Electrical system reliability
When designing electrical distribution systems, required maintenance and testing of the overcurrent protective devices is a very important consideration.
The electrical system reliability, component and circuit protection, and overall safety are directly related to the reliability and performance of the overcurrent protective device and can depend upon whether the required testing and maintenance are performed as prescribed for the overcurrent protective device utilized.
Many engineers and owners view molded case circuit breaker systems as “easy”…just install it, reset the devices if needed and walk away. However, periodic testing and maintenance of circuit breakers is extremely important to the system reliability and protection.
NFPA 70B – Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance indicates that testing and maintenance of molded case circuit breakers should be completed every 6 months to 3 years, depending upon the conditions of use.
This includes typical maintenance such as:
- Tightening of connections,
- Checking for signs of overheating, and
- Checking for any structural defects or cracks.
This includes removing the circuit breaker and verifying the protection and operation for overloads (typically 300%) with the manufacturer’s overcurrent trip data. Additional molded case circuit breaker (MCCB) testing of insulation resistance, individual pole resistance, rated hold-in, and instantaneous operation are recommended by NEMA and may require special testing equipment.
It is important to realize that if a deficiency is discovered during testing and maintenance, the only solution is to replace a molded case circuit breaker because adjustments or repairs cannot be made to this type of device.
In addition, replacement is typically recommended after the molded case circuit breaker has interrupted a short-circuit current near its marked interrupted rating. This process results in additional expenses and may involve delays in finding a replacement device.
Per NFPA 70B, testing and maintenance of low-voltage power circuit breakers is even more expansive and can be required after tripping on an overcurrent condition. It is important to realize that the maintenance and testing of these devices can only be completed by a qualified person.
Often special testing companies are used for this purpose or the device must be sent back to the manufacturer, requiring spare devices during this period.
The question is, how often is this completed?
In commercial installations, the answer is probably never. This lack of maintenance and testing can adversely affect the reliability and protection capabilities during overcurrent conditions in the electrical distribution system.
NFPA 70B recommends checking fuse continuity during scheduled maintenance, but testing to assure proper operation and protection against overcurrent conditions is not required.
Fusible switches and fuse blocks require maintenance, such as tightening of connections and checking for signs of overheating as recommended per NFPA 70B.
Resetting Overcurrent Protective Devices
As mentioned previously, circuit breakers are sometimes selected over fuses because circuit breakers can be reset where fuses have to be replaced. The most time consuming activity that results from the operation of the overcurrent protective device is typically investigating the cause of the overcurrent condition.
Thus, having a device that can be easily reset, such as a circuit breaker, possibly into a fault condition, could be a safety hazard and a violation of OSHA regulations.
Because a fuse requires replacement by a qualified person, it is less likely to violate OSHA. Also, when an opened fuse is replaced with a new fuse in the circuit, the circuit is protected by a new factory calibrated device.
Generally, overload conditions occur on branch-circuit devices. Typically this is on lighting and appliance circuits feed from circuit breaker panelboards, where resetting of circuit breakers may be possible. Motor circuits also are subject to overload considerations.
However, typically the device that operates is the overload relay, which can be easily reset after an overload situation. The motor branch-circuit device (fuse or circuit breaker) operates, as indicated in NEC® 430.52, for protection of short-circuits and ground-fault conditions. Thus, if this device opens, it should not be reset or replaced without investigating the circuit since it most likely was a short-circuit condition.
Overcurrent conditions in feeders and mains are typically the result of short-circuits and are infrequent. Because they are most likely short-circuits, the circuit should be investigated first before resetting or replacing as well.
Also, if a feeder or main is protected by a circuit breaker that has opened, the circuit breaker should be examined and tested to be sure it is suitable to be placed back in service.
Reference // Electrical Plan Review – Overcurrent Protection and Devices, Short-Circuit Calculations, Component Protection, Selective Coordination, and Other Considerations – COPPER BUSSMANN