The term high voltage characterizes electrical circuits, in which the voltage used is the cause of particular safety concerns and insulation requirements. High voltage is used in electrical power distribution, in cathode ray tubes, to generate X-rays and particle beams, to demonstrate arcing, for ignition, in photomultiplier tubes, and high power amplifier vacuum tubes and other industrial and scientific applications.
In electric power transmission engineering, high voltage is usually considered any voltage over approximately 35,000 volts. This is a classification based on the design of apparatus and insulation.
The International Electrotechnical Commission and its national counterparts (IET, IEEE, VDE, etc.) define high voltage circuits as those with more than 1000 V for alternating current and at least 1500 V for direct current, and distinguish it from low voltage (50–1000 V AC or 120–1500 V DC) and extra low voltage (<50 V AC or <120 V DC) circuits. This is in the context of building wiring and the safety of electrical apparatus.
In the United States 2005 National Electrical Code (NEC), high voltage is any voltage over 600 V (article 490.2). British Standard BS 7671:2008 defines high voltage as any voltage difference between conductors that is higher than 1000 V AC or 1500 V ripple-free DC, or any voltage difference between a conductor and Earth that is higher than 600 V AC or 900 V ripple-free DC. Electricians may only be licensed for particular voltage classes, in some jurisdictions. For example an electrical license for a specialized sub-trade such as installation of HVAC systems, fire alarm systems, closed circuit television systems may only be authorized to install systems energized up to 30 volts between conductors, and may not be permitted to work on mains-voltage circuits.
The general public may consider household mains circuits (100–250 V AC), which carry the highest voltages they normally encounter, to be high voltage.
Voltages over approximately 50 volts can usually cause dangerous amounts of current to flow through a human being touching two points of a circuit, so safety standards generally are more restrictive where the chance of contact with such high voltage circuits exists.
The definition of extra high voltage (EHV) depends on the context of the discussion. In electric power transmission engineering this refers to equipment designed for more than 235,000 volts between conductors. In electronics systems, a power supply that provides greater than 275,000 volts is known as an "EHV Power Supply". It is often used in experiments in physics.
The accelerating voltage for a television cathode ray tube may be described as "extra high voltage" or "extra-high tension" (EHT), as compared to other voltage supplies within the equipment. This type of supply ranges from >5 kV to about 50 kV.
Voltages of greater than 50 V applied across dry unbroken human skin are capable of producing heart fibrillation if they produce electric currents in body tissues which happen to pass through the chest area. The electrocution danger is mostly determined by the low conductivity of dry human skin. If skin is wet, or if there are wounds, or if the voltage is applied to electrodes which penetrate the skin, then even voltage sources below 40 V can be lethal if contacted.
Accidental contact with high voltage supplying sufficent energy will usually result in severe injury or death. This can occur as a person's body provides a path for current flow causing tissue damage and heart failure. Other injuries can include burns from the arc generated by the accidental contact. These can be especially dangerous if the victim's airways are affected. Injuries may also be suffered as a result of the physical forces exerted as people may fall from height or be thrown a considerable distance.
Low-energy exposure to high voltage may be harmless, such as the spark produced in a dry climate when touching a doorknob after walking across a carpeted floor.
The dielectric breakdown strength of dry air, at Standard Temperature and Pressure (STP), between spherical electrodes is approximately 33 kV/cm. This is only as a rough guide since the actual breakdown voltage is highly dependent upon the electrode shape and size. Strong electric fields (from high voltages applied to small or pointed conductors), often produce violet-colored corona discharges in air, as well as visible sparks. Voltages below about 500-700 volts cannot produce easily visible sparks or glows in air at atmospheric pressure, so by this rule these voltages are 'low'. However, under conditions of low atmospheric pressure (such as in high-altitude aircraft), or in an environment of noble gas such as argon, neon, etc., sparks will appear at much lower voltages. 500 to 700 volts is not a fixed minimum for producing spark breakdown, but it is a rule of thumb. For air at STP, the minimum sparkover voltage is around 380 volts.
While lower voltages will not generally jump a gap that is present before the voltage is applied, interrupting an existing current flow often produces a low voltage spark or arc. As the contacts are separated, a few small points of contact become the last to separate. The current becomes constricted to these small hot spots, causing them to become incandescent, so that they emit electrons (through thermionic emission). Even a small 9 V battery can spark noticeably by this mechanism in a darkened room. The ionized air and metal vapour (from the contacts) form plasma, which temporarily bridges the widening gap. If the power supply and load allow sufficient current to flow, a self-sustaining arc may form. Once formed, an arc may be extended to a significant length before breaking the circuit. Attempting to open an inductive circuit often forms an arc since the inductance provides a high voltage pulse whenever the current is interrupted. AC systems make sustained arcing somewhat less likely since the current returns to zero twice per cycle. The arc is extinguished every time the current goes through a zero crossing, and must reignite during the next half cycle in order to maintain the arc.
Unlike an ohmic conductor, the voltage at the ends of an arc decreases as the current increases. This makes unintentional arcs in electrical apparatus dangerous since once even a small arc is initiated, if sufficient current is available, the arc will grow. Such arcs can cause great damage to equipment and present a severe fire hazard. Intentionally produced arcs, such as used in lighting or welding, require some element in the circuit to stabilize the arc's current/voltage characteristics.
Note that Tesla coils are a special case, and touching them is not recommended. Among other issues, they have a tendency to arc to their own bottom-end circuitry, which can introduce powerline frequency (50 Hz or 60 Hz, and capable in any case of depolarizing cells and stopping the heart) currents at lethally high voltages to the body.
Electrical transmission and distribution lines for electric power always use voltages significantly higher than 50 volts, so contact with or close approach to the line conductors presents a danger of electrocution. Contact with overhead wires is a frequent cause of injury or death. Metal ladders, farm equipment, boat masts, construction machinery, aerial antennas, and similar objects are frequently involved in fatal contact with overhead wires. Digging into a buried cable can also be dangerous to workers at an excavation site. Digging equipment (either hand tools or machine driven) that contacts a buried cable may energize piping or the ground in the area, resulting in electrocution of nearby workers. Unauthorized persons climbing on power pylons or electrical apparatus are also frequently the victims of electrocution. At very high transmission voltages even a close approach can be hazardous since the high voltage may spark across a significant air gap.
For high voltage and extra-high voltage transmission lines, specially trained personnel use so-called "live line" techniques to allow hands-on contact with energized equipment. In this case the worker is electrically connected to the high voltage line but thoroughly insulated from the earth so that he is at the same electrical potential as the line. Since training for such operations is lengthy, and still presents a danger to personnel, only very important transmission lines are subject to maintenance while live. Outside these properly engineered situations, it should not be assumed that being insulated from earth guarantees that no current will flow to earth as grounding, or arcing to ground, can occur in unexpected ways, and high-frequency currents can cause burns even to an ungrounded person (touching a transmitting antenna is dangerous for this reason, and a high-frequency Tesla Coil can sustain a spark with only one endpoint).
Protective equipment on high-voltage transmission lines normally prevents formation of an unwanted arc, or ensures that it is quenched within tens of milliseconds. Electrical apparatus which interrupts high-voltage circuits is designed to safely direct the resulting arc so that it dissipates without damage. High voltage circuit breakers often use a blast of high pressure air, a special dielectric gas (such as SF6 under pressure), or immersion in mineral oil to quench the arc when the high voltage circuit is broken.
Measures taken to prevent such explosions include:
In recent years standards for explosion hazard protection have become more uniform between European and North American practice. The "zone" system of classification is now used in modified form in U.S. National Electrical Code and in the Canadian electrical code. Intrinsic safety apparatus is now approved for use in North American applications, though the explosion-proof enclosures used in North America are still uncommon in Europe.
Hazards due to lightning obviously include a direct strike on persons or property. However, lightning can also create dangerous voltage gradients in the earth and can charge extended metal objects such as telephone cables, fences, and pipelines to dangerous voltages that can be carried many miles from the site of the strike. Although many of these objects are not normally conductive, very high voltage can cause the electrical breakdown of such insulators, causing them to act as conductors. These transferred potentials are dangerous to people, livestock, and electronic apparatus. Lightning strikes also start fires and explosions, which result in fatalities, injuries, and property damage. For example, each year in North America, thousands of forest fires are started by lightning strikes.
Measures to control lightning can mitigate the hazard; these include lightning rods, shielding wires, and bonding of electrical and structural parts of buildings to form a continuous enclosure.