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.

Heat and Noise

In addition to unwanted electrical effects, transformers may also exhibit undesirable physical effects, the most notable being the production of heat and noise. Noise is primarily a nuisance effect, but heat is a potentially serious problem because winding insulation will be damaged if allowed to overheat. Heating may be minimized by good design, ensuring that the core does not approach saturation levels, that eddy currents are minimized, and that the windings are not overloaded or operated too close to maximum ampacity.

Large power transformers have their core and windings submerged in an oil bath to transfer heat and muffle noise, and also to displace moisture which would otherwise compromise the integrity of the winding insulation. Heat-dissipating "radiator" tubes on the outside of the transformer case provide a convective oil flow path to transfer heat from the transformer's core to ambient air:

Oil-less, or "dry," transformers are often rated in terms of maximum operating temperature "rise" (temperature increase beyond ambient) according to a letter-class system: A, B, F, or H. These letter codes are arranged in order of lowest heat tolerance to highest:

  • Class A: No more than 55o Celsius winding temperature rise, at 40o Celsius (maximum) ambient air temperature.
  • Class B: No more than 80o Celsius winding temperature rise, at 40o Celsius (maximum)ambient air temperature.
  • Class F: No more than 115o Celsius winding temperature rise, at 40o Celsius (maximum)ambient air temperature.
  • Class H: No more than 150o Celsius winding temperature rise, at 40o Celsius (maximum)ambient air temperature.

Audible noise is an effect primarily originating from the phenomenon of magnetostriction: the slight change of length exhibited by a ferromagnetic object when magnetized. The familiar "hum" heard around large power transformers is the sound of the iron core expanding and contracting at 120 Hz (twice the system frequency, which is 60 Hz in the United States) -- one cycle of core contraction and expansion for every peak of the magnetic flux waveform -- plus noise created by mechanical forces between primary and secondary windings. Again, maintaining low magnetic flux levels in the core is the key to minimizing this effect, which explains why ferroresonant transformers -- which must operate in saturation for a large portion of the current waveform -- operate both hot and noisy.

Another noise-producing phenomenon in power transformers is the physical reaction force between primary and secondary windings when heavily loaded. If the secondary winding is open-circuited, there will be no current through it, and consequently no magneto-motive force (mmf) produced by it. However, when the secondary is "loaded" (current supplied to a load), the winding generates an mmf, which becomes counteracted by a "reflected" mmf in the primary winding to prevent core flux levels from changing. These opposing mmf's generated between primary and secondary windings as a result of secondary (load) current produce a repulsive, physical force between the windings which will tend to make them vibrate. Transformer designers have to consider these physical forces in the construction of the winding coils, to ensure there is adequate mechanical support to handle the stresses. Under heavy load conditions, though, these stresses may be great enough to cause audible noise to emanate from the transformer.

  • Power transformers are limited in the amount of power they can transfer from primary to secondary winding(s). Large units are typically rated in VA (volt-amps) or kVA (kilo volt-amps).
  • Resistance in transformer windings contributes to inefficiency, as current will dissipate heat, wasting energy.
  • Magnetic effects in a transformer's iron core also contribute to inefficiency. Among the effects are eddy currents (circulating induction currents in the iron core) and hysteresis (power lost due to overcoming the tendency of iron to magnetize in a particular direction).
  • Increased frequency results in increased power losses within a power transformer. The presence of harmonics in a power system is a source of frequencies significantly higher than normal, which may cause overheating in large transformers.
  • Both transformers and inductors harbor certain unavoidable amounts of capacitance due to wire insulation (dielectric) separating winding turns from the iron core and from each other. This capacitance can be significant enough to give the transformer a natural resonant frequency, which can be problematic in signal applications.
  • Leakage inductance is caused by magnetic flux not being 100% coupled between windings in a transformer. Any flux not involved with transferring energy from one winding to another will store and release energy, which is how (self-) inductance works. Leakage inductance tends to worsen a transformer's voltage regulation (secondary voltage "sags" more for a given amount of load current).
  • Magnetic saturation of a transformer core may be caused by excessive primary voltage, operation at too low of a frequency, and/or by the presence of a DC current in any of the windings. Saturation may be minimized or avoided by conservative design, which provides an adequate margin of safety between peak magnetic flux density values and the saturation limits of the core.
  • Transformers often experience significant inrush currents when initially connected to an AC voltage source. Inrush current is most severe when connection to the AC source is made at the moment instantaneous source voltage is zero.
  • Noise is a common phenomenon exhibited by transformers -- especially power transformers -- and is primarily caused by magnetostriction of the core. Physical forces causing winding vibration may also generate noise under conditions of heavy (high current) secondary winding load.

Last Update: 2010-12-01