October 18, 2022
Implementing direct current (DC) power distribution in a home or commercial building is becoming increasingly more practical; about 74% of total electrical loads in homes need DC power to operate (if powering electric vehicles and HVAC equipment with a DC motor). And that number is on the rise, as all digital devices require DC power, and our homes and buildings are becoming increasingly “smart”.
Buildings receive alternating current (AC) power from the grid, but with an increasing number of our electrical and electronic devices needing DC power, many people are choosing to implement DC power distribution. Implementing a DC power distribution system can involve DC microgrids, Class 2 low voltage systems such as Power over Ethernet (PoE) or something new called a Class 4 power (CL4) system. Class 4 power systems will be present in Article 726 of the 2023 version of the National Electrical Code (NEC), and we'll discuss the implications of this later in the article. For now, all you need to know is that they provide higher voltages than PoE, but still only require low voltage wiring practices.
In this article:
When considering the distribution of electricity to communities, and throughout buildings, there are really just a couple things you need to know. Firstly, there are two types of electricity: alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) power. Secondly, DC power is the most efficient to transmit across long distances, and distribute throughout buildings, but AC power is what flows through your walls. Why is that? AC power won the current wars in the late 19th century because the infrastructure for distributing AC is cheaper (due to its compatibility with electrical transformers).
Despite the fact that AC power won the war of the currents, the world has gone through many changes in the last hundred years, and now most of our everyday systems and digital devices require DC power. For example, HVAC systems with variable speed motors (also known as variable frequency drives or VFD’s), LED lighting, and batteries (including electric vehicle batteries) all require DC power. In fact, DC consumption currently makes up about 74% of total electrical loads in homes that use electric vehicles and HVAC equipment with DC motors. Because these devices are getting AC power, they need to convert this AC power into the DC power they need. These conversions are often executed by inefficient power converters in a load’s driver, and can waste upwards of 20% of the energy consumed by a DC powered load.
Maybe now you’re wondering what makes DC different from AC power. Most of the differences between AC and DC power are a result of the fact that AC power has a frequency, and DC power does not.
One benefit of having a frequency is that it makes AC power compatible with transformers. Electrical transformers are used to step voltages up and down depending on the distribution stage. Transmission of electricity to towns and cities, for example, would need very high voltages, and these voltages must be stepped down for distribution throughout communities, which can be done easily with a transformer. Transformers also isolate voltages for safety to reduce the risk of electric shock and fires.
On the other hand, DC power is not compatible with transformers, so its infrastructure is generally more expensive because distributing it at high voltages additionally requires rectifier stations. Still, there are hundreds of DC power transmission systems because DC power incurs less line losses during transmission, and is therefore more efficient to transmit. DC power’s lack of frequency is what prevents it from suffering as many line losses along cables as AC power. Line losses like the skin effect, capacitive, or inductive losses occur in AC transmission systems, but DC transmission is not affected by them. We made a video all about line losses, and you can check it out here:
Aside from these differences, AC and DC power also differ in how they are distributed, and we’ll cover different types of distribution systems for both AC and DC power next.
AC power systems are generally categorized by how many phases they have, and the more phases they have, the more efficiently they can deliver higher voltages (to a limit).
These are two of the most common form factors for an AC power distribution system:
So now you know the form factor of typical AC power distribution systems with respect to wires, but what does it mean for an electrical system to be either single phase or three phase? And why aren’t there more than three phases? Why not 6 or 12? We won’t dive too deeply into this, but Anaa Lavaa from Linquip explained the difference well. In an article, she wrote:
“The flow of electricity in a single-phase connection is through a single conductor. A three-phase connection, on the other hand, is made up of three independent conductors that are required for electrical transmission.” - Linquip Technews
Essentially, 3-phase AC motors can more efficiently send higher voltages because different/new phases of power are sent in such quick successions that there is never a lull in power supply to a load. See the image below for a better understanding.
While AC power systems are generally divided up by how many electrical phases they have, DC power distribution systems do not have phases because they don’t have a frequency. Instead, DC power distribution systems are typically categorized by whether they have 2 wires (unipolar system) or 3 wires (bipolar system).
This system uses two wires running in parallel to each other, and it’s used to power most electrical loads such as LED lighting, mobile phones, laptops, and small off-grid appliances. This system is also what's used for high voltage DC (HVDC) power transmission. The two wires in this system are simply positive (+) and negative (-), just like the two poles of any battery.
These systems are less commonly used, but they can double the power provided to a load while distributing the same voltage with reference to earth or ground. They also make two different voltages available at the same time, from one electrical distribution system.
The anatomy of this system is 3 wires: two outer wires (one positive, and one negative), and a ground wire or 0 volt conductor (similar to a neutral in an AC system).
Electrical codes throughout the world have also categorized AC and DC power distribution systems in their own way. For example, the electrical code book in the US, the National Electrical Code (NEC), categorizes traditional electrical systems (these provide AC power) under the section “wiring methods”. Then, specialized electrical systems with power limitations are given a class rating of either 1, 2, or 3. These class rated electrical systems distribute either AC or DC power depending on the circuit, and they are typically organized based on fire safety and safety from electrical shock. Power over Ethernet (PoE), for example, is a class 2 electrical system, and it’s power limited because it cannot exceed 60 V DC or 100 W.
Revisions to the NEC are made every three years, but there’s some especially big news coming for the 2023 version: it will include the addition of a fourth electrical class rating in Article 726. This rating is not power limited (like the other 3 ratings), it will actually be applied to “fault-managed power systems” that safely distribute higher voltages of DC electricity. It will probably even be able to replace traditional electrical systems in some applications because it can safely provide up to 450 Volts DC over cables that closely resemble Ethernet cables (like CAT 5e).
Big news for DC power distribution, and for electrical engineers in general, is the upcoming addition of Article 726, and class 4 power systems, to the 2023 version of the NEC. With systems rated as class 4 under this article, engineers, for example, will be able to save buildings energy and copper. Simply distributing DC power throughout a building makes it more energy efficient because it eliminates the need for our DC powered devices to make an inefficient AC to DC conversion at the load level, as I mentioned above.
No classes have been added to the NEC for decades. However, those in charge of the code decided that fault-managed power systems are important enough to change that. Along with the addition of Article 726 in the NEC, comes a new rating for class 4 power systems, which are fault-managed power systems. They distribute up to 450 Volts DC, with no wattage limit, and do so safely because of their fault management. Let’s talk about what being a fault-managed power (FMP) system means. Essentially, in a fault-managed power system, power cables are monitored continuously by an onboard computer for defined faults, and power is stopped immediately when a fault is detected. There is an additional safety measure that’s always checking to make sure that the fault monitoring is working properly. So, this is a double layered, intelligent, monitoring system, and it’s used in class 4 power systems.
A class 4 power system monitors for the following fault conditions:
One example of a Class 4 and fault managed power system is Argentum’s Digital Current™.
Digital devices (that require semiconductors and batteries), as well as LED light fixtures, variable speed HVAC systems, electric vehicle (EV) charging, brushless DC (BLDC) motors, and more, all require DC power. But not only do these devices and building systems need DC power, they are also being implemented more often in commercial buildings because of their advantages. For example, variable speed HVAC systems are about 50% more efficient than their AC-powered counterparts, which run continuously. As systems, like HVAC, are replaced with those that require DC power, they will act as tailwinds for the proliferation of DC power distribution throughout commercial buildings, and it will become more and more crucial for building managers and designers to implement DC power distribution for their buildings (whether they be old buildings that require retrofits, or new builds). PoE does not provide enough power to be implemented cost effectively everywhere in a building, so even though it’s a DC power distribution system, now is the time for class 4 (CL4) power systems to enter the spotlight.
Implementing DC power distribution can future proof a building, and boost its value by aligning the electricity distributed to devices, with the electricity they need. This basic revolution in electricity is becoming less like an option, and more like a necessity, as it provides buildings with the electrical foundation to support more digital devices and increasingly become more intelligent.
We improve the value of commercial and multifamily buildings with an intelligent DC power distribution system that's pain-free to install. It combines the benefits of low-voltage wiring practices with voltage capabilities of up to 450 Volts DC.