What is Electrical Noise and How Does it Impact Your Encoder?

In this world three things are certain: death, taxes–and electrical noise, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.

Electrical noise happens. Period. It can wreak havoc by injecting false signals onto encoder lines, or by overwhelming real signals entirely. It’s often intermittent, which can make diagnosing and fixing it a nightmare. But if you use a few simple techniques you can drastically reduce electrical noise so that it doesn’t cause problems for the transmission of the signals from your encoder.

The simple techniques can seem mysterious, so in this post we’ll explain the ‘why’ behind them by considering some concepts from physics. Then we’ll show how each concept can be applied to encoders. By the time we’re done, you’ll have a great start at controlling electrical noise.

First, some terms. Electrical noise, also called Electromagnetic Interference or EMI, can be emitted from any electrical or electromagnetic piece of equipment. It can take two forms:

  • Radiated EMI can travel through the air
  • Conducted EMI can travel along power lines and signal wiring

Physics Concept – Antennas Are Everywhere

People intentionally use radio antennas to transmit and receive electrical signals. Unintentional antennas, however, can exist anywhere in electromechanical equipment—and that can be a bad thing.

Radio tower on the left is an antenna designed to transmit radio waves to a receiving antenna, like the one on the radio. However, as the drawing on the right shows, the same antenna that receives your favorite song can also inadvertently pick up noise from something like a welder, whose cables can act like a transmission antenna that’s broadcasting noise.
Radio tower on the left is an antenna designed to transmit radio waves to a receiving antenna, like the one on the radio. However, as the drawing on the right shows, the same antenna that receives your favorite song can also inadvertently pick up noise from something like a welder, whose cables can act like a transmission antenna that’s broadcasting noise.

Power cables can act like transmission antennas and broadcast EMI made by motors, PWM motor drivers, switching power supplies, relays, oscillating inductors, etc. Signal cables on encoders can act like receiving antennas and pick up that unwanted EMI noise. The same principles that make the antenna on your FM radio so effective also make EMI transmission so difficult to stop.

Solution: Use Twisted Pair Cables Instead of Straight Wires

When radio engineers create a transmission antenna, the antenna length is important. Longer antennas are tuned for longer signal wavelengths; short antennas for shorter wavelengths. If you use long, straight wires for your encoder signal lines, the wires can act as antennas and receive unwanted electromagnetic interference from longer wavelengths—the ones which cause the most trouble. If you shorten the ‘antennas’ less interfering energy is received.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to ‘shorten the antenna length’ of signal-carrying wires: you can twist them together. Each section between locations where the wires cross becomes a very short antenna, tuned for short wavelengths where much less energy is available.

Parallel encoder wires on the left can act like antennas tuned to receive electrical noise at the most energetic wavelengths. Twisted pair wires on the right act like much shorter antennas, which minimize received EMI that might disturb the encoder or other equipment.
Parallel encoder wires on the left can act like antennas tuned to receive electrical noise at the most energetic wavelengths. Twisted pair wires on the right act like much shorter antennas, which minimize received EMI that might disturb the encoder or other equipment.

Twisted pair wiring will pick up much less noise than straight wires of the same length. Inductive coupling, a form of EMI that relies on loops to transmit noise from one wire to another, is also lessened because the loop area only extends between the sites where the wires cross.

Here are some tips for using twisted pair cables with encoders:

  • Keep paired encoder outputs, e.g. A/A-, in the same cable pair. This minimizes crosstalk between adjacent signal lines: A/A- won’t show up on the B/B- signal lines, for example.
  • Keep loops tight against each other, to minimize loop area where inductive and magnetic coupling could occur.
  • You don’t have to do the twisting yourself! Buy premade twisted pair cables, which are available with color-coded pairs already twisted together, and with various quantities of pairs per cable.

Solution: Use Differential Outputs for Noisy Environments or Long Cable Runs

Incremental encoders are often available with two types of outputs:

  • Single-ended outputs use one wire for each output—this is the most common output type
  • Differential outputs convert each output into two complementary signals, carried on a pair of wires

Of the two, differential outputs offer much better noise immunity.

Single-ended encoder outputs on the left. On the right, differential encoder outputs provide excellent immunity from electrical noise, and can transmit signals for long distances.
Single-ended encoder outputs on the left. On the right, differential encoder outputs provide excellent immunity from electrical noise, and can transmit signals for long distances.

With differential outputs, a differential line driver on each encoder output channel converts the output to two complementary signals, mirror images of each other. At the controller end, a differential line receiver compares the voltage difference between the two signals. Any noise injected onto the two wires—EMI transmitted by an arc welder, for example—will move the voltage on both of them in the same direction. This is known as common mode noise, and can be canceled out by the differential line receiver.

Here are some tips for using an encoder with differential outputs:

  • Use twisted pair cables for your differential outputs
  • Make sure paired encoder outputs are on the same twisted cable pair
  • Keep twisted pair loops tight against each other, to minimize loop area for inductive coupling

Physics Concept: Shielding Keeps Noise Out—or In

In physics, a Faraday shield (or Faraday cage) is an enclosure made from conductive materials. It has the useful property of blocking electromagnetic fields.

On the left, a Faraday shield blocks electrical noise and keeps it from disturbing the encoder inside. On the right, the Faraday shield traps electrical noise inside the enclosure, and keeps it from disturbing sensitive equipment outside.
On the left, a Faraday shield blocks electrical noise and keeps it from disturbing the encoder inside. On the right, the Faraday shield traps electrical noise inside the enclosure, and keeps it from disturbing sensitive equipment outside.

If sensitive equipment is placed inside a Faraday shield, the enclosure will keep that equipment from being bombarded by EMI. It also works in the other direction: if noisy equipment is placed inside a Faraday shield (think equipment cabinet), the EMI from the noisy equipment can’t escape to cause trouble for sensitive devices.

Solution: Use Shielding to Block EMI from Entering—or Exiting

You can use cables and equipment that act like Faraday shields to help control EMI and electrical noise.

Shielded cables are available with shields made from metal foil, braided conductors, or a combination of both. Use shielded cables to keep EMI away from your sensitive encoder signal lines. You can also use shielded cables for your noisy equipment wiring—the shielding can keep EMI contained within the cable so it doesn’t cause problems elsewhere in the system.

Metal conduit can be a very effective shield. EMI from electrically noisy equipment can be contained when wiring is run inside conduit. If sensitive signal lines are placed inside their own conduit, the conduit can block EMI from interfering with the signal lines.

Metal equipment enclosures can provide a shield to keep EMI inside, so that it doesn’t interfere with external devices; or to keep EMI out, when sensitive equipment is located inside the shielded equipment cabinet.

Here are some tips for using shielding:

  • Use shielded cables for sensitive signal lines, and for noisy equipment as well
  • Use conduit when possible, especially for noisy power lines
  • Use equipment cabinets made from conductive materials

In all of these cases, the shielding will work best if it is properly grounded.

Physics Concept: Grounding Can Drain Away Potential Problems

Noise sources can be composed of electrical energy at high voltages. Electricity at a high voltage wants to flow to a lower voltage level. If your equipment is at a lower voltage, the electrical noise will flow from the source to your equipment—unless you direct the noise down a path to an even lower voltage.

Lightning rod leads electricity from lightning down a low resistance path to ground. (Benjamin Franklin again—the inventor of lightning rods). Similarly, on the right a shielded cable protects the encoder by leading electrical noise to ground.
Lightning rod leads electricity from lightning down a low resistance path to ground. (Benjamin Franklin again—the inventor of lightning rods). Similarly, on the right a shielded cable protects the encoder by leading electrical noise to ground.

Proper grounding can provide a low resistance path to ground, which leads EMI and electrical noise away from your equipment and dissipates it in the grounding system.

Solution: Use Grounding to Dissipate EMI Problems

You can direct the path of unwanted noise and show it where to go by using good grounding techniques. One of the most important things to do is to connect the shield of the encoder cable to a single ground point.

With multiple grounds, shown on the left, a ground loop can occur where current flowing along unintended pathways can cause electrical noise. Grounding the cable shield at one end only, shown on the right, can prevent ground loops and reduce electrical noise.
With multiple grounds, shown on the left, a ground loop can occur where current flowing along unintended pathways can cause electrical noise. Grounding the cable shield at one end only, shown on the right, can prevent ground loops and reduce electrical noise.

If you have multiple grounds in your system, theoretically they should all be at the same voltage. But in real systems, they may differ; if so, current can flow from one point to another—sometimes through your equipment, which can cause electrical noise and problems.

Here is a tip for grounding the shield of an encoder cable: Connect the encoder cable shield to ground at one end only, typically at the controller end.

Grounding is a complex topic, and affects everything from the power grid down to the smallest components in a microprocessor. If you spend some time to get it right for your system, good grounding will help diminish electrical noise problems.

Keep Electrical Noise Under Wraps

Electrical noise happens, as we said at the start. It’s often impossible to eliminate it entirely, but it can be reduced. The techniques we’ve presented are a first line of defense; they can help lower noise to a level where it doesn’t cause problems for the signals from your encoder.

For serious electrical noise situations, there’s more that can be done, such as the use of filters, ferrite absorbers, conductive sprays, P-clips, capacitors, MOVs, surge suppressors, special grounding techniques and a host of other methods. Should those refinements be necessary in your system, we hope that as you investigate them, this post gives you an understanding of why they might work.

It is our goal to make this blog as informative, engaging and as accurate as possible. If you ever have some additional or contrary information, please contact us directly, and we will be glad to make any appropriate corrections in a future post. Previous post.


Published in Blog Posts on Monday, December 9, 2019