Power factor is very important concept for commercial and industrial applications which require higher current draw to operate than domestic buildings. For a passive load (only containing resistance, inductance or capacitance and no active components), the power factor range from 0 to 1. Power factor is only negative with active loads. Before delving into power factor, it is important to discuss different types of power. The type of power most are familiar with is in Watts. This is called active or useful power, as it represents actual energy or time dissipated or “used” by the load in question. Another type of power is reactive power, which is caused by inductance or capacitance, which leads to a phase shift between voltage and current. To demonstrate how a lagging power factor causes “wasted” power, it would be helpful to look at some waveforms. For a purely resistive load, the voltage and current are in phase, so no power is wasted (P=VI is never zero at any point).

The above image captures the concept of leading and lagging power factor (leading and lagging is always in reference to the current waveform). For a purely inductive load, the current will lag because the inductor will create a “back EMF” or inertial voltage to oppose changes in current. This EMF leads to a current within the inductor, but only comes from the initial voltage. It can also be seen that this EMF is proportional to the rate of change of the current, so when the current is zero the voltage is maximum. For a capacitive load, the power factor is leading. A capacitor must charge up with current before establishing a voltage across the plates. This explains the PF “leading” or “lagging”. Most of the time, when power factor is decreased it is because the PF is lagging due to induction motors. To account for this, capacitors are used as part of power factor correction.

The third type of power is apparent power, which is the complex combination of real and reactive power.

The power factor is the cosine of the angle made in this triangle. Therefore, as the PF angle is increased the power factor decreases. The power factor is maximum when the reactive power is zero. Ideally, the PF would be between 0.95 and 1, but for many industrial buildings this can fall to even 0.7. This leads to higher electric bills for this buildings because having a lower power factor leads to increases current in the power lines leading to the building which causes higher losses in the lines. It also leads to voltage drops and wastage of energy. To conserve energy, power factor correction must be employed. Often capacitors are used in conjunction with contactors that are controlled by regulators that measure power factor. When necessary, the contactors will be switched on and allow the capacitors to improve the power factor.

For linear loads, power factor is called as displacement power factor, as it only accounts for the phase difference between the voltage and current. For nonlinear loads, harmonics are added to the output. This is because nonlinear loads cause distortion, which changes the shape of the output sinusoids. Nonlinear loads and power factor will be explored in a subsequent post.