Neutral Corrosion Progression
Two of my disciples inquired of my July 7, 2010 post, Neutral Corrosion – How much is too much?
An engineer asked me about stray voltage. We were discussing how Novinium will provide a warranty for a cable segment if 50% of the neutrals are good. He said, “Okay, but because of the neutral corrosion, I am having stray voltage issues affecting livestock on dairy farms. This can kill livestock. Stray voltage is also showing up sometimes on communications circuits. How should I respond?
Can you please explain the rate of neutral corrosion; specifically, do they corrode linearly or in some other fashion?
Dear Sheila and Kurt-
There are several different mechanisms for cable neutral corrosion. The mechanisms are enumerated in Section 6 of IEEE 1617-2007 "Guide for Detection, Mitigation, and Control of Concentric Neutral Corrosion in Medium-Voltage Underground Cables." My colleague, Glen Bertini, was one of the participants in the ICC C7 working group that developed that document. The identified mechanisms of cable neutral corrosion in section 6 are:
1. Galvanic corrosion
2. Single metal corrosion
3. Soil corrosion
4. Differential aeration
5. Stray currents
6. Galvanic corrosion resulting specifically from tin coated neutral wires
Of these possible causes of neutral corrosion, soil corrosion and differential aeration are by the far the most predominant and problematic. In both cases differences in soil chemistry along the path of the cable lead to differences in potential on exposed neutrals. Current flows in a loop through the soil and along the neutral. Copper is oxidized where the electrons leave the neutral and enter the soil and where there is oxygen (or sulfur) present. The rate of corrosion is a function of the current flow and is constrained by the availability of oxygen. Current flow, in turn, is proportional to the potential difference caused by the local differences in soil chemistry and inversely proportional to the resistance of the loop. In the illustration nearby I show how this all works. Either from differential aeration or differences in the local soil chemistry the electrochemical potential is higher at point A than it is at point B.
As the neutral corrodes, the resistance in the loop goes up, which slows the rate of corrosion. The loss of the metallic copper itself leads to an increase of resistance. Less obviously, the non-conductive corrosion by-products (i.e. copper oxides) coat the copper surface and increase the resistance between the neutral and soil. Another set of chemical processes determine how quickly the copper oxides are transported off of the native copper surface below them. This copper-oxide transport mechanism is typically very slow in direct buried environments as the oxides are not appreciably water soluble.
At the same time the resistance is increasing, the second law of thermodynamics is at play reducing the chemical potential difference between A and B. The homogenization of chemical potential over time would occur whether or not a cable was present. Nature abhors chemical potential differences so chemical species migrate through the soil toward equilibrium – zero chemical potential difference.
Corrosion of bare concentric neutrals is highest when the neutrals are new and the soil was disturbed when the cable was installed. As some corrosion occurs and the second law reduces the chemical potential, the rate of corrosion decreases over time. In practice if the neutral has at least partially survived for several decades the rate of continuing degradation is trivial.
The other causes of neutral corrosion are much less prevalent. With the possible exception of stray currents impressed upon neutrals by active cathodic protection systems of neighboring structures (e.g. gas pipelines), all are similarly mitigated by the partial corrosion of the neutral and the equilibration of chemical potential due to the inexorable second law of thermodynamics.
If cows dragged their bulging bellies across the ground as I do they would be safe from stray current. Even with a substantial potential at the ground surface, I remain equipotential. If cows or other mammals are getting electrocuted the neutrals are entirely destroyed either locally or systematically. If the corrosion is systematic, the cables must be replaced. The source of the systematic corrosion should also be identified and eliminated – it’s not a natural phenomena; it’s man-made. Dead cows are the odd cases, but these cases get media attention, so the anecdotes are oft repeated.
In the real world, most concentric neutral corrosion is incredibly local. One or two feet of neutral become corroded. It turns out this problem is easy to diagnose and easy to repair. Diagnostic techniques are described in the aforementioned IEEE 1617-2007. A step-by-step and state-of-the-art procedure is available for free from Novinium Rejuvenation Instruction 12 (NRI 12), Electronic Cable Diagnosis and Pinpointing. Also free are step-by-step instructions (NRI 80), Neutral Corrosion Repair, that make fixing local corrosion a piece of cake. Once a local corrosion site has been pinpointed, chemistry can be employed to protect the location of the identified chemical potential difference. A suitably sized magnesium anode that has a chemical potential well above that of copper is installed as a sacrificial anode. The anode size can be adjusted to prevent neutral corrosion for any desired life.
Over twenty years of rejuvenation experience with a dearth of warranty claims in general and even fewer neutral corrosion issues specifically, provide direct evidence that whatever post-injection progression of neutral corrosion that does occur is of little practical significance. At Novinium we have had zero failures and zero warranty claims that involved an increase of neutral corrosion after the cable was treated.
T. B. Frog