Circuit breakers are used in nearly all electrical systems — from residential dwellings to electric utility facilities.

We rely on them to protect our systems from damaging overcurrents and short circuits. Understanding circuit breaker construction and operation is key to realizing their limitations and proper usage Basic components and operation of popular types of circuit breakers, including molded-case (MCCB), insulated-case (ICCB), low-voltage power (LVPCB), medium-voltage air-magnetic (MVACB), and medium-voltage vacuum (MVVCB) circuit breakers.

MCCBs contain five components — a frame, operating mechanism, interrupting structure, trip unit, and terminal connections. These components are shown in Fig. 1.

1. Frame — houses and supports the components and also provides insulation to contain the arc. 2. Operating Mechanism — opens and closes the contacts. 3. InterruptingStructure — includes the arc chutes and all current-carrying parts except the trip unit. Arc chutes are designed to interrupt the arc quickly, usually 1.5 to two cycles for MCCBs and ICCBs. 4. Trip Unit — senses abnormal current flow and causes the operating mechanism to open the contacts. MCCB trip units are usually of the thermal-magnetic type. 5. Terminal Connections — provides a suitable connection from the breaker to the conductor. Moldedcase circuit breakers typically bolt directly to the bus.

ICCBs have the same basic construction as MCCBs, but use solid-state and digital trip units (as opposed to thermal-magnetic trip units) and have much higher interrupting ratings. ICCBs are often draw-out type, as opposed to bolt-in, although they can be either.


Disconnects or Stabs   Main disconnects — connect the circuit breaker to the main bus. There are five major assemblies on a typical LVPCB: 1. Secondary disconnects — connect the circuit breaker to the control circuits.LVPCBs (Photo 1 at right) are also known as air-frame and draw-out circuit breakers. 2 .

LVPCBs typically use either vertical or horizontal rows of straight. Main — carry the main load current. Mediumvoltage. Medium-voltage circuit breakers have the same basic components as their lower voltage counterparts. and ground fault (GF). but use protective relays that are separately mounted in the switchgear. Overcurrent Trip Device — modern circuit breakers have digital trip units. although on larger frame sizes they may have round or ―tulip-style‖ disconnects. Secondary Disconnects (stabs) The secondary disconnects bring power from the control circuits into the circuit breaker. Contacts 3. Operating Mechanism — opens and closes the contacts. MVVCBs use a vacuum bottle instead of contact assemblies and arc chutes found on MVACBs Main Disconnects (stabs) The main disconnects connect the circuit breaker to the bus. allowing the primary disconnects to make. short-time delay (STD). 2. draw-out circuit breakers have the primary disconnects in the switchgear guarded by a shutter mechanism installed in the switchgear cubicle. As the circuit breaker is removed (racked out). spring-loaded fingers to make contact with the bus bar. 4. the shutter closes. 3 . When the circuit breaker is racked into the ―connected‖ position. The typical arrangement for this breaker is to connect and disconnect these stabs as the breaker is racked in and out of its cubicle.    Ground disconnect — connects the circuit breaker to the ground bus. instantaneous (INST). Auxiliary — make and break the control circuits. Most medium-voltage metal-clad circuit breakers will use ―tulip-style‖ disconnects and have some type of spring around them to ensure good contact with the bus. although older units could be air dashpot or oil dashpot types. the shutter opens. Arcing — transfers the arc to the arc runners in the arc chute. 5. Typical functions are long-time delay (LTD). Arc Extinguishers or Arc Chutes — interrupt and contain the arc.

‖ Wipe helps clean the contact surface. such as turning the spring-charging motor on and off at the appropriate times. so they must have a lower resistance to current flow. The tungsten. again drawing the arc across them. This prevents the main contacts from carrying the arc and preserves them. cadmium. the arcing contacts make first. so when the contacts open and close they will not deteriorate as quickly. The mains are larger. The arcing horn aids in transferring the arc from the arcing contact to the arc runner in the arc chute. drawing the arc across them. Auxiliary contacts control electrical functions within the circuit breaker. and zinc. and is caused by one of the contact surfaces being contoured and the other surface being flat. the contoured surface will have a wiping motion against the flat surfaced contact. Medium-voltage metal-clad switchgear will typically have the auxiliary contacts mounted in the switchgear. Arcing Contacts Arcing contacts are designed to prevent the main contacts from being damaged and can be made of alloys of silver. The ground disconnect connects the frame of the circuit breaker to the ground bus. When the circuit breaker opens. Main Contacts The main contacts are constructed of a softer alloy using less tungsten or zinc and more silver. referred to as ―wipe. tungsten. The ground disconnect is the first connection made when racking a breaker in and is the last connection broken when racking it out. rather than the breaker frame. cadmium. Auxiliary contacts are mechanically driven from the operating mechanism and are used for control and indicating circuits. This ensures that the frame of the breaker is grounded whenever there is a possibility of the frame being energized. They carry the load current. On LVPCBs. the main contacts part first and then the arcing contacts part. auxiliary contacts are mounted on the frame of the breaker (Photo 8 at right). The contact surfaces are shaped so that they have a rubbing motion. When the circuit breaker closes. Arcing contacts will usually have an arcing ―horn‖ on the very top of the contact structure.Ground Disconnect (contact shoe) The frame of the circuit breaker must be connected to the ground bus so that a short circuit or fault will be taken to ground immediately and allow the protective devices to operate as quickly as possible. When the contacts close. which also decreases their resistance. They are connected to the operating mechanism by a linkage and operate at the same time the main contacts do 4 . and zinc make the arcing contacts harder.

The arc is hurried along the process by various components in the arc chute. because heavy metal supports and frame can be decreased. as the natural tendency of the arc is to rise and aid in extinguishing the arc. usually in two to three cycles. it maintains the seal between the moving contact and the bottle. Vacuum Bottles An alternative that has virtually replaced MVACBs is the MVVCB. Vacuum circuit breakers interrupt the arc by denying it air. 5 . The contact moves only about ½ in.Arc Extinguishers Arc extinguishers (arc chutes) contain the arc. Since the vacuum is not perfect. This characteristic is used to properly coordinate power systems so they will trip in the right sequence (selective tripping). The arc is interrupted very quickly. The bottle must contain the explosive force of an arc. Photo 13 is a vacuum bottle cut-away to show its components. Selective tripping is also referred to as ―power system coordination. The primary components of a vacuum bottle include:    Bottle —Made of extremely hardened ceramic or glass. depending on the application. One manufacturer’s breaker positions the arc chute to the rear of the breaker. stretch it out. arc runners. Most air circuit breakers will have their arc chutes positioned above the contact assemblies. The time it takes to interrupt an arc is known as the ―maximum total clearing time‖ — the time from the start of the arc until it is completely extinguished. Vacuum bottles require very little maintenance when compared to air-magnetic contact assemblies. In a pure vacuum. blowout coils. There are exceptions to this arrangement. there will be some arcing inside the bottle. When the contacts begin to open. and arcing horns.‖ as the devices will operate in their proper sequence when this is performed correctly. Bellows Shield — Protects the metal bellows from the intense heat of the arc. Flexible Metal Bellows — Soldered/welded to the moving contact stem. the hot arc will rise. Even though the vacuum in vacuum bottles is very good. it isn’t perfect — so some arcing does take place. cool it. there can be no arc. This occurs within one-tenth of a second or less and is critical to safe operation of the circuit breaker and power system. such as puffers. This reduces wear on the assembly and also reduces the weight. and deionize it. in the vacuum bottle. and the opening springs are much lighter.

The trip latch (11) holds the secondary latch (14) from rotating clockwise. Over a period of time. 6. 2. Modern operating mechanisms are quick-make. forcing the contacts to stay tightly closed. which in turn extends the cam (main) roller (5 – red) against the prop (2). Metal Vapor Condensing (arc) Shield — Since some small quantity of the contact face does not recombine onto the contact face. vibrate. it could maim you. while some drifts toward the inside of the bottle. Contacts — No arcing and mains here. 3. and 14 being placed in an interference fit. The metal vapor condensing shield is designed so both ends are open and do not contact the bottle. In this position. When an arc is interrupted. One set of springs usually has tension on it. they would weaken. The opening spring (15) is not shown in this view. which prevents it from overextending. Operating mechanisms are also referred to as ―stored energy‖ mechanisms. This means that the speed of contact operation is independent of the speed of the control handle. The contacts are held in the closed position by a prop and roller operating mechanism. quick-break. The main roller is in turn held against the Prop (2). Closing springs do not hold the contacts closed. the contacts are unable to open until the linkage collapses. and 4. which is pushing the main roller (5) and its linkage into a vertical position. because there are both opening springs and closing springs. The secondary latch is positioned against the secondary latch roller (6 – yellow). Any metal vapor that drifts to it cannot make a short between the contacts. but is exerting pressure on the contacts to open Note that the secondary latch (14) is held against the secondary latch roller (6). The centerline of the insulating coupling pin is in a straight line with the main roller through the camshaft. A typical prop and roller mechanism is illustrated in Figs. The insulated coupling (12) holds the contacts closed due to parts 2. it starts heading toward the bottle wall.  Circuit breaker operation. For this reason. causing the contacts to bounce. Most recollects onto the contact surface. 6 . use extreme care when working on or near circuit breakers. Figure 2 shows an operating mechanism in the ―closed‖ position. and burn. just one set of contacts. The prop and roller puts the contact linkage into a mechanical bind. If your hand was between the moving and stationary contacts when it closed. 11. They have heavy moving contact assemblies and powerful springs. some of the metal is vaporized. 5. which cannot happen until the trip latch (11) releases the secondary latch (14).

the bell crank rotates. 7 . which is used to change motion in one direction into motion in another direction. allowing the secondary latch to rotate counter-clockwise. the main roller (5) and the secondary latch roller (6) collapse. This allows the opening springs to pull the contacts open.Figure 3 shows the same mechanism in the ―tripped‖ position. To open the breaker. When it does. Part 7 is a bell crank lever. the trip latch is rotated clockwise. As the linkage collapses. allowing the contacts to open.

8 . 2. and. It's far worse when the breaker just doesn't trip. Breakers fail in this "no trip" mode for a variety of reasons. as shown (in blue). The trip latch (11) and the secondary latch (14) are reset to the same position as when the breaker is in the ―closed‖ position. This failure mode means you have no circuit protection. extending the linkage and forcing the components into the same positions as shown in Fig. nuisance tripping isn't the worst failure mode. if the breaker close button is pressed. The prop and cam reset to their original position. which allows a gap between the trip latch and the secondary latch. the closing springs will accelerate the contacts closed. the cam (3) has to be rotated slightly counter-clockwise until the prop (2) is lifted up. Grease absent." Yet. the breaker maintenance program consists of "replace when nuisance tripping becomes intolerable. This position is the condition of the mechanism just before closing. The cam and prop will rotate. Broken Breakers In many facilities. Among the causes:   Dust accumulation.Figure 4 shows the mechanism in the ―reset‖ position. allowing the main roller (5) and linkage (green) to slip into the crook of the prop. By doing this. the linkage is slightly extended. hardened. and the secondary latch (14) engages the front of the frame. all of which can be addressed in a way that nearly guarantees this mode will not occur. To put the mechanism in this position. or contaminated.

If you look at that list. The process of verifying if a breaker is good consists of many tasks." That method merely proves the breaker can be opened — it does not prove that the breaker will automatically open or will do so at the correct setting. How can you tell if a breaker is good or not? What you don't want to do is "test by tripping. which is a visual and mechanical inspection. verify that this breaker is deenergized. You can't prevent them. Cleaning mechanical components. Apply only in the amounts and locations specified. Doing this with loads on the breaker is extremely unsafe once you get beyond the small branch circuit breakers. remove the loads by opening all downstream breakers (using lockout/tagout). Lubricating mechanical components. order replacements. Now. and other signs of mechanical damage. That includes such things as:     Inspect breaker cubicle for signs of arcing or flash. Your maintenance procedure for circuit breakers should begin with inspection. Mixing incompatible greases can easily destroy a $2. Using your DMM.   Fatigue of metal parts. Visually examine conductors for discoloration and signs of insulation damage. These are typically mentioned together. Look for signs of insect or rodent invasion in the surrounding panel. follow the manufacturer's guidelines for:    Testing and inspecting mechanical linkages and other components. Use the specified lubricant. The main issue here is to prevent actually spreading grime via improper cleaning. The first task is to remove the loads and take it out of service. Look for any broken parts. In addition.g." 9 . Before opening a breaker. a bolt on the floor).500 breaker. Now you're ready for the next step. loose hardware (e. Note any issues. you can see these are essentially "time in service" issues. and grounding. The industry jargon for these is "check anchorage.. Dashpot leaked. Don't try to fix these. alignment. not whatever's handy. but you can correct them via "fix or replace. Trip linkage is broken or out of adjustment. Previously. we'll look at three more such items. we addressed some items you should include in your breaker maintenance procedures.

This test procedure involves operating the breaker multiple times to ensure the secondary connectors properly engage.  When the breaker maintenance procedure says "inspect contacts. Ideally. Typically. Why? Because with properly aligned contacts. Breaker contacts should look fairly new even after years of service. Because this metal coating is not part of the original design. But consult the breaker manual before reconditioning. Grounding. To maximize reliability. replace the contacts. there should be a specification on how thick the resultant contact must be. Check all fastening points. At a minimum. contact surfaces aren't perfectly smooth. test the bonding connections with an AC lowohm meter. If the breaker operated under load. not grounded (see NEC Art.What do these really mean?   Anchorage. the only time severe damage should occur is when the breaker operates under load. The actual testing doesn't take long." do more than just verify their presence. If you can't make that spec. a breaker mounts to its enclosure (or draw-out rack) via several bolts. make slow strokes with the brush so you aren’t creating any clouds of metal particles. and over time the surfaces will become pitted. Make sure you take photographs before and after filing. If the material still won't come off. visually inspect. Before manually operating a breaker. 100 definitions). Alignment. Before examining the breaker contacts. then there's a good chance you'll see "welding slag" on the bottom or walls of the enclosure. Breakers in your facility are bonded. 10 . Use a soft-bristled brush and vacuum. make a note to clean the enclosure during the next outage rather than use volatile solvents when the surrounding switchgear is energized. The metallic particles may not be readily visible. inspect the breaker cubicle. but setting it up could take considerable time due to load disconnecting requirements and necessary safety procedures. and you don't get 100% contact between all surface points on the respective contacts. you will open a breaker only when there's no current flow across its contacts. so shine a light at various angles to help spot these. Some arcing will occur. Of course. methodically shut down all connected loads. it needs to be removed after sufficient lockout/tagout. You can typically recondition (by filing or sanding) the contact faces.

the resulting compound may be extremely abrasive.Sometimes. If you mix incompatible greases.g. Adjust per the manufacturer's recommendations. Bolted bus connections. and apply only the recommended amount of lubricant. Lubrication.  11 . installing any new hardware (e.. Use only the lubricant recommended by the manufacturer. lockwashers) possible. Common breaker maintenance mistakes include:   Dimensional adjustments (e. conduct conductivity measurements across the connections using an AC resistance meter (and infrared inspection prior to breaker maintenance) to identify which connections need corrections. Retightening these "just in case they are loose" weakens them. it would be more accurate to call breaker maintenance "breaker breaking" because of the way it gets done. contact wipe). but only if they need to be adjusted. and then tighten to the recommended torque. Always clean before lubricating. Instead.g. Disassemble and clean..

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