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Failure Causes II

January 25, 2012

Failure Causes II

In yesterday’s post, “Failure Causes I,” I provided a partial answer to an inquiry from Colorado Querier. Colorado sought to understand if rejuvenation technology was appropriate for the “many types of aging factors” from which his firm’s circuits might suffer. In yesterday’s post we dealt with circuit failures caused by connected components, rather than the cable itself. Today we will focus on cable failures. First a disclaimer—it is often difficult to determine with 100% certainty the cause of a cable failure in field conditions. A cable failure is a destructive event that usually vaporizes its own root cause. Those who analyze field failures can examine the cable near its fault for neighboring defects. If a defect or defects are found, the examiner may infer without certainty that a similar defect may have been the root cause of the actual fault. If no substantial defects are found the root cause will surely remain unknowable.

I emphasized “substantial” in the last sentence because at a small enough scale there are always defects. Water trees grow in all medium voltage solid dielectric cables exposed to moist conditions. Unless you have hermetically sealed metal sheaths, those would be your cables! Water treeing is an oxidative process, but even where there are no water trees, oxidation of the polymer occurs, because oxygen and other oxidizing agents are ubiquitous. Free radicals facilitate oxidation and are common in nature. Cosmic radiation, radioactive decay, and other natural processes spawn free radicals around the clock. On top of those chemical processes there are mechanical strains placed on the cable by thermal cycling driven by load cycling. Such thermal cycling creates micro-voids in the middle radius of the insulation driven by the “Molecular Thermodynamics of Water in Direct-Buried Power Cables.” Click hereto view the paper by the same name from IEEE Electrical Insulation Magazine (Nov/Dec 2006). The collection of voids formed this way are referred to as a halo. I provide an illustration of a halo and water tree nearby.[dt_fancy_image type=”image” image=”” image_alt=”Water Tree and Halo” style=”2″ width=”500″ padding=”10″ margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”0″ margin_left=”0″ margin_right=”0″ align=”center” animation=”none”]Water trees and halo are both  visible in this photograph.What are the primary causes of failure and how is each addressed or not addressed by rejuvenation?

failure causesIn the graph nearby, I show you a subset of field reliability data (Editors note: I have come to call this kind of data—“real, real world!”) gathered by Dr. Steennis of KEMA. The simple logarithmic equation explains 78% of the relationship between maximum water tree length, expressed as a percentage of the insulation thickness and reliability expressed as AC breakdown strength. AC breakdown strength is not a perfect surrogate for cable reliability, but it’s a pretty good one! Lightning bolts appear next to each cable sample that failed in service. Water tree length is the single best predictor of reliability. In the same work, Dr. Steennis and his colleagues demonstrated that the laboratory failure of the field aged cables always occurred at the longest water tree, just as a chain fails at its weakest link.

Well over three-quarters of solid dielectric cable failures are caused by water trees. Rejuvenation technology was originally designed to address water tree degradation specifically. In fact, rejuvenation has a proven track record of treating the biggest and ugliest water trees on the planet. Check out my October 5, 2011 post, “Water Trees—Too Big to Fail?” In my third post of this series we will examine the other less important root causes of cable failure and consider whether or not those root causes can or cannot be addressed by the application of rejuvenation technology.