Primarily for reasons of safety, certain standards for electrical wiring have been established within the United States, and are specified in the National Electrical Code (NEC). Typical NEC wire ampacity tables will show allowable maximum currents for different sizes and applications of wire. Though the melting point of copper theoretically imposes a limit on wire ampacity, the materials commonly employed for insulating conductors melt at temperatures far below the melting point of copper, and so practical ampacity ratings are based on the thermal limits of the insulation. Voltage dropped as a result of excessive wire resistance is also a factor in sizing conductors for their use in circuits, but this consideration is better assessed through more complex means (which we will cover in this chapter). A table derived from an NEC listing is shown for example:
Notice the substantial ampacity differences between same-size wires with different types of insulation. This is due, again, to the thermal limits (60o, 75o, 90o) of each type of insulation material.
These ampacity ratings are given for copper conductors in “free air” (maximum typical air circulation), as opposed to wires placed in conduit or wire trays. As you will notice, the table fails to specify ampacities for small wire sizes. This is because the NEC concerns itself primarily with power wiring (large currents, big wires) rather than with wires common to low-current electronic work.
There is meaning in the letter sequences used to identify conductor types, and these letters usually refer to properties of the conductor’s insulating layer(s). Some of these letters symbolize individual properties of the wire while others are simply abbreviations. For example, the letter “T” by itself means “thermoplastic” as an insulation material, as in “TW” or “THHN.” However, the three-letter combination “MTW” is an abbreviation for Machine Tool Wire, a type of wire whose insulation is made to be flexible for use in machines experiencing significant motion or vibration.
Therefore, a “THWN” conductor has Thermoplastic insulation, is Heat resistant to 75o Celsius, is rated for Wet conditions, and comes with a Nylon outer jacketing.
Letter codes like these are only used for general-purpose wires such as those used in households and businesses. For high-power applications and/or severe service conditions, the complexity of conductor technology defies classification according to a few letter codes. Overhead power line conductors are typically bare metal, suspended from towers by glass, porcelain, or ceramic mounts known as insulators. Even so, the actual construction of the wire to withstand physical forces both static (dead weight) and dynamic (wind) loading can be complex, with multiple layers and different types of metals wound together to form a single conductor. Large, underground power conductors are sometimes insulated by paper, then enclosed in a steel pipe filled with pressurized nitrogen or oil to prevent water intrusion. Such conductors require support equipment to maintain fluid pressure throughout the pipe.
Other insulating materials find use in small-scale applications. For instance, the small-diameter wire used to make electromagnets (coils producing a magnetic field from the flow of electrons) are often insulated with a thin layer of enamel. The enamel is an excellent insulating material and is very thin, allowing many “turns” of wire to be wound in a small space.
- Wire resistance creates heat in operating circuits. This heat is a potential fire ignition hazard.
- Skinny wires have a lower allowable current (“ampacity”) than fat wires, due to their greater resistance per unit length, and consequently greater heat generation per unit current.
- The National Electrical Code (NEC) specifies ampacities for power wiring based on allowable insulation temperature and wire application.