The ebook FEEE - Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics is based on material originally written by T.R. Kuphaldt and various co-authors. For more information please read the copyright pages.

Calculating Power Factor

As was mentioned before, the angle of this "power triangle" graphically indicates the ratio between the amount of dissipated (or consumed) power and the amount of absorbed/returned power. It also happens to be the same angle as that of the circuit's impedance in polar form. When expressed as a fraction, this ratio between true power and apparent power is called the power factor for this circuit. Because true power and apparent power form the adjacent and hypotenuse sides of a right triangle, respectively, the power factor ratio is also equal to the cosine of that phase angle. Using values from the last example circuit:

It should be noted that power factor, like all ratio measurements, is a unitless quantity.

For the purely resistive circuit, the power factor is 1 (perfect), because the reactive power equals zero. Here, the power triangle would look like a horizontal line, because the opposite (reactive power) side would have zero length.

For the purely inductive circuit, the power factor is zero, because true power equals zero. Here, the power triangle would look like a vertical line, because the adjacent (true power) side would have zero length.

The same could be said for a purely capacitive circuit. If there are no dissipative (resistive) components in the circuit, then the true power must be equal to zero, making any power in the circuit purely reactive. The power triangle for a purely capacitive circuit would again be a vertical line (pointing down instead of up as it was for the purely inductive circuit).

Power factor can be an important aspect to consider in an AC circuit, because any power factor less than 1 means that the circuit's wiring has to carry more current than what would be necessary with zero reactance in the circuit to deliver the same amount of (true) power to the resistive load. If our last example circuit had been purely resistive, we would have been able to deliver a full 169.256 watts to the load with the same 1.410 amps of current, rather than the mere 119.365 watts that it is presently dissipating with that same current quantity. The poor power factor makes for an inefficient power delivery system.

Poor power factor can be corrected, paradoxically, by adding another load to the circuit drawing an equal and opposite amount of reactive power, to cancel out the effects of the load's inductive reactance. Inductive reactance can only be canceled by capacitive reactance, so we have to add a capacitor in parallel to our example circuit as the additional load. The effect of these two opposing reactances in parallel is to bring the circuit's total impedance equal to its total resistance (to make the impedance phase angle equal, or at least closer, to zero).

Since we know that the (uncorrected) reactive power is 119.998 VAR (inductive), we need to calculate the correct capacitor size to produce the same quantity of (capacitive) reactive power. Since this capacitor will be directly in parallel with the source (of known voltage), we'll use the power formula which starts from voltage and reactance:

Let's use a rounded capacitor value of 22 μF and see what happens to our circuit:

The power factor for the circuit, overall, has been substantially improved. The main current has been decreased from 1.41 amps to 994.7 milliamps, while the power dissipated at the load resistor remains unchanged at 119.365 watts. The power factor is much closer to being 1:

Since the impedance angle is still a positive number, we know that the circuit, overall, is still more inductive than it is capacitive. If our power factor correction efforts had been perfectly on-target, we would have arrived at an impedance angle of exactly zero, or purely resistive. If we had added too large of a capacitor in parallel, we would have ended up with an impedance angle that was negative, indicating that the circuit was more capacitive than inductive.

It should be noted that too much capacitance in an AC circuit will result in a low power factor just as well as too much inductance. You must be careful not to over-correct when adding capacitance to an AC circuit. You must also be very careful to use the proper capacitors for the job (rated adequately for power system voltages and the occasional voltage spike from lightning strikes, for continuous AC service, and capable of handling the expected levels of current).

If a circuit is predominantly inductive, we say that its power factor is lagging (because the current wave for the circuit lags behind the applied voltage wave). Conversely, if a circuit is predominantly capacitive, we say that its power factor is leading. Thus, our example circuit started out with a power factor of 0.705 lagging, and was corrected to a power factor of 0.999 lagging.

Review Poor power factor in an AC circuit may be "corrected", or re-established at a value close to 1, by adding a parallel reactance opposite the effect of the load's reactance. If the load's reactance is inductive in nature (which is almost always will be), parallel capacitance is what is needed to correct poor power factor.

Last Update: 2011-03-21