When discussing circuit breakers, we like to have good images to show the difference between the main contacts and the arcing contacts. When a circuit breaker opens, the main contacts should open partially first before the arcing contacts start to open. There should be no arcing damage to the main contacts because the arc interruption takes place between the arcing contacts. This protects the current carrying surfaces of the main contacts so there is minimum contact resistance at the main contacts. Good contact surface means no overheating. For the same reason, when the circuit breaker closes, the arcing contacts close first, suffering any arcing damage. After the arcing contacts are closed, the main contacts close. All this keeps the main contacts in good condition. The arcing contacts are enclosed in something called an arc chute that extends and separates the arc until it is extinguished when the circuit breaker opens. When the arc chutes are contaminated with dirt or high humidity or interrupt very high loads or fault currents, the arc chutes take a beating. Whether you’re talking about Square D circuit breakers, Cutler Hammer circuit breakers, Siemens, Westinghouse or GE General Electric circuit breakers, molded case circuit breakers, power circuit breakers, or medium voltage air circuit breakers, the function of the arc chutes is the same, take a beating to protect the main breakers. The attached image shows the damage to the stationary and movable arcing contacts and to the arc runner that extends into the arc chutes to extend and divide the arc until it is extinguished. The main contacts, the 16 curved segments across the middle of the image, are in good shape. No arcing damage what so ever. This image is from a medium voltage air circuit breaker.
Sometimes MIDWEST’s Engineering Technicians in our Switchgear Shop like to do what the Engineers call “Play.” The technicians call it serious research. Sometimes their adventures are quite worthwhile, even enlightening. Recently an Engineering Technician dropped a circuit breaker test form on an Engineer’s desk and said, “Would you take a look at that and tell me if you think it’s okay.” The test results were excellent. The contact resistance, insulation resistance, over current test results, reset tests, all the test results were excellent. So why in the world was the Engineering Technician dropping it on the Engineer’s desk when the test results were so good? The results looked like those for a new circuit breaker. What they had done was test an old Westinghouse circuit breaker that had been practically crushed. The case was broken and the arc chutes damaged. It looked like it had been dropped from 50 feet and hit on one corner. But, oddly enough, against all reason, it operated mechanically and the test results were all good. But, of course, it failed the visual inspection. When the Technician dragged the Engineer to the Switchgear Shop to evaluate the breaker, everyone had a good laugh. This was good fun and the technical evaluation was unanimous, POJ, Piece of Junk. One of our favorite highly technical terms. In this case it was very obvious. But frequently we find defects in used circuit breakers and in brand new circuit breakers, and other electrical equipment, that would never be revealed by testing alone. That’s why the experience, training and knowledge of the Technicians and Engineers are extremely important. There is no perfect test standard for every POJ.
MIDWEST gets lots of phone calls from folks desperate for a little technical help. Sometimes they know very little about electrical equipment, circuit breakers for example. These are the most difficult calls because the caller may be putting themselves in harms way and not know it. We could tell them what to do, but unqualified people in the electrical power world need to hear “Hire an electrician, call a qualified person, call an electrical contractor.” We might tell them to send us a picture of their circuit breaker and we can help them identify it, but get a qualified person to service or replace it. All too frequently the caller wants someone to tell them it is okay to just turn the breaker back on after it has tripped for no known reason. This can be very dangerous and against the code. For example, a maintenance mechanic called about a Cutler Hammer 450 amp molded case circuit breaker. This was a Cutler Hammer Catalog Number LD3450 circuit breaker. The breaker had tripped and one area of lighting in their plant was off. He was told to “find the problem and turn the breaker back on.” Maintenance mechanics tend to be very resourceful individuals. And that is precisely what makes them dangerous around electrical equipment. They can fix mechanical problems, but most are not qualified around the dangers of electrical problems. In this case he thought the Cutler Hammer breaker was broken because the handle was in the middle and he could not close the breaker. It would have been easy to tell him how to reset the breaker so it would close. He was not overly interested in our requirement to have a qualified person investigate why a 400 amp Cutler Hammer breaker tripped. A lot of power or fault current went somewhere. The recommendation would have been the same for a GE General Electric circuit breaker, or Square D, Siemens, or old Westinghouse circuit breaker. If the trip handle is in the middle, it tripped for a serious reason. A qualified person has to investigate why. You can not just throw the power back on. And if you do not know how to reset a Cutler Hammer Series C industrial circuit breaker, you are not qualified.
This is another blog on MIDWEST’s barrels of junk circuit breakers. More specifically it is about the difficulty of not believing something you can’t see. This human factor can frequently be a challenge in our world when a customer has a perfectly good looking circuit breaker and we tell them it is no good and they need a replacement circuit breaker that will cost $3500.00. They understand the words, but their emotional pocket book says “But it looks okay.” Even after being presented with the test results or pictures of the inside of the breaker that reveal the deficiency or damage, they find it hard to believe what their brain is telling them isn’t true, “Because it looks okay.” In our world of reconditioning circuit breakers and remanufacturing circuit breakers, we frequently scrap out equipment that looks in perfectly good condition. Usually the reason for tossing out, say a Square D NA361200circuit breaker, involves deficiencies that can not
be seen physically, unless you remove the cover or thoroughly test the circuit breaker. Whether a reconditioned GE General Electric, Square D, Cutler Hammer or Siemens circuit breaker, if the inspection or test results say junk, out it goes. And keep in mind, some circuit breakers are not built to be happy if you remove the cover. You need to know what you’re doing. Recently we had an electrical contractor stop to pick up several reconditioned Cutler Hammer circuit breakers. He walked by the barrels labeled “Scrap Breakers” and he looked like he saw a little gold mine. He really didn’t like the idea that all those breakers were actually junk and were being scrapped. The contractor in him told him these breakers were worth a fortune. Even after showing him some of the new looking circuit breakers that had the covers off revealing visible deficiencies, all he could say was a skeptical “Hmmm.” Even we sometimes grunt a little “Hmmm” when we toss out a $3000.00 piece of junk.
A customer called MIDWEST to ask why we did something called a “Reset Test” on his circuit breaker. He said he has had circuit breakers tested by switchgear service companies for nearly 30 years and never ever saw something called a circuit breaker “Reset Test.” He has Square D circuit breakers, Westinghouse circuit breakers, General Electrical circuit breakers and newer Cutler Hammer circuit breakers. He checked some of his old test reports and found no “reset tests.” He had never used MIDWEST before, so he was pretty interested when we explained the reason and procedure for the reset test. The reason was a very pleasant surprise because it gave him greater confidence in the proper performance of his circuit breakers. MIDWEST started using the circuit breaker “reset test” many years ago. It’s not a standard test procedure. You won’t find it in the text books or instruction manuals. You will find it in MIDWEST’s Training Manual under ‘Scars,’ meaning experience. It’s a carry over procedure from testing old dashpot type air circuit breakers and insulated case circuit breakers and molded case circuit breakers. The reason for the test is that occasionally, seldom but occasionally, a circuit breaker will nuisance trip when put back into service after it has been high current tested. For example, a 1600 amp air circuit breaker, after high current testing, might nuisance trip instantly at 500 amps. Basically the over current device failed during the high current testing. This was far more common with older “non electronic” over current devices. New electronic over current devices are more reliable, but not perfect. Strange things happen. We are not talking about the service technician forgetting to put the settings back to the correct positions. We are talking about an actual defective device. The test only takes moments. In the interest of quality control, the reset test addresses the “consequences of failure” as opposed to the “probability of failure.”
Yes, we are paranoid about safety and quality.
If you want to see a good picture of a large circuit breaker that has been damaged by an arc blast, look at the pictures with this blog. The breaker was a Westinghouse PC32000 molded case circuit breaker. It was a 2000 amp circuit breaker that failed to interrupt a fault and blasted the inside of the breaker until it actually blew a hole through the side of the circuit breaker frame. If you look closely, you will see where a MIDWESTswitchgear service technician actually stuck a screwdriver through the hole. The close up picture shows the hole and shows the extensive arcing damage to the moveable arcing and main contacts. The phase barriers, arc chutes, pretty much the whole Westinghouse PC32000 circuit breaker, was arc blasted beyond repair. One picture shows the destroyed circuit breaker next to a MIDWEST inventory stock PC32000 circuit breaker. This is a tough Westinghouse molded case circuit breaker. It wouldn’t make any difference whether the breaker was Square D or GE General Electric. If the breaker contacts begin to open, but fail to interrupt the current, arc damage will quickly occur. If the breaker is trying to interrupt fault current, extensive arc damage occurs very fast and will quickly expand into a phase to phase fault with catastrophic destruction. The arcing fault may explode outside the case of the circuit breaker. This is one of the reasons for wearing protective clothing and following safe work practices when operation circuit breakers. Bad things can happen very fast. Too fast for you to get out of the way. We suggest being paranoid about safety when working around electrical power equipment.