There are many different types of
electrical work. The word “electronics”
generally means DC circuits that have a
specific, practical function like a radio,
television, or CD player. Power circuits are
used to supply AC current to those devices.
Often the phrases “line voltage” or “mains”
are used to describe the supply of
120VAC power that electronic devices
need in order to operate. Inside of a
television is a power supply unit that
converts the AC line voltage to a DC
voltage that can be used by the electronics
circuits. This chapter is concerned with
the methods power circuits use to
distribute electricity to a theatre, and
within it.
The entertainment business uses very
specialized equipment, in different ways
than other industries. Cables are used to
bring power and data to equipment.
Because entertainment depends on rapidly
changing from one show to another,
special connectors are used to join cables
together and to equipment.
Most homes, and some theatre
installations, use a 240v service. The
conductors running into the house are a
bare aluminum neutral and a twisted pair
of black insulated wires that are the two
hot legs.
The transformer steps down a higher
voltage to 120 VAC using a center tapped
secondary to create two hot legs and one
neutral. The sine curves of the two hot
legs are inversely proportional to one
another, and as a result, voltage
measurements taken show that a 120 volt
potential exists between either of the two
hot legs and the neutral, but 240 volts
between the two hots.
This occurs
because when the sine curve of one of the
hot voltages is at its positive peak, the
other is at its negative peak, so the
difference of the two is 240 volts.
We have already studied the creation of
AC in a theoretical power station
generator. The movement of a coil of wire
in a circle inside a magnetic field produces
an alternating current that fluctuates from
positive to negative in a regular pattern
called the sine wave. A power station
generator is a very large device, and
operates more efficiently if more than one
current is produced at the same time.
Three phase power, (3φ) is a very common
result. The phi symbol (φ) is often used
to denote phase.
Remember that a
standard 120v sine wave looks like this:
Only one neutral is used for both hots. It
might seem as if the neutral would be
carrying twice the load as the hot wire,
and thus should be physically larger in size
than either of the two hot conductors to
carry the load. In practice, the two
voltages being opposite one another means
that the loads on the two hot wires should
cancel each other out on the neutral wire.
If the loads on the two hots are unequal,
the voltage applied to the ground wire is
the amount of that inequality, but cannot
be more than the full amount of one of
the hots, so the wire gauge sizes can be
equal without causing any overload.
As the coil of wire in the generator makes
its 360° circular journey around the
generator’s magnetic field, the voltage
induced rises to a peak after the first 90°,
drops back to zero after 180°, reaches a
peak reverse flow at 270°, and then
returns to zero at the 360° mark. What
would happen if there were more than one
single coil of wire in the generator? If
three electrically insulated coils are used
instead, three separate and distinct
currents will be formed. If the coils of wire
are equally spaced inside the generator,
then the sine waves of the other currents
will be identical in shape but happen at
different times or in different phases. The
On the graph, the x axis represents time,
and since the time between the 0° position
and the 360° position is 1/60th of a second
(the total time of a normal 60Hz cycle)
the beginning of the other two phases will
fall at 1/180 and 1/90 of a second. This
seems like a rather small time interval, but
AC cycles in some electronic devices occur
in Gigahertz, which would be billions of
times a second. The alternation of power
circuits is actually quite slow by
generator will produce three times the
electrical power, but use the same amount
of mechanical energy to do it. The
resulting 3 phase current is represented
graphically like this:
After the 3 phase power is generated, it
must be distributed on different
conductors, in order to maintain the
separate phase arrangement. On a pole,
the conductors might be arranged like this:
It is important to realize that the three
phases are actually present on three
different conductors, and that this
drawing represents how the phases relate
to one another.
The time between 0v at the start, and the
0v after 360°, is divided into three equal
parts in the same way that the space inside
the generator is divided by the three coils
of wire. The graph displays three sine
waves, each separated by a 120° distance
on the graph. The 120° refers to the
distance around the circle of the generator
rotating inside the magnetic field.
Notice that there are three hot legs, but
only one neutral. Most of the time, only
one neutral is required because the hot
legs are arranged in different phases, and
place demands on the neutral at different
times. Theoretically speaking, if the loads
on the phases are perfectly balanced, you
will not receive an electrical shock from
touching the neutral wire, although this
doesn’t mean that you should personally
test the theory. However, since the
neutral is the “safe” conductor or terminal,
it is often left more exposed than the hot.
Most larger lighting systems are meant to
use 3 phase power rather than 240 single
phase, but they split the hot legs up and
use the power separately for different
at different times. If the loading on each
phase A, B, and C is the same, the neutral
will not have too much current running
through it, but if the phases have unequal
loads, a dangerous imbalance may exist.
Sometimes a double neutral wire is used
to avoid any problems.
groups of dimmers.
There are two
configurations of three phase power, wye,
and delta. The delta configuration is used
primarily in factories and is not often seen
in theatres, where the wye configuration is
much more common. Wye gets its name
from the shape formed by the three
secondary coils that form the outputs.
These coils are contained within a
transformer that is part of the building,
probably in a vault in some inaccessible
place. They will never be directly used by
a stage electrician, but it is helpful to
understand how they supply power to the
dimming system.
You may notice that the dimmers in a
rack seem to have a very odd numbering
system, that the numbers skip around
something like this:
13,14 19,20
15,16 20,21
11,12 17,18 23,24
This doesn’t make all that much sense
when read from left to right, but top to
bottom a clear pattern emerges. When
dimmers are inserted into a rack,
connectors on the back meet up with a bus
bar, the end of the phase connection. The
bus bar is one solid piece, and one third of
the dimmers in the rack must mate with
each of the bus bars. The dimmers are in
groups of two, so the numbers
1,2,7,8,13,14,19,20 fall together in order
on the first bus bar; 3,4,9,10,15,16,20,21
on the second; and 5,6,11,12,17,18,23,24
on the third.
For a wye connection, the voltage between
any of the hot legs, and the neutral is 120
volts. In the rack, dimmers are arranged so
that one third are connected to phase A,
one third to phase B, and one third to
phase C. Each dimmer has an input of
120 volts. All phases use the same neutral
connection, which works out okay because
the different phases are using the neutral
the hot legs. Three phase power has three
fuses. Voltages in either case should be
120 volts from any hot to the neutral, 120
volts from any hot to the ground wire,
and 0 volts from the ground to the neutral.
If the panel contains 240 single phase the
potential from one hot to another should
be 240 volts, and for three phase 208 volts.
In stagehand terminology, 240 volt single
phase is often called three wire service,
while three phase is known as four wire
service. Three wire has two hots and a
neutral, while four wire has three hots and
one neutral.
These are the current
carrying conductors, but each type of
service must also have a ground wire to
make it safer. Inside the panel, the
ground wire is often connected to the
neutral bus bar, or it may be connected
only to the metal housing. In either case,
a wire is run from the terminal inside to a
grounding source for the building.
Engineers would like to spread the load of
all the dimmers evenly between the three
phases of the power supply so that the
load on the neutral is balanced. If the
dimmer numbers of all circuits on the first
electric are 1 – 24 , and all of the lights
hung on it are on at the same time, the
load should be evenly balanced on the
neutral. Although it is impossible to
predict in advance how a lighting designer
may choose to divide up which lights are
on at any particular moment, lighting
systems engineers feel that this is their best
attempt at doing so.
In a large permanent theatre installation
the feeder cable to the dimmer racks is
most likely in a conduit that runs directly
into the dimmer racks, and will not need
to be changed from show to show.
Portable equipment on the other hand
must be supplied with power by means of
a disconnect box. This set up is by its very
nature temporary, and is the type used by
touring shows that travel with their own
dimming equipment. The disconnect
could be either a smaller 240 single phase
type, or it could be three phase as in a
professional theatre.
The type of
disconnect can be determined by the
number of fuses in the panel. 240 single
phase has two fuses inside, one for each of
Typically, a disconnect box has a handle
on the right-hand side that must be pulled
down before the box will open. The
handle disengages the power to the
connections inside making them safer to
handle. Large cartridge fuses denote the
current carrying capacity of the system.
There should be a fuse for each hot leg,
but none for the neutral. The total
amperage available from the panel is the
total of the amounts stamped on the fuses.
If 200 amp fuses are in use, the total
available current would be 600amps,
which is enough for 30, 20 amp dimmers
working at full capacity. The neutral and
ground are generally not connected
together in 3 phase. At the bottom of the
box, directly under each of the fuses, is a
set of terminal lugs. When a disconnect is
used for a permanent installation, the
dimmers are hard wired to the box, which
is then may be used more or less as a giant
off-on switch for repair purposes.
Tails are used to make the connection
with the disconnect box. These are short
sections of cable that have a female
connector on one end, and bare wire on
the other. The bare wire is wrenched
down to one of the lugs in the disconnect
box. It feeds out through an appropriate
opening and is given a strain relief, which
may simply be tying all the conductors up
with line, so that pulling on the extensions
will not place a mechanical strain on the
terminal lug. It is common practice when
working with #0000 feeder cable that one
should make the ground connection first,
then the neutral, and then the three hots.
If there is some misadventure, this
procedure will ensure that the ground is in
place before any current can reach the
On a touring set up, the disconnect box is
used to supply power to portable dimmer
racks. Very special wiring is used for this
purpose, most often #0000 (four ought)
entertainment cable with a heavy SO
rubber sheathing on the outside that
provides insulation. Each conductor is
run separately, and each has its own
connector for just the one wire. Cam lock
connectors are used for that purpose.
Cam locks come in male and female
versions just like other connectors, with
the female being the source of current,
and the male pointing toward the power.
Obviously, if the male connector with its
exposed brass fitting were energized, the
risk of electrical shock would be huge.
The most common theatrical connector
for power circuits is the pin connector, but
specific lengths on hand at all times. If a
theatre has lots of circuits in all the right
places, it may not need many jumpers. If
the circuits are in inconvenient places, it
may need many jumpers.
a second type, the twist lock, is also
popular. The pin connector has been
around for many decades and is extremely
durable. The quarter inch diameter brass
pins are almost impossible to break off.
As a safety feature, the ground pin in the
center is slightly longer than the other
pins, so that the ground connection makes
up first. The neutral is located closest to
the ground, and the hot is on the far side.
Early versions were not grounded, and
have no center pin.
Socapex® makes a multi-connector with
19 pins for cables that have that many
conductors. They are often used when a
large number of wires must be run,
perhaps in a touring rig. A six circuit
multicable is much easier to manipulate
than six separate runs of 12/3 SO. They
can carry power to a number of lights all
at one time. A 19 pin Socapex connector
can be used to make up a multi that
services 6 lighting circuits, each having a
separate hot/neutral/ground, with one pin
left spare. A breakout is used at the end of
the cable, to separate it into individual
Twist locks have the obvious advantage of
a positive method of making sure that the
connection stays together. The stagehand
must twist them together slightly causing
the two halves to lock. If not tied or
taped together, pin connectors can come
apart when someone accidentally pulls on
the cable. However, twist lock connectors
are not as sturdy as the pin connector, the
blades tend to bend easily, and it is
sometimes difficult to line them up with
the proper holes without looking closely.
There are many brands and types of twist
locks, for different ampacities. Pin
connectors come only in 20 amp (most
common) and 60 amp (very rare) versions.
When a lighting fixture in a theatre is
hung too far away from a circuit box for
its own tail to reach the receptacle, a
jumper is used to bridge the gap. They are
like extension cords for lighting. Most
theatres have ready made jumpers in
may be subject to interference that may
distort the square wave signal. This is
especially problematic when induction
around lighting cables causes a strong
magnetic field. Even so, audio cables are
often used with no ill effects.
A breakout has one male Socapex
connector, and multiple individual female
connectors. Multicables and breakouts are
most often used to distribute power from
a touring dimmer rack.
The size of a wire used to conduct
electricity is determined by its AWG
(American Wire Gauge) number. For the
most part, the larger the gauge number,
the smaller the wire is. So #20 wire is
actually much smaller than #10 wire, just
the opposite of what might seem intuitive.
The largest wire used in the entertainment
industry is #0000 (four ought) feeder
cable, which is larger in diameter than #00.
#0000 cable is about as big in diameter as
a roll of pennies.
Modern lighting systems also use XLR
connectors for control functions between
the board and dimmer racks, moving
fixture lights, and other peripheral
equipment that requires a digital signal to
operate. These cables are not expected to
carry large amounts of current, and as a
result they are much smaller. Three pin
XLRs of the sort very commonly used for
microphones, are also used for moving
fixture lights. Four pin XLRs are often
used for color changers, while the five pin
version is meant for DMX transmission
from the light board. DMX 512A is the
computer program protocol used in the
entertainment industry. It is sometimes
very frustrating to have three different
cable types, but they are actually used for
different purposes, so this helps to keep
the wrong cable from being used.
Category 5 computer cables are also used,
if the system uses an Ethernet hub.
Wire can be made solid, or stranded.
Stranded electrical cable is much easier to
bend, so it only makes sense that portable
cables such as those used in theatres
should be of the stranded variety. Solid
copper wire is used in permanent
installations where the cable never needs
to be moved about. Solid wire mistakenly
used in a situation requiring mobility will
soon develop metal fatigue and become
Larger gauge wires are able to carry more
current than small ones, while the voltage
capability depends on in the insulation
surrounding the conductor.
insulation can be plastic or rubber.
Rubber insulation is preferred for theatre
cabling, and the code for that is generally
type SO or SJ. SJ is somewhat lighter and
smaller than SO.
The DMX512A standard governs the use
of that computer protocol as used in the
entertainment business. It calls for special
cable to be used in carrying data to digital
The standard specifically
states that the type of 3 pin XLR jumpers
regularly used in audio work should not
be used for digital transmissions because
the conductors inside are not twisted
around one another, and as a result they
Approximate Ampacities of Gauges
225 amps
175 amps
80 amps
46 amps
20 amps
13 amps
7.5 amps
0.5 amps
#0000 or four ought
240 volt service
The exact ampacity of any conductor is
affected by a large number of factors like
the metal alloy used, the size and number
of the strands, the frequency of the sine
wave, temperature, and all sorts of other
peculiar details. Most portable lighting
cables are made from #12, because it can
easily handle a 20 amp load, which is the
most common dimmer rating. This cable
may be referred to as “12/3 SO” which
indicates that it is 12 gauge, 3 conductors
(hot/neutral/ground) with type SO rubber
insulation on the outside.
American wire gauge
The various conductors inside a jumper
are each sheathed in their own insulation
to keep them separated from one another.
Although the outside insulation is black, a
standard color coding is used to tell the
individual conductors apart. This color
code is not just for theatres, but is used in
all different types of electrical work.
Disconnect box
Bus bar
Cam lock
Cartridge fuse
Category 5
Color code
Delta connection
Four wire service
Ground wire
Line voltage
Insulation Color Code
Hot (220)
Hot (three phase)
Phase A
Phase B
Phase C
Pin connector
Power circuit
Power supply unit
SJ rubber insulation
SO rubber insulation
Strain relief
Terminal lugs
Three phase power
Three wire service
Twist lock connector
Wye connection
XLR connector
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