In electricity, the phase describes the distribution of a load. What is the difference between single-phase and three-phase power supplies? Single-phase power is a two-wire alternating current (ac) power circuit. Generally, there is one power wire-- the phase wire-- and one neutral wire, with current flowing between the power wire (through the load) and the neutral wire. Three-phase power is a three-wire ac power circuit with each phase ac signal 120 electrical degrees apart.
Residential homes are usually served by a single-phase power supply, while commercial and industrial facilities usually use a three-phase supply. One key difference between single-phase vs. three-phase is that a three-phase power supply better accommodates greater loads. Single-phase power supplies are most commonly used when typical loads are lighting or heating, as opposed to large electric motors.
Single-phase systems can be originated from three-phase systems. In the United States, this is done via a transformer to get the right voltage, while in the EU it is done directly. Voltage levels in the EU are such that a three-phase system can also function as three single-phase systems.
One other important distinction between 3-phase power vs. single phase power is the consistency of the distribution of power. Due to the peaks and dips in voltage, a single-phase power supply simply does not provide the same consistency as a three-phase power supply. A three-phase power supply delivers power at a steady, continuous rate.
Comparing single-phase vs. three-phase power, three-phase power supplies are more reliable. A three-phase power supply can transfer three times as much power as a single-phase power supply, while only needing one additional wire (that is, three wires rather than two). Thus, three-phase power supplies, whether they have three wires or four, utilize less conductor material to transmit a set amount of electrical power than do single-phase power supplies.
Some three-phase power supplies do use a fourth wire, which is a neutral wire. The two most typical arrangements of three-phase systems are known as wye and delta. A delta configuration has only three wires, while a wye arrangement may have a fourth, neutral, wire. Single-phase power supplies have a neutral wire too.
Both single-phase and three-phase power distribution systems have functions for which they are well-suited. But both kinds of systems are rather different from each other.