The effect of low voltage on electric motors is pretty widely known and understood but, the effect of high voltage on motors is frequently misunderstood. This paper will try to describe the effects of both low and high voltage and to describe the related performance changes that can be expected when voltages other than nameplate voltages are utilized.


When electric motors are subjected to voltages, below the nameplate rating, some of the characteristics will change slightly and others will change more dramatically. A basic point is, to drive a fixed mechanical load connected to the shaft, a motor must draw a fixed amount of power from the power line. The amount of power the motor draws is roughly related to the voltage times current (amps). Thus, when voltage gets low, the current must get higher to provide the same amount of power. The fact that current gets higher is not alarming unless it exceeds the nameplate current rating of the motor. When amps go above the nameplate rating, it is safe to assume that the buildup of heat within the motor will become damaging if it is left unchecked. If a motor is lightly loaded and the voltage drops, the current will increase in roughly the same proportion that the voltage decreases.

For example, a 10% voltage decrease would cause a 10% amperage increase. This would not be damaging if the motor current stays below the nameplate value. However, if a motor is heavily loaded and a voltage reduction occurs, the current would go up from a fairly high value to a new value which might be in excess of the full load rated amps. This could be damaging. It can be safely said that low voltage in itself is not a problem unless the motor amperage is pushed beyond the nameplate rating.

Aside from the possibility of over-temperature and shortened life created by low voltage, some other important items need to be understood. The first is that the starting torque, pull-up torque, and pull-out torque of induction motors, all change based on the applied voltage squared . Thus, a 10% reduction from nameplate voltage (100% to 90%, 230 volts to 207 volts) would reduce the starting torque, pull-up torque, and pull-out torque by a factor of .9 x .9. The resulting values would be 81% of the full voltage values. At 80% voltage, the result would be .8 x .8, or a value of 64% of the full voltage value.

In this case, it is easy to see why it would be difficult to start “hard-to-start” loads if the voltage happens to be low. Similarly the motor’s pull-out torque would be much lower than it would be under normal voltage conditions.

To summarize the situation, low voltage can cause high currents and overheating which will subsequently shorten motor life. Low voltage can also reduce the motor’s ability to get started and its values of pull-up and pull-out torque. On lightly loaded motors with easy-to-start loads, reducing the voltage will not have any appreciable effect except that it might help reduce the light load losses and improve the efficiency under this condition. This is the principle that is used in the so-called Nola devices that are sold as efficiency improving add-on equipment to motors.


One of the basic things that people assume is, since low voltage increases the amperage draw on motors, then by the same reasoning, high voltage would tend to reduce the amperage draw and heating of the motor. This is not the case. High voltage on a motor tends to push the magnetic portion of the motor into saturation. This causes the motor to draw excessive current in an effort to magnetize the iron beyond the point to which it can easily be magnetized. This generally means that the motors will tolerate a certain change in voltage above the design voltage but extremes above the designed voltage will cause the amperage to go up with a corresponding increase in heating and a shortening of motor life. For example, older motors were rated at 220/440 and had a tolerance band of plus/minus 10%. Thus, the voltage range that they can tolerate on the high voltage connections would be 396 to 484. Even though this is the so-called tolerance band, the best performance would occur at the rated voltage. The extreme ends, either high or low, would be putting unnecessary stress on the motor.

Generally speaking, these tolerance bands are in existence not to set a standard that can be used all the time but rather to set a range that can be used to accommodate the normal hour-to-hour swings in plant voltage. Operation on a continuous basis at either the high extreme or the low extreme will shorten the life of the motor.

Although this paper covers the effects of high and low voltage on motors, the operation of other magnetic devices are effected in similar ways. Solenoids and coils used in relays and starters are punished by high voltage more than they are by low voltage. This is also true of ballasts in fluorescent, mercury, and high pressure sodium light fixtures. Transformers of all types, including welding transformers, are punished in the same way. Incandescent lights are especially susceptible to high voltage conditions. A 5% increase in voltage results in a 50% reduction in bulb life. A 10% increase in voltage above the rating reduces incandescent bulb life by 70%.

Overall, it is definitely in the equipment’s best interest to have the utility company change the taps on incoming transformers to optimize the voltage on the plant floor to something that is very close to the equipment ratings. In older plants, some compromises may have to be made because of the differences in the standards on old motors (220/440) and the newer “T” frame standards (230/460), but a voltage in the middle of these two voltages, something like 225 or 450 volts, will generally result in the best overall performance. High voltage will always tend to reduce power factor and increase the losses in the system which results in higher operating costs for the equipment and the system.

The graph shown in Figure 1 is widely used to illustrate the general effects of high and low voltage on the performance of “T” frame motors. It is okay to use the graph to show “general” effects but, bear in mind that it represents only a single motor and there is a great deal of variation from one motor design to the next.

For example, the lowest point on the full load amp line does not always occur at 2-1/2% above rated voltage. On some motors it might occur at a point below rated voltage. Also the rise in full load amps at voltages above rated, tends to be steeper for some motor winding designs than others.

Some general guidelines might be useful.

1. Small motors tend to be more sensitive to over-voltage and saturation than large motors.

2. Single phase motors tend to be more sensitive to over-voltage than three phase motors.

3. U-frame motors are less sensitive to over-voltage than “T” frames.

4. Premium efficiency Super-E motors are less sensitive to over-voltage than standard efficiency motors.

5. Two pole and four pole motors tend to be less sensitive to high voltage than six pole and eight pole designs.

6. Over-voltage can drive up amperage and temperature even on lightly loaded motors. Thus, motor life can be shortened by high voltage.

7. Full load efficiency drops with either high or low voltage.

8. Power factor improves with lower voltage and drops sharply with high voltage.

9. Inrush current goes up with higher voltage.


There are very few desirable and many undesirable things that happen to electric motors and other electrical equipment as a result of operating a power system at or near the ends of voltage limits. The best life and most efficient operation usually occurs when motors are operated at voltages close to the nameplate ratings.

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