What is a Relay? Types, Characteristics, Wiring, Advantages
A relay is an electrically operated switch that can be used to control an electrical circuit. It typically consists of an electromagnet that, when activated by an electrical current, attracts a movable contact (or contacts) to close an electrical circuit.
Relays are used in a wide variety of applications, such as controlling the operation of motors, lighting, and other electrical devices, and can be used to amplify electrical signals or to switch high-voltage or high-current circuits with a low-voltage, low-current signal.
Table of Contents
Components of Relay
The components of a relay typically include:
- Coil: The coil is an electromagnet that creates a magnetic field when energized by an electrical current. The coil is typically made of wire wound around a core, such as a bobbin or a core made of a ferromagnetic material.
- Contacts: The contacts are the electrical terminals that control the flow of electricity through the circuit. Contacts can be normally open (NO) or normally closed (NC), or changeover (CO) depending on the design of the relay.
- Armature or Mover: The armature is the part of the relay that is attracted to the coil’s magnetic field and moves the contacts.
- Yoke: The yoke is a metal frame that surrounds the coil and provides a path for the magnetic field.
- Core: The core is part of the coil and acts as a magnetic path.
- Housing: The housing is the outer shell of the relay that protects the internal components.
- Terminal: The terminal is a place where the relay connects to the circuit
- Spring: Spring is used to hold the contacts in a certain position or to return the armature back to its original position
- Diode: Some relays have a diode to protect the coil from high voltage spikes caused when the contacts open.
Some relays may have additional components, such as a mechanism to hold the armature in place, an indicator light, and/or additional protective devices, depending on the relay design and its application.
Types of Relays
There are many different types of relays, each with its own unique characteristics and uses. Some common types of relays include:
- Electromechanical Relays: These are the most common type of relay, and consist of an electromagnet that activates a mechanical switch.
- Solid-State Relays: These relays use a semiconductor switching device, such as a transistor or thyristor, instead of an electromagnet to activate the switch.
- Reed Relays: These are a type of electromechanical relay that use a small glass or plastic tube containing one or more reed switches.
- Mercury-Wetted Relays: These relays use a small amount of mercury to create an electrical connection between the contacts.
- Time-Delay Relays: These relays are used to introduce a timed delay between the input and output signals.
- Latching Relays: These relays can be locked in a particular position, even when power is removed from the relay.
- Overload Relays: These relays are used to protect electrical circuits from damage caused by overloads or short circuits.
- Thermal Relays: These relays are used to protect electrical circuits by monitoring the temperature of the circuit and activating the switch if the temperature exceeds a certain threshold.
- Control Relays: These relays are used to control other devices such as contactors and motor starters.
- Plug-in Relays: These relays are used for easy installation and replacement in control panels and switchgear.
Characteristics of Relay
The characteristics of a relay depend on the specific type of relay and its design, but some common characteristics include:
- Switching Capacity: This refers to the maximum amount of electrical current and voltage that the relay can handle.
- Contact Resistance: This refers to the resistance of the contacts when they are closed. Low contact resistance is desirable for high-current applications.
- Bounce Time: Bounce time refers to the time it takes for the contacts to stabilize after closing or opening. It is important in high-speed switching applications.
- Operating Time: This refers to the time it takes for the relay to activate or deactivate after the coil is energized or de-energized.
- Release Time: This refers to the time it takes for the contacts to open after the coil is de-energized.
- Life Expectancy: This refers to the expected number of operations before the relay fails. It is also known as mechanical or electrical life.
- Insulation Resistance: This refers to the resistance between the coil and the contacts. High insulation resistance is desirable to prevent unwanted electrical discharge.
- Dielectric Strength: This refers to the ability of the relay to withstand high voltage without breaking down.
- Ambient Temperature: This refers to the temperature range within which the relay can operate properly. Some relays are designed to operate in extreme temperatures.
- Shock and Vibration: This refers to the ability of the relay to withstand mechanical shock and vibration without damage. Relays used in industrial or automotive environments typically have to be rated for vibration and shock.
Some relays may have additional characteristics depending on the design and application, and some may have different or more specific specifications based on design.
How to Select a Relay?
When selecting a relay, there are several factors to consider to ensure that the relay is suitable for the intended application:
- Voltage and current rating: The relay should be rated for the voltage and current of the circuit it will be controlling.
- Switching capacity: The relay should be able to handle the load that it will be switching. This includes the current, voltage, and power of the load.
- Contact arrangement: The relay should have the correct number and type of contacts for the circuit it will be controlling, such as normally open (NO), normally closed (NC) or changeover (CO)
- Life expectancy: The relay should have a life expectancy that is suitable for the application. In some cases high-cycle applications, relays with higher mechanical or electrical life would be appropriate.
- Operating time and release time: The relay should have an operating time and release time that is suitable for the application. For example, in high-speed switching applications, relays with short operating times may be required.
- Environment: The relay should be rated for the environmental conditions it will be exposed to, such as temperature, humidity, and vibration.
- Mounting: The relay should be able to be mounted in the appropriate location, for example, on a circuit board or panel.
- Standards: The relay should be compliant with the relevant industry standards such as UL, CSA, VDE, CE, and others.
- Cost: The cost of the relay should be considered within the budget allocated for the project.
- Brand reputation: It is advisable to consider the brand reputation and product warranty when selecting the relay, to ensure good quality and service support.
It’s important to note that the suitability of a relay will depend on the specific application and that careful consideration should be given to all of the factors listed above to ensure that the right relay is selected. Consulting with a vendor or manufacturer’s technical support is also often helpful when making a decision.
Relay wiring involves connecting the various components of a relay, such as the coil, contacts, and terminals, to the appropriate circuit elements. The specific wiring configuration will depend on the type of relay and its intended application.
Here is an example of a wiring diagram for a simple, single-pole single-throw (SPST) relay:
- Connect one end of a wire to the positive terminal of a power source, such as a battery.
- Connect the other end of the wire to the positive terminal of the relay coil.
- Connect one end of a second wire to the negative terminal of the power source.
- Connect the other end of the second wire to the negative terminal of the relay coil.
- Connect one end of a third wire to the common terminal of the relay.
- Connect the other end of the third wire to the load or circuit that you want to control.
- Connect one end of a fourth wire to the normally open (NO) or normally close (NC) terminal of the relay.
- Connect the other end of the fourth wire to the control circuit or switch that will energize the relay coil.
It’s important to note that this is a very basic wiring example and that the relay wiring diagrams can vary widely depending on the type of relay, number of poles and throws, and the specific application. It’s always best to consult the relay manufacturer’s wiring diagram for specific instructions on wiring the relay.
Also, safety should always be considered when working with electrical components and circuits, so proper precautions such as wearing protective gear and following local wiring codes should be taken.
How to Test a Relay?
There are several methods for testing a relay to determine if it is functioning properly. Here are a few basic methods:
- Visual Inspection: A visual inspection of the relay can often reveal any obvious damage or defects, such as broken or burnt contacts.
- Ohmmeter Test: An ohmmeter can be used to test the resistance of the relay coil. With the power off, connect the ohmmeter to the relay terminals and check the reading. A healthy relay should show a low resistance, while an open coil would show infinite resistance.
- Continuity Test: A continuity test can be used to check the continuity of the relay contacts. With the power off, disconnect the relay from the circuit and use a continuity tester or multimeter to test the continuity between the common terminal and the normally open or normally closed terminals.
- Power Test: To test a relay with power on, connect it in the circuit and apply power to the circuit. Check the relay by measuring the voltage across the coil, if the voltage is present and the relay does not engage, then it could be defective.
- Functional Test: To test a relay function, connect it in the circuit and apply power, and then activate the control circuit and check that the relay engages and disconnects as expected.
Advantages of Relay
Relays have several advantages, including:
- Isolation: Relays can electrically isolate the control circuit from the load circuit, which can prevent damage to the control circuit and provide protection for the operator.
- Amplification: Relays can amplify an electrical signal by using a low-power input signal to control a high-power output circuit.
- High-voltage and high-current switching: Relays can switch high-voltage or high-current circuits with a low-voltage, low-current signal, which can increase the safety and reliability of the system.
- Multiple Contact Arrangements: Relays can have multiple contact arrangements, such as normally open (NO), normally closed (NC), and changeover (CO) that allows versatility in the control and switching of circuits.
- Easy to control and interface: Relays are easy to control, and can be controlled by a variety of signals such as electrical, electronic, or even mechanical signals. This makes it easy to interface with a wide range of control devices, such as PLCs, computers, and other electronic devices.
- Remote Control: Relays can be used to control equipment and devices remotely. This is useful in situations where equipment is not easily accessible, or where it is important to prevent electrical interference.
- Safety and protection: Relays can be used to provide protection to the equipment and circuits from overcurrent, overvoltage, short-circuit, and other abnormal conditions.
- Low cost and high reliability: Relays are relatively low-cost components that are highly reliable, making them a popular choice for many applications.
- Long Life: Many relays have a long life expectancy and low failure rate, making them a suitable choice for applications where maintenance is difficult or costly.
- Flexibility: Relays offer a lot of flexibility in the way they can be used, and can be tailored to meet a wide range of application requirements.
Disadvantages of Relay
Relays also have some disadvantages, including:
- Limited switching speed: Compared to other switching devices such as solid-state relays, electromechanical relays tend to have slower switching speeds.
- Wear and Tear: Relays can wear out over time, and eventually will need to be replaced, especially if they are used frequently.
- Noise: Electromechanical relays can produce noise, such as clicking or buzzing, when they operate. This can be an issue in noise-sensitive applications.
- Power Consumption: Some relays consume power when in standby mode and that could lead to an increase in power consumption in some systems.
- Size and weight: Relays can be relatively large and heavy compared to other switching devices, which can make them less suitable for some applications.
- Reliability: Some relays have a relatively low mechanical or electrical life and can become less reliable over time, especially in harsh environments.
- Maintenance: Some relays require regular maintenance, such as cleaning or lubrication, to ensure proper operation.
- Limited Current: Some relays have a limited current and voltage rating, which means they can’t be used in certain types of high-power applications.
- Cost: Some high-performance relays can be relatively expensive, which can be a disadvantage in cost-sensitive applications.
- Compatibility: Some relays may not be compatible with certain types of control signals or devices, which can make it difficult to interface with certain systems.
Applications of Relay
Relays are used in a wide variety of applications, some common examples include:
- Automotive: Relays are used in cars and trucks for a wide range of applications such as lighting, fuel injection, ignition, and power windows.
- Industrial control: Relays are used in industrial control systems for applications such as motor control, process control, and temperature control.
- Telecommunications: Relays are used in telephone exchanges and other telecommunications equipment for switching and routing signals.
- Household appliances: Relays are used in appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners for controlling motors and other components.
- HVAC systems: Relays are used in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems for controlling motors and other electrical devices.
- Computers and electronic devices: Relays are used in computers and other electronic devices for switching and routing signals, and for controlling power to various components.
- Power distribution: Relays are used in power distribution systems for applications such as overcurrent protection and load shedding.
- Medical equipment: Relays are used in medical equipment such as patient monitors, X-ray machines, and other medical imaging devices.
- Safety systems: Relays are used in safety systems such as fire alarms and security systems to control the operation of alarms and other safety devices.
- Robotics: Relays are often used in robotic systems for controlling motors, power, and signals.