Insulating Materials for Underground Cables:

The satisfactory operation of a cable depends to a great extent upon the characteristics of insulation used. Therefore, the proper choice of Insulating Materials for Underground Cables is of considerable importance. In general, the insulating materials used in cables should have the following properties :

  • High insulation resistance to avoid leakage current.
  • High dielectric strength to avoid electrical breakdown of the cable.
  • High mechanical strength to withstand the mechanical handling of cables.
  • Non-hygroscopic e., it should not absorb moisture from air or soil. The moisture tends to decrease the insulation resistance and hastens the breakdown of the cable. In case the insulating material is hygroscopic, it must be enclosed in a waterproof covering like lead sheath.
  • Non-inflammable.
  • Low cost so as to make the underground system a viable proposition.
  • Unaffected by acids and alkalies to avoid any chemical action.

No one insulating material possesses all the above mentioned properties. Therefore, the type of insulating material to be used depends upon the purpose for which the cable is required and the quality of insulation to be aimed at. The principal of Insulating Materials for Underground Cables are rubber, vulcanised India rubber,impregnated paper, varnished cambric and polyvinyl chloride.

1.Rubber: Rubber may be obtained from milky sap of tropical trees or it may be produced from oil products. It has relative permittivity varying between 2 and 3, dielectric strength is about 30 kV/min and resistivity of insulation is 1017Ω cm. Although pure rubber has reasonably high insu­lating properties, it suffers form some major drawbacks viz., readily absorbs moisture, maximum safe temperature is low (about 38°C), soft and liable to damage due to rough handling and ages when exposed to light. Therefore, pure rubber cannot be used as an insulating material.

2.Vulcanised India Rubber (V.I.R.): It is prepared by mixing pure rubber with mineral mat­ter such as zine oxide, red lead etc., and 3 to 5% of sulphur. The compound so formed is rolled into thin sheets and cut into strips. The rubber compound is then applied to the conductor and is heated to a temperature of about 150°C. The whole process is called vulcanisation and the product obtained is known as vulcanised India rubber. Vulcanised India rubber has greater mechanical strength, durability and wear resistant property than pure rubber Its main drawback is that sulphur reacts very quickly with copper and for this reason, cables using VIR insulation have tinned copper conductor. The VIR insulation is generally used for low and moderate voltage cables.

3.Impregnated paper: It consists of chemically pulped paper made from wood chippings and impregnated with some compound such as paraffinic or napthenic material. This type of insula­tion has almost superseded the rubber insulation. It is because it has the advantages of low cost, low capacitance, high dielectric strength and high insulation resistance. The only disadvantage is that paper is hygroscopic and even if it is impregnated with suitable compound, it absorbs moisture and thus lowers the insulation resistance of the cable. For this reason, paper insulated cables are always provided with some protective covering and are never left unsealed. If it is required to be left unused on the site during laying, its ends are temporarily covered with wax or tar. 

Since the paper insulated cables have the tendency to absorb moisture, they are used where the cable route has a few joints. For instance, they can be profitably used for distribution at low voltages in congested areas where the joints are generally provided only at the terminal apparatus. However, for smaller installations, where the lenghts are small and joints are required at a number of places, VIR cables will be cheaper and durable than paper insulated cables.

4.Varnished cambric: It is a cotton cloth impregnated and coated with varnish. This type of insulation is also known as empire tape. The cambric is lapped on to the conductor in the form of a tape and its surfaces are coated with petroleum jelly compound to allow for the sliding of one turn over another as the cable is bent. As the varnished cambric is hygroscopic, therefore, such Insulating Materials for Underground Cables are always provided with metallic sheath. Its dielectric strength is about 4 kV/min and permittivity is 2.5 to 3.8.

5.Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): This insulating material is a synthetic compound. It is obtained from the polymerisation of acetylene and is in the form of white powder. For obtaining this material as a cable insulation, it is compounded with certain materials known as plasticizers which are liquids with high boiling point. The plasticizer forms a gell and renders the material plastic over the desired range of temperature.

Polyvinyl chloride has high insulation resistance, good dielectric strength and mechanical tough­ness over a wide range of temperatures. It is inert to oxygen and almost inert to many alkalies and acids. Therefore, this type of insulation is preferred over VIR in extreme enviormental conditions such as in cement factory or chemical factory. As the mechanical properties (i.e., elasticity etc.) of PVC are not so good as those of rubber, therefore, PVC insulated cables are generally used for low and medium domestic lights and power installations.