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CIRED 18th International Conference on Electricity Distribution Turin, 6-9 June 2005



Scott STRACHAN, Dr. Stephen McARTHUR, William LEGGAT, Angus CAMPBELL

Prof. James McDONALD SP Power Systems - UK
University of Strathclyde - UK

INTRODUCTION contacts. This paper focuses attention on 11kV spring

operated distribution circuit breakers where the trip energy is
A circuit breaker may be considered an ‘active link’, used to stored in a latched spring mechanism [2].
make and break an electrical circuit under conditions of
varying severity. In the event of a circuit fault the circuit Control Unit Trip Coil Current Signature
breaker must respond within tens of milliseconds in order to
prevent damage to connected plant and safeguard personnel. The control or trip unit of the circuit breaker transforms the
As such, a circuit breaker will remain idle for the bulk of its trip signal into the physical operation of the breaker
lifetime, only being called into action periodically to mechanism. The trip coil consists of a conductor wrapped
interrupt load or fault current. This makes the circuit breaker around a movable iron plunger forming an electromagnetic
one of the most safety critical, yet most unpredictable plant actuator. The trip coil becomes energised following the
items on the power network. In addition, circuit breaker mal- initiation of a trip command.
operations account for a significant proportion of Customer
Minutes Lost (CMLs), Customer Interruptions (CIs), plant The trip coil plunger motion can be characterised by the
replacement costs and safety issues. Conflicting regulatory current flowing through the actuating trip coil. The correlation
and economic pressures to improve the performance,
between the breaker operation and condition, and the trip coil
reliability and longevity of these, and other major plant items
current signature suggests the use of the trip coil as a ready-
while reducing maintenance costs have forced many utilities
made non-invasive condition monitoring sensor [3]. The
to reassess their asset management and maintenance
strategies [1]. This has led to significant investment in novel resulting trip coil current signature provides a chronological
condition monitoring technologies, which in turn precipitate record of the operating sequence and timings associated with
the need for new methods of analysing and interpreting new the various breaker components during a trip operation.
forms and increasing volumes of plant data.
The current flowing through the breaker trip coil generates an
This paper centres on a data-driven approach to the analysis electric field affecting a force upon the plunger, moving it
of captured trip coil current signatures to establish the towards the breaker latch mechanism. At the same time, the
operational boundaries characterising circuit breaker motion of the iron plunger induces an e.m.f. in the coil. Figure
condition. Presenting the trip coil signature data in a visually 1 illustrates the operation of the control unit’s trip coil
appreciable format to maintenance experts facilitates the plunger mechanism and its effect on the trip coil current
definition of these thresholds and subsequent condition signature [4].
assessment rules. It is envisaged that a separate diagnostic
knowledge-base will further enhance the current prototype, When the trip command is initiated the coil is energised and
providing maintenance staff with an explanation and the current rises causing a magnetic field to apply a force on
approximate location of any deterioration associated with the iron plunger (Figure 1(a)). When the force on the plunger
breakers undergoing routine trip testing. exceeds that of a retaining force and ‘stiction’ the plunger
begins to move (Figure 1(b) and point A on trip signature).
The paper describes the implementation of a prototype system
The motion of the iron plunger induces an e.m.f. in the coil
for the condition assessment of distribution circuit breakers,
effectively reducing the current flowing through it, as
which has recently become the subject of a pilot study within
SP Power Systems. indicated by the first current peak (Ipk1).

CIRCUIT BREAKER OPERATING MECHANISM As the plunger continues to accelerate through the coil the
AND TRIP COIL SIGNATURE current flowing through the trip coil continues to fall (Figure
1 points B to C), until the plunger eventually strikes the latch
Operating Mechanism mechanism (Figure 1(c)), where a sudden reduction in the
velocity of the plunger occurs resulting in a ‘corner’ in the
Circuit breakers are comprised of a control unit which current signature (Figure 1 point C to D). The combined mass
actuates the movement of the breaker’s operating mechanism, of the plunger and the latch continue to move at a reduced
and which in turn actuates the make or break of the main velocity causing a further reduction in the coil current (Figure


Session No 1
CIRED 18th International Conference on Electricity Distribution Turin, 6-9 June 2005

1 points D to E) until it hits a buffer bringing it to rest (Figure condition assessment and diagnosis [7].
1(d) and point E). With the plunger at rest the current
increases to the maximum rating of the coil (Figure 1 point F). SP Power Systems has approximately 600 MV circuit
Meanwhile, the latch unlocks the spring operating breakers currently in service within their distribution network,
mechanism, opening the main contacts (Figure 1(e)). presenting a substantial maintenance burden. The trip
Typically, after a short delay the auxiliary contacts open, signature recorder shown in Figure 2 was trialed as a
disconnecting the trip coil from the substation d.c. battery supporting technology for the implementation of a condition-
supply (Figure 1 point G). As the coil is de-energised the trip based approach to future circuit breaker maintenance.
coil current decays quickly to zero in accordance with the coil
inductance (Figure 1 point H), causing the plunger to return to
its initial position (Figure 1(f)).

Figure 2 Trip signature recorder connection diagram (taken from [4])

Prior to the use of the portable trip signature recorder it was

common practice to remove the breaker from service before
assessing its condition and readiness to trip. This approach
ignored the conditions affecting the timings associated with
the initial breaker trip required to remove it from service. As
part of ongoing maintenance and asset management
responsibilities, an extensive data gathering exercise was
undertaken to capture trip signatures from the population of
in-service MV circuit breakers.

A lack of trip signature interpretation expertise resulted in the

Figure 1 Control unit and trip coil current signature (taken from [4])
use of a simple heuristic to determine whether a circuit
breaker required maintenance (i.e. IF main contact time ≥
100ms, THEN breaker requires maintenance).
Deterioration in a circuit breaker’s condition may result from
The main contact operating time is of obvious concern to
its inertia [5]. The effects of ‘stiction’ on a breaker having
asset owners and maintenance personnel when assessing the
experienced a long period of inactivity may be removed by performance of a circuit breaker. However, while the 100ms
simply exercising the circuit breaker’s operating mechanism. threshold may be considered a satisfactory disconnection time
However, the underlying problem/s responsible for this slow required to adequately protect a faulted circuit, this is not
operation often remain disguised and subsequently neglected. necessarily indicative of the circuit breaker health. In practice,
operating times vary with the breaker model and
An innovative method of circuit breaker condition monitoring manufacturer, where 100ms may be considered satisfactory
exists in the measurement of its control circuit characteristic for one breaker model but excessive for another faster model.
(i.e. trip coil current signature), and provides a useful insight Therefore applying this simple heuristic may prove
into the operation of the circuit breaker and its condition [6]. misleading. In addition, other aspects of the circuit breaker’s
In addition to its primary function of controlling the breaker operation characterised by its trip signature provide a more
operation, the control circuit trip coil performs a secondary detailed insight into the circuit breaker condition and
role as a non-invasive condition monitoring sensor from developing faults.
which the trip coil current signature from the ‘all-important’
first trip may be recorded and analysed for off-line breaker


Session No 1
CIRED 18th International Conference on Electricity Distribution Turin, 6-9 June 2005

DATA ANALYSIS OF BREAKER TRIP SIGNATURES represented in six-dimensional (i.e. six features) Euclidean
space, however the Sammon map approximates the inherent
With the limited availability of trip signature interpretation data structure transforming it into a more visually appreciable
knowledge or reference trip signatures the research challenge two-dimensional representation [8].
presented here involved the identification and diagnostic
explanation of the various breaker condition states made Figure 4 also shows the outcome from a K-Means clustering
apparent from the analysis of historical trip signature data. algorithm [9] mapped onto the initial Sammon map, where the
The outcomes of this data analysis then formed the basis for different K-Means clusters are represented by points of
the elicitation and implementation of circuit breaker condition different shapes. This mapping enables the K-Means’
assessment thresholds and rules within a standalone prototype perception of trip coil signature similarity to be visualised
system, providing decision support during routine trip testing graphically and illustrates how closely this corresponds to the
and circuit breaker maintenance. clusters observed from the Sammon distribution.

The main tasks of the data analysis and prototype

implementation involved:
• Identification of specific trip signature shapes indicative
of specific breaker conditions using clustering
• Establishing the operational thresholds from the trip
signature characteristics that define the different breaker
conditions identified through data visualisation.
• Elicitation of diagnostic explanations describing the
different breaker conditions identified, and observable
signs of deterioration.
• Implementation of these thresholds and diagnostic Figure 4 Sammon map of trip signature feature vectors
explanations in a working prototype offering decision
support to maintenance staff and asset managers in the While the clustering techniques are used to identify signatures
future prioritisation, repair and maintenance of sharing similar characteristics, it is necessary to identify
distribution circuit breakers. which characteristics make these signatures similar.

Data Preparation A parallel co-ordinate chart provides another means of

mapping n-dimensional space onto two-dimensions, using n
The feature vector used to characterise the trip signature and equidistant and parallel axes. These charts are particularly
discriminate between different aspects of breaker operation useful for visualising and analysing time series data [10].
and condition is illustrated in Figure 3. The temporal features Each axis corresponds to a separate feature of the trip
reflect the condition of the breaker operating mechanism, signature feature vector. Each trip signature feature vector is
then represented as a plotted line traversing the parallel axes.
while the current features provide an indication of the trip coil
The chart illustrated in Figure 5 depicts the operational
condition itself and the integrity of the battery supply.
envelopes corresponding to the clusters identified by the
Sammon mapping and K-Means clustering illustrated in
Figure 4. This envelope provides a more quantitative
description of the cluster, from which the feature thresholds
characterising this cluster may be observed.

Figure 3 Trip coil signature feature extraction

Data Visualisation and Analysis

Figure 5 Parallel coordinate chart of trip signature feature vectors
The Sammon map distribution of feature vectors illustrated in
Figure 4 represents a population of trip coil signatures for one The densely populated envelope illustrated in Figure 5
specific circuit breaker model and manufacturer, offering a corresponds to the largest cluster of Figure 4, and to the peaks
notional indication of the (dis)similarity between trip of separate frequency distributions describing each feature.
signatures and consequently different forms of breaker Based on the population of data observed it is likely that this
behaviour/condition. These feature vectors may be


Session No 1
CIRED 18th International Conference on Electricity Distribution Turin, 6-9 June 2005

envelope (or cluster) represents that of normal circuit breaker Expert judgment is required to set the feature thresholds that
operation. define normal and abnormal breaker behaviour. Traditional
rule-based systems often rely solely on the expertise of
A box plot is another means of plotting groups of domain experts to define the rule thresholds, sometimes with
observations [11], effectively providing a ‘shorthand’ empirical corroboration [5]. However, outcomes from the
representation of a plotted distribution and enabling analysis of existing data, via the process outlined in this
comparisons between several groups of observations. A box paper, support experts tasked with setting these thresholds,
plot is comprised of an upper and lower quartile, an inter- and subsequently improves the reliability and classification
quartile range and a median. The lower quartile is the value performance of the condition assessment and diagnostic rules
below which 25% of observations lie, and the upper quartile finally implemented.
is the value above which 25% of observations lie. The
population median bisects the inter-quartile range which Visualisation and analysis of the trip signature data in the
accounts for 50% of observations and which separates the manner described allows the analyst (typically an experienced
upper and lower quartiles. The box plot provides an maintenance engineer) to accurately identify the timing
indication of the shape and skew of the frequency distribution, thresholds that define the observed envelopes of normal and
and subsequently where across a range of values the most abnormal circuit breaker operation. Assuming the majority of
frequently occurring observations lie. breakers in service operate satisfactorily, the most frequently
observed feature times may be considered typical of normal
An appreciation of the most frequent (typical) operating times operation. Therefore, for each stage (aspect/feature) of the
may be identified from frequency distributions and box plots circuit breaker’s operation the timing thresholds defining
describing each feature. This extends the principle of the normal operation are formed by the upper and lower bounds
parallel co-ordinate chart to present a more quantitative of the region along the frequency distribution exhibiting a
description of the operational envelopes representing different sufficiently high frequency of observations, that it may be
circuit breaker conditions and the temporal thresholds that considered typical of normal operation.
define them. These distributions may be overlaid with
subsequent trip signature feature vectors to visualise where While the definition of “a sufficiently high frequency of
and to what extent these trip signatures deviate from ‘normal’ observations” and the ensuing feature thresholds remain at the
operation (Figure 6). discretion of the expert/analyst, presenting the data in this
graphical format informs this process and provides some
Figure 6 compares the frequency distribution describing the qualitative justification of their judgment.
timings associated with each stage of a particular breaker
model’s operation. The dotted line represents the feature
vector plot of a ‘normal’ trip signature captured from a
particular circuit breaker, where each feature value falls
comfortably within the inter-quartile range of its
corresponding box plot (or region of typical breaker operating
times). The solid line indicates a subsequent trip signature
recorded from the same circuit breaker at a later date. The
Mcon feature shows a significant deviation from the previous
signature, showing an outlying Mcon time in the 4rth quartile.

Figure 7 Timeline describing breaker operation

Figure 6 Box plots and frequency distributions describing breaker operation
The developed prototype provides a ‘traffic light’ condition


Session No 1
CIRED 18th International Conference on Electricity Distribution Turin, 6-9 June 2005

assessment of the breaker’s condition as characterised by its comparisons between monitored trip signatures with stored
trip signature features, where: reference ‘fingerprints’ captured from dedicated bench tests
• RED – suggests immediate maintenance is required. or during circuit breaker commissioning. However, where
• AMBER – suggests signs of deterioration, requiring obsolete or vintage circuit breaker models remain in service
maintenance at the earliest opportunity. and are no longer installed as new, or the availability of
• GREEN – suggests no maintenance action is required experimental resources is limited, the acquisition of such
at present (i.e. until the next planned maintenance). reference data may prove impracticable. In addition,
Subsequent breaker trip signatures can then be represented manufacturer data does not typically extend to the provision
and assessed as a ‘timeline’ of breaker operation and of reference trip coil signatures. The analysis of historical trip
condition as illustrated in Figure 7. The breaker’s operational signature data is presented as an alternative means of defining
timeline indicates its condition at each stage of its operation, suitable operating thresholds capable of discriminating
as defined by the thresholds set by the analyst. In addition, the between normal and abnormal breaker condition.
position of the feature value within the region indicates the
extent of the problem. Figure 7 shows the ‘Start to Latch’ This paper presents a data driven approach to the condition
time of a captured trip signature firmly placed in the middle assessment of distribution circuit breakers, operating on trip
of the Red region and the ‘Buffer to Mcon’ time marginally signature data captured from a population of in-service circuit
entering the ‘Amber’ region, while all other features of the breakers during routine trip testing. This allows analysts and
circuit breaker operation are assessed as normal (i.e. ‘Green’). maintenance experts to identify and establish correlations
between signature shapes and specific breaker conditions.
PROTOTYPE IMPLEMENTATION Furthermore, using appropriate data visualization techniques
the operational features and thresholds characterising these
As described, the developed prototype facilitates the analyst breaker conditions may be defined and implemented in a rule-
in the definition of operational thresholds that characterise based system for future circuit breaker condition assessment.
the condition of different aspects of a particular breaker
model’s operation. These thresholds in turn form the rule REFERENCES
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