The distribution system can be overhead or underground. Overhead lines are generally mounted on wooden, concrete or steel poles which are arranged to carry distribution transformers in addition to the conductors. The underground system uses conduits, cables and manholes under the surface of streets and sidewalks. The choice between overhead and underground system depends upon a number of widely differing factors. Therefore, it is desirable to make a comparison between the two.
(i) Public safety. The underground system is more safe than overhead system because all distribution wiring is placed underground and there are little chances of any hazard.
(ii) Initial cost. The underground system is more expensive due to the high cost of trenching, conduits, cables, manholes and other special equipment. The initial cost of an underground system may be five to ten times than that of an overhead system.
(iii) Flexibility. The overhead system is much more flexible than the underground system. In the latter case, manholes, duct lines etc., are permanently placed once installed and the load expansion can only be met by laying new lines. However, on an overhead system, poles, wires, transformers etc., can be easily shifted to meet the changes in load conditions.
(iv) Faults. The chances of faults in underground system are very rare as the cables are laid underground and are generally provided with better insulation.
(v) Appearance. The general appearance of an underground system is better as all the distribution lines are invisible. This factor is exerting considerable public pressure on electric supply companies to switch over to underground system.
(vi) Fault location and repairs. In general, there are little chances of faults in an underground system. However, if a fault does occur, it is difficult to locate and repair on this system. On an overhead system, the conductors are visible and easily accessible so that fault locations and repairs can be easily made.
(vii) Current carrying capacity and voltage drop. An overhead distribution conductor has a considerably higher current carrying capacity than an underground cable conductor of the same material and cross-section. On the other hand, underground cable conductor has much lower inductive reactance than that of an overhead conductor because of closer spacing of conductors.
(viii) Useful life. The useful life of underground system is much longer than that of an overhead system. An overhead system may have a useful life of 25 years, whereas an underground system may have a useful life of more than 50 years.
(ix) Maintenance cost. The maintenance cost of underground system is very low as compared with that of overhead system because of less chances of faults and service interruptions from wind, ice, lightning as well as from traffic hazards.
(x) Interference with communication circuits. An overhead system causes electromagnetic interference with the telephone lines. The power line currents are superimposed on speech currents, resulting in the potential of the communication channel being raised to an undesirable level. However, there is no such interference with the underground system.
It is clear from the above comparison that each system has its own advantages and disadvantages. However, comparative economics (i.e., annual cost of operation) is the most powerful factor influencing the choice between underground and overhead system. The greater capital cost of underground system prohibits its use for distribution. But sometimes non-economic factors (e.g., general appearance, public safety etc.) exert considerable influence on choosing underground system. In general, overhead system is adopted for distribution and the use of underground system is made only where overhead construction is impracticable or prohibited by local laws.