A relay is an electrically operated switch. Many relays use an electromagnet to operate a switching mechanism mechanically, but other operating principles are also used. Relays are used where it is necessary to control a circuit by a low-power signal (with complete electrical isolation between control and controlled circuits), or where several circuits must be controlled by one signal. The first relays were used in long distance telegraph circuits, repeating the signal coming in from one circuit and re-transmitting it to another. Relays were used extensively in telephone exchanges and early computers to perform logical operations.
A type of relay that can handle the high power required to directly control an electric motor is called a contactor. Solid-state relays control power circuits with no moving parts, instead using a semiconductor device to perform switching. Relays with calibrated operating characteristics and sometimes multiple operating coils are used to protect electrical circuits from overload or faults; in modern electric power systems these functions are performed by digital instruments still called "protective relays".
A simple electromagnetic relay consists of a coil of wire surrounding a soft iron core, an iron yoke which provides a low reluctance path for magnetic flux, a movable iron armature, and one or more sets of contacts (there are two in the relay pictured). The armature is hinged to the yoke and mechanically linked to one or more sets of moving contacts. It is held in place by a spring so that when the relay is de-energized there is an air gap in the magnetic circuit. In this condition, one of the two sets of contacts in the relay pictured is closed, and the other set is open. Other relays may have more or fewer sets of contacts depending on their function. The relay in the picture also has a wire connecting the armature to the yoke. This ensures continuity of the circuit between the moving contacts on the armature, and the circuit track on the printed circuit board (PCB) via the yoke, which is soldered to the PCB.
When an electric current is passed through the coil it generates a magnetic field that attracts the armature, and the consequent movement of the movable contact(s) either makes or breaks (depending upon construction) a connection with a fixed contact. If the set of contacts was closed when the relay was de-energized, then the movement opens the contacts and breaks the connection, and vice versa if the contacts were open. When the current to the coil is switched off, the armature is returned by a force, approximately half as strong as the magnetic force, to its relaxed position. Usually this force is provided by a spring, but gravity is also used commonly in industrial motor starters. Most relays are manufactured to operate quickly. In a low-voltage application this reduces noise; in a high voltage or current application it reduces arcing.
When the coil is energized with direct current, a diode is often placed across the coil to dissipate the energy from the collapsing magnetic field at deactivation, which would otherwise generate a voltage spike dangerous to semiconductor circuit components. Some automotive relays include a diode inside the relay case. Alternatively, a contact protection network consisting of a capacitor and resistor in series (snubber circuit) may absorb the surge. If the coil is designed to be energized with alternating current (AC), a small copper "shading ring" can be crimped to the end of the solenoid, creating a small out-of-phase current which increases the minimum pull on the armature during the AC cycle.
A solid-state relay uses a thyristor or other solid-state switching device, activated by the control signal, to switch the controlled load, instead of a solenoid. An optocoupler (a light-emitting diode (LED) coupled with a photo transistor) can be used to isolate control and controlled circuits.
A latching relay has two relaxed states (bistable). These are also called "impulse", "keep", or "stay" relays. When the current is switched off, the relay remains in its last state. This is achieved with a solenoid operating a ratchet and cam mechanism, or by having two opposing coils with an over-center spring or permanent magnet to hold the armature and contacts in position while the coil is relaxed, or with a remanent core. In the ratchet and cam example, the first pulse to the coil turns the relay on and the second pulse turns it off. In the two coil example, a pulse to one coil turns the relay on and a pulse to the opposite coil turns the relay off. This type of relay has the advantage that one coil consumes power only for an instant, while it is being switched, and the relay contacts retain this setting across a power outage. A remanent core latching relay requires a current pulse of opposite polarity to make it change state.
A reed relay is a reed switch enclosed in a solenoid. The switch has a set of contacts inside an evacuated or inert gas-filled glass tube which protects the contacts against atmospheric corrosion; the contacts are made of magnetic material that makes them move under the influence of the field of the enclosing solenoid. Reed relays can switch faster than larger relays, require only little power from the control circuit, but have low switching current and voltage ratings. In addition, the reeds can become magnetized over time, which makes them stick 'on' even when no current is present.
A mercury-wetted reed relay is a form of reed relay in which the contacts are wetted with mercury. Such relays are used to switch low-voltage signals (one volt or less) where the mercury reduces the contact resistance and associated voltage drop, for low-current signals where surface contamination may make for a poor contact, or for high-speed applications where the mercury eliminates contact bounce. Mercury wetted relays are position-sensitive and must be mounted vertically to work properly. Because of the toxicity and expense of liquid mercury, these relays are now rarely used. See also mercury switch.
A polarized relay placed the armature between the poles of a permanent magnet to increase sensitivity. Polarized relays were used in middle 20th Century telephone exchanges to detect faint pulses and correct telegraphic distortion. The poles were on screws, so a technician could first adjust them for maximum sensitivity and then apply a bias spring to set the critical current that would operate the relay.
Machine tool relay
A machine tool relay is a type standardized for industrial control of machine tools, transfer machines, and other sequential control. They are characterized by a large number of contacts (sometimes extendable in the field) which are easily converted from normally-open to normally-closed status, easily replaceable coils, and a form factor that allows compactly installing many relays in a control panel. Although such relays once were the backbone of automation in such industries as automobile assembly, the programmable logic controller (PLC) mostly displaced the machine tool relay from sequential control applications.
A contactor is a very heavy-duty relay used for switching electric motors and lighting loads, although contactors are not generally called relays. Continuous current ratings for common contactors range from 10 amps to several hundred amps. High-current contacts are made with alloys containing silver. The unavoidable arcing causes the contacts to oxidize; however, silver oxide is still a good conductor. Such devices are often used for motor starters. A motor starter is a contactor with overload protection devices attached. The overload sensing devices are a form of heat operated relay where a coil heats a bi-metal strip, or where a solder pot melts, releasing a spring to operate auxiliary contacts. These auxiliary contacts are in series with the coil. If the overload senses excess current in the load, the coil is de-energized. Contactor relays can be extremely loud to operate, making them unfit for use where noise is a chief concern.
A solid state relay (SSR) is a solid state electronic component that provides a similar function to an electromechanical relay but does not have any moving components, increasing long-term reliability. With early SSR's, the tradeoff came from the fact that every transistor has a small voltage drop across it. This voltage drop limited the amount of current a given SSR could handle. The minimum voltage drop for such a relay is equal to the voltage drop across one transistor (~0.6-2.0 volts), and is a function of the material used to make the transistor (typically silicon). As transistors improved, higher current SSR's, able to handle 100 to 1,200 Amperes, have become commercially available. Compared to electromagnetic relays, they may be falsely triggered by transients.
Solid state contactor relay
A solid state contactor is a heavy-duty solid state relay, including the necessary heat sink, used for switching electric heaters, small electric motors and lighting loads; where frequent on/off cycles are required. There are no moving parts to wear out and there is no contact bounce due to vibration. They are activated by AC control signals or DC control signals from Programmable logic controller (PLCs), PCs, Transistor-transistor logic (TTL) sources, or other microprocessor and microcontroller controls.
A Buchholz relay is a safety device sensing the accumulation of gas in large oil-filled transformers, which will alarm on slow accumulation of gas or shut down the transformer if gas is produced rapidly in the transformer oil.
Forced-guided contacts relay
A forced-guided contacts relay has relay contacts that are mechanically linked together, so that when the relay coil is energized or de-energized, all of the linked contacts move together. If one set of contacts in the relay becomes immobilized, no other contact of the same relay will be able to move. The function of forced-guided contacts is to enable the safety circuit to check the status of the relay. Forced-guided contacts are also known as "positive-guided contacts", "captive contacts", "locked contacts", or "safety relays".
Overload protection relay
Electric motors need overcurrent protection to prevent damage from over-loading the motor, or to protect against short circuits in connecting cables or internal faults in the motor windings. One type of electric motor overload protection relay is operated by a heating element in series with the electric motor. The heat generated by the motor current heats a bimetallic strip or melts solder, releasing a spring to operate contacts. Where the overload relay is exposed to the same environment as the motor, a useful though crude compensation for motor ambient temperature is provided.
Pole and throw
Since relays are switches, the terminology applied to switches is also applied to relays. A relay will switch one or more poles, each of whose contacts can be thrown by energizing the coil in one of three ways:
Normally-open (NO) contacts connect the circuit when the relay is activated; the circuit is disconnected when the relay is inactive. It is also called a Form A contact or "make" contact. NO contacts can also be distinguished as "early-make" or NOEM, which means that the contacts will close before the button or switch is fully engaged.
The following designations are commonly encountered:
SPST – Single Pole Single Throw. These have two terminals which can be connected or disconnected. Including two for the coil, such a relay has four terminals in total. It is ambiguous whether the pole is normally open or normally closed. The terminology "SPNO" and "SPNC" is sometimes used to resolve the ambiguity.
The "S" or "D" may be replaced with a number, indicating multiple switches connected to a single actuator. For example 4PDT indicates a four pole double throw relay (with 14 terminals).
EN 50005 are among applicable standards for relay terminal numbering; a typical EN 50005-compliant SPDT relay's terminals would be numbered 11, 12, 14, A1 and A2 for the C, NC, NO, and coil connections, respectively.
Relays are used to and for:
Control a high-voltage circuit with a low-voltage signal, as in some types of modems or audio amplifiers,
A DPDT AC coil relay with "ice cube" packaging
Isolate the controlling circuit from the controlled circuit when the two are at different potentials, for example when controlling a mains-powered device from a low-voltage switch. The latter is often applied to control office lighting as the low voltage wires are easily installed in partitions, which may be often moved as needs change. They may also be controlled by room occupancy detectors in an effort to conserve energy,
Selection of an appropriate relay for a particular application requires evaluation of many different factors:
Number and type of contacts – normally open, normally closed, (double-throw)
For protection of electrical apparatus and transmission lines, electromechanical relays with accurate operating characteristics were used to detect overload, short-circuits, and other faults. While many such relays remain in use, digital devices now provide equivalent protective functions.
Railway signalling relays are very big and cumbersome compared to the mostly small voltages (less than 120 V) and currents (perhaps 100 mA) that they switch. Contacts are widely spaced to prevent dangerous flashovers and short circuits over a lifetime that may exceed fifty years. BR930 series plug-in relays are widely used on railways following British practice. These are 120 mm high, 180 mm deep and 56 mm wide and weigh about 1400 g, and can have up to 16 separate contacts, say 12 make and 4 break contacts.
Since rail signal circuits must be highly reliable, special techniques are used to detect and prevent failures in the relay system. To protect against false feeds, double switching relay contacts are often used on both the positive and negative side of a circuit, so that two false feeds are needed to cause a false signal. Not all relay circuits can be proved so there is reliance on construction features such as carbon to silver contacts to resist lightning induced contact welding and to provide AC immunity.
Opto-isolators are also used in some instances with railway signalling, especially where only a single contact is to be switched.
^ Mason, C. R., Art & Science of Protective Relaying, Chapter 2, GE Consumer & Electrical [dead link]