3 post insulators etc.),
  2. With compartment-type installations: earthing conductors that connect the earthed parts of several devices of a compartment and are connected to a (continuous) main earthing conductor within this compartment.
Earthing conductor connection
Earthing conductor connection

Earthing system is a locally limited assembly of conductively interconnected earth electrodes or metal parts operating in the same way (e.g. tower feet, armouring, metal cable sheaths) and earthing conductors.

To earth means to connect an electrically conductive part to the ground via an earthing system. Earthing is the total of all measures used for earthing.

Specific earth resistivity ρE is the specific electrical resistivity of the ground. It is generally stated in Ω m2/m = Ω m and indicates the resistance between two opposite cube faces of a cube of soil with sides of 1 m.

Earthing system with equipotential bonding between HV/LV indoor switchgear and building/building services
Figure 1 – Earthing system with equipotential bonding between HV/LV indoor switchgear and building/building services

Dissipation resistance RA of an earth electrode is the resistance of the earth between the earth electrode and the reference earth. RA is in practice a real resistance.

Earthing impedance ZE is the AC impedance between an earthing system and the reference earth at operating frequency. The value of the earthing impedance is derived from parallelling the dissipation resistances of the earth electrodes and the impedances of connected conductor strings, e.g. the overhead earth wire and cables acting as earth electrodes.

Impulse earthing resistance Rst is the resistance presented to the passage of lightning currents between a point of an earthing system and the reference earth.

Protective earthing is the earthing of a conductive component that is not part of the main circuit for the protection of persons against unacceptable touch voltages.

System earthing is the earthing of a point of the main circuit necessary for proper operation of devices or installations. It is termed:

  1. Direct, if it includes no resistances other than the earthing impedance.
  2. Indirect, if it is established via additional resistive, inductive or capacitive resistances.

Lightning protection earthing is the earthing of a conductive component that is not part of the main circuit to avoid flashovers to the operational live conductors resulting from lightning as much as possible (back flashovers).

Electrical potential on the earth surface and voltages as current passes through the foundation earth electrode (FE) and control earth electrode (CE)
Electrical potential on the earth surface and voltages as current passes through the foundation earth electrode (FE) and control earth electrode (CE)


  1. UE – Earthing voltage
  2. UB1 – Touch voltage without potential control (on foundation earth electrode)
  3. UB2 – Touch voltage with potential control (foundation earth electrode and control earth electrode)
  4. US – Step voltage (without control earth electrode)
  5. φ – Earth surface potential
  6. FE – Foundation earth electrode
  7. CE – Control earth electrode (ring earth electrode)

Earthing voltage UE is the voltage occurring between an earthing system and the reference earth.

Earth surface potential φ is the voltage between a point on the surface of the earth and the reference earth.

Touch voltage UB is the part of the earthing voltage that can be shunted through the human body, the current path being through the human body from hand to foot (horizontal distance from exposed part about 1 m) or from hand to hand.

If there is a lightning stroke, the lightning current is routed through the down-conductors into the earthing system and the earth. The resistance of the down-conductor and the earth causes a voltage drop, which can lead to so-called touch voltage.

The touch voltage is the voltage between a component (e.g. the down-conductor) and earth potential. The current flows from the hand to the foot through the body. The potential hazard must be reduced by technical measures, e.g. a control earth electrode.

Step voltage US is that part of the earthing voltage that can be shunted by a person with a stride of 1 m, with the current path being through the human body from foot to foot.

Potential control consists in influencing the earth potential, particularly the earth surface potential, by earth electrodes to reduce the step and touch voltage in the outer area of the earthing system.

Earth fault is an electrical connection between a conductor of the main circuit with earth or an earthed part caused by a defect. The electrical connection can also be caused by an arc.

Earth fault current IF is the current passing to earth or earthed parts when an earth fault exists at only one point at the site of the fault (earth fault location). This is:

  1. The capacitive earth-fault current IC in networks with isolated neutral
  2. The earth-fault residual current IRest in networks with earth-fault compensation
  3. The zero-sequence current I”k1in networks with low-resistance neutral earthing.

Also includes networks with isolated neutral point or earth-fault compensators in which the neutral point is briefly earthed at the start of the fault.

Earthing current IE is the total current flowing to earth via the earthing impedance. The earthing current is the component of the earth-fault current IF which causes the rise in potential of an earthing system.

Types of earth electrodes

Classification by location:

The following examples are distinguished:

  1. Surface earth electrodes are earth electrodes that are generally positioned at shallow depths to about 1 m. They can be of strip, bar or stranded wire and be laid out as radial, ring or meshed earth electrodes or as a combination of these.
  2. Deep earth electrodes are earth electrodes that are generally positioned vertically at greater depths. They can be of tubular, round or sectional material.

Classification by shape and cross section:

The following examples are distinguished: Strip, stranded wire and tube earth electrodes.

Natural earth electrodes are metal parts in contact with the ground or water, directly or via concrete, whose original purpose is not earthing but they act as an earth electrode. They include pipes, caisson walls, concrete pile reinforcement, steel parts of buildings etc.

Cables with earthing effect are cables whose metal sheathing, shield or armouring provides a leakage to earth similar to that of strip earth electrodes.

Foundation earths are conductors embedded in concrete that is in contact with the ground over a large area . Foundation earths may be treated as if the conductor were laid in the surrounding soil.

Foundation and ring earth electrodes of a wind power plant
Foundation and ring earth electrodes of a wind power plant


  1. Foundation earth electrode
  2. Ring earth electrode

Control earth electrodes are earth electrodes that by their shape and arrangement are more for potential control than for retaining a specific dissipation resistance.

Rod earth electrodes of any significant length generally pass through soil horizons of varying conductivity. They are particularly useful where more conductive lower soil horizons are available and the rod earth electrodes can penetrate these horizons sufficiently (approximately 3 m).

To determine whether more conductive lower soil horizons are available, the specific resistance of the soil at the site is measured.

The specific resistivity ρE of the soil is important for calculating earthing systems. For this reason, ρE should be measured before beginning construction work for a switchgear installation; the measurements are made using the “Wenner Method”. Measuring the step and touch voltages after setup of a switchgear installation is one way to confirm the safety of the system.

The measurements are conducted in accordance with the current and voltage method in EN 61936-1 and DIN VDE 0101. The current and voltage method also allows the earthing impedance (dissipation resistance) of the installation to be calculated by measuring the potential gradient.

Use of earth testers (e.g. Megger, Fluke or similar) to measure dissipation resistance should be restricted to single earth electrodes or earthing systems of small extent (e.g. rod earth electrode, strip earth electrode, tower earth electrode, earthing for small switchgear installations).

Earthing material

Earth electrodes (under ground) and earthing conductors (above ground) must conform to specific minimum dimensions regarding mechanical stability and possible corrosion resistance as listed in Table 1.

Table 1 Minimum dimensions for earth electrodes and earthing conductors

Minimum dimensions for earth electrodes and earthing conductors
Minimum dimensions for earth electrodes and earthing conductors


    1. Minimum thickness 2 mm
    2. For above-ground earthing conductors only
    3. For conductors protected against corrosion
    4. When laid in the soil: hot-dip galvanized (minimum coating 70 µm)
    5. Minimum thickness 3 mm (3.5 mm as per DIN 48801 and DIN VDE 0185)
    6. Equivalent to 10 mm diameter
    7. With composite deep ground electrodes: at least 16 mm diameter.
    8. Minimum wall thickness 2 mm
    9. Minimum thickness 3 mm
    10. For steel wire, copper coating: 20 % of the steel cross section (min. 35 mm2), for composite deep ground electrodes: minimum 15 mm diameter

Selection of material for earth electrodes with respect to corrosion (no connection to other materials) may be made in accordance with the following points (DIN VDE 0151):

Hot-dip galvanized steel is very durable in almost all soil types. Hot-galvanized steel is also suitable for embedding in concrete.

Contrary to DIN 1045, foundation earths, earthing conductors embedded in concrete, equipotential bonding conductors and lightning conductor leads of galvanized steel can be connected to reinforcing steel if the joints are not subjected to prolonged temperatures higher than 40 °C.

Copper is suitable as an earth electrode material in power systems with high fault currents because of its significantly greater electrical conductivity compared to steel. Bare copper is generally very durable in the soil.

Copper coated with tin or zinc is, like bare copper, generally very durable in the soil. Tinplated copper has no electrochemical advantage over bare copper.

Copper with lead sheath. Lead tends to form a good protective layer underground and is therefore durable in many soil types. However, it may be subject to corrosion in a strongly alkaline environment (pH values ≥ 10).

IMPORTANT! For this reason, lead should not be directly embedded in concrete. The sheath may corrode under ground if it is damaged.

To conclude…

The earthing system is the basis for the entire electrical system. Together with the equipotential bonding system, a conductive and low-resistance connection to the local earth is created.

Voltage differences between the connected parts are shorted and a reference potential is generated. The safety conditions and switch-off systems can only reach their protection aims when the system is implemented correctly.

Besides correct planning, the installation must be checked and documented. The continued protective action of the earthing system must be ensured through regular maintenance and testing. Besides the state of the art and the named standards, the directives of the local power generating company must be complied with.

A correctly installed earthing system, together with lightning and surge protection devices, can minimize damage and failures.


  1. ABB switchgear book
  2. OBO Betermann – Earthing systems

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More Information

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. Bob Gitsham
    Aug 24, 2023

    Hi, very interesting. I have a question if you can help I have a caravan in which I use a 4Kva generator, and a 2Kw inverter. they never used together, and are wired up in such a way that they cannot be sed in the same circuits.

    My question is how can I ground them? When travelling I usually camp overnight, and move on the next day. I don’t see a practical way of driving in ground spikes, and then trying to remove them the next day.

    Am I safe in thinking That it’s not really necessary in that if these devices are not grounded then my active and nuetral are floating. I would need a fault on both active and nuetral to create a hazardous condition. Thank you in advance.

  2. george maweu
    Aug 23, 2023

    A very insightful and good knowledge for engineers .i like it

  3. Ben Bitok
    Mar 18, 2020

    Thanks for the article. Great piece.

  4. Marcello Cattai
    Mar 15, 2020

    Very interesting and useful article. It really summarizes all it’s needed to safely design an earthing system. Thanks for it.

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