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 has its own internal blogosphere that especially hums away when something unusual happens, like when one of the Engineers or Engineering Technician discovers something important or rare or both with the electrical equipment they are working on. Here is an example of some internal buzz that also proved the
importance of removing the covers from electrical power circuit breakers, whether Square D circuit breakers, Cutler Hammer circuit breakers or GE General Electric circuit breakers. The need is not related to the manufacturer. In this example, the Engineering Technician was reconditioning and testing a 1000 amp Square D circuit breaker. When he removed the cover of the circuit breaker, he was amazed to find the center pole arc chute was gone. Completely missing. Fortunately the arcing and main contacts appeared undamaged. There was some arcing marks on the arcing contacts, but nothing serious. One could do high current tests, contact resistance tests, and insulation resistance tests and never catch this defect. But the first time this breaker tried to interrupt a large fault current, it could have failed, with the resulting arcing causing an eventual phase to phase arcing fault on the line side of a large circuit breaker. This arcing fault might not be large enough to trip the main breaker immediately. If for some reason the panel board was a MLO, main lugs only, the protective device might be the main breaker or fused switch on the line side of an upstream transformer. This is a worst case environment, but it does happen. It is especially dangerous because the arcing fault may last several minutes before the main protective device operates. And more scary is the possibility of someone being injured by the fault. This is an incipient failure. Also an insidious failure. It is another example of the reason to properly recondition replacement power circuit breakers. Testing alone is not enough.
MIDWEST had a call from a purchasing agent for a manufacturing plant. He was suppose to purchase a 1200 amp Cutler Hammer circuit breaker that he was told could handle 65,000 amps. All he knew was, he had a
bunch of numbers and when he asked about one of them he was told it meant the breaker could carry 65,000 amps. He was confused and really stressed because he had no idea what to order, but he knew he was getting some bad information. He wanted to order a Cutler Hammer HND312T33W circuit breaker. He wanted to be sure he was getting the right thing and then just move on. He was very busy and this request was just overwhelming. We explained in basic terms the circuit breaker was rated to handle 1200 amps. Anything more and it would eventually trip. The 65,000 amp rating just meant, if there was a terrible sudden short circuit where 1000s of amps flowed through the breaker for a fraction of a second, the breaker would safely trip and interrupt the current, as long as it was 65,000 amps or less. If it was more than 65,000 amps, the breaker might not interrupt the flow of current. The breaker might fail, with a loud blast. Or worse yet, someone could get seriously injured. It is a little scary how often some folks are given the huge responsibility to located electrical equipment when they have such limited information. Fortunately, MIDWEST specializes in taking care of just such calls. Our switchgear personnel have decades of hands on experience with Cutler Hammer circuit breakers, Square D circuit breakers and many others. They know more than just the numbers. This is so critical when a customer calls and has poor or even wrong information. We want everyone to be safe.
Sometimes MIDWEST runs into switchgear and circuit breakers in such harsh environments that you would wonder how they don’t blow up, much less work properly. An example is some switchgear and old circuit breakers found in foundry environments. The condition of electrical equipment in foundries is 100 times better than 25 years ago. But there is still one thing that has not changed for some foundries and that is sand in electrical switchgear. Some foundries still have their main panel boards and some switchgear in open foundry areas, rather than in clean positive pressure rooms.
We recently were called in to repair a 2000 amp circuit breaker used in an open foundry environment. It turned out the old circuit breaker was not a breaker at all, but rather was a 2000 amp bolted pressure switch. The electrical switchboard had over 6 inches of sand in the bottom and 3 or 4 inches on top. The main horizontal bus feeding the risers for the circuit breakers, was partially buried in foundry sand. The service technicians said they actually scooped the sand out before even trying to use vacuum equipment. Fortunately the sand didn’t carry anything with it that acted as a conductor. This isn’t always true. In this case, the sand was just more insulation.
Maintaining the bolt lock switch and the circuit breakers was a nasty job. The covers had to be removed from every breaker to clean the operating mechanism and to get the sand out of the contact and arc chute area. And all our efforts were only temporary since the environment was unchanged. More serious was the fact that foundry dust would be inside the over current trip devices of the circuit breakers. Therefore the operation of the trip devices was unreliable, even unsafe. It wouldn’t make any difference whether these old circuit breakers were Square D, Westinghouse, GE General Electric or Cutler Hammer. Foundry dust and sand doesn’t care who the manufacture is. Even a brand new circuit breaker would be a victim to the sand.
The illusion was the circuit breakers were okay because they didn’t trip. It was only when the owner tried and failed to operate the main switch did they realize that maybe the panel board and breakers needed some attention. This was not the first, nor will it be the last, switchgear, panel board, or circuit breakers that we find basically buried in sand.