Low-voltage communication buses are critical to networked automation systems and when they fail they are a pain to troubleshoot. We use them because the cables are cheap and you don’t need expensive switches, but what you save in parts you may pay in labor later. Ethernet/IP based communication is on the rise, but is still expensive as an up-front cost. RS-485 is the typical low-voltage communication electrical standard used for the bus we see in commercial and industrial automation. You’ll see it used for BACnet MS/TP, Modbus, and various proprietary protocols like Honeywell’s C-Bus and JCI’s N2 bus.

What is RS-485?

RS-485 isn’t a protocol, it’s an electrical standard that describes how to transmit bits with volts. The protocol allows multiple devices to co-exist on a long, fast bus. It’s similar to the RS-422 protocol, except with RS-485 any device can talk, and any device can listen.

Is RS-485 a Two-wire Bus?

When you want to measure a voltage with your multimeter you need both probes because voltages only exist between things. The parts that “do” RS-485 aren’t looking between your A and B ports, they are looking at each wire relative to a common reference point. The voltage reference is often the power source’s ground, earth ground, a third independent reference wire. Some choices are much better than others.

RS-485 is polarity sensitive, having an “inverting” (negative, “A”) and “non-inverting” (positive, “B”) wire. Depending on the application the conductors will be shielded or twisted-pair.  Some installers will use the shield as a signal ground to save on cable costs. This can work well, but there are caveats. Not all grounds are equal, so be careful how you terminate your shield; one lightning storm and your bus could explode. If you forget to terminate your shield in one place and you’ll offset all your signals by the noise the shield picks up, as we found in this case study.

The two-wire applications that have no ground may actually be using the power source for the controllers as the voltage reference, but that can be problematic if you mix up the transformer polarity or if you are dealing with multiple power sources. It also looks freaky on an oscilloscope – you’ll see the bus riding on a 60 Hz carrier! It’s best to avoid this kind of setup if you can, but it’s cheaper.

It takes a lot more sustained thought and consistent effort to make two wires work. When you add a different controller or use a different source of power you may find yourself with an expensive problem. If you want a solid bus, it’s best to use a twisted pair of conductors for A+B, a free conductor for the reference, and a shield to improve noise immunity.

Interference – Why We Twist Our Pairs and Use Shielding

As you can see in the above case study twisted pair works extremely well; despite a noisy environment the bus signal can still punch through pretty clearly.

Slower buses (~9,600 baud) tend to be less sensitive to interference. Twisted pair alone works fine for slower buses especially in low-noise environments. BACnet MS/TP which typically runs at 38,400 baud is much more sensitive to interference and must be properly shielded, especially in a high-noise environment.

Interference can come from most electronic equipment but big offenders are VFDs and any kind of switches (MCC cutoffs, relays, etc.). Devices that are improperly shielded or have failing components emit interference. Shielding your cable correctly protects your bus from these difficult to locate and potentially impossible to fix issues.

If you look at your shield by itself on an oscilloscope you’ll see the stray voltage picked up by your bus, and it’s largely just sharp spikes that usually do not last very long. Higher frequency buses are more sensitive to noise. Take 38,400 baud for example. At 38,400 bits per second one bit is sent down the bus in a flash of 26 microseconds. Any interference that lasts that long will screw up the data stream; for 9,600 baud one bit lasts for 3 times as long as that. Many applications can sacrifice some bus speed without a noticeable change in performance, but wiring your bus right is a lot more effective.

Hidden Depths

You know how we talk about how RS-485 is a two-wire bus? It’s not true. Not even 2.5, or 3, or 3.5! RS-485 can communicate in full-duplex mode using four signalling conductors in several typologies. I’ve yet to see this or a controller in the field that supports it, but the transceivers exist.