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What is Three-Phase Power?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 17, 2024
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Three-phase power is a method of electrical power transmission that makes use of three wires to deliver three independent alternating electrical currents. The current in each wire is set off from the others by one-third of a complete cycle, with each current representing one phase. This means that a device operating off this type of power source receives a more stable flow of electricity than it would from single-phase distribution system. Some three-phase power systems actually have four wires; the fourth is a neutral wire that allows the system to use a higher voltage.

Purpose

The three currents, together, deliver a balanced load, something not possible with single-phase alternating current. In alternating current (AC), the current alternates direction, flowing back and forth in the circuit; this means that the voltage alternates as well, constantly changing from maximum to minimum. Three-phase power combines the three wires to off-set the maximum and minimum oscillations, so that a device receiving this type of power does not experience such a wide variation in voltage. This makes three-phase power a very efficient form of electrical power distribution. Consequently, a three-phase electric motor uses less electricity and normally lasts longer than a single-phase motor of the same voltage and rating.

Origins

Three-phase power flow begins in a power station, where an electrical power generator converts mechanical power into alternating electrical currents. After numerous conversions in the distribution and transmission network, the power is transformed into the standard voltage supplied to homes and businesses, 230 volts in Europe or 120 volts in North America. The output of the transformer usually connects to the power system using three live wires tied to a single grounded return. This is called a star connection.

Applications

This type of system does not usually provide power to domestic houses, but when it does, a main distribution board splits the load. Most domestic loads use single-phase power because of the lower cost of distribution. Three-phase power is most common in industrial settings, or where more power is needed to operate heavy machinery, though there are exceptions.

Running electric motors are the most frequent use for three-phase power. A three-phase induction motor combines high efficiency, a simple design, and a high starting torque. Industrial fans, blowers, pumps, compressors, and many other kinds of equipment commonly use this type of electric motor. Other systems that may use three-phase power include air conditioning equipment, electric boilers, and large rectifier systems used for converting alternating current to direct current.

While most motors that run on three-phase power are quite big, there are examples of very small motors, such as those that power computer fans, which work on this type of power. An inverter circuit inside the fan converts direct current (DC) to a three-phase AC current. This serves to decrease noise, as the torque from a three-phase motor is very smooth.

Standards

The wires, called conductors, used in a three-phase power system are normally color-coded, although the colors vary greatly by location, and most countries have their own codes. North America traditionally uses black, red, and blue to represent the three phases, for example, while white represents the neutral wire. In Europe, by contrast, brown, black, and grey represent the phases, and the neutral wire is blue. Even with these national standards, there tend to be a lot of irregularities in day-to-day applications. It is not a good idea for anyone working with three-phase power to make assumptions without consulting the diagram for the individual installation or system in question.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1002374 — On Nov 11, 2019

Without a transformer, these people are out of luck. A licensed electrician is needed but he must have 3 phase experience because some electricians do not understand 3 phase. If you wire by some codes the units will try and run backwards. Three phase is a direct type of current and ranges between 230 to 480 volts with a single wire generating 277 volts -- which is the exact current they use in executions. So be aware there is no forgiveness.

By anon1001814 — On Jun 30, 2019

The question? Can 3 phase power from three pole wye transformers running 480 from the street running threw a step down 3 phase transformer to 230 volts into a 3 phase motor cause the motor free spinning 5 hp. to draw 110 amps no load? It seems

to be a non sink 3 phase problem somehow. Looking up the motor to 480 direct works fine. The transformer works tested at a shop different location. runs a motor fine. Two different transformer did the same thing as with two different motors.

Why would a 3 phase transformer running off 3 phase cause the motor to run very loud and high amp draw.? the motor is wired correct. to run at 230 volts. The plants 480 has many motor running fine. Any answers to this phenomenon? Seattle heat treating maintenance.

By anon990150 — On Apr 08, 2015

@anon15551, post 1: The power is what is traveling through the wires. Think of the wires as water pipes. (sometimes that is easier) and the electricity is the water. The neutral is the drain system to take it back. or in emergency the ground. The water will flow back eventually to source.

By anon990149 — On Apr 08, 2015

@anon138206, Post 16: Best to call an electrician. The loss adjuster knows exactly what has happened, and their job is to not pay out/ limit payouts. If you lose your neutral / bad connection, you can burn out all sorts of electrical equipment as it starts using the earth instead.

By anon990148 — On Apr 08, 2015

@cscs, post 18: The first line is the standard way to describe. 230volt is single phase to neutral. 415 (400 volt) is standard phase to phase measurement. (used to be 240volt / 415 volt) but electronics have created a need to be lower when having the +/- 10% error rate

By anon990147 — On Apr 08, 2015

@anon966937, Post 23: On the big towers, the three lines are the phases.

Sometimes they are 2 or 3 in a bunch but separate from the others by a few metres. The little skinny one right at the top is a lightning strike wire, same as a lightning rod on a building.

By anon990146 — On Apr 08, 2015

@anon269898, Post 20: Do not do electrical work yourself; you may kill someone. You are wiring between phases rather than phase to neutral. This is extremely dangerous, and is why it is blowing fuses; they are your safety system telling you it is wrong.

By anon990145 — On Apr 08, 2015

@ post 7: It will be a single phase motor, so do not change any wires; you may electrocute yourself or others. Check the label on the appliance.

Buy the same motor. It's easier to get a professional to change it, since it's usually not the motor that fails.

By anon966937 — On Aug 23, 2014

When I look at high trans lines, do the three distinct lines represent a phase or are the three wires bundled into one wire? If so, what do the other wires represent on transmission lines?

By anon274263 — On Jun 11, 2012

I have three phase power to my home. I moved in and had the electricians ran a 240 (not realizing the house had three phase) and promptly installed an new ac unit. So here is my question. Can I convert the motors in a 5 ton, 13 SEER unit to 3 phase motors to save money if it is a split system? And if so, what would the savings be?

By anon269898 — On May 20, 2012

Why is it when a 3-phase plug is connected to a 3-phase outlet that's not secure (not connected properly), that is supplying a 3-phase board with 230 outlets, I still get 415 through the board only tripping some RCDS and blowing components in equipment.

By anon155270 — On Feb 23, 2011

can somebody help me with this question: Explain why it is important to use the correct equipment when measuring three-phase power and the impact this would have on circuit calculations when using any of these measurements.

By cscs — On Feb 06, 2011

My country is 230v single phase and 415v 3 phase AC supply. Someone asked me why we don't call 230v single phase and 230v 3 phase since it is 230v if measure from line to neutral on a 3 phase circuit.

Is there a standard way of naming these?

By anon138206 — On Dec 30, 2010

what happens when the neutral on a 3 phase supply 'burns out' as it it did to me -- my loss adjustor seems baffled as to the results to my electrical equipment.

By anon106506 — On Aug 26, 2010

It may help you understand three-phase power if you realize that while the electricity pulses, it is pulsing at a different time on each wire. A three-phase motor needs all three of these pulses at the correct times so this is why you cannot simple connect it to one-phase power which only has one of the three pulses.

By anon106505 — On Aug 26, 2010

For the people asking about replacing three-phase motors with one-phase motors, you now need to get the same amount of energy through less wires. The wire sizes and breaker ratings must be increased, often substantially.

By anon102657 — On Aug 09, 2010

Does using a three phase meter on single phase machines save power usage in any way?

By anon73448 — On Mar 27, 2010

my question is that in a three phase line,what is the current and voltage in one line.

By anon72571 — On Mar 23, 2010

#2 - One of the legs of the three phase systems is 120v, the circuit consists of the the line, neutral and ground. This is your standard household wiring.

#1 - There is 120v per each leg in a three phase system. L1, L2, L3, neutral (common) and a ground, so 5 wires in total. L1 is normally black, L2 is normally red and L3 blue. The neutral is white and the ground green or green with a yellow stripe.

By anon39827 — On Aug 04, 2009

Have a 5-ton 208-230 3 phase AC unit. Can it be replaced with a 5-ton 208-230 1 phase AC unit by just using two of the three phase leads?

By anon36476 — On Jul 12, 2009

I'm replacing two 3-phase 240v 5-ton condenser units that wererun simultaneously and were run with one 3 phase breaker (60A) with two single phase 240volt 5-ton units. I'm thinking of using the A-C legs to one condenser and and B-C legs to the other Assuming I don't exceed the breaker amperage, will the excess amperage on the C leg foul up the voltages. The C leg is under used compared to the A and B off the pole. Thanks

By doiturself — On May 01, 2009

Maybe I can clarify with my question. I have what I think is a three phase motor pulled out of my dishwasher that powered the pump. It has a black, tan, and blue wire. I want to power it with a simple black/white wire plugged into the wall. Is that possible? Can I split the black into thirds and just push it all into the motor?

By anon21912 — On Nov 24, 2008

how do you calculate the cost of operating a three phase motor? i know single phase motor calculation is amps x volts x operating hours= watt hours, divide that by 1000 for kilowatt hours and multiply by electricity cost will give operating cost. is it the same for three phase?

By gareth — On Oct 16, 2008

hello

i have a stucco pump in spain I've been using on spanish 3 phase power ( pump is electric motor )i want to bring this machine back to america and use it here, what do i have to do to run it here,if that is at all possible, someone in spain mentioned the motor cycle is different in spain than usa,,i know nothing about this so totally unsure.thank you .

By anon19552 — On Oct 14, 2008

A 3-phase power source would not normally be converted to single-phase. A single-phase load can be powered from one leg of the 3-phase source. In a four-wire, 3-phase system, the fourth wire acts as the neutral conductor. Single-phase loads can be connected between one phase and the neutral or between two phases. In both situations, the loads should be balanced so that each phase has an equal or near equal power load.

By Jeff1151 — On Aug 29, 2008

How do you convert a 3 phase power source to single phase? to standard 110V? 60 cycle house current?

By anon15551 — On Jul 14, 2008

i guess i still don't understand. what is traveling through each of the 3 wires? is one of them grounded? what is meant by the reference to one of them (sometimes) being neutral?

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