Alternating Current (AC) is electricity that is constantly changing voltage between a positive voltage and a negative voltage over time.  The period of the time change is called the frequency.  Residential power is 60-hertz (Hz - often referred to as 60-cycle).  The center line in the graphic is ZERO volts.  The shape of the change is called the waveform.  Most AC power has a sinusoidal waveform.  Notice that it is not the equivalent of half a circle.  The amount of time spent at peak voltage is short compared to the duration of the cycle.

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We encounter a measurement problem if we try to express how large or small an AC voltage is. 

One way to express the intensity, or magnitude (also called the amplitude), of an AC quantity is to measure its peak height on a waveform graph. This is known as the peak or crest value of an AC waveform:

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Another way is to measure the total height between opposite peaks. This is known as the peak-to-peak (P-P) value of an AC waveform:

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Unfortunately, either one of these expressions of waveform amplitude can be misleading when comparing two different types of waves. For example, a square wave peaking at 10 volts is obviously a greater amount of voltage for a greater amount of time than a triangle wave peaking at 10 volts. The effects of these two AC voltages powering a load would be quite different:

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One way of expressing the amplitude of different waveshapes in a more equivalent fashion is to mathematically average the values of all the points on a waveform's graph to a single, aggregate number. This amplitude measure is known simply as the average value of the waveform. If we average all the points on the waveform algebraically (that is, to consider their sign, either positive or negative), the average value for most waveforms is technically zero, because all the positive points cancel out all the negative points over a full cycle:

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This, of course, will be true for any waveform having equal-area portions above and below the "zero" line of a plot. However, as a practical measure of a waveform's aggregate value, "average" is usually defined as the mathematical mean of all the points' absolute values over a cycle. In other words, we calculate the practical average value of the waveform by considering all points on the wave as positive quantities, as if the waveform looked like this:

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Polarity-insensitive mechanical meter movements (meters designed to respond equally to the positive and negative half-cycles of an alternating voltage or current) register in proportion to the waveform's (practical) average value, because the inertia of the pointer against the tension of the spring naturally averages the force produced by the varying voltage/current values over time. Conversely, polarity-sensitive meter movements vibrate uselessly if exposed to AC voltage or current, their needles oscillating rapidly about the zero mark, indicating the true (algebraic) average value of zero for a symmetrical waveform. We will assume that the "practical" definition of average is intended unless otherwise specified.

Another method of deriving an aggregate value for waveform amplitude is based on the waveform's ability to do useful work when applied to a load resistance. Unfortunately, an AC measurement based on work performed by a waveform is not the same as that waveform's "average" value, because the power dissipated by a given load (work performed per unit time) is not directly proportional to the magnitude of either the voltage or current impressed upon it. Rather, power is proportional to the square of the voltage or current applied to a resistance (P = E2/R, and P = I2R). Although the mathematics of such an amplitude measurement might not be straightforward, the utility of it is.  This type of measurement is called Root Mean Squared ( RMS ).

Peak and peak-to-peak measurements are best performed with an oscilloscope, which can capture the crests of the waveform with a high degree of accuracy due to the fast action of the cathode-ray-tube in response to changes in voltage. For RMS measurements, analog meter movements (D'Arsonval, Weston, iron vane, electrodynamometer) will work so long as they have been calibrated in RMS figures. Because the mechanical inertia and dampening effects of an electromechanical meter movement makes the deflection of the needle naturally proportional to the average value of the AC, not the true RMS value, analog meters must be specifically calibrated (or mis-calibrated, depending on how you look at it) to indicate voltage or current in RMS units. The accuracy of this calibration depends on an assumed waveshape, usually a sine wave.

Electronic meters specifically designed for RMS measurement are best for the task. Some instrument manufacturers have designed ingenious methods for determining the RMS value of any waveform. One such manufacturer produces "True-RMS" meters with a tiny resistive heating element powered by a voltage proportional to that being measured. The heating effect of that resistance element is measured thermally to give a true RMS value with no mathematical calculations whatsoever, just the laws of physics in action in fulfillment of the definition of RMS. The accuracy of this type of RMS measurement is independent of waveshape.

Notice that in a sinusoidal waveform (residential electricity), if the PEAK is said to be 1, the RMS and AVERAGE are always less:

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Bear in mind that the constants shown here for peak, RMS, and average amplitudes of sine waves, square waves, and triangle waves hold true only for pure forms of these waveshapes. The RMS and average values of distorted waveshapes are not related by the same ratios:

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This is a very important concept to understand when using an analog meter to measure AC voltage or current. An analog movement, calibrated to indicate sine-wave RMS amplitude, will only be accurate when measuring pure sine waves. If the waveform of the voltage or current being measured is anything but a pure sine wave, the indication given by the meter will not be the true RMS value of the waveform, because the degree of needle deflection in an analog meter movement is proportional to the average value of the waveform, not the RMS. RMS meter calibration is obtained by "skewing" the span of the meter so that it displays a small multiple of the average value, which will be equal to be the RMS value for a particular waveshape and a particular waveshape only.

Since the sine-wave shape is most common in electrical measurements, it is the waveshape assumed for analog meter calibration, and the small multiple used in the calibration of the meter is 1.1107 (the form factor π/2 divided by the crest factor 1.414: the ratio of RMS divided by average for a sinusoidal waveform). Any waveshape other than a pure sine wave will have a different ratio of RMS and average values, and thus a meter calibrated for sine-wave voltage or current will not indicate true RMS when reading a non-sinusoidal wave. Bear in mind that this limitation applies only to simple, analog AC meters not employing "True-RMS" technology.

STORY INDEX Understanding Residential AC Phases

Abridged from source:

http://www.allaboutcircuits.com/vol_2/chpt_1/3