Three-phase electric power is a common method of alternating-current electric power transmission. It is a type of polyphase system, and is the most common method used by electric power distribution grids worldwide to distribute power. It is also used to power large motors and other large loads. A three-phase system is generally more economical than others because it uses less conductor material to transmit electric power than equivalent single-phase or two-phase systems at the same voltage.
In a three-phase system, three circuit conductors carry three alternating currents (of the same frequency) which reach their instantaneous peak values at different times. Taking one conductor as the reference, the other two currents are delayed in time by one-third and two-thirds of one cycle of the electrical current. This delay between phases has the effect of giving constant power transfer over each cycle of the current, and also makes it possible to produce a rotating magnetic field in an electric motor.
Three-phase systems may or may not have a neutral wire. A neutral wire allows the three-phase system to use a higher voltage while still supporting lower-voltage single-phase appliances. In high-voltage distribution situations, it is common not to have a neutral wire as the loads can simply be connected between phases (phase-phase connection).
Three-phase has properties that make it very desirable in electric power systems:
- The phase currents tend to cancel out one another, summing to zero in the case of a linear balanced load. This makes it possible to eliminate or reduce the size of the neutral conductor; all the phase conductors carry the same current and so can be the same size, for a balanced load.
- Power transfer into a linear balanced load is constant, which helps to reduce generator and motor vibrations.
- Three-phase systems can produce a magnetic field that rotates in a specified direction, which simplifies the design of electric motors.
Three is the lowest phase order to exhibit all of these properties.
Most household loads are single-phase. In North America and some other countries, three-phase power generally does not enter homes. Even in areas where it does, it is typically split out at the main distribution board and the individual loads are fed from a single phase. Sometimes it is used to power electric stoves and washing machines.
The three phases are typically indicated by colors which vary by country.