iPhoneOgraphy – 11 Aug 2016 (Day 224/366)
A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by over current or overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after protective relays detect a fault. Unlike a fuse, which operates once and then must be replaced, a circuit breaker can be reset (either manually or automatically) to resume normal operation. Circuit breakers are made in varying sizes, from small devices that protect an individual household appliance up to large switchgear designed to protect high voltage circuits feeding an entire city. The generic function of a circuit breaker, RCD or a fuse, as an automatic means of removing power from a faulty system is often abbreviated to ADS (Automatic Disconnection of Supply).
An early form of circuit breaker was described by Thomas Edison in an 1879 patent application, although his commercial power distribution system used fuses. Its purpose was to protect lighting circuit wiring from accidental short circuits and overloads. A modern miniature circuit breaker similar to the ones now in use was patented by Brown, Boveri & Cie in 1924. Hugo Stotz, an engineer who had sold his company to BBC, was credited as the inventor on DRP (Deutsches Reichspatent) 458392. Stotz’s invention was the forerunner of the modern thermal-magnetic breaker commonly used in household load centers to this day. Interconnection of multiple generator sources into an electrical grid required development of circuit breakers with increasing voltage ratings and increased ability to safely interrupt the increasing short circuit currents produced by networks. Simple air-break manual switches produced hazardous arcs when interrupting high voltages; these gave way to oil-enclosed contacts, and various forms using directed flow of pressurized air, or of pressurized oil, to cool and interrupt the arc. By 1935, the specially constructed circuit breakers used at the Boulder Dam project use eight series breaks and pressurized oil flow to interrupt faults of up to 2,500 MVA, in three cycles of the AC power frequency.
Circuit breakers are rated both by the normal current that they are expected to carry, and the maximum short-circuit current that they can safely interrupt. This latter figure is the ampere interrupting capacity (AIC) of the breaker.
Under short-circuit conditions, the calculated maximum prospective short circuit current may be many times the normal, rated current of the circuit. When electrical contacts open to interrupt a large current, there is a tendency for an arc to form between the opened contacts, which would allow the current to continue. This condition can create conductive ionized gases and molten or vaporized metal, which can cause further continuation of the arc, or creation of additional short circuits, potentially resulting in the explosion of the circuit breaker and the equipment that it is installed in. Therefore, circuit breakers must incorporate various features to divide and extinguish the arc.
The maximum short-circuit current that a breaker can interrupt is determined by testing. Application of a breaker in a circuit with a prospective short-circuit current higher than the breaker’s interrupting capacity rating may result in failure of the breaker to safely interrupt a fault. In a worst-case scenario the breaker may successfully interrupt the fault, only to explode when reset.
Typical domestic panel circuit breakers are rated to interrupt 10 kA (10000 A) short-circuit current.
Miniature circuit breakers used to protect control circuits or small appliances may not have sufficient interrupting capacity to use at a panel board; these circuit breakers are called “supplemental circuit protectors” to distinguish them from distribution-type circuit breakers.