A contractor called MIDWEST for a little free advice. His customer had a 400 amp molded case circuit breaker. This happened to be a 400 amp Westinghouse circuit breaker, but it could just as well have been Square D or General Electric. He was very worried because his customer’s 400 amp circuit breaker was rattling, making a terrible humming and rattling noise. He had never heard this before and didn’t know if the circuit breaker was going to blow up, fall apart or what. He said this was a very old breaker, 1960s. We recommended he measure the load on the feeder cables from the breaker, but to do this very safely. Measure the current at the load end of the feeder, if possible, not at the circuit breaker. It is not totally unusual for an old circuit breaker to rattle and hum away when the load is near or over the rating of the over current device. When the breaker’s internal over current device is picking up because of the load. It depends on the breaker. The noise might be an indication the over current device is picking up and may trip the circuit breaker if the load doesn’t drop down below pickup soon enough. Either way, it may be a good idea to replace the circuit breaker. Sometimes these breakers will nuisance trip at less than the pickup current level. If possible retrofit the old circuit breaker with a newer replacement model. Sometimes the rattling is from the metal arc dividers in the circuit breaker arc chutes. Either way, it is not a noise you want to hear. Check the load. If that is not the problem, change the circuit breaker. Safely.
MIDWEST asked our Switchgear Engineering Technicians for an example of a molded case circuit breaker that had a hidden defect that could only be found by experienced testing. We find many used circuit breakers that have defects that can be found by a close visual inspection. Sometimes the defect may not be obvious but an experienced Engineering Technician knows where to look and would find the problem. In the business of repairing and reconditioning circuit breakers, we find about every possible problem that can occur. Whether we are reconditioning a replacement Westinghouse, General Electric or Siemens circuit breaker, many of the problems are the same. But we also frequently find hidden defects that could only be detected using proper testing.
For this example, let’s just use a replacement Square D PAL362000 circuit breaker. The breaker was reconditioned, which involved removing the cover to thoroughly inspect and maintain the interior of the Square D circuit breaker. The technician was immediately suspicious because he detected the slight smell of an overheated circuit breaker. Once you get that smell in your nose, you never forget it in the future. Even a small whiff tells you there may be a problem. In this case everything visible was in very good condition. There were no signs of overheating at the contacts or the line or load side breaker terminals. But the contact resistance test results indicated very high resistance on the center pole. A DLRO, digital low resistance ohmmeter, was used to locate the problem. The usual location is either the contacts, the bolted connections to the trip device, or the line or load side terminals or lugs. In this case the defect was inside the trip device. And a close sniff of the trip element confirmed it. MIDWEST performed an additional test, a high current test, to determine the voltage drop and therefore the resistance in the trip device on the center pole. Even though this replacement Square D circuit breaker looked just great, the trip device was defect and had to be replaced.
In MIDWEST’s training classes for qualified personnel, there is a segment where we explain the long time delay range within which a Square D 1000 amp circuit breaker should trip due to an overload. This information is received with anything from amazement to skepticism to outright disbelief, even though we show the Square D circuit breaker characteristic trip curve. The overload time delay information is not restricted to Square D circuit breakers. It’s the same with Cutler Hammer, GE General Electric, Siemens, ITE, Westinghouse, Merlin Gerin, or Federal Pacific circuit breakers.
In our training example we use an old Square D 1000 amp MA type circuit breaker. If we tested this circuit breaker at 3000 amps, that’s 300%, the minimum to maximum trip range is about 45 seconds to 340 seconds. It might trip in 45 seconds or it might not trip for 340 seconds. This is an old thermo-magnetic circuit breaker, which typically works by heating a bi-metal in the over current trip device. Many newer breakers use electronic over current devices which have more repeatable overload time delay test results.
The illusion is that these Square D, Cutler Hammer, Westinghouse circuit breakers are designed to directly protect people. They are not. The breakers protect the equipment connected to them and they protect the electrical system. They are designed for the characteristics of the equipment connected, such that connected equipment will not be damaged by an overload or fault. This is a basic limited explanation. So, when you think of molded case circuit breakers, power circuit breakers or air circuit breakers, it’s important to know these breakers don’t just trip right at the breaker trip device rating.
This morning I walked past three drums of old, obsolete, used circuit breakers. All these breakers were going to the scrap heap. Actually they go to a recycling company that crushes them and recycles the metal parts. If someone was to ask what we do with the defective circuit breakers, this would be the answer. These drums contained Square D, Westinghouse, Cutler Hammer, Siemens, GE General Electric circuit breakers and probably many other manufacturers. If a circuit breaker is mechanically or electrically defective, if it doesn’t pass our inspection and testing quality control, it gets tossed into the scrap heap, actually drums.
If you were to look at the breakers in the drums, you would find many that look in perfect condition, some even mint. But, if you tore them apart, you might find the contacts blasted beyond any possible repair. This is found with an internal inspection, contact resistance tests, or by a voltage drop test during over current testing. One might be surprised how many old and even new surplus circuit breakers are rejected based on the visual inspection. And, again, you would be amazed at how many new looking circuit breakers fail one or more of the quality control tests.
No one manufacturer or model, whether Square D, Cutler Hammer or GE General Electric circuit breakers, is exempt just because of the name on the label. And no breaker can be evaluated just based on its appearance. Sometimes a circuit breaker may fail a test and we really have to look hard to find the cause of the defect. Sometimes the defect may not be visible, for example a defective over current trip device.
So you can’t judge the condition of an old or new surplus circuit breaker by its appearance. MIDWEST is always testing new circuit breakers as part of our Acceptance Testing Services on new switchgear, a common practice for hospitals, data processing centers, and mission critical facilities. And we do find deficiencies in brand new circuit breakers. So again, appearances can be deceptive.
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.