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What causes cables to fault during weather seasonal changes?

I currently work for a small utility with a small amount of underground installations but a lot of it is aging and failing during weather changes. I am curious as to why it happens during weather changes and if there are scientific facts that can support it? Is there a way to predict when a cable will fail based on weather patterns? I’ve heard of different opinions on the matter, but is there a proven reason why? It is my goal as a young engineer and Gonzaga T&D engineering graduate student to learn more about these phenomena’s and what better way than to hear it from industry professionals in a technical discussion?

Scenario #1: Lightning strikes during summer on power cable installations can cause voltage spikes on the line, which in turn doubles back when it finds the open point on an underground cable installation. The initial voltage spike can cause the insulation of the cable to deteriorate or fail, and the reflection of the surge can cause the voltage to spike which can then finish off the already deteriorating insulation if it hadn’t faulted from the initial surge. Side note: This is why it is good practice to have transformers with load on them at the end of a cable run, or lightning arrestor at the termination points of an underground run and not just an open switch. Faults, recloser operations and other switching events can also cause a voltage spike on underground installations which can break down the cable insulation, thus making it more susceptible to failing after future events.

Scenario #2: Cables could fail more during the weather change due to the stresses that are inserted in to the cables during heavy irrigation motor start-ups and operation. Today you will see more VFD installations and soft-starts on your pump motors. With older cable supplying energy to older pumps you may find an across the line motor starter at the end of it. Cross-line starters rapidly heat the cables that have laid dormant over the cold winter months. If there was any sort of treeing, insulation deterioration, rodents chewing on the dormant cable, dig-ins, or any other common cable damaging scenarios during the winter, the startup will speed the deterioration process up in these locations, which in turn lead to cable faults.

Scenario #3: In areas where older open concentric cable has been installed, you are most likely experiencing many faults if it hasn’t already been changed out for newer jacketed solid-dielectric cable. As the ground dries out in the spring/summer, you will see higher resistances on the return path of the old and deteriorating open concentric neutrals. Without the cable being in wet conditions as it was throughout the winter, the electric field around the cable is no longer uniform and in some cases is a complete loss of your neutral.

Regardless of the insulation you use on cables, you most likely have faults. Maybe you’ve been “lucky” and it’s only in your joints and terminations? Regardless of which type of cable insulation, temperature has a significant impact on the dielectric withstand of the cable (i.e. higher temperatures will result in lower dielectric strength properties). Drying conditions also equates to higher insulation temperature due to poor heat transfer characteristics of your cable.

There are some common points in each of the above three scenarios but there really isn’t any scientific proof, just observations. Does it depend on your system load factor, your power factor, your installation practices, or even your cable design? Is it all of the above or is it much more simple than that? Is it different between different manufacturers of cable? Are there different scenarios that you’ve seen or heard of?

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