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Feature Switches & Relays

When only a DC style switch will do I

Jeremy Lester, Technical Director at Switchtec uncovers the popularity of DC switches and their suitability for use in photovoltaics applications

n recent times we have seen a number of disasters around the world. Under such extreme condi- tions, things can happen that in the general scheme of things just would not ‘normally’ happen. For example whole houses getting swept away by floodwater or tsunamis. Terrible though these (often natural) disasters are, they inevitably provoke designers to think again about tech- nologies and designs that previously they believed to be 'good enough' for purpose. Whilst the designer cannot legislate for every eventuality, it is a trade off; a careful balance between that which is considered normal use or endurance, against the cost and likeli- hood of an extreme situation occurring. In the world of photovoltaic switch- ing we have a potentially similar situa- tion. Once seen mostly as an interesting and relatively expensive curiosity, photovoltaic arrays are gain- ing rapid acceptance as renewable energy sources - particularly in domes- tic applications.

Analysts predict that by 2013, the global market for photovoltaic produc- tion plants will increase by around 80 percent relative to the 2008 level that was then worth some USD 5 billion- and this is despite that year's financial crash that caused the photovoltaic market to stagnate. Together with continual improve- ments in process technology, sustained growth in manufacturing investment continues to drive down production costs to help solar power move towards the ‘holy grail’ of price parity with other electricity generating methods. A typical PV array is configured thus. In simple terms, the PV array is

Figure 2:

A DC style switch that disconnects the DC side of the inverter used in photovoltaics

hence back into the mains) by an AC switch (see figure 2). So, within that scheme we have a DC switch being used to switch DC, and an AC switch that is switching AC, both as it should be. Mechanically, AC switches are not dissimilar in operation to a large relay, whereas a DC switch has a totally dif- ferent mechanism, a so called knife mechanism where spring assistance is used to definitively and rapidly part the contacts to avoid the arching effect when breaking a large DC current. AC switches do not have this type of design, so arching when breaking DC is possible. However, there are now switches available on the market, for the purpose of switching this DC cur- rent in a photovoltaic application that are based on AC switch designs. They are tested to achieve the required DC rating, but under extreme conditions, it is clearly much better to have a dedicated DC switch that is inherently better at breaking large DC currents, and remove the risk of bad arching within the switch and any (possibly unseen) resultant damage. Although one would not expect someone to be so foolish as to try it, it is also possible for some AC isolators to be made to physically sit in a mid position point.

Figure 2: Typical connection of a PV array

Combine that with the arching issue and it can be seen that this is not a desirable feature of, or a particularly suitable application for the AC style of switch. As mentioned, the DC switch operates with a powerful spring assisted knife action, making it either on or off, and virtually impossible to set half way.

connected to an inverter via a DC isola- tion switch. The output of the inverter is connected to the main fuse box (and

Switchtec Enter 222

Space-saving control panel switches A

new range of space-saving industrial switches has been developed by EAO that are suitable for high-tech operator controls. The new Series 51 switches are designed to occupy less space behind the panel. The switches measure 34mm including the contact block. The devices allow more contact blocks to be stacked in the same space and more room for additional system components. This is advantageous in flat-panel touchscreen interfaces, wireless remote controls, handheld pendant controls, or any piece of equipment where behind-panel space is restricted.

The range is made up of illuminated pushbuttons, indicators, selector switches and key switches in a choice of sizes, shapes and materials manufactured in hard-wearing plastic and aluminium. Many different lens and bezel colour combinations are possible to create attractive, functional controls. EAO


The flip-flop DC design operates at a constant - and fast - speed as a result of the strong, spring assisted mechanism. It therefore begs the question, why use an AC style switch for this application? The issue is that the 'proper' DC switch, compared to an AC design that has been 'DC tested', is more expensive. The DC switch has a higher-level of engineering, and the spring mecha- nism obviously requires the manufac- ture and assembly of more component parts into the final product. But what is the cost of ultimate safety and peace of mind - especially in a domestic setting or application?

Enter 223

An unforeseen natural hazard could result in an extreme overload situation that only the DC design of switch could cope with, avoiding massive damage and interruption to supplies, fire, and worse still, the possibility of injury or even worse to personnel.

MARCH 2012 Electronics

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