The line frequency (American English) or mains frequency (British English) is the frequency at which alternating current (AC) is transmitted from a power plant to the end user. In most parts of the world this is 50 Hz, although in the Americas it is typically 60 Hz. Precise details are shown in the list of countries with mains power plugs, voltages and frequencies.
During the development of commercial electric power systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many different frequencies (and voltages) had been used. Large investment in equipment at one frequency made standardization a slow process. However, as of the turn of the 21st century, places that now use the 50 Hz frequency tend to use 220-240 V, and those that now use 60 Hz tend to use 100-120 V. Both frequencies co-exist today (some countries such as Japan use both) with no technical reason to prefer one over the other and no apparent desire for complete worldwide standardization.
Unless specified by the manufacturer to operate on both 50 and 60 Hz, appliances may not operate efficiently or even safely if used on anything other than the intended frequency.
Several factors influence the choice of frequency in an AC system. Lighting, motors, transformers, generators and transmission lines all have characteristics which depend on the power frequency.
All of these factors interact and make selection of a power frequency a matter of considerable importance. The best frequency is a compromise between contradictory requirements. In the late 19th century, designers would pick a relatively high frequency for systems featuring transformers and arc lights, so as to economize on transformer materials, but would pick a lower frequency for systems with long transmission lines or feeding primarily motor loads or rotary converters for producing direct current. When large central generating stations became practical, the choice of frequency was made based on the nature of the intended load. Eventually the improvements in machine design allowed a single frequency to be used both for lighting and motor loads; a unified system improved the economics of electricity production since system load was more uniform during the course of a day.
The first applications of commercial electric power were incandescent lighting and commutator-type electric motors. Both devices operate well on DC, but DC cannot be easily transmitted long distances at utilization voltage and also cannot be easily changed in voltage.
If an incandescent lamp is operated on a low-frequency current, the filament cools on each half-cycle of the alternating current, leading to perceptible change in brightness and flicker of the lamps; the effect is more pronounced with arc lamps, and the later mercury-vapor and fluorescent lamps.
Commutator-type motors do not operate well on high-frequency AC since the rapid changes of current are opposed by the inductance of the motor field; even today, although commutator-type universal motors are common in 50 Hz and 60 Hz household appliances, they are small motors, less than 1 kW. The induction motor was found to work well on frequencies around 50 to 60 Hz but with the materials available in the 1890s would not work well at a frequency of, say, 133 Hz. There is a fixed relationship between the number of magnetic poles in the induction motor field, the frequency of the alternating current, and the rotation speed; so, a given standard speed limits the choice of frequency (and the reverse). Once induction motors became common, it was important to standardize frequency for compatibility with the customer’s equipment.
Generators operated by slow-speed reciprocating engines will produce lower frequencies, for a given number of poles, than those operated by, for example, a high-speed steam turbine. For very slow prime mover speeds, it would be costly to build a generator with enough poles to provide a high AC frequency. As well, synchronizing two generators to the same speed was found to be easier at lower speeds. While belt drives were common as a way to increase speed of slow engines, in very large ratings (thousands of kilowatts) these were expensive, inefficient and unreliable. Direct-driven generators off steam turbines after about 1906 favored higher frequencies. The steadier rotation speed of high-speed machines allowed for satisfactory operation of commutators in rotary converters.
Direct-current power was not entirely displaced by alternating current and was useful in railway and electrochemical processes. Prior to the development of mercury arc valve rectifiers, rotary converters were used to produce DC power from AC. Like other commutator-type machines, these worked better with lower frequencies.
Transmission and transformers
With AC, transformers can be used to step down high transmission voltages to lower utilization voltage. Since, for a given power level, the dimensions of a transformer are roughly inversely proportional to frequency, a system with many transformers would be more economical at a higher frequency.
Electric power transmission over long lines favors lower frequencies. The effects of the distributed capacitance and inductance of the line are less at low frequency.
Generators can only be interconnected to operate in parallel if they are of the same frequency and wave-shape. By standardizing the frequency used, generators in a geographic area can be interconnected in a grid, providing reliability and cost savings.