Premium Membership

Learn about power engineering and HV/MV/LV substations. Study specialized technical articles, electrical guides, and papers.

Home / Technical Articles / The essentials of radial distribution system and its subtransmission circuits

Distribution system in general

Electric distribution system is all of that part of an electric power system between the bulk power source or sources and the consumers’ service switches. The bulk power sources are located in or near the load area to be served by the distribution system and may be either generating stations or power substations supplied over transmission lines.

The essentials of radial distribution system and its subtransmission circuits
The essentials of radial distribution system and its subtransmission circuits (photo credit: Merko)

Distribution systems can, in general, be divided into six parts, namely: subtransmission circuits, distribution substations, distribution or primary feeders, distribution transformers, secondary circuits or secondaries, and consumers’ service connections and meters or consumers’ services.

Figure 1 is a schematic diagram of a typical distribution system showing these parts.

The subtransmission circuits extend from the bulk power source or sources to the various distribution substations located in the load area. They may be radial circuits connected to a bulk power source at only one end or loop and ring circuits connected to one or more bulk power sources at both ends.

The subtransmission circuits consist of underground cable, aerial cable, or overhead open-wire conductors carried on poles, or some combination of them. The subtransmission voltage is usually between 11kV and 33kV, inclusive.

Typical distribution system and its components
Figure 1 – Typical distribution system and its components

Each distribution substation normally serves its own load area, which is a subdivision of the area served by the distribution system. At the distribution substation the subtransmission voltage is reduced for general distribution throughout the area.

The substation consists of one or more power-transformer banks together with the necessary voltage regulating equipment, buses, and switchgear.

Now, let’s have a discussion about radial distribution networks and their characteristics, flexibility and layouts.

The Radial System

The radial type of distribution system, a simple form of which is shown in Figure 2, is the most common. It is used extensively to serve the light- and medium-density load areas where the primary and secondary circuits are usually carried overhead on poles.

The distribution substation or substations can be supplied from the bulk-power source over radial or loop subtransmission circuits or over a subtransmission grid or network.

The radial system gets its name from the fact that the primary feeders radiate from the distribution substations and branch into subfeeders and laterals which extend into all parts of the area served.

The distribution transformers are connected to the primary feeders, subfeeders, and laterals, usually through fused cutouts, and supply the radial secondary circuits to which the consumers’ services are connected.

Oil circuit breakers arranged for overcurrent tripping are used to connect the radial-primary feeders to the low-voltage bus of their associated substation.

Simple form of radial-type distribution system
Figure 2 – Simple form of radial-type distribution system

When a short-circuit occurs on a feeder its station breaker opens and interrupts the service to all consumers supplied by the feeder.

Manually-operated sectionalizing switches are often installed at the junction of the subfeeders and the main feeder.

When trouble on a subfeeder has been located the faulty section can be isolated by opening the proper switch, and service can be restored to the remainder of the feeder before repairs are made.

The purpose of the fuses in the primary leads of the distribution transformers is to open the circuit in case of trouble in a transformer or on its associated secondary lines and prevent a possible shutdown of a considerable portion of the feeder or the entire feeder on such faults.

The subfeeders and laterals are sometimes fused to prevent tripping the feeder breaker at the substation and thus reduce the extent of the outage when a fault occurs on one of them.

The fuse cutout
The fuse cutout (photo credit: Olinsys Electric)

Obviously, the transformer fuses, branch fuses, and feeder breaker should be properly coordinated so that the circuit will be opened at the proper point to keep the outage to a minimum. When a fault that is not self clearing develops on any section of the feeder, in one of its associated distribution transformers, or on one of its secondary circuits, a number of the consumers will be without service for a considerable period.

All consumers connected to the feeder will, of course, be affected if the fault is located so as to cause the feeder breaker at the substation to open.

Experience with faults on open-wire circuits has shown that deenergizing the circuits causes the faults to clear themselves in most cases. For this reason the feeder breakers are often made to reclose automatically.

The reclosing equipment provides one, two, or three reclosures before the breaker is locked open.

Fundamentally the advantages of the radial distribution system are simplicity and low first cost. These result from a straightforward circuit arrangement, where a sin-gle or radial path is provided from the distribution substation, and sometimes from the hulk power source, to the consumer.

With such a circuit arrangement the amount of switching equipment is small and the protective relaying is simple.

Although simplicity and low first cost account for the widespread use of the radial system they are not present in all forms of the system. The lack of continuity of service is the principal defect of the radial system of distribution. Attempts to overcome this defect have resulted in many forms and arrangements of the radial system.

Frequently the system is radial only from the distribution substations to the distribution transformers. Because of the many system arrangements encountered it is sometimes difficult to determine in what major type a system should be classified.

To aid in such classification and to follow more readily the discussion of radial systems, it should be remembered that:

A radial system is a system having a single path over which current may flow for a part or all of the way from the distribution substation or substations to the primary of any distribution transformer.

Go back to contents ↑


Power is transmitted from the bulk power source or sources to the distribution substations over the subtransmission circuits. These circuits may be simple radial circuits, parallel or loop circuits, or a number of interconnected circuits forming a subtransmission grid or network.

Several factors influence the selection of the subtransmission arrangement for supplying distribution substations in a radial system. Two of the most important are cost and reliability of power supply to distribution substations.

A radial arrangement of subtransmission circuits such as that shown in Figure 3 results in the lowest first cost.

Simple form of radial type subtransmission circuits
Figure 3 – Simple form of radial type subtransmission circuits

This form of subtransmission is not usually employed because of the poor service reliability it provides. A fault on a radial subtransmission circuit results in a service interruption to all loads fed over it.

The economical use of subtransmission circuits and associated circuit breakers dictates that each subtransmission circuit carry a relatively large block of load.

Thus a fault on a radial subtransmission circuit results in the loss of considerable load, which usually means that a large area and many consumers are without service.

An improved form of radial subtransmission is shown in Figure 4 below. Each radial subtransmission circuit serves as a normal feed to certain distribution substation transformers and as an emergency feed to others.

This arrangement permits quick restoration of service when a radial subtransmission circuit is faulted.

Improved form of radial type subtransmission circuits
Figure 4 – Improved form of radial type subtransmission circuits

The substation transformers normally fed from the faulty circuit are each provided with an emergency circuit to which they can be switched either manually or automatically. This arrangement does not prevent an extensive service interruption for a short time and requires spare capacity to be built into the radial subtransmission circuits.

Because extensive service interruptions cannot often be tolerated, the subtransmission for a radial system usually takes the form of parallel or loop circuits or of a subtransmission grid.

Whether a loop or a grid arrangement of subtransmission circuits is preferable will depend largely on conditions in the particular load area, such as the load distribution, the topography, and the number and location of the bulk power sources.

A parallel- or loop-circuit subtransmission layout is shown in Figure 5, on which no single fault on any circuit will interrupt service to a distribution substation.

A parallel- or loop-circuit subtransmission layout
Figure 5 – A parallel- or loop-circuit subtransmission layout

All circuits must be designed so that they will not be overloaded when any one circuit is out of service. Two parallel circuits are considered to be a sectionalized loop supplying one distribution substation.

However, two parallel circuits running over the same right-of-way are not nearly as reliable as two circuits following different routes. A fault on one circuit may involve the other if the two circuits arc closely adjacent. This is not as likely to result, however, with cable circuits as with open-wire circuits.

The term “loop” as used here should not be confused with the term “ring”. By loop is meant a circuit which starts from a power-supply point or bus and after running through an area returns to the same point or bus; where-as a ring is a circuit or circuits which start from a power-supply point or bus, tie together a number of power-sup-ply points or buses, and return to the starting point or bus.

In other words, a ring is a loop from which substations can be supplied and into which power is fed at more than one point.

The ring arrangement is quite often used for subtransmission. It is a simple form of subtransmission network, and as the system grows it very often develops into a grid.

The network form of subtransmission is flexible in that it can readily be extended to supply additional distribution substations in the area it covers with a relatively small amount of new circuit construction. It requires a large number of circuit breakers, however, and is difficult and costly to relay.

The network or grid form of subtransmission shown in Figure 6 provides greater service reliability to the distribution substations than the radial and loop forms of subtransmission.

Network or grid form of subtransmission
Figure 6 – Network or grid form of subtransmission

This is true particularly when the distribution system is supplied from two or more bulk power sources, because it is possible for power to flow from any bulk power source to any distribution substation.

This paralleling of bulk power sources through the subtransmission circuits also has the advantage of tending to equalize the load on the bulk power sources. In a large distribution system any two or even all of the above forms of subtransmission may be employed between the bulk power sources and the various distribution substations, depending upon the service requirement of the different substations and economic considerations.

The form of subtransmission employed is also influenced by the design of the distribution substations used.

Go back to contents ↑

Source: Distribution systems by John S. Parsons and H. G. Parnett (ABB)

Premium Membership

Get access to premium HV/MV/LV technical articles, electrical engineering guides, research studies and much more! It helps you to shape up your technical skills in your everyday life as an electrical engineer.
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.

Leave a Comment

Tell us what you're thinking... we care about your opinion!

EEP Academy | Video Courses

Learn from experienced engineers and sharpen up your knowledge.