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How does ground work in electronics?

Jorge Garcia

Few topics in electronics have produced as much misinformation and confusion as the topic of grounding. The goal of this article is to clarify what ground is and why it is so fundamentally important.

Ground is for potatoes and carrots

One of the reasons that grounding can be such a confusing topic is that the term has been overly abused. Depending on the context, it can mean subtly different but related things. It’s for that reason that some engineers dislike the term and have coined phrases like the headline of this section. To understand grounding let’s first define return paths, once we understand return paths then it will be easy to understand grounding.

electronics grounding return paths

Figure 1. Every functioning circuit is a closed loop, there must always be a way back to the source

 

Figure 1, shows a very simple circuit. As you can see there is current leaving the battery flowing through the resistor, through the LED and then back to the battery. For any electrical circuit to function it must be a closed circuit, there must always be a way for current to return to the source. Regardless of how complex a circuit becomes there will always be either a trace(s) or a plane that serves as the return path for the current to get back to the source.

In almost all circuits, these return paths are collectively called “ground”. The problem with this is that the term “ground” is also used to define the reference point for the circuit. In most cases, the two coincide (Figure 2) and everything is clear but that is not always the case (Figure 3). The reference point is necessary because there is no such thing as an absolute zero voltage. When you measure a voltage, it is always relative to some reference node in your design and it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the return path. In fact, from a theoretical perspective any node in your circuit can be the reference node, however for reasons we will get into later some nodes are better than others. I’m sure you are starting to see how this can get confusing, we have the same term referring to two different concepts.

electronics return path

Figure 2. Reference point and return path is on the same node, very natural and typical.

 

electronics reference points

Figure 3. Reference point and return path don’t coincide, in sophisticated circuits can be a confusing nightmare.

In sophisticated circuits, we can have many return paths and some of them are sometimes grouped into DIFFERENT grounds. What does that mean? You might be wondering, after all, a few paragraphs ago I said that all return paths must eventually make it back to the source and here we have what may appear like a contradiction. Look at Figure 4 and together we will sort this out.

circuits

Figure 4. Sub circuits with different grounds all lead back to the source eventually

Here in Figure 4 you can observer at least 3 different grounds. There’s an analog ground (AGND), a digital ground (DGND) and a general ground (GND) [The first thing I want you to know, is that I have staged this schematic for educational purposes, you wouldn’t indicate the return path to the source using thick nets like I’ve done here. As it stands it is not a valid EAGLE schematic, I’m just using EAGLE to make the drawing]. Notice the three different grounds do return to the source, so this is a valid circuit. However, why separate them if in the end they are all just going to return to the source anyway? The quick answer is by having the return paths grouped into three grounds we can isolate noisy currents in one circuit from the others. For example, the currents running through the AGND circuitry only run through those components connected to AGND. By designing the circuits this way the currents only interact with each other back at the source. Using our previous definitions, we can see that all the return paths are making it back to the source, it’s just that their arrangement has been carefully designed to provide some noise immunity between the three circuits.

 

Earth, Chassis, and Signal Grounds. Roses by different names.

 

Armed with our new definitions, let’s analyze some commonly used “grounds” and we’ll realize that they all work the same way. It’s within the context of the application that they get their different names.

EARTH GROUND

Earth (the soil beneath our feet, not the planet) is considered an infinite source of electrons and defines the reference point for all the electrical wiring in our homes (See Figure 5). In practical terms, this return path is “connected” by driving a metal rod into the ground and making sure that all the “ground” wiring in our homes bonds(connects) solidly to it.

earth ground

Figure 5. Ground rod, connect to the house and driven into the earth. Hence, earth ground.

CHASSIS GROUND

This type of ground gets its name when the metal enclosure of a device is defined as a reference point for an electrical circuit. This is the case of a car (See Figure 6), a washer or any other device that has an electrically conductive enclosure. The main reason for using the chassis of an enclosure and the earth as reference points has to do with safety. Our bodies are almost always at earth potential (or very nearly so). Imagine, for a moment that you are going to do your laundry, inside your washing machine all the electronics are connected to the chassis (chassis ground) and the chassis is connected to the ground plug of your outlet (earth ground). What happens if the high voltage line inside your washer short to the chassis? Figure 7 has the answer.

chassis ground

Figure 6. Negative terminal of battery connected to car chassis. Defines the reference node for all the electronics in your car.

Chassis ground

Figure 7. When earth and chassis grounds are connected the return path of the current avoids the human body keeping you safe.

 

As you can see, if the chassis and earth grounds are used, then the return path is guaranteed to avoid the human body in case of contact with the washer’s enclosure during a fault. Again, if we think in terms of return paths you’ll see that in this example the chassis ground and earth ground from a return path to the AC source. This avoids a difference in potential between your body and the washer’s enclosure which would cause current to flow through your body. Let’s repeat the scenario, what happens if for some reason the washer’s chassis is not connected to earth? Figure 8, shows the painful result.

chassis ground

Figure 8. Connection to earth ground is broken, you are now part of the return path.

In this scenario, you are not a happy camper, because the connection to earth ground has been severed there is only one viable return path for the AC current, YOU. In this scenario, the second you make contact with the washer enclosure you get a shock. What’s worse is that often the current is not enough to trip a breaker and you could be shocked for a prolonged period of time. Through wise choice of reference nodes, the return paths are setup in such a way as to keep you safe. As you’ve realized naming these nodes “ground” muddles the understanding of how these safety measures work.

SIGNAL GROUND

This is the most common designation and it’s basically a definition of the reference node for the circuits on our PCBs. Usually it is physically implemented using a ground plane, that way there is a low impedance return path to the power source in our design (See Figure 9). This is important otherwise different “grounds” on the board may be at different potentials (the reference node doesn’t have the same value everywhere) and this could cause the circuit to malfunction or just not work period.

Figure 9. See the solid red color throughout this PCB layout? That is the copper plane return path (signal ground) for all your components.

Do you really need ground?

As we have learned every single electrical system needs at least one return path back to the source, so in that sense all circuits need a “ground”. Typically, this “ground” will also be used as the reference node against which all the voltages in the circuit can be measured. However not all circuits connect to line voltages (i.e. battery powered devices), so they won’t all need an earth “ground” or more correctly a return path through the earth. Similarly, devices in non-conductive enclosures don’t need a chassis return path for safety. What we need, is to be able call these paths something else to avoid confusion with ground, but that’s an issue beyond the scope of this article.

Now that you know what each of these types of “grounds” are it’s important to be able to recognize them in a schematic so that your electronics can work properly and in a safe manner. Below you will find the most commonly used symbols to represent signal, chassis, and earth ground. While these are standard symbols, you may run into a schematic that deviates from them. If this happens please be sure to verify. Doing so will make sure that you are safe.

ground types

We hope that this article has helped clear up some of the confusion around what “ground” is. The term is loaded and depending on the context can be referring to a return path, a reference node or both. Keep in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg, entire books have been written about “grounds” and how the return paths should be implemented in various applications. You may want to check out a recent webinar we ran: Introduction to Signal Integrity for PCB Design.

You now have the basis to understand those books and make the proper design decisions in your circuits. By designing your return paths carefully, you can minimize cross-talk between different parts of your circuit and keep users of your products safe which will help you sleep at night. Have fun designing and remember the ground is for potatoes and carrots!

 

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