Alternating Current


In discussing alternating current and voltage, we will often find it necessary to express the current and voltage in terms of MAXIMUM or PEAK values, PEAK-to-PEAK values, EFFECTIVE values, AVERAGE values, or INSTANTANEOUS values. Each of these values has a different meaning and is used to describe a different amount of current or voltage.



Refer to figure (13). Notice it shows the positive alternation of a sine wave (a half-cycle of ac) and a dc waveform that occur simultaneously. Note that the dc starts and stops at the same moment as does the positive alternation, and that both waveforms rise to the same maximum value. However, the dc values are greater than the corresponding ac values at all points except the point at which the positive alternation passes through its maximum value. At this point the dc and ac values are equal. This point on the sine wave is referred to as the maximum or peak value.


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Figure (13). - Maximum or peak value.


During each complete cycle of ac there are always two maximum or peak values, one for the positive half-cycle and the other for the negative half-cycle. The difference between the peak positive value and the peak negative value is called the peak-to-peak value of the sine wave. This value is twice the maximum or peak value of the sine wave and is sometimes used for measurement of ac voltages. Note the difference between peak and peak-to-peak values in figure (14). Usually alternating voltage and current are expressed in EFFECTIVE VALUES (a term you will study later) rather than in peak-to-peak values.

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Figure (14). - Peak and peak-to-peak values.



The INSTANTANEOUS value of an alternating voltage or current is the value of voltage or current at one particular instant. The value may be zero if the particular instant is the time in the cycle at which the polarity of the voltage is changing. It may also be the same as the peak value, if the selected instant is the time in the cycle at which the voltage or current stops increasing and starts decreasing. There are actually an infinite number of instantaneous values between zero and the peak value.



The AVERAGE value of an alternating current or voltage is the average of ALL the INSTANTANEOUS values during ONE alternation. Since the voltage increases from zero to peak value and decreases back to zero during one alternation, the average value must be some value between those two limits. You could determine the average value by adding together a series of instantaneous values of the alternation (between 0 and 180), and then dividing the sum by the number of instantaneous values used. The computation would show that one alternation of a sine wave has an average value equal to 0.636 times the peak value. The formula for average voltage is

Eavg = 0.636 X Emax

where Eavg is the average voltage of one alternation, and Emax is the maximum or peak voltage. Similarly, the formula for average current is

Iavg = 0.636 X Imax

where Iavg is the average current in one alternation, and Imax is the maximum or peak current.

Do not confuse the above definition of an average value with that of the average value of a complete cycle. Because the voltage is positive during one alternation and negative during the other alternation, the average value of the voltage values occurring during the complete cycle is zero.



Emax, Eavg, I max, and Iavg are values used in ac measurements. Another value used is the EFFECTIVE value of ac This is the value of alternating voltage or current that will have the same effect on a resistance as a comparable value of direct voltage or current will have on the same resistance.

In an earlier discussion you were told that when current flows in a resistance, heat is produced. When direct current flows in a resistance, the amount of electrical power converted into heat equals I2R watts. However, since an alternating current having a maximum value of 1 ampere does not maintain a constant value, the alternating current will not produce as much heat in the resistance as will a direct current of 1 ampere.

Figure (15) compares the heating effect of 1 ampere of dc to the heating effect of 1 ampere of ac.


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Figure (15). - Heating effect of ac and dc.


Examine views A and B of figure (15) and notice that the heat (70.7 C) produced by 1 ampere of alternating current (that is, an ac with a maximum value of 1 ampere) is only 70.7 percent of the heat (100 C) produced by 1 ampere of direct current. Mathematically,

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Therefore, for effective value of ac (I eff) = 0.707 X Imax.

The rate at which heat is produced in a resistance forms a convenient basis for establishing an effective value of alternating current, and is known as the "heating effect" method. An alternating current is said to have an effective value of one ampere when it produces heat in a given resistance at the same rate as does one ampere of direct current.

You can compute the effective value of a sine wave of current to a fair degree of accuracy by taking equally-spaced instantaneous values of current along the curve and extracting the square root of the average of the sum of the squared values.

For this reason, the effective value is often called the "root-mean-square" (rms) value. Thus,

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Stated another way, the effective or rms value (Ieff) of a sine wave of current is 0.707 times the maximum value of current (Imax). Thus, I eff = 0.707 X Imax. When I eff is known, you can find Imax by using the formula Imax = 1.414 X Ieff. You might wonder where the constant 1.414 comes from. To find out, examine figure (15) again and read the following explanation. Assume that the dc in figure (15-A) is maintained at 1 ampere and the resistor temperature at 100C. Also assume that the ac in figure (15-B) is increased until the temperature of the resistor is 100 C. At this point it is found that a maximum ac value of 1.414 amperes is required in order to have the same heating effect as direct current. Therefore, in the ac circuit the maximum current required is 1.414 times the effective current. It is important for you to remember the above relationship and that the effective value (I eff) of any sine wave of current is always 0.707 times the maximum value (Imax).

Since alternating current is caused by an alternating voltage, the ratio of the effective value of voltage to the maximum value of voltage is the same as the ratio of the effective value of current to the maximum value of current. Stated another way, the effective or rms value (E eff) of a sine-wave of voltage is 0.707 times the maximum value of voltage (Emax),


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When an alternating current or voltage value is specified in a book or on a diagram, the value is an effective value unless there is a definite statement to the contrary. Remember that all meters, unless marked to the contrary, are calibrated to indicate effective values of current and voltage.

Problem: A circuit is known to have an alternating voltage of 120 volts and a peak or maximum current of 30 amperes. What are the peak voltage and effective current values?


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Figure (16) shows the relationship between the various values used to indicate sine-wave amplitude. Review the values in the figure to ensure you understand what each value indicates.


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Figure (16) - Various values used to indicate sine-wave amplitude.

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