Fan injecting dust particles into the VFD.
Do you know how to maintain Variable Frequency Drives? Doing so is easier than you might think. By integrating some simple, logical steps into your preventive maintenance program, you can ensure your drives provide many years of trouble-free service. Before looking at those steps, let's quickly review what a VFD is and how it works.

A VFD controls the speed, torque and direction of an AC induction motor. It takes fixed voltage and frequency AC input and converts it to a variable voltage and frequency AC output. In very small VFDs, a single power pack unit may contain the converter and inverter.

Fairly involved control circuitry coordinates the switching of power devices, typically through a control board that dictates the firing of power components in the proper sequence. A microprocessor or Digital Signal Processor (DSP) meets all the internal logic and decision requirements.

From this description, you can see a VFD is basically a computer and power supply. And the same safety and equipment precautions you'd apply to a computer and to a power supply apply here. VFD maintenance requirements fall into three basic categories:

  • Keep it clean

  • Keep it dry

    Keep the connection tight

Most VFDs fall into the NEMA 1 category (side vents for cooling airflow) or NEMA 12 category (sealed, dust-tight enclosure). Drives that fall in the NEMA 1 category are susceptible to dust contamination. Dust on VFD hardware can cause a lack of airflow, resulting in diminished performance from heat sinks and circulating fans.

Loose input power connections.

No-dust rule applies

Dust on an electronic device can cause malfunction or even failure. Dust absorbs moisture, which also contributes to failure. Periodically spraying air through the heat sink fan is a good PM measure. Discharging compressed air into a VFD is a viable option in some environments, but typical plant air contains oil and water. To use compressed air for cooling, you must use air that is oil-free and dry or you are likely to do more harm than good. That requires a specialized, dedicated, and expensive air supply. And you still run the risk of generating electrostatic charges. A non-static generating spray or a reverse-operated ESD vacuum will reduce static build-up.

Common plastics are prime generators of static electricity. The material in ESD vacuum cases and fans is a special, non-static generating plastic. These vacuums, and cans of non-static generating compressed air, are available through companies that specialize in static control equipment.

In the accompanying photos you can see what happened to a control board periodically subjected to a moist environment. Initially, this VFD was wall-mounted in a clean, dry area of a mechanical room and moisture was not a problem. However, as is often the case, a well-meaning modification led to problems. An area of the building required a dehumidifier close to the mechanical room. Since wall space was available above the VFD, this is where the dehumidifier went. Unfortunately, the VFD was a NEMA 1 enclosure style (side vents and no seal around the cover). The obvious result was water dripping from the dehumidifier into the drive. In six months, the VFD accumulated enough water to produce circuit board corrosion.

What about condensation? Some VFD manufacturers included a type of "condensation protection" on earlier product versions. When the mercury dipped below 328F, the software logic would not allow the drive to start. VFDs seldom offer this protection today. If you operate the VFD all day every day, the normal radiant heat from the heatsink should prevent condensation. Unless the unit is in continuous operation, use a NEMA 12 enclosure and thermostatically controlled space heater if you locate it where condensation is likely.

While this sound basic, checking connections is a step many people miss or do incorrectly - and the requirement applies even in clean rooms. Heat cycles and mechanical vibration can lead to substandard connections, as can standard PM practices. Re-torquing screws is not a good idea, and further tightening an already tight connection can ruin the connection.

Bad connections eventually lead to arcing. Arcing at the VFD input could result in nuisance over voltage faults, clearing of input fuses, or damage to protective components. Arcing at the VFD output could result in over-current faults, or even damage to the power components.

Loose control wiring connections can cause erratic operation. For example, a loose START/STOP signal wire can cause uncontrollable VFD stops. A loose speed reference wire can cause the drive speed to fluctuate, resulting in scrap, machine damage, or injury.

(Note: the above was contributed by Dave Polka, Drives Training Manager, ABB Drives & Power Products Group, New Berlin, Wis.; 262-785-3200; fax 262-785-3290.)