Part of a series on
Regulation of Electrical Installations
Circuit Breakers and Devices
Wiring by Region or Country
In an electric power system, a switchgear is the combination of electrical disconnect switches, fuses or circuit breakers used to control, protect and isolate electrical equipment. Switchgears are used both to de-energize equipment to allow work to be done and to clear faults downstream. This type of equipment is directly linked to the reliability of the electricity supply.
The very earliest central power stations used simple open knife switches, mounted on insulating panels of marble or asbestos. Power levels and voltages rapidly escalated, making opening manually operated switches too dangerous for anything other than isolation of a de-energized circuit. Oil-filled equipment allowed arc energy to be contained and safely controlled. By the early 20th century, a switchgear line-up would be a metal-enclosed structure with electrically operated switching elements, using oil circuit breakers. Today, oil-filled equipment has largely been replaced by air-blast, vacuum, or SF6 equipment, allowing large currents and power levels to be safely controlled by automatic equipment incorporating digital controls, protection, metering and communications.
The high-voltage switchgear was invented at the end of the 19th century for operating motors and other electric machines. The technology has been improved over time and can now be used with voltages up to 1,100 kV.
Typically, switchgears in substations are located on both the high-voltage and low-voltage side of large power transformers. The switchgear on the low-voltage side of the transformers may be located in a building, with medium-voltage circuit breakers for distribution circuits, along with metering, control, and protection equipment. For industrial applications, a transformer and switchgear line-up may be combined in one housing, called a unitized substation or USS.
Switchgears are as old as electricity generation. The first models were very primitive: all components were simply fixed to a wall. Later they were mounted on wooden panels. For reasons of fire protection, the wood was replaced by slate or marble. This led to a further improvement, because the switching and measuring devices could be attached to the front, while the wiring was on the back.
Switchgears for low voltages may be entirely enclosed within a building. For transmission levels of voltage (high voltages over 66 kV), switchgears are often mounted outdoors and insulated by air, although this requires a large amount of space. Gas insulated switchgears used for transmission-level voltages save space compared with air-insulated equipment, although the equipment cost is higher. Oil insulated switchgears present an oil spill hazard.
At small substations, switches may be manually operated, but at important switching stations on the transmission network all devices have motor operators to allow for remote control.
A switchgear may be a simple open-air isolator switch or it may be insulated by some other substance. An effective although more costly form of switchgear is the gas insulated switchgear (GIS), where the conductors and contacts are insulated by pressurized sulfur hexafluoride gas (SF6). Other common types are oil or vacuum insulated switchgear.
The combination of equipment within the switchgear enclosure allows them to interrupt fault currents of thousands of amps. A circuit breaker (within a switchgear enclosure) is the primary component that interrupts fault currents. The quenching of the arc when the circuit breaker pulls apart the contacts open (disconnects the circuit) requires careful design. Circuit breakers fall into these five types:
Oil circuit breakers rely upon vaporization of some of the oil to blast a jet of oil along the path of the arc. The vapor released by the arcing consists hydrogen gas.
Air circuit breakers may use compressed air (puff) or the magnetic force of the arc itself to elongate the arc. As the length of the sustainable arc is dependent on the available voltage, the elongated arc will eventually exhaust itself. Alternatively, the contacts are rapidly swung into a small sealed chamber, the escaping of the displaced air thus blowing out the arc.
Circuit breakers are usually able to terminate all current flow very quickly: typically between 30 ms and 150 ms depending upon the age and construction of the device.