DC Generators

Theory of Operation

In the study of alternating current, basic generator principles were introduced to explain the generation of an AC voltage by a coil rotating in a magnetic field. Since this is the basis for all generator operation, it is necessary to review the principles of generation of electrical energy. When lines of magnetic force are cut by a conductor passing through them, voltage is induced in the conductor. The strength of the induced voltage is dependent upon the speed of the conductor and the strength of the magnetic field. If the ends of the conductor are connected to form a complete circuit, a current is induced in the conductor. The conductor and the magnetic field make up an elementary generator.

Figure 1. Inducing maximum voltage in an elementary generator.

Figure 2. Inducing minimum voltage in an elementary generator.

This simple generator is illustrated in Figure 1, together with the components of an external generator circuit which collect and use the energy produced by the simple generator. The loop of wire (A and B of Figure 1) is arranged to rotate in a magnetic field. When the plane of the loop of wire is parallel to the magnetic lines of force, the voltage induced in the loop causes a current to flow in the direction indicated by the arrows in Figure 1. The voltage induced at this position is maximum, since the wires are cutting the lines of force at right angles and are thus cutting more lines of force per second than in any other position relative to the magnetic field. As the loop approaches the vertical position shown in Figure 2, the induced voltage decreases because both sides of the loop (A and B) are approximately parallel to the lines of force and the rate of cutting is reduced. When the loop is vertical, no lines of force are cut since the wires are momentarily traveling parallel to the magnetic lines of force, and there is no induced voltage. As the rotation of the loop continues, the number of lines of force cut increases until the loop has rotated an additional 90° to a horizontal plane.

Figure 3. Inducing maximum voltage in the opposite direction.

Figure 4. Inducing a minimum voltage in the opposite direction.


Figure 5. Output of an elementary generator.

 As shown in Figure 3, the number of lines of force cut and the induced voltage once again are maximum. The direction of cutting, however, is in the opposite direction to that occurring in Figures 1 and 2, so the direction (polarity) of the induced voltage is reversed. As rotation of the loop continues, the number of lines of force having been cut again decreases, and the induced voltage becomes zero at the position shown in Figure 4, since the wires A and B are again parallel to the magnetic lines of force. If the voltage induced throughout the entire 360° of rotation is plotted, the curve shown in Figure 5 results. This voltage is called an alternating voltage because of its reversal from positive to negative value—first in one direction and then in the other.

To use the voltage generated in the loop for producing a current flow in an external circuit, some means must be provided to connect the loop of wire in series with the external circuit. Such an electrical connection can be effected by opening the loop of wire and connecting its two ends to two metal rings, called slip rings, against which two metal or carbon brushes ride. The brushes are connected to the external circuit. By replacing the slip rings of the basic AC generator with two half cylinders, called a commutator, a basic DC generator is obtained. [Figure 6] In this illustration, the black side of the coil is connected to the black segment, and the white side of the coil to the white segment. The segments are insulated from each other. The two stationary brushes are placed on opposite sides of the commutator and are so mounted that each brush contacts each segment of the commutator as the latter revolves simultaneously with the loop. The rotating parts of a DC generator (coil and commutator) are called an armature. The generation of an emf by the loop rotating in the magnetic field is the same for both AC and DC generators, but the action of the commutator produces a DC voltage.

Figure 6. Basic DC generator.

Generation of a DC Voltage

Figure 7 illustrates in an elementary, step-by-step manner, how a DC voltage is generated. This is accomplished by showing a single wire loop rotating through a series of positions within a magnetic field

Figure 7. Operation of a basic DC generator.

Position A The loop starts in position A and is rotating clockwise. However, no lines of force are cut by the coil sides, which means that no emf is generated. The black brush is shown coming into contact with the black segment of the commutator, and the white brush is just coming into contact with the white segment.

Position B In position B, the flux is now being cut at a maximum rate, which means that the induced emf is maximum. At this time, the black brush is contacting the black segment, and the white brush is contacting the white segment. The deflection of the meter is toward the right, indicating the polarity of the output voltage.

Position C At position C, the loop has completed 180° of rotation. Like position A, no flux lines are being cut and the output voltage is zero. The important condition to observe at position C is the action of the segments and brushes. The black brush at the 180° angle is contacting both black and white segments on one side of the commutator, and the white brush is contacting both segments on the other side of the commutator. After the loop rotates slightly past the 180° point, the black brush is contacting only the white segment, and the white brush is contacting only the black segment.

Because of this switching of commutator elements, the black brush is always in contact with the coil side moving downward, and the white brush is always in contact with the coil side moving upward. Though the current

Position D At position D, commutator action reverses the current in the external circuit, and the second half cycle has the same waveform as the first half cycle. The process of commutation is sometimes called rectification, since rectification is the converting of an AC voltage to a DC voltage.

The Neutral Plane At the instant that each brush is contacting two segments on the commutator (positions A, C, and E in Figure 7), a direct short circuit is produced. If an emf were generated in the loop at this time, a high current would flow in the circuit, causing an arc and thus damaging the commutator. For this reason, the brushes must be placed in the exact position where the short will occur when the generated emf is zero. This position is called the neutral plane. If the brushes are installed properly, no sparking will occur between the brushes and the commutator. Sparking is an indication of improper brush placement, which is the main cause of improper commutation.

Figure 8. Increasing the number of coils reduces the ripple in the voltage.

The voltage generated by the basic DC generator in Figure 7 varies from zero to its maximum value twice for each revolution of the loop. This variation of DC voltage is called “ripple,” and may be reduced by using more loops, or coils, as shown in A of Figure 8. As the number of loops is increased, the variation between maximum and minimum values of voltage is reduced (view B of Figure 8), and the output voltage of the generator approaches a steady DC value. In view A of Figure 8 the number of commutator segments is increased in direct proportion to the number of loops; that is, there are two segments for one loop, four segments for two loops, and eight segments for four loops. The voltage induced in a single turn loop is small. Increasing the number of loops does not increase the maximum value of generated voltage, but increasing the number of turns in each loop will increase this value. Within narrow limits, the output voltage of a DC generator is determined by the product of the number of turns per loop, the total flux per pair of poles in the machine, and the speed of rotation of the armature. An AC generator, or alternator, and a DC generator are identical as far as the method of generating voltage in the rotating loop is concerned. However, if the current is taken from the loop by slip rings, it is an alternating current, and the generator is called an AC generator, or alternator. If the current is collected by a commutator, it is direct current, and the generator is called a DC generator.

Construction Features of DC Generators

Generators may differ somewhat in design, since various manufacturers make them. All, however, are of the same general construction and operate similarly. The major parts, or assemblies, of a DC generator are a field frame (or yoke), a rotating armature, and a brush assembly. The parts of a typical aircraft generator are shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9. Typical 24-volt aircraft generator

Field Frame

The field frame is also called the yoke, which is the foundation or frame for the generator. The frame has two functions: It completes the magnetic circuit between the poles and acts as a mechanical support for the other parts of the generator. In View A of Figure 10, the frame for a two-pole generator is shown in a cross-sectional view. A four-pole generator frame is shown in View B of Figure 10.

Figure 10. A two-pole and a four-pole frame assembly.

In small generators, the frame is made of one piece of iron, but in larger generators, it is usually made up of two parts bolted together. The frame has high magnetic properties and, together with the pole pieces, forms the major part of the magnetic circuit. The field poles, shown in Figure 10, are bolted to the inside of the frame and form a core on which the field coil windings are mounted.

The poles are usually laminated to reduce eddy current losses and serve the same purpose as the iron core of an electromagnet; that is, they concentrate the lines of force produced by the field coils. The entire frame including field poles, is made from high quality magnetic iron or sheet steel. A practical DC generator uses electromagnets instead of permanent magnets. To produce a magnetic field of the necessary strength with permanent magnets would greatly increase the physical size of the generator.

The field coils are made up of many turns of insulated wire and are usually wound on a form that fits over the iron core of the pole to which it is securely fastened. [Figure 11] The exciting current, which is used to produce the magnetic field and which flows through the field coils, is obtained from an external source or from the generated DC of the machine. No electrical connection exists between the windings of the field coils and the pole pieces.

Figure 11. A field coil removed from a field pole.

Most field coils are connected so that the poles show alternate polarity. Since there is always one north pole for each south pole, there must always be an even number of poles in any generator.

Note that the pole pieces in Figure 10 project from the frame. Because air offers a great amount of reluctance to the magnetic field, this design reduces the length of the air gap between the poles and the rotating armature and increases the efficiency of the generator. When the pole pieces are made to project as shown in Figure 10, they are called salient poles.


The armature assembly of a generator consists of many armature coils wound on an iron core, a commutator, and associated mechanical parts. These additional loops of wire are actually called windings and are evenly spaced around the armature so that the distance between each winding is the same. Mounted on a shaft, it rotates through the magnetic field produced by the field coils. The core of the armature acts as an iron conductor in the magnetic field and, for this reason, is laminated to prevent the circulation of eddy currents.

Gramme-Ring Armature

There are two general kinds of armatures: the ring and the drum. Figure 12 shows a ring-type armature made up of an iron core, an eight-section winding, and an eight-segment commutator. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that the windings, located on the inner side of the iron ring, cut few lines of flux. As a result, they have very little voltage induced in them. For this reason, the Gramme-ring armature is not widely used.

Figure 12. An eight-section, ring-type armature.

Drum-Type Armature

A drum-type armature is shown in Figure 13. The armature core is in the shape of a drum and has slots cut into it where the armature windings are placed. The advantage is that each winding completely surrounds the core so that the entire length of the conductor cuts through the magnetic flux. The total induced voltage in this arrangement is far greater than that of the Grammering type armature. Drum-type armatures are usually constructed in one of two methods, each method having its own advantage. The two types of winding methods are the lap winding and the wave winding. Lap windings are used in generators that are designed for high current. The windings are connected in parallel paths and for this reason require several brushes. The wave winding is used in generators that are designed for high voltage outputs. The two ends of each coil are connected to commutator segments separated by the distance between poles. This results in a series arrangement of the coils and is additive of all the induced voltages.

Figure 13. A drum-type armature.


Figure 14 shows a cross-sectional view of a typical commutator. The commutator is located at the end of an armature and consists of wedge shaped segments of hard drawn copper, insulated from each other by thin sheets of mica. The segments are held in place by steel V-rings or clamping flanges fitted with bolts. Rings of mica insulate the segments from the flanges. The raised portion of each segment is called a riser, and the leads from the armature coils are soldered to the risers. When the segments have no risers, the leads are soldered to short slits in the ends of the segments.

Figure 14. Commutator with portion removed to show construction.

The brushes ride on the surface of the commutator, forming the electrical contact between the armature coils and the external circuit. A flexible, braided copper conductor, commonly called a pigtail, connects each brush to the external circuit. The brushes, usually made of high-grade carbon and held in place by brush holders insulated from the frame, are free to slide up and down in their holders in order to follow any irregularities in the surface of the commutator. The brushes are usually adjustable so that the pressure of the brushes on the commutator can be varied and the position of the brushes with respect to the segments can be adjusted.

The constant making and breaking of connections to the coils in which a voltage is being induced necessitates the use of material for brushes, which has a definite contact resistance. Also, this material must be such that the friction between the commutator and the brush is low, to prevent excessive wear. For these reasons, the material commonly used for brushes is high-grade carbon. The carbon must be soft enough to prevent undue wear of the commutator and yet hard enough to provide reasonable brush life. Since the contact resistance of carbon is fairly high, the brush must be quite large to provide a large area of contact. The commutator surface is highly polished to reduce friction as much as possible. Oil or grease must never be used on a commutator, and extreme care must be used when cleaning it to avoid marring or scratching the surface.

Armature Reaction

Current flowing through the armature sets up electromagnetic fields in the windings. These new fields tend to distort or bend the magnetic flux between the poles of the generator from a straight-line path. Since armature current increases with load, the distortion becomes greater with an increase in load. This distortion of the magnetic field is called armature reaction. [Figure 15]

Figure 15. Armature reaction.

Armature windings of a generator are spaced so that, during rotation of the armature, there are certain positions when the brushes contact two adjacent segments, thereby shorting the armature windings to these segments. When the magnetic field is not distorted, there is usually no voltage being induced in the shorted windings, and therefore no harmful results occur from the shorting of the windings. However, when the field is distorted, a voltage is induced in these shorted windings, and sparking takes place between the brushes and the commutator segments. Consequently, the commutator becomes pitted, the wear on the brushes becomes excessive, and the output of the generator is reduced. To correct this condition, the brushes are set so that the plane of the coils, which are shorted by the brushes, is perpendicular to the distorted magnetic field, which is accomplished by moving the brushes forward in the direction of rotation. This operation is called shifting the brushes to the neutral plane, or plane of commutation. The neutral plane is the position where the plane of the two opposite coils is perpendicular to the magnetic field in the generator. On a few generators, the brushes can be shifted manually ahead of the normal neutral plane to the neutral plane caused by field distortion. On nonadjustable brush generators, the manufacturer sets the brushes for minimum sparking.

Compensating windings or interpoles may be used to counteract some of the effects of field distortion, since shifting the brushes is inconvenient and unsatisfactory, especially when the speed and load of the generator are changing constantly.

Compensating Windings

The compensating windings consist of a series of coils embedded in slots in the pole faces. These coils are also connected in series with the armature. Consequently, this series connection with the armature produces a magnetic field in the compensating windings that varies directly with the armature current. The compensating windings are wound in such a manner that the magnetic field produced by them will counteract the magnetic field produced by the armature. As a result, the neutral plane will remain stationary any magnitude of armature current. With this design, once the brushes are set correctly, they do not need to be moved again. Figure 16A illustrates how the windings are set into the pole faces.

Figure 16. Simple two-pole generator with two interpoles.


An interpole is a pole placed between the main poles of a generator. An example of interpole placement is shown in Figure 16B. This is a simple two-pole generator with two interpoles.

An interpole has the same polarity as the next main pole in the direction of rotation. The magnetic flux produced by an interpole causes the current in the armature to change direction as an armature winding passes under it. This cancels the electromagnetic fields about the armature windings. The magnetic strength of the interpoles varies with the load on the generator; and since field distortion varies with the load, the magnetic field of the interpoles counteracts the effects of the field set up around the armature windings and minimizes field distortion. Thus, the interpole tends to keep the neutral plane in the same position for all loads on the generator; therefore, field distortion is reduced by the interpoles, and the efficiency, output, and service life of the brushes are improved.

Types of DC Generators

There are three types of DC generators: series wound, shunt wound, and shunt series or compound wound. The difference in type depends on the relationship of the field winding to the external circuit.

Series Wound DC Generators

Figure 17. Diagram and schematic of a series wound generator.

The field winding of a series generator is connected in series with the external circuit, called the load. [Figure 17] The field coils are composed of a few turns of large wire; the magnetic field strength depends more on the current flow rather than the number of turns in the coil. Series generators have very poor voltage regulation under changing load, since the greater the current through the field coils to the external circuit, the greater the induced emf and the greater the terminal or output voltage. Therefore, when the load is increased, the voltage increases; likewise, when the load is decreased, the voltage decreases. The output voltage of a series wound generator may be controlled by a rheostat in parallel with the field windings, as shown in Figure 17A. Since the series wound generator has such poor regulation, it is never employed as an airplane generator. Generators in airplanes have field windings, which are connected either in shunt or in compound.

Shunt Wound DC Generators

A generator having a field winding connected in parallel with the external circuit is called a shunt generator, as shown in views A and B of Figure 18. The field coils of a shunt generator contain many turns of small wire; the magnetic strength is derived from the large number of turns rather than the current strength through the coils. If a constant voltage is desired, the shunt wound generator is not suitable for rapidly fluctuating loads. Any increase in load causes a decrease in the terminal or output voltage, and any decrease in load causes an increase in terminal voltage; since the armature and the load are connected in series, all current flowing in the external circuit passes through the armature winding. Because of the resistance in the armature winding, there is a voltage drop (IR drop = current × resistance). As the load increases, the armature current increases and the IR drop in the armature increases. The voltage delivered to the terminals is the difference between the induced voltage and the voltage drop; therefore, there is a decrease in terminal voltage. This decrease in voltage causes a decrease in field strength, because the current in the field coils decreases in proportion to the decrease in terminal voltage; with a weaker field, the voltage is further decreased. When the load decreases, the output voltage increases accordingly, and a larger current flows in the windings. This action is cumulative, so the output voltage continues to rise to a point called field saturation, after which there is no further increase in output voltage.

Figure 18. Shunt wound generator

The terminal voltage of a shunt generator can be controlled by means of a rheostat inserted in series with the field windings as shown in Figure 18A. As the resistance is increased, the field current is reduced; consequently, the generated voltage is reduced also. For a given setting of the field rheostat, the terminal voltage at the armature brushes will be approximately equal to the generated voltage minus the IR drop produced by the load current in the armature; thus, the voltage at the terminals of the generator will drop as the load is applied. Certain voltage sensitive devices are available which automatically adjust the field rheostat to compensate for variations in load. When these devices are used, the terminal voltage remains essentially constant.

Compound Wound DC Generators

A compound wound generator combines a series winding and a shunt winding in such a way that the characteristics of each are used to advantage. The series field coils are made of a relatively small number of turns of large copper conductor, either circular or rectangular in cross section, and are connected in series with the armature circuit. These coils are mounted on the same poles on which the shunt field coils are mounted and, therefore, contribute a magnetomotive force which influences the main field flux of the generator. A diagrammatic and a schematic illustration of a compound wound generator is shown in A and B of Figure 19.

Figure 19. Compound wound generator.

If the ampere turns of the series field act in the same direction as those of the shunt field, the combined magnetomotive force is equal to the sum of the series and shunt field components. Load is added to a compound generator in the same manner in which load is added to a shunt generator, by increasing the number of parallel paths across the generator terminals. Thus, the decrease in total load resistance with added load is accompanied by an increase in armature circuit and series field circuit current. The effect of the additive series field is that of increased field flux with increased load. The extent of the increased field flux depends on the degree of saturation of the field as determined by the shunt field current. Thus, the terminal voltage of the generator may increase or decrease with load, depending on the influence of the series field coils. This influence is referred to as the degree of compounding. A flat compound generator is one in which the no load and full load voltages have the same value; whereas an under compound generator has a full load voltage less than the no load value, and an over compound generator has a full load voltage which is higher than the no load value. Changes in terminal voltage with increasing load depend upon the degree of compounding.

If the series field aids the shunt field, the generator is said to be cumulative compounded.

If the series field opposes the shunt field, the machine is said to be differentially compounded, or is called a differential generator. Compound generators are usually designed to be overcompounded. This feature permits varied degrees of compounding by connecting a variable shunt across the series field. Such a shunt is sometimes called a diverter. Compound generators are used where voltage regulation is of prime importance.

Differential generators have somewhat the same characteristics as series generators in that they are essentially constant current generators. However, they generate rated voltage at no load, the voltage dropping materially as the load current increases. Constant current generators are ideally suited as power sources for electric arc welders and are used almost universally in electric arc welding.

If the shunt field of a compound generator is connected across both the armature and the series field, it is known as a long shunt connection, but if the shunt field is connected across the armature alone, it is called a short shunt connection. These connections produce essentially the same generator characteristics.

A summary of the characteristics of the various types of generators discussed is shown graphically in Figure 20.

Figure 20. Generator characteristics.

Generator Ratings

A generator is rated in power output. Since a generator is designed to operate at a specified voltage, the rating usually is given as the number of amperes the generator can safely supply at its rated voltage.

Generator rating and performance data are stamped on the nameplate attached to the generator. When replacing a generator, it is important to choose one of the proper rating.

The rotation of generators is termed either clockwise or counterclockwise, as viewed from the driven end. Usually, the direction of rotation is stamped on the data plate. If no direction is stamped on the plate, the rotation may be marked by an arrow on the cover plate of the brush housing. It is important that a generator with the correct direction of rotation be used; otherwise, the voltage will be reversed. The speed of an aircraft engine varies from idle rpm to takeoff rpm; however, during the major portion of a flight, it is at a constant cruising speed. The generator drive is usually geared to revolve the generator between 1-1/8 and 1-1/2 times the engine crankshaft speed. Most aircraft generators have a speed at which they begin to produce their normal voltage. Termed the “coming in” speed, it is usually about 1,500 rpm. Generator Terminals On most large 24-volt generators, electrical connections are made to terminals marked B, A, and E. The positive armature lead in the generator connects to the B terminal. The negative armature lead connects to the E terminal. The positive end of the shunt field winding connects to terminal A, and the opposite end connects to the negative terminal brush. Terminal A receives current from the negative generator brush through the shunt field winding. This current passes through the voltage regulator and back to the armature through the positive brush. Load current, which leaves the armature through the negative brushes, comes out of the E lead and passes through the load before returning to the armature through the positive brushes.

DC Generator Maintenance


The following information about the inspection and maintenance of DC generator systems is general in nature because of the large number of differing aircraft generator systems. These procedures are for familiarization only. Always follow the applicable manufacturer’s instructions for a given generator system. In general, the inspection of the generator installed in the aircraft should include the following items:

  1. Security of generator mounting.
  2. Condition of electrical connections.
  3. Dirt and oil in the generator. If oil is present, check engine oil seal. Blow out dirt with compressed air.
  4. Condition of generator brushes.
  5. Generator operation.
  6. Voltage regulator operation.

Condition of Generator Brushes

Sparking of brushes quickly reduces the effective brush area in contact with the commutator bars. The degree of such sparking should be determined. Excessive wear warrants a detailed inspection. The following information pertains to brush seating, brush pressure, high mica condition, and brush wear. Manufacturers usually recommend the following procedures to seat brushes that do not make good contact with slip rings or commutators. Lift the brush sufficiently to permit the insertion of a strip of No. 000, or finer, sandpaper under the brush, rough side out. [Figure 21] Pull the sandpaper in the direction of armature rotation, being careful to keep the ends of the sandpaper as close to the slip ring or commutator surface as possible in order to avoid rounding the edges of the brush. When pulling the sandpaper back to the starting point, raise the brush so it does not ride on the sandpaper. Sand the brush only in the direction of rotation.

Figure 21. Seating brushes with sandpaper.

After the generator has run for a short period, brushes should be inspected to make sure that pieces of sand have not become embedded in the brush and are collecting copper. Under no circumstances should emery cloth or similar abrasives be used for seating brushes (or smoothing commutators), since they contain conductive materials that will cause arcing between brushes and commutator bars. Excessive pressure will cause rapid wear of brushes. Too little pressure, however, will allow “bouncing” of the brushes, resulting in burned and pitted surfaces.

A carbon, graphite, or light metalized brush should exert a pressure of 1˝ to 2˝ psi on the commutator. The pressure recommended by the manufacturer should be checked by the use of a spring scale graduated in ounces. Brush spring tension is usually adjusted between 32 to 36 ounces; however, the tension may differ slightly for each specific generator.

When a spring scale is used, the measurement of the pressure that a brush exerts on the commutator is read directly on the scale. The scale is applied at the point of contact between the spring arm and the top of the brush, with the brush installed in the guide. The scale is drawn up until the arm just lifts off the brush surface. At this instant, the force on the scale should be read.

Flexible low resistance pigtails are provided on most heavy current carrying brushes, and their connections should be securely made and checked at frequent intervals. The pigtails should never be permitted to alter or restrict the free motion of the brush.

The purpose of the pigtail is to conduct the current, rather than subjecting the brush spring to currents that would alter its spring action by overheating. The pigtails also eliminate any possible sparking to the brush guides caused by the movement of the brushes within the holder, thus minimizing side wear of the brush.

Carbon dust resulting from brush sanding should be thoroughly cleaned from all parts of the generators after a sanding operation. Such carbon dust has been the cause of several serious fires as well as costly damage to the generator.

Operation over extended periods of time often results in the mica insulation between commutator bars protruding above the surface of the bars. This condition is called “high mica” and interferes with the contact of the brushes to the commutator. Whenever this condition exists, or if the armature has been turned on a lathe, carefully undercut the mica insulation to a depth equal to the width of the mica, or approximately 0.020 inch.

Each brush should be a specified length to work properly. If a brush is too short, the contact it makes with the commutator will be faulty, which can also reduce the spring force holding the brush in place. Most manufacturers specify the amount of wear permissible from a new brush length. When a brush has worn to the minimum length permissible, it must be replaced.

Some special generator brushes should not be replaced because of a slight grooving on the face of the brush. These grooves are normal and will appear in AC and DC generator brushes which are installed in some models of aircraft generators. These brushes have two cores made of a harder material with a higher expansion rate than the material used in the main body of the brush. Usually, the main body of the brush face rides on the commutator. However, at certain temperatures, the cores extend and wear through any film on the commutator.