Power Supply Correction Factor

Recently, the power line efficiency and harmonic distortion generation of PC power supplies has come under examination. This generally falls under the topic of the power factor of the supply. Interest in power factor is not only due to an improvement in power efficiency, but also because of a reduction in the generation of harmonics back on the power line.

In particular, new standards are now mandatory in many European Union (EU) countries that require harmonics be reduced below a specific amount. The circuitry required to do this is called power factor correction (PFC). The power factor measures how effectively electrical power is being used and is expressed as a number between 0 and 1.

A high power factor means that electrical power is being used effectively, whereas a low power factor indicates poor utilization of electrical power. To understand the power factor, you must understand how power is used. Generally, two types of loads are placed on AC power lines:

  • Resistive. Power converted into heat, light, motion, or work

  • Inductive. Sustains an electromagnetic field, such as in a transformer or motor

A resistive load is often called working power and is measured in kilowatts (KW). An inductive load, on the other hand, is often called reactive power and is measured in kilovolt-amperes-reactive (KVAR). Working power and reactive power together make up apparent power, which is measured in kilovolt-amperes (KVA).

The power factor is measured as the ratio of working power to apparent power, or working power/apparent power (KW/KVA). The ideal power factor is 1, where the working power and apparent power are the same. The concept of a resistive load or working power is fairly easy to understand.

For example, a light bulb that consumes 100W of power generates 100W worth of heat and light. This is a pure resistive load. An inductive load, on the other hand, is a little harder to understand. Think about a transformer, which has coil windings to generate an electromagnetic field and then induce current in another set of windings.

A certain amount of power is required to saturate the windings and generate the magnetic field, even though no work is being done. A power transformer that is not connected to anything is a perfect example of a pure inductive load. An apparent power draw exists to generate the fields, but no working power exists because no actual work is being done.

When the transformer is connected to a load, it uses both working power and reactive power. In other words, power is consumed to do work (for example, if the transformer is powering a light bulb), and apparent power is used to maintain the electromagnetic field in the transformer windings.

In an AC circuit, these loads can become out of sync or phase, meaning they don't peak at the same time, which can generate harmonic distortions back down the power line. I've seen examples where electric motors have caused distortions in television sets plugged into the same power circuit.

PFC usually involves adding capacitance to the circuit to maintain the inductive load without drawing additional power from the line. This makes the working power and apparent power the same, which results in a power factor of 1.

It usually isn't just as simple as adding some capacitors to a circuit, although that can be done and is called passive power factor correction. Active power factor correction involves a more intelligent circuit designed to match the resistive and inductive loads so they are seen as the same by the electrical outlet.

A power supply with active power factor correction draws low distortion current from the AC source and has a power factor rating of 0.9 or greater. A nonpower factor corrected supply draws highly distorted current and is sometimes referred to as a nonlinear load. The power factor of a noncorrected supply is typically 0.6–0.8.

Therefore, only 60% of the apparent power consumed is actually doing real work! Having a power supply with active PFC might or might not lower your electric bill (it depends on how your power is measured), but it will definitely reduce the load on the building wiring.

With PFC, all the power going into the supply is converted into actual work and the wiring is less overworked. For example, if you ran a number of computers on a single breaker-controlled circuit and found that you were blowing the breaker periodically, you could switch to systems with active PFC power supplies and reduce the load on the wiring by up to 40%, meaning you would be less likely to blow the breaker.

The International Electrical Committee (IEC) has released standards dealing with the low-frequency public supply system. The initial standards were 555.2 (Harmonics) and 555.3 (Flicker), but they have since been refined and are now available as IEC 1000-3-2 and IEC 1000-3-3, respectively.

As governed by the EMC directive, most electrical devices sold within the member countries of the EU must meet the IEC standards. The IEC1000-3-2/3 standards became mandatory in 1997 and 1998.

Even if you don't live in a country where PFC is required, I highly recommend specifying PC power supplies with active PFC. The main benefits of PFC supplies is that they do not overheat building wiring or distort the AC source waveform, which causes less interference on the line for other devices.

Safety Certifications

Many agencies around the world certify electric and electronic components for safety and quality. The most commonly known agency in the United States is Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL). UL standard #60950—Safety of Information Technology Equipment, Third Edition—covers power supplies and other PC components.

You should always purchase power supplies and other devices that are UL-certified. It has often been said that, although not every good product is UL-certified, no bad products are. In Canada, electric and electronic products are certified by the Canadian Standards Agency (CSA).

The German equivalents are TÜV Rheinland and VDE, and NEMKO operates in Norway. These agencies are responsible for certification of products throughout Europe. Power supply manufacturers that sell to an international market should have products that are certified at least by UL, the CSA, and TÜV—if not by all the agencies listed, and more.

Apart from UL-type certifications, many power supply manufacturers, even the most reputable ones, claim that their products have a Class B certification from the Federal Communications Commission, meaning that they meet FCC standards for electromagnetic and radio frequency interference (EMI/RFI).

This is a contentious point, however, because the FCC does not certify power supplies as individual components. Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 15, Section 15.101(c) states as follows:

The FCC does NOT currently authorize motherboards, cases, and internal power supplies. Vendor claims that they are selling 'FCC-certified cases,' 'FCC-certified motherboards,' or 'FCC-certified internal power supplies' are false.

In fact, an FCC certification can be issued collectively only to a base unit consisting of a computer case, motherboard, and power supply. Thus, a power supply purported to be FCC-certified was actually certified along with a particular case and motherboard—not necessarily the same case and motherboard you are using in your system.

This does not mean, however, that the manufacturer is being deceitful or that the power supply is inferior. If anything, this means that when evaluating power supplies, you should place less weight on the FCC certification than on other factors, such as UL certification.