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Add Electrical Motor Testing to Your PdM Toolkit

EP Editorial Staff | April 13, 2017

This predictive approach offers reliability benefits that time-based maintenance can’t.

Left. A 700-hp, high-voltage stator is being tested after undergoing rewind and the vacuum-pressure-impregnation process.

Left. A 700-hp, high-voltage stator is being tested after undergoing rewind and the vacuum-pressure-impregnation process.

Numerous studies have tried to establish guidelines for creating plant reliability and efficiency. Depending on which research is cited, the bottom line is that between 65% and 75% of all motor failures are mechanical in nature. For that reason, vibration analysis, a cornerstone of any predictive-maintenance (PdM) program, would appear to provide the “biggest bang for the buck” in pinpointing possible problems. Still, while an aggressive vibration-analysis program may accurately predict most mechanical issues, it can’t diagnose the 25% to 35% of motor failures that are due to electrical weaknesses and faults. That’s why electrical testing is so important.

To put it simply, the insulation system within a motor is the unit’s “heart”—and nothing but a series of electrical tests can fully evaluate the health and integrity of that heart. Comprehensive evaluation involves the use of static-testing and dynamic- monitoring technologies. To understand the benefits, it’s important to know why and how motors degrade.

Motor degradation

Various factors, including the initial quality of a motor’s insulation, affect the pace at which it degrades. Since heat is the main enemy of all insulation materials, maintaining a cool, dry environment will increase motor life.

Many things contribute to excessive heat. Typically, the situation is acerbated by a combination of issues that individually wouldn’t create a problem. High ambient temperature, numerous restarts, starting under heavy loads, slight misalignment, some unbalance with the supply voltage, and contamination, all contribute to the heat a motor experiences.

Another issue affecting the life of a motor’s insulation system is starting and stopping. In fact, most plant-floor personnel have, at some point in their careers, heard the old saying that “if you don’t want your motor to fail, don’t start it, and if it’s running, don’t stop it.”

Startup and, to some extent, shutdown of a motor, are generally the most stressful times in the unit’s life. Contactor and breaker “bounce” at startup can generate voltage spiking four or five times greater than the operating voltage. The initial in-rush of AC voltage, pushed by as much as eight or 10 times the nameplate current, “attacks” the insulation and greatly affects the early turns. This startup current causes the motor’s windings to flex or breathe and allows the copper magnet wire to rub and abrade. Because there are only about 1 1/2 mils of insulation baked on the magnet wire, over time it will deteriorate, resulting in arcing during starting and stopping. The appearance of arc is a sign that the insulation is basically at the end of its life. The wearing away of that thin insulation film, in turn, is the beginning of the end for many motors.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 10.37.56 AMOnce arcing has begun, it occurs during every startup, and often during shutdown. It may continue for weeks or even months before it creates a failure. Eventually, though, it will create a carbon path and short out a portion of the windings. These shorted turns will then act as the secondary side of a transformer with voltage and current being induced by the rest of the circuit.

Keep in mind that the ratio of good turns to shorted turns will dictate how severe and how quickly a failure will occur. When shorted turns occur, however, a motor will fail within minutes. Thus, it’s imperative to find weak turn insulation before it becomes a hard-welded fault. If not detected in time, a few weak turns will carry an exponential amount of current that is induced by the transformer effect and quickly burns through the slot-cell liner to ground in the laminations. The result is often a damaged core with a large hole that will always make the rewound motor less efficient and run hotter.

Finding the weak turn insulation and taking the motor out of service before a short occurs provides two valuable benefits:

• Plant-floor personnel are in control of the motor. They decide when a unit is to be removed from service, which minimizes or eliminates unscheduled downtime, emergency repairs, and lost production.

• Since the motor in question still has a good core, a reputable repair shop can rewind it using better materials and parts and tighter balance specifications than when it was first installed.

In practical terms, the site gets a “new” motor back from the shop (not a patched-up one).

The predictive route

A strong PdM strategy can allow personnel to make realistic predictions regarding the useful life expectancy of their motors. The unfortunate fact is that a motor begins (and continues) to weaken and deteriorate from the moment of its very first startup. If it operates in high ambient temperatures, with some misalignment and voltage imbalance, and experiences numerous starts under a heavy load, its life will be short. Given these conditions, a motor that should last, say 20 years, will probably fail in two or three. While correcting some of those issues could prolong the life of the unit, keeping tabs on the health of its insulation could provide greater payback.

Preventive maintenance (PM) efforts are clearly important when it comes to a plant’s motor fleet. For example, in facilities where contamination is an issue, PM routines to reduce its effect on motor life are a must. Whenever possible, however, a PdM strategy that leverages as many proven predictive tools as possible should replace preventive activities. After all, to develop a complete picture of a patient’s health, a physician will typically perform a battery of tests. Your site’s motors deserve similar treatment.

Fortunately, state-of-the-art equipment and methodologies are available to identify early issues before they lead to catastrophic failure(s). Routine testing and trending will detect weaknesses long before they can propagate into an insulation failure. To design this type of PdM program, site personnel need to identify the motors that are most critical to the operation and, in turn, those that are the most problematic. This information will indicate which tests need to be performed and how often.

Many independent testing organizations have detailed specific test parameters, proven to provide sufficient data for the technician to evaluate the immediate health of the insulation. To ensure the capture of accurate data, it’s important that those guidelines be strictly followed. For more information on testing parameters and requirements, refer to IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers,, IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission,, EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute,, and EASA (Electrical Apparatus Service Association,

Low-voltage testing, comprised of capacitance, inductance, and resistance tests, provides some useful information, but will not provide early warnings regarding turn insulation. A complete set of tests that will provide the predictive information you need include:

Winding-resistance test: This test will verify that all three phases are similar and all internal connections are tight. It uses a Kelvin bridge and injects about 12 VDC at approximately 7 A into the windings. One poor connection will lead to unbalanced current and uneven heating.

Megohm test: After passing the winding-resistance test, a megohm test is run to measure insulation resistance. The test uses a low-current DC voltage that depends on the nameplate voltage of the motor. A polarization index test (PI), which is an extended megohm test, may provide important information about the insulation if it is old, cracked, or brittle.

High-potential test: If the winding-resistance and megohm tests are acceptable, a high-potential (HiPot), or step-voltage, test may be performed. This test uses increased voltage to create electrical stresses on internal insulation cracks. This can reveal aging or physically damaged insulation. The HiPot test is usually conducted at an elevated level that is at least twice the line voltage plus 1,000 V. EASA and other testing organizations recommend even higher test-voltage levels. The HiPot test may not be appropriate for in-service motors that display low megohms during the megohm test.

Surge test: Once the above tests are satisfactorily completed, a surge test is performed. Since more than 80% of all winding failures begin as a turn-to-turn weakness that can only be detected by a surge test, it is the most important static-testing method. Surge testing applies pulses through a large capacitor at ever-increasing voltage levels and monitors the reaction as the voltage is discharged into a motor’s windings. The purpose is to re-create the spiking that occurs at startup. Doing so requires the capacitor to “fire off” each pulse at a very fast rise time. The intention is to locate weak turn insulation before it has a chance to become a hard-welded fault that leads to a quick failure.

Value proposition

Adding electrical testing of motors to your site’s PdM toolkit puts personnel in the reliability driver’s seat with regard to these units. The value proposition is clear: Routine testing and trending provides sufficient data to make a diagnosis regarding the ability of a motor to remain in operation or to determine if it needs attention. Being in control, i.e., being able to specify when a motor is pulled from service and sent out for repairs, is the essence of predictive maintenance—and an enormous benefit. MT

Information in this article was supplied by Timothy M. Thomas, senior electrical engineer, Hibbs Electromechanical Inc., Madisonville, KY ( Email him at


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