Safety ground is not reliable ground reference

I have written quite a bot of material on Ground loop problems and how to get rid of them. The ground loop related problems are often caused by small ground potential differences between different electrical outlets. Typically those ground potential differences are few volts or less.

Not your fault article by Howard Johnson published in EDN magazine describes situations where those ground potential differences can raise to much higher voltages, up to tens of volts.

The green safety wire, or “third wire,” merely connects the metallic chassis of each product to earth at the ac power entrance. Under ideal, no-fault conditions, the green safety wire carries no current. Based on this an inexperienced designer might therefore conclude that the green wires form a single-point-ground reference system that provides a consistent voltage reference between different ac-powered products.

If live wire during some fault situation touches the metallic chassis, a large fault current back to the power source through the ground wire. The fault current trips the circuit breaker, shutting off power and possibly saving the life. The power shutoff normally takes from a small fraction of second up to few seconds depending on the way the circuit is protected. As the huge fault current surges (up to hundreds of amperes) through the green wire, other devices connected to adjacent outlets can experience voltage differences as large as 60V rms in 120V AC system used in USA. The voltages can be even higher on 230V AC system used in Europe (in theory up to 115V AC, in practice normally less than 70V).

This kind of huge voltage differences between equipment can fry the communications interface on interconnected devices because it is normally outside the operating voltage range most normal interconnection systems can sustain (RS-232, RS-422, RS-485). The thin ground connection on the interconnection cable does not much to reduce the surge those devices get. If you want to design reliably working electronics, it would be better if you design gear that can sustain such extraordinary voltages without damage. If your devices can’t sustain those voltages, it would be better if the equipment would be permanently connected to a common outlet or power strip.

Suitable technologies that can easily sustain 60V or more voltage between devices are Ethernet on UTP wiring (transformer isolated), fiber-based optical links, free space optical communications and wireless RF communications. Traditional RS-232 or RS-485 or RS-422 can be made to withstand this voltage if you take case that the equipment on one of the ends of the communications link or both of them have the communications port electrically isolated (usually uses optioisolators) from the equipment case.

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  30. Grounding issues and minimizing EMI « Tomi Engdahl’s ePanorama blog says:
    [...] necessary safety functions. Grounding also have other functions in some applications (for example work as signal ground reference) but the safety should not be compromised in any [...]
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