Power Factor: The difference between promise and reality

Most data centers use AC (Alternating Current) power. The current within an AC system flows in one direction, reverses, flows backward and then forward again 50 or 60 times a second, depending on what country you’re in. That means that voltage and current in an AC system fluctuate back and forth between positive and negative. Since the power being delivered is the product of voltage and current, it will fluctuate as well. If voltage and current were perfectly synchronized you could simply multiply the average voltage and average current and get the correct average power being delivered. Unfortunately, voltage and current can get out of sync so you may be getting less power than you think.

Voltage and current being out of sync may sound unintuitive, but a water pipe analogy is helpful: electrical current has “inertia” just like water in a pipe and it is possible for pressure and flow rate to be out of sync. There may be situations of high pressure but low flow rate (“high voltage, low current”) or high flow rate but low pressure (“low voltage, high current”).

In order to precisely measure power, voltage and current must be measured and multiplied at exactly the same instance, many thousands of times a second. That’s what any power monitoring equipment claiming to measure “true power” does. That brings us to the ”power factor”.

Power factor
Power factor is simply the ratio of true power to apparent power. A power factor of 1 occurs when voltage and current are completely in sync (perfect conditions).

  • Apparent power is obtained by multiplying average voltage by average current and is expressed in VA (Volt-Amperes) or kVA.
  • True power is expressed in W (Watts) or kW.

Apparent power rating (sometimes called VA rating) represents the highest theoretical power that a piece of equipment can deliver or consume without exceeding either voltage or current ratings, but only under perfect conditions. In reality the true power is usually going to be less than the VA rating.

To use a beer analogy, you may order a pint but generally end up with slightly less than a pint of drinkable beer. A good head of beer is nice, but not everybody wants to pay for it!

Packet Power - Power Factor explained
The difference between apparent and true (or real) power

In a data center with modern power conditioning equipment and power supplies you will rarely see circuits to IT devices with a power factor lower than 0.9. It is significant enough, however, that true power measurement is essential when it comes to cost measurement. It is also an important factor when dealing with very high power devices such as a large UPS.

In a DC (Direct Current) power system, the voltage is constant and the power factor is generally a non-issue. We’ll provide a refresher on DC power in a future post.

Email if you need help measuring your true power. Packet Power wireless monitoring solutions are easy to install, affordable and accurate.

Paul Bieganski
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