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Why didn’t the Circuit Breaker trip in a Surge Suppressor Strip?

August 12th, 2010 2 comments

MIDWEST received a call for help lately when a client had a dozen surge suppressor strips (with circuit breakers) virtually start on fire.  The interesting thing about this client was that it was a large metropolitan area’s city hall.  The surge suppressor strips were powering the computers that controlled the jail.  The surge suppressor strips had been in place for 10 years without incident.  All of a sudden, on two different floors, a dozen surge suppressor strips overheated.  The strange part is that the circuit breakers inside them did not trip.  Forensic examination  by MIDWEST revealed that the metal oxide varistors inside had overheated, causing the varistors and printed circuit board to burn up;  these were essentially carbonized.  This carbonized material supported arcing, and generated great quantities of heat.  But why didn’t the internal circuit breaker or any building circuit breaker trip when the arcs occurred?

 

First, a circuit breaker is an electromechanical device that interrupts a circuit when a large current flows through it.  But it has to be a large current, like three to ten times rated current, depending on the particular circuit breaker’s curves.  This is the breaker’s trip current; in reality, there are engineering curves and graphs that define a circuit breaker’s exact trip.  For a better description, see “How Circuit Breakers Work” and Wikipedia’s entry on circuit breakers.

 

Why didn’t the circuit breakers trip?  The answer is that if the resistance of the carbon tracking is high enough to limit the current flow to less than the trip current, then the breaker won’t trip.  And the heat just keeps building up inside the strip, resulting in fire.  Thus circuit breakers are not a cure-all; in general, a circuit breaker will trip when presented with a high current short circuit.  But if the fault impedance is current limiting, the circuit breaker gives no protection.  This current limited situation is the cause of most electrical fires and is highly dangerous.  These can be very elusive. 

 

But, one great solution to the problem is offered by MIDWEST’S Infrared Thermography Service.  But that is the subject of another blog.