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The Weakest Link

Understanding Fuse Design and Application

n any system, the weakest link is frequently the least valuable and the most expendable component. Yet the systems weakest link can
by Paul Hartman Advanced Electrical Testing

also be the most important component. Whether the weakest link is in a game show, where it is a player who is humiliated and voted off the show, saving the others, or whether the weakest link is a sheer pin that breaks before a far more expensive component is damaged, the weakest link can not only save money, it can save lives and there is nothing in any system that is more valuable than the safety of a human life. That said, I dont think any of the components in an electrical system are in danger of being voted out at least not in the near future. Maybe in years to come, but thats another story. This article is about the proper use, and the abuse, of fuses in electrical systems.

Internal Workings of FastActing Fuses


Within the current-carrying, metal element, or link, there is a series of bridges, or narrow points, designed to melt first with the help of amalgamation, the process that reduces the melting point of copper or silver during overload. When these bridges melt, an air gap is created within the element at multiple points where the bridges are located. If these gaps are not sufficient to break the current paths short-circuit overload, an arc will develop over the gap and melt more of the metal. Thus, the gap will widen until it is sufficient enough to break the fuses current path and prevent further arcing, as is illustrated in Figure 1.

Purpose of a Fuse
As the weakest link in an electrical system, the main purpose of the fuse is to prevent or limit overloads and short-circuit damage to more valuable and/or larger components within the system. Since the most valuable component involved in an electrical system is you, or the user, the main purpose of a fuse is to ensure the safety of anyone associated with the system. The fuse not only prevents or limits overloads and short circuits from damaging very expensive equipment but prevents or limits that very expensive equipment from damaging you.

How a Fuse Works


When a short circuit or an overload occurs, the nearest series-connected fuse will produce enough heat to melt the element in the fuse and create an opening in the circuit, which limits the fault damage to other components. The production of this heat is generated by the high currents passing through the resistance of the metal fuse element. If the fuse is rated correctly, this protective sequence will occur safely with little or no external damage to the fuse. Internally, however, the fuse goes through an orchestrated self-destruction.
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arcing across its completely melted element after a fault has occurred. The correct voltage selection must be equal to or greater than the circuit voltage at which the fuse is to be used. A note concerning ac fuses verses dc fuses: They are not necessarily interchangeable. Even though some fuses may work in both applications, a fuse must be clearly identified as being designed for the type of current it is intended to interrupt.

Continuous Current Rating


The key to selecting the correct continuous current is to select a rating that does not exceed the thermal capacities of the conductors it protects. The rating should be slightly greater or equal to the load current of the circuit to which the fuse is applied. A coordination study is one of the best tools for determining the correct rating of a fuse for any given circuit.
Figure 1 a. Fuse element with normal load, b. Fuse element arcing during a fault, c. Arc extinguished with gaps in the fuse element

Interrupting Capacity Rating (IR rms)


The interrupting capacity of a fuse is the maximum amount of short-circuit current a particular fuse can interrupt safely without external damage and possible fuse detonation. Listed below are the maximum IR ratings for the different classes of fuses. Class H Class G Class K Class J, L, R, T, CC 10,000 amperes 100,000 amperes 200,000 amperes 200,000 amperes

Also residing in the internal portion of the fuse is the filler which surrounds the element and is usually composed of quartz, silica sand, or gypsum. The purpose of this filler is to absorb the heat and energy caused by the overload/short circuit and to help quench any developing arcs. A byproduct of the fillers energy/heat absorption is nonconductive glass which generally forms between the air gaps and helps to insulate the gaps.

Internal Workings of Time-Delay Fuses


The metal element, or link, residing in the internal portion of a time-delay fuse has no bridges and is generally thicker than the element within a fastacting fuse. This metal is comprised of a eutectic alloy that is thermally sensitive and provides at least a ten-second delay at 500 percent overload of the fuse ampere rating. When an overload occurs, the temperature of this element rises until it reaches its melting state. At this point, the eutectic metal element immediately changes from a solid to a liquid state. Gravity will then push the liquid metal away from the contact points and create an air gap.

The available short-circuit current varies throughout an electrical system. The location, or the point of application, of the rated IR fuse must not be less than the short-circuit current at that location.

Selecting the Right Fuse


To select the right fuse for the right application, the user must look at all the characteristics of that fuse to be sure of the correct type. Listed below are the characteristics to look for in a fuse and explanations of these characteristics:

Voltage Rating
The voltage rating of a fuse does not indicate the ampere-carrying capacity of that fuse at its rated voltage. The rating is the capability of the fuse to prevent
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Figure 2 Sign wave analysis of a current limiting fuse clearing a high current fault

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Current-Limiting Rating
A current-limiting fuse is designed to open at one-half cycle or less of its rated peak let-through current. In terms of a sine wave, this fuse will interrupt a short circuit before it reaches the sine waves first peak, as illustrated in Figure 2. Conversely, a noncurrent-limiting fuse does not interrupt a short circuit until approximately two complete sine waves have passed through it. In other words, roughly four short-circuit current peaks will pass through the noncurrentlimiting fuse and onto the circuit before the fuse will open. Because the cost of these current-limiting fuses is much greater than noncurrent-limiting fuses, the use of these fuses is often limited to locations in electrical systems that are capable of producing very high short-circuit fault currents. A short-circuit study will identify

Figure 3 Fuses with keyed slots that fit

areas where current-limiting fuses will be required. Two common locations for these type of fuses is electrical equipment near utility substations and on the load side of power transformers. Physically, if a fuse is labeled current limiting, one of the fuse ends will be physically different and will not be interchangeable with noncurrent-limiting fuse holders. The prevention of this interchangeability is accomplished by using a fuse block that is physically designed to accept only the design characteristics of current-limiting fuses, as illustrated in Figure 3.

UL Sample of Classes of Fuses:


Current-Limiting
CLASS J MAXIMUM VOLTAGE 600 AMPERES 1-600 IR AMPERES 200,000 APPLICATIONS Feeder Circuits, Motor Overcurrent Protection Service Entrance Equipment High-Current Applications Feeder Circuits, Circuit Breaker Backup Protection Transformers, Motors, High-Inductive Loads Branch Service Protection for Motor Circuits

Frequency Rating
Generally, most fuse ratings are unaffected by circuits with frequencies up to 100 hertz. The fuse ratings are, however, affected by frequencies above 100 hertz. The most affected rating is the peak let-through current on currentlimiting fuses. During a short circuit, these fuses are designed to react and open at one-half cycle, or less, of their rated peak letthrough current. Any frequency over 100 hertz is too quick for the fuse to clear in less than one-half cycle. Typically, one or more complete cycles will go by before the fuse reacts. By then, the current-limiting rating of the fuse is defeated.

600

601-6000

200,000

RK1

250/600

1/10-600

200,000

RK5

250/600

1/10-600

200,000

CC

600

1-15

200,000

Noncurrent-Limiting
CLASS K5 MAXIMUM VOLTAGE 600 AMPERES 1-600 IR AMPERES 100,000 APPLICATIONS Switches, Panelboards, Electric Heat Switches and Fusible Equipment

Fast-Acting vs. Time-Delay Ratings


As the nomenclature implies, fast-acting fuses are designed to quickly interrupt overloads in a circuit. Namely, these fuses are designed to interrupt high-current short circuits. As stated earlier,
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600

1-600

10,000

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time-delay fuses delay the interruption of an overload after a designed time delay. This delay is typically set at a minimum of ten seconds at 500 percent overload of the fuse ampere rating.

Summary
Underestimating the importance of the weak links in any system can lead to less- than-desirable results and even personal endangerment. To return to the game-show analogy, we can easily imagine a contestant underestimating the importance of the weakest link among the other players and by doing so actually becoming the weakest link. If this player was on the game show The Weakest Link, he or she would likely hear the infamous, yet humiliating, phrase uttered by the host, Goodbye! This phrase also implies, Goodbye, money!

Both of these phrases directly apply to electrical systems. If you choose to underestimate the importance of fuses and carelessly replace or install these fuses into the wrong type of applications, you may very well hear the words Goodbye, money! when your expensive equipment goes up in smoke. Worse yet, you may end up saying Goodbye! to your life as well.

Paul Hartman has over 16 years experience in start-up, commissioning, maintenance, and training in power generation, including international projects in Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, and Korea. He has been an instructor for state certified continuing education programs as well as an associate instructor with the San Francisco State University program. Paul is currently Vice President of Advanced Electrical Testing. He is a regular contributor to NETA World and a frequent speaker at NETAs Annual Technical Conference.

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