The truth about five common VFD myths

Knowing the truth about VFD operation can simplify the selection process for choose a variable frequency drive.


Figure 1: Users select variable frequency drives (VFDs) to control motor speed and reduce energy consumption. Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.No matter how commonplace variable frequency drives (VFDs) have become to you, somewhere someone is using one or considering using one for the first time (see Figure 1). Think back to when you first thought about applying one of today's pulse-width modulation (PWM)-based VFDs to an ac motor. Chances are you probably had a few misconceptions about their abilities and designs. This article addresses five common VFD myths and corrects misconceptions about their proper usage. 

Myth No. 1: The output of a VFD is sinusoidal

People tend to be more familiar with running their ac induction motors using motor starters. With a starter, starting the motor involves connecting the 3-phase leads of the motor to 3-phase power. Each phase is a sine wave with a frequency of 60 Hz and usually has a voltage amplitude of 230 V, 460 V, or 575 V in the U.S. This applied voltage creates a sine wave current waveform with the same frequency if checked at the motor leads. So far, running a motor is quite simple.

What happens at the output of a VFD is an entirely different story. A VFD typically rectifies the 3-phase input to a fixed dc voltage, which is filtered and stored using large dc bus capacitors. The dc bus voltage is then inverted to yield a variable voltage, variable frequency output. The inversion process is carried out using three insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) pairs-one pair per output phase (see Figure 2a). Because the dc voltage is inverted into ac, the output stage is also called "the inverter." The duration for which each IGBT switch in a given pair is turned ON or held OFF can be controlled, which determines the RMS value of the output voltage. The ratio of the output RMS voltage to output frequency determines the flux developed in the ac motor. In general, there is a fixed relationship between the two. When the output frequency increases, the output voltage should also increase at the same rate to keep the ratio constant and thus the motor flux constant. Normally, the relationship between voltage and frequency is kept linear so that a constant torque can be produced. The resulting voltage waveform applied to the motor winding is not sinusoidal (see Figure 2b). Note that sometimes the voltage by frequency (V/f) ratio can be quite nonlinear, which is typical for fans, pumps, or centrifugal loads that do not require constant torque but instead favor energy savings.

Figure 2: In a basic VFD, the inversion process is carried out using three IGBT pairs—one pair per output phase (a). The resulting voltage waveform applied to the motor winding is not sinusoidal (b). Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.Figure 2: In a basic VFD, the inversion process is carried out using three IGBT pairs—one pair per output phase (a). The resulting voltage waveform applied to the motor winding is not sinusoidal (b). Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.

What makes this work is that, as the name implies, an induction motor is a big inductor of sorts. A characteristic of induction is its resistance to current changes. Whether a current is increasing or decreasing, an inductor will oppose the change. What does this have to do with the PWM voltage waveform in Figure 2b? Instead of letting the current pulse rise on the same order as the applied voltage pulse, the current will start to rise slowly. When the voltage pulse has ended, the current doesn't disappear immediately, it slowly starts to ebb. In general terms, before the current has fallen back to zero, the next voltage pulse comes along, and the current starts to slowly rise again-even higher than before because the pulses are getting wider. Eventually, the current waveform becomes sinusoidal, albeit with some jagged up-and-down transitions as the voltage pulses start and end (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Because a motor’s induction characteristics resist changes in current, the resulting current waveform approaches a sine wave with jagged transitions that correspond with the rise and fall of the voltage pulses. Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.

However, don't think that you can power your solenoid from a single-phase output of a PWM VFD. It's not that kind of ac voltage.

Myth No. 2: All VFDs are the same

Figure 4: Compare the two-level output pulses on the left with the three-level output pulses on the right. Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.The common ac VFD of today is a fairly mature product. Most commercially available drives contain the same basic components: a bridge rectifier, a soft-charging circuit, a dc bus capacitor bank, and an output inverter section. Granted, there are differences in how the inverter section does its switching, the reliability of the components, and the efficiency of the thermal dissipation scheme. But the basic components remain the same.

There are exceptions to this "all-the-same" thinking. For example, some VFDs offer a three-level-output section. This output section allows the output pulses to vary from half-bus, voltage-level pulses and full-bus level pulses (see Figure 4).

To achieve the three-level output, the output section must have twice the number of output switches, plus clamping diodes (see Figure 5). The benefit gained by using a three-level output is reduction in voltage amplification at the motor due to reflected wave, lower common-mode voltage, shaft voltage, and bearing current.

Figure 5: A three-level output section must have twice the number of IGBT output switches, plus clamping diodes. Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.

The matrix-style inverter is an even more atypical type of VFD. VFDs with matrix-style inverters do not have a dc bus or a bridge rectifier. Instead, they use bidirectional switches that can connect any of the incoming phase voltages to any of the three output phases (see Figure 6). The benefit of this arrangement is that power is allowed to flow freely from line-to-motor or motor-to-line for fully regenerative four-quadrant operation. The drawback is that filtering is required on the input to the drive because extra inductance is necessary to filter the PWM waveform so that it does not affect the input ac lines.

Figure 6: Instead of having a dc bus and bridge rectifier, a VFD with matrix-style inverters use bidirectional switches that can connect any of the incoming phase voltages to any of the three output phases. Courtesy: Yaskawa America Inc.

In addition to VFDs with three-level outputs and matrix-style inverters, there are more examples that prove not all ac VFDs are the same.

Learn about additional VFD myths including power factor (PF) issues and what a VFD input current should be.

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Anonymous , 08/20/15 11:39 AM:

Good article but figure nos is missing to identify.
(e.g. see fig 1 or see fig 4 upto fig 6)
Richard , MA, United States, 08/20/15 12:30 PM:

Excellent article, but does not help the process control user to learn how to use VFD to drive pumps in a flow control loop. All VFDs are "smart" devices with internal programmable microprocessors. All of them even offer a PID function block in almost the same form as used in process control. They all offer both 4-20mA and Ethernet input ports. However, not one of the VFD manufacturers has invested in an application data sheet that explains how to use these VFDs to use a process controller output signal to regulate pump speed. Many users, particularly in water and waste treatment are doing this so they can avoid investment in huge control valves, but they all had to figure out for themselves how to do it. I have made a guess that about 10% of the electricity used in North America could be saved by using VFDs to drive pumps in flow control loops, and avoiding the pressure loss in control valves. Right now, it is just too difficult to do, mostly because the VFD manufacturers have not given process control engineers the right set of tools.
shaju , Non-US/Not Applicable, India, 09/12/15 12:23 AM:

Thanks for the information.
Steve , Ontario, Canada, 09/16/15 08:37 AM:

This article is written very, very efficiently... To compress so much information in such limited length require a "real" knowledge and experience. Very good example that clear message might be conveyed in short form (I guess it is Ed Peterson's legacy). Paul, write a complete book on VFD's (200 pages or so) and I will buy it...
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