Home / What is Basic / What is the function of a circuit breaker and how do they operate ?

What is the function of a circuit breaker and how do they operate ?

Function and Operation of Circuit Breakers:

1. Function of a Circuit Breaker:

A circuit breaker is an electrical device designed to protect an electrical circuit and its components from overcurrents, short circuits, and other electrical faults. Its primary function is to interrupt the flow of electric current when an abnormal condition occurs, preventing potential damage to the circuit, equipment, and ensuring the safety of personnel. Circuit breakers act as switches that can be manually or automatically operated to open or close a circuit under normal and fault conditions.

2. Basic Components of a Circuit Breaker:

  • Contacts: Circuit breakers consist of conductive contacts that can be opened or closed to interrupt or allow the flow of current.
  • Operating Mechanism: The operating mechanism controls the opening and closing of the contacts. It can be manual, where an operator physically activates the mechanism, or automatic, where it responds to signals from protective devices.
  • Arc Quenching System: When contacts open, an electric arc may form due to the interruption of current flow. The arc quenching system extinguishes this arc to prevent damage and ensure a quick interruption.
  • Trip Unit: The trip unit is a key component that senses abnormal conditions in the circuit and signals the circuit breaker to open the contacts. It can be thermal, magnetic, or a combination of both.
  • Enclosure: Circuit breakers are housed in enclosures to protect them from environmental factors and ensure safety.

3. Operation of Circuit Breakers:

  • Normal Operation: During normal operation, the circuit breaker allows current to flow through its closed contacts. The operating mechanism holds the contacts in the closed position.
  • Overcurrent or Fault Detection: When an overcurrent or fault occurs in the circuit, the trip unit detects the abnormal condition. The trip unit responds based on the type of fault – thermal for prolonged overloads and magnetic for short circuits.
    • Thermal Trip: In case of a prolonged overload, the thermal trip unit senses the heat generated by the excessive current. As the temperature reaches a critical point, the trip unit activates the operating mechanism to open the contacts, interrupting the circuit.
    • Magnetic Trip: For short circuits with a rapid increase in current, the magnetic trip unit responds quickly to the intense magnetic field generated. It triggers the operating mechanism to open the contacts almost instantly.
  • Opening of Contacts: Once the trip unit signals the operating mechanism, it activates to open the circuit breaker’s contacts. As the contacts separate, an electric arc forms due to the interrupted current flow.
  • Arc Quenching: The arc quenching system plays a crucial role in extinguishing the electric arc. This can involve techniques such as using arc chutes, magnetic blowout coils, or specific materials designed to cool and deionize the arc.
  • Trip-Free Feature: Many modern circuit breakers have a “trip-free” feature, ensuring that even if someone holds the operating handle in the closed position, the circuit breaker will trip if the protective system signals a fault.
  • Closing the Contacts: After the fault is cleared and the operating mechanism is reset, the circuit breaker can be closed manually or automatically, restoring the current flow through the closed contacts.

4. Types of Circuit Breakers:

  • Air Circuit Breakers (ACBs): Use air as the arc quenching medium.
  • Oil Circuit Breakers: Employ oil as the arc extinguishing medium.
  • Vacuum Circuit Breakers: Use a vacuum to quench the arc.
  • SF6 Circuit Breakers: Utilize sulfur hexafluoride gas for arc quenching.
  • Molded Case Circuit Breakers (MCCBs): Compact circuit breakers with a molded insulating material.
  • Miniature Circuit Breakers (MCBs): Designed for low-voltage protection in residential and commercial applications.

In summary, circuit breakers play a critical role in electrical systems by protecting circuits from overcurrents and faults. They operate through a combination of thermal and magnetic trip units, along with an arc quenching system, to ensure the rapid and safe interruption of current during abnormal conditions. The choice of a specific type of circuit breaker depends on the application, voltage level, and environmental considerations.

Recent Updates