Wiring Installation – Wire Size Selection (Part One)

Wire Size Selection

Wire is manufactured in sizes according to a standard known as the American wire gauge (AWG). As shown in Figure 9-115, the wire diameters become smaller as the gauge numbers become larger. Typical wire sizes range from a number 40 to number 0000.

Figure 9-115. American wire gauge for standard annealed solid copper wire. [click image to enlarge]

Gauge numbers are useful in comparing the diameter of wires, but not all types of wire or cable can be measured accurately with a gauge. Larger wires are usually stranded to increase their flexibility. In such cases, the total area can be determined by multiplying the area of one strand (usually computed in circular mils when diameter or gauge number is known) by the number of strands in the wire or cable.

Several factors must be considered in selecting the size of wire for transmitting and distributing electric power.

1. Wires must have sufficient mechanical strength to allow for service conditions.
2. Allowable power loss (I2 R loss) in the line represents electrical energy converted into heat. The use of large conductors reduces the resistance and therefore the I2 R loss. However, large conductors are more expensive, heavier, and need more substantial support.
3. If the source maintains a constant voltage at the input to the lines, any variation in the load on the line causes a variation in line current and a consequent variation in the IR drop in the line. A wide variation in the IR drop in the line causes poor voltage regulation at the load. The obvious remedy is to reduce either current or resistance. A reduction in load current lowers the amount of power being transmitted, whereas a reduction in line resistance increases the size and weight of conductors required. A compromise is generally reached whereby the voltage variation at the load is within tolerable limits and the weight of line conductors is not excessive.
4. When current is drawn through the conductor, heat is generated. The temperature of the wire rises until the heat radiated, or otherwise dissipated, is equal to the heat generated by the passage of current through the line. If the conductor is insulated, the heat generated in the conductor is not so readily removed as it would be if the conductor were not insulated. Thus, to protect the insulation from too much heat, the current through the conductor must be maintained below a certain value. When electrical conductors are installed in locations where the ambient temperature is relatively high, the heat generated by external sources constitutes an appreciable part of the total conductor heating. Allowance must be made for the influence of external heating on the allowable conductor current, and each case has its own specific limitations. The maximum allowable operating temperature of insulated conductors varies with the type of conductor insulation being used.

If it is desirable to use wire sizes smaller than #20, particular attention should be given to the mechanical strength and installation handling of these wires (e.g., vibration, flexing, and termination). Wires containing less than 19 strands must not be used. Consideration should be given to the use of high-strength alloy conductors in small-gauge wires to increase mechanical strength. As a general practice, wires smaller than size #20 should be provided with additional clamps and be grouped with at least three other wires. They should also have additional support at terminations, such as connector grommets, strain relief clamps, shrinkable sleeving, or telescoping bushings. They should not be used in applications where they are subjected to excessive vibration, repeated bending, or frequent disconnection from screw termination. [Figure 9-116]

Figure 9-116. Conductor chart, continuous (top) and intermittent flow (bottom). [click image to enlarge]

Current Carrying Capacity

In some instances, the wire may be capable of carrying more current than is recommended for the contacts of the related connector. In this instance, it is the contact rating that dictates the maximum current to be carried by a wire. Wires of larger gauge may need to be used to fit within the crimp range of connector contacts that are adequately rated for the current being carried. Figure 9-117 gives a family of curves whereby the bundle derating factor may be obtained.

Figure 9-117. Single copper wire in free air. [click image to enlarge]

Maximum Operating Temperature

The current that causes a temperature steady state condition equal to the rated temperature of the wire should not be exceeded. Rated temperature of the wire may be based upon the ability of either the conductor or the insulation to withstand continuous operation without degradation.

1. Single Wire in Free Air
Determining a wiring system’s current-carrying capacity begins with determining the maximum current that a given-sized wire can carry without exceeding the allowable temperature difference (wire rating minus ambient °C). The curves are based upon a single copper wire in free air. [Figure 9-117]

2. Wires in a Harness
When wires are bundled into harnesses, the current derived for a single wire must be reduced, as shown in Figure 9-118. The amount of current derating is a function of the number of wires in the bundle and the percentage of the total wire bundle capacity that is being used.

Figure 9-118. Bundle derating curve. [click image to enlarge]

3. Harness at Altitude
Since heat loss from the bundle is reduced with increased altitude, the amount of current should be derated. Figure 9-119 gives a curve whereby the altitude-derating factor may be obtained.

Figure 9-119. Altitude derating curve. [click image to enlarge]

4. Aluminum Conductor Wire
When aluminum conductor wire is used, sizes should be selected on the basis of current ratings shown in Figure 9-120. The use of sizes smaller than #8 is discouraged. Aluminum wire should not be attached to engine mounted accessories or used in areas having corrosive fumes, severe vibration, mechanical stresses, or where there is a need for frequent disconnection. Use of aluminum wire is also discouraged for runs of less than 3 feet. Termination hardware should be of the type specifically designed for use with aluminum conductor wiring.

Figure 9-120. Current-carrying capacity and resistance of
aluminum wire.