Photograph of the overload reset button on an electric motorElectric Motor Rotation Direction
Which way does an electric motor spin? Do some electric motors reverse direction?
     


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Electric motor test & repair guide:

This article describes A/C electrical motor troubleshooting: here we provide an electric motor diagnostic table, a troubleshooting guide that helps diagnose and repair most electric motor problems for motors found on HVAC equipment in buildings such as air conditioners, furnace or air handler blower fans, oil burner motors, well pumps, and condensate return pumps.

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A/C Electric Motor Troubleshooting Guide - Test Procedures

Air handler blower assembly(C) Daniel FriedmanIn this article we provide a diagnostic guide to determine and repair problems with electric motors. The page top photo was taken of of an oil burner electric motor not an air conditioning blower fan motor or pump motor, but you'll see that all of these electric motors look a lot alike. At left our photo illustrates the motor as typically found in a direct-drive HVAC blower or air handler assembly. (BLOWER FAN OPERATION & TESTING)

While our page top photo shows the red reset button most clearly, the reset button on the motor at left may be harder to spot. Sometimes the reset button on an electric motor is hard to find, and sometimes there is no reset button!

Fatal Shock Hazard Warning: Inspecting electrical components and systems risks death by electrocution as well as serious burns or other injuries to the inspector or to others. Do not attempt these tasks unless you are properly trained and equipped.

What Are the basic Components of an A/C Electric Motor such as used on heating and air conditioning equipment?

Before discussing how to diagnose air conditioner or heating system electric motors let's be sure we know what motor parts might be involved. (Or skip right to Table A if you prefer). The electric motor has quite a few parts if examined in detail, switches, wires, possibly capacitors, oiling ports and more, but there are four basic parts to every HVAC electric motor:

  1. Electric motor rotor: the rotor follows (turns in the direction impelled by) the rotating magnetic field and thus spins the motor shaft
  2. Electric motor stator: the stator consists is a device or core containing start and run windings (of copper wire) wound around a central core to create a magnetic field.
  3. Electric motor windings: the two windings are used to create an electrical field in the stator.
    1. Definition of Start winding: in an A/C (alternating current) electric motor electrical current flowing through the start winding is used just to get the motor spinning from a stopped condition. The start winding is disconnected, usually by a centrifugal switch, when the motor is up to speed.
    2. Definition of Run winding: in an A/C electric motor the run winding is what keeps the motor spinning once it has started. Current flowing through this winding produces a rotating magnetic field in the stator that keeps the motor shaft turning after the start winding has turned off.
  4. Electric motor start switch: a centrifugal switch connects the A/C electrical power to the motor to the start winding on the stator until the motor has reached a speed typically of 75-80% of its full run speed (typically that's1725 rpm or 3450 rpm on newer high-speed oil burners).

In addition to the basic electric motor components above there are two other features to know about when troubleshooting a motor.

Which way does an Electric Motor Run - Can Electric Motors run Backwards? Information found on the electric motor's data tag.

Uni-directional electric motors run just one way: clockwise (CW) or counterclockwise (CCW) but not both.

Becket oil burner electric motor (C) Daniel FriedmanIn many applications the equipment driven by the electric motor will not work properly unless the motor drive shaft spins in a pre-determined direction: clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Examples include HVAC unit blower squirrel cage fans whose blades won't move air if the fan runs backwards and oil burner or well pump motors whose oil pump or water pump won't move oil or water if the pump motor is driven in the "wrong" direction.

In a fixed-direction electric motor such as on an HVAC blower fan or an A/C or heat pump compressor, each time the motor starts its start capacitor and start winding give the motor a "kick" in the right direction.


Bi-directional & self-reversing electric motors run in either direction, CW or CCW

Microwave electric motors reverse direction (C) Daniel FriedmanBi-directional electric motors run in either direction and are used in applications in which the direction in which the motor spins doesn't matter to the equipment it's driving. "What the heck?" you're saying. Well here's a cute example - your home microwave.

Electric motors require a kick or to put it more like an engineer, a starting torque to overcome the resistance when the motor is to begin spinning from a stopped position. Compared to electric motors used in oil burners and air conditioning compressors, we don't need such a costly and heavy-duty electric motor to spin the rotating table in a microwave oven.

Instead, microwave (and some other self-reversing) electric motors use a clever design that allows for elimination of the start winding winding and also allows use of a lower-cost and less powerful electric motor.

When the motor has stopped the mechanism it drives remains pressed against the motor's drive shaft, providing a "driven load" ( the microwave turntable) against the direction the motor's shaft was last rotating. When the motor is asked to start again it encounters this extra load due to the resistance provided by a mechanical mechanism in the turntable that was itself "wound" or loaded by the table's prior rotation.

The microwave motor, encountering this load, reverses itself to begin rotating in the opposite direction, one of less load, which gives a brief "no-load" interval that lets the microwave's turntable motor get up to speed. In sum, the combination of a load or rotation resistance provided by the turntable mechanism and an automatic direction reversing feature in the electric motor gets the microwave motor spinning and the turntable rotating - which is why each time you start your microwave it is likely to rotate in the opposite direction from that of its previous cycle.

Can an Electric Motor Run Backwards?

Watch out: yes it is indeed possible for some electric motors to run "backwards" following damage to the motor's start capacitor or windings.

We've had an occasional report of an HVAC motor running "the wrong way" or sometimes starting to run the the wrong way. For example the blower fan motor in an air handler can start and run backwards as can some air conditioner compressor unit cooling fan motors.

See POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs for what appears to be an example of a backwards-running electric motor in an air handler.

Read the Information on an Electric Motor Data Tag to Determine the Motor Run Direction

Electric motor data tag for oil burner (C) Daniel FriedmanIn our photo at left you can see the notation on this electric motor data tag indicating the the motor is non-reversing and rotates counter-clockwise - designated by the words CCW ROTATION (red arrow).

If you enlarge the photo [Click any image to see an enlarged, detailed version] you will see text above the red arrow noting that this is a NON-REVERSING motor.

At ELECTRIC MOTOR DATA TAG we explain all of the information that can be found on the electric motor data tag.

Watch out: when buying replacement electric motors, fuel units, and blower fan assemblies to be sure they all are compatible. For example on oil fired heating equipment, the oil burner fuel units (the mechanical heating oil pump driven by the oil burner electric motor via a coupling) can be purchased as CW or CCW devices. All three components have to be designed to rotate in a common direction:

  1. the electric driving motor,
  2. the oil burner combustion air blower fan assembly, and
  3. the oil burner fuel unit or oil pump.

If the fuel unit is not rotated in the proper direction the heating appliance won't run - it won't receive fuel, and the driving motor and coupling parts may be damaged.

If a squirrel cage blower fan on an oil burner or inside of an air handler is spun backwards (ELECTRIC MOTOR RUN DIRECTION) it will not move much air and equipment will not function properly.

General advice: Electrical Tests to Check HVAC Blower Fan Motor or Outdoor Compressor Fan Motor Winding on Heating or Cooling Equipment or on Other Electrical Motors

See these electrical test tool & equipment articles

Example: testing a blower fan motor winding: referring to the electrical diagram for your equipment, unplug electrical connectors at the fan motor. Measure the resistance between each lead wire with a multimeter or VOM. The multimeter should be set in the X1 range. For accuracy, don't measure when the fan motor is hot, allow it to cool off.

When the resistance between each lead wire are those listed in the specifications for your equipment the fan motor should be normal. Zero resistance or infinite resistance are indicators of a problem.

HVAC Repair Article Recommendations

 

 

Continue reading at CAPACITORS for HARD STARTING MOTORS or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.

Or see ELECTRIC MOTOR DIAGNOSTIC GUIDE

Suggested citation for this web page

ELECTRIC MOTOR RUN DIRECTION at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Question: heat pump ran fine, then started blowing heated air out through the return registers

Turned on our heat pump and system was working fine for about 3 hours. Without warning, the system started blowing heated air through the return. System had been off for about 2 weeks as we transitioned from summer to fall/winter. The filter on the system had just been changed. System is off now. What we thought was smoke was dust from the system. The air handler/return had been replaced about 5 years ago. Again, system seemed to be working fine. Any ideas? - A.S. 11/13/2013

Reply: check for an air handler blower motor running backwards

A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that would permit a more accurate, complete, and authoritative answer than we can give by email alone. You will find additional depth and detail in articles at our website. That said I offer these comments:

I'm guessing that in shifting from cooling to heating mode, your system correctly reversed refrigerant flow and began using the heat pump to heat building air, OR is running off of back up heat, perhaps electric, depending on outside temperatures. So the delivery of heat does not sound like it's part of the problem about which you ask.

Key in your statement is the rather unusual observation that air started blowing out of the return registers.

I suspect that you have a problem with the blower fan motor, wiring, or controls. It is possible for some electric motors to actually begin to run backwards. While a typical air handler blower fan uses a squirrel cage fan that does not move much air when it spins in the wrong direction, it will move some. And blowing air backwards through the return ducts might indeed be expected to dislodge dust, blowing it back into the occupied space.

Ask for service from your HVAC company, and see if the technician finds a bad electric motor winding, start capacitor, or electronic control, or possibly a control damaged by a power surge or outage.

Reader follow-Up:

We finally got resolution for our system. We had a bad capacitor replaced with the correct size. A few years ago, a capacitor went bad in the air handler and the technician replaced it; the issue (speculation) was that since he did not have the correct size on his truck, he used a smaller size that was minimal at best. It finally wore out. - A.S. 12/4/2013

Reply: Thanks so much ..., I'm glad it's resolved - I had not considered a too-small start capacitor installation as a source of later starting capacitor failure but it makes perfect sense.

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Questions & answers or comments about how to troubleshoot electric motors such as air conditioning compressor motors, heating equipment burner or fan motors, swimming pool motors, water well pump motors

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