Electrical Insulation

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electrical insulation

[i′lek·trə·kəl ‚in·sə′lā·shən]
(building construction)

Insulation, Electrical


insulation intended to prevent formation of an electrical contact between parts of electrical-engineering equipment that are at differing potentials. Electrical insulation can be described in terms of electric strength, volume and surface resistance, dielectric loss, corona resistance, resistance to heat and cold, and mechanical strength.

The choice of dielectrics for electrical insulation depends on the operating conditions. For example, heat resistance is of decisive importance for the insulation of electric machines (generators and motors); in this case the insulation usually consists of mica. For the insulation of overhead power transmission lines, resistance to moisture and mechanical strength are of paramount importance; therefore, porcelain and glass are most suitable. In radio engineering equipment, electrical insulation usually consists of materials with minimum dielectric loss and maximum volume and surface resistance. Combination electrical insulation, which consists of mineral oil and of oil-impregnated cellulose (paper, cardboard, or pressboard), is used for transformers, electric capacitors, and cables.

The dimensions of insulation components are determined by the operating voltage of the installation and by the long-term strength of the electrical insulation for a specified period of service. If overvoltages (short-duration rises of voltage) can occur in an installation, the design and dimensions of the electrical insulation are also determined by the magnitude of possible over-voltages and by the short-term electrical strength.


Bogoroditskii, N. P., V. V. Pasynkov, and B. M. Tareev. Elektrotekhni-cheskie materialy, 4th ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Kozyrev, N. A. Izoliatsiia elektricheskikh mashin i melody ee ispylaniia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Artem’ev, D. E., N. N. Tikhodeev, and S. S. Shchur. Koordinatsiia izoliatsii linii elektroperedachi. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Sapozhnikov, A. V. Urovni izoliatsii elektrooborudovaniia vysokogo na-priazheniia. Moscow, 1969.


Electrical insulation

A nonconducting material that provides electric isolation of two parts at different voltages. To accomplish this, an insulator must meet two primary requirements: it must have an electrical resistivity and a dielectric strength sufficiently high for the given application. The secondary requirements relate to thermal and mechanical properties. Occasionally, tertiary requirements relating to dielectric loss and dielectric constant must also be observed. A complementary requirement is that the required properties not deteriorate in a given environment and desired lifetime. See Conductor (electricity)

Electric insulation is generally a vital factor in both the technical and economic feasibility of complex power and electronic systems. The generation and transmission of electric power depend critically upon the performance of electric insulation, and now plays an even more crucial role because of the energy shortage.


The important requirements for good insulation are as follows.

The basic difference between a conductor and a dielectric is that free charge has high mobility on and in a conductor, whereas free charge has little or no mobility on or in a dielectric. Dielectric strength is a measure of the electric stress required to abruptly move substantial charge on or through a dielectric. It deteriorates with the ingress of water and with elevated temperature. For high-voltage (on the order of kilovolts) applications, dielectric strength is the most important single property of the insulation. See Dielectric materials

Resistivity is a measure of how much current will be drained away from the conductor through the bulk or along the surface of the dielectric. An insulator with resistivity equal to or greater than 1013 ohm-cm may be considered good.

When a dielectric is subjected to an alternating field, a time-varying polarization of the atoms and molecules in the dielectric is produced. The alternation of both the permanent and induced polarization in the dielectric results in power dissipation within the dielectric of which the power factor is a measure. This dielectric power loss is proportional to the product of the dielectric constant and the square of the electric field in the dielectric. Although it may be a loss that is small relative to other losses in most ambient-temperature applications, and even though it generally decreases at low temperatures, it is a relatively important loss for dielectrics to be used at cryogenic temperatures.

The dielectric constant, also known as the relative permittivity or specific inductive capacity, is a measure of the ability of the dielectric to become polarized, taken as the ratio of the charge required to bring the system to the same voltage level relative to the charge required if the dielectric were vacuum. It is thus a pure number, but is in fact not a constant, and may vary with temperature, frequency, and electric-field intensity.

In addition to the problem of intensification of the electric field in regions of relatively lower dielectric constant, a low-dielectric-constant insulation is desirable for two more compelling reasons. In ac transmission cables, the lower the dielectric constant, the more the current and the voltage will be in phase. This means that more usable power will be delivered, without the need for reactive compensation. Furthermore, in reducing the charging current (which is proportional to the dielectric constant), concomitant power losses (related to the square of the charging current) are also reduced. A high dielectric constant is desirable in capacitors, since the capacitance is proportional to it.


All insulators may be classified as either solid or fluid. Solid insulation is further divided into flexible and rigid types.

Solid insulation

Flexible hydrocarbon insulation is generally either thermoplastic or thermosetting. Thermosets are initially soft, and can be extruded by using only pressure. Following heat treatment, when they return to ambient temperature, they are tougher and harder. After thermosetting, nonrubber thermosets are harder, stronger, and have more dimensional stability than the thermoplastics. Thermoplastics are softened by heating, and when cool become hard again. They are heat-extruded.

Cellulose paper insulation is neither thermoplastic nor thermosetting. It is widely used in cables and rotating machinery in multilayers and impregnated with oil. It has a relatively high dielectric loss that hardly decreases with decreasing temperature, which rules it out for cryogenic applications. Because of its high dielectric strength, the high loss has not been a deterrent to its use in conventional ambient-temperature applications. However, the high dielectric strength deteriorates quickly if moisture permeates the paper.

Rigid insulation includes glass, mica, epoxies, ceramoplastics, porcelain, alumina, and other ceramics. Rather than being used to insulate wires and cables, except for mica, these materials are used in equipment terminations (potheads) and as support insulators (in tension or compression) for overhead lines whose primary dielectric is air. These rigid structures must be shock-resistant, be relatively water-impervious, and be able to endure corona discharges over their surfaces.

Fluid insulation

Liquids, gases, and vacuum fall in the category of fluid insulation. For all of these, the electrical structure must be such as to contain the fluid in the regions of high electric stress.

The main types of insulating liquids are the mineral oils, silicones, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and the fluorocarbons with dielectric strengths on the order of megavolts per centimeter. Many other liquids also have good dielectric strength, such as carbon tetrachloride, toluene, hexane, benzene, chlorobenzene, alcohol, and even deionized water.

Most gases have a dielectric constant of about 1, and low dielectric loss. Air is used as a dielectric in a wide variety of applications, ranging from electronics to high-voltage (765-kV) and high-power (2000-MW) electric transmission lines. Dry air is a reasonably good insulator. However, its dielectric strength decreases with increasing gap.

Vacuum (that is, pressures of less than 10-5 torr or 10-3 pascal) has one of the highest dielectric strengths in the gap ranging 0.1 to 1 mm. However, as the gap increases, its dielectric strength decreases rapidly. A perfect vacuum might be expected to be a perfect insulator, since there would be no charge carriers present to contribute to electrical conductance. That this is not so in practice arises because of the effects of a high electric field or high voltage at the surface of electrodes in vacuum, rather than because a perfect vacuum is far from being realized in the laboratory. The dielectric properties of vacuum can degenerate rapidly because vacuum offers no resistance to the motion of charge carriers, once they are introduced into the vacuum region.

electrical insulation, insulating material

A material that is a very poor conductor of electricity.
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