An insulator, also called a dielectric, is a material that resists the flow of electric current. An insulating material has atoms with tightly bonded valence electrons. These materials are used in parts of electrical equipment, also called insulators or insulation, intended to support or separate electrical conductors without passing current through themselves. The term is often used more specifically to refer to insulating supports that attach electric power transmission wires to utility poles or pylons.
Some materials such as glass or Teflon are very good electrical insulators. A much larger class of materials, for example rubber-like polymers and most plastics are still "good enough" to insulate electrical wiring and cables even though they may have lower bulk resistivity. These materials can serve as practical and safe insulators for low to moderate voltages (hundreds, or even thousands, of volts).
Most (though not all, see Mott insulator) insulators are characterized by having a large band gap. This occurs because the "valence" band containing the highest energy electrons is full, and a large energy gap separates this band from the next band above it. There is always some voltage (called the breakdown voltage) that will give the electrons enough energy to be excited into this band. Once this voltage is exceeded, the material ceases being an insulator, and charge will begin to pass through it. However, it is usually accompanied by physical or chemical changes that permanently degrade the material's insulating properties.
Materials that lack electron conduction must also lack other mobile charges as well. For example, if a liquid or gas contains ions, then the ions can be made to flow as an electric current, and the material is a conductor. Electrolytes and plasmas contain ions and will act as conductors whether or not electron flow is involved.
Suspended wires for electric power transmission are bare, except when connecting to houses, and are insulated by the surrounding air. Insulators are required at the points at which they are supported by utility poles or pylons. Insulators are also required where the wire enters buildings or electrical devices, such as transformers or circuit breakers, to insulate the wire from the case. These hollow insulators with a conductor inside them are called bushings.
Recently, some electric utilities have begun converting to polymer composite materials for some types of insulators. These are typically composed of a central rod made of fibre reinforced plastic and an outer weathershed made of silicone rubber or EPDM. Composite insulators are less costly, lighter in weight, and have excellent hydrophobic capability. This combination makes them ideal for service in polluted areas. However, these materials do not yet have the long-term proven service life of glass and porcelain.
The electrical breakdown of an insulator due to excessive voltage can occur in one of two ways:
High voltage insulators are designed with a lower flashover voltage than puncture voltage, so they will flashover before they puncture, to avoid damage.
Dirt, pollution, salt, and particularly water on the surface of a high voltage insulator can create a conductive path across it, causing leakage currents and flashovers. The flashover voltage can be more than 50% lower when the insulator is wet. High voltage insulators for outdoor use are shaped to maximise the length of the leakage path along the surface from one end to the other, called the creepage length, to minimize these leakage currents. To accomplish this the surface is molded into a series of corrugations or concentric disk shapes. These usually include one or more sheds; downward facing cup-shaped surfaces that act as umbrellas to ensure that the part of the surface leakage path under the 'cup' stays dry in wet weather. Minimum creepage distances are 20-25 mm/kV, but must be increased in high pollution or airborne sea-salt areas.
The first glass insulators used in large quantities had an unthreaded pinhole. These pieces of glass were positioned on a tapered wooden pin, vertically extending upwards from the pole's crossarm (commonly only two insulators to a pole and maybe one on top of the pole itself). Natural contraction and expansion of the wires tied to these "threadless insulators" resulted in insulators unseating from their pins, requiring manual reseating.
Amongst the first to produce ceramic insulators were companies in the United Kingdom, with Stiff and Doulton using stoneware from the mid 1840s, Joseph Bourne (later renamed Denby) producing them from around 1860 and Bullers from 1868. Utility patent number 48,906 was granted to Louis A. Cauvet on July 25, 1865 for a process to produce insulators with a threaded pinhole. To this day, pin-type insulators still have threaded pinholes.
The invention of suspension-type insulators made high-voltage power transmission possible. Pin-type insulators were unsatisfactory over about 60,000 volts.
A large variety of telephone, telegraph and power insulators have been made; some people collect them.
In most cases a broadcasting radio antenna requires an insulating mounting, therefore insulators of steatite are used. They have to withstand not only the voltage of the mast radiator to ground, which can reach values up to 400 kV at some antennas, but also the weight of the mast construction and dynamic forces. Arcing horns and lightning arresters are necessary because lightning strikes in the mast are common.
At guyed mast radiators, it is often necessary to use insulators in the guy (if they are not grounded via a coil at the anchor bases), in order to prevent undesired electrical resonances of the guys. These insulators also have to be equipped with overvoltage protection equipment. For the dimensions of the guy insulation, static charges on guys have to be considered, at high masts these can be much higher than the voltage caused by the transmitter requiring guys divided by insulators in multiple sections on the highest masts. In this case, guys which are grounded at the anchor basements via a coil - or if possible, directly - are the better choice.
Feedlines attaching antennas to radio equipment often must be kept at a distance from metal structures. The insulated supports used for this purpose are called standoff insulators.
In older apparatus made up to the early 1970s, boards made of compressed asbestos may be found; while this is an adequate insulator at power frequencies, handling or repairs to asbestos material will release dangerous fibers into the air and must be carried out with caution. Live-front switchboards up to the early part of the 20th century were made of slate or marble.
Some high voltage equipment is designed to operate within a high pressure insulating gas such as sulfur hexafluoride.
Insulation materials that perform well at power and low frequencies may be unsatisfactory at radio frequency, due to heating from excessive dielectric dissipation.
Electrical wires may be insulated with polyethylene, crosslinked polyethylene (either through electron beam processing or chemical crosslinking), PVC, rubber-like polymers, oil impregnated paper, Teflon, silicone, or modified ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). Larger power cables may use compressed inorganic powder, depending on the application.
Flexible insulating materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) are used to insulate the circuit and prevent human contact with a 'live' wire -- one having voltage of 600 volts or less. Alternative materials are likely to become increasingly used due to EU safety and environmental legislation making PVC less economic.
Class 1 insulation requires that the metal body of the apparatus/equipment is solidly connected via a "grounding" wire which is earthed at the main Service Panel; but only basic insulation of the conductors is needed. This equipment is easily identified by a third pin for the grounding connection.
Class 2 insulation means that the equipment/apparatus is double insulated and is used on some appliances such as electric shavers, hair dryers and portable power tools. Double insulation requires that the devices have basic and supplementary insulation, each of which is sufficient to prevent electric shock. All internal electrically energized components are totally enclosed within insulated packaging that prevents any contact with "live" parts. They can be recognised because their leads have two pins, or on three pin plugs the third (earth) pin is made of plastic rather than metal. In the EU, double insulated appliances all are marked with a symbol of two squares, one inside the other.