Choose enhanced breaker and controller options to build more-competitive panels

Choose enhanced breaker and controller options to build more-competitive panels

Panel builders have many opportunities to incorporate smart, connected devices to make panels more functional and desirable to customers. In this article, we will examine the benefits and applications of 4 potential motor-protection-device configurations.

Your phone is probably always somewhere within easy reach. You may still refer to it as your “phone,” but making calls is only one of the many, many things you use it for. Phone makers and app creators have transformed mobile phones into versatile multi-function marvels that most of us consider indispensable. 

Your panels can’t offer the broad range of features a cell phone can, but they do offer many, many opportunities to incorporate capabilities that will make them far more functional and desirable to customers. You can achieve those advantages by choosing panel components that are smart and connected. 

Every panel design starts with considering the basic requirements and functional specs. The panel needs to do all of the things the end user requires it to do. But panel builders may be missing an opportunity during the design process, and may need to think more broadly about what additional capabilities their panels could provide to end users. 

There are a number of ways to group or classify motor-protection-device configurations. For this article, we’ll look at four: 

  1. Smart, connected circuit breaker with smart, connected motor controllers
  2. Standard circuit breaker with smart, connected motor controller
  3. Smart, connected breaker with standard motor controller
  4. Motor-Protecting Circuit Breaker

Smart and connected components

Many common devices today are “smarter” thanks to embedded sensors that add features and functions, and simplify or automate control. Equally important is that these devices are “connected.” They can interact with one another to enable home automation, and also communicate with you, providing status information or alerts and enabling remote control. 

In the same way digital breakers and motor controllers can be equipped with sensors to detect nearly every operating parameter, keeping you informed about their condition as well as the motors or other downstream assets they protect. Protective devices like molded-case circuit breakers can also be connected in automation and control schemes, and linked to a network to provide users with access anywhere to operational data, equipment status, and health information. 

Sensors are devices that detect or measure a physical property, and they may be included in breakers, meters, and relays. Having built-in sensors reduces the required panel space and cost.  Smart circuit breakers combine many of the needed safety and protection functions in one component, creating smaller, simpler, more reliable panels. Breakers are available that can provide one-percent-accurate power metering as well as monitoring frequency, phase loss, power quality, and harmonics.

Let’s look at the four potential breaker/controller configurations.

1. Smart, connected circuit breaker and smart, connected motor controller  

This option represents the best of both worlds. The circuit breaker protects the whole circuit and is usually rated much higher than the operating power parameters, enabling it to handle high inrush currents. The circuit breaker protects against higher fault values than you might see with a direct short circuit

These smart breakers can take over several functions traditionally performed by external devices like meters and relays, significantly reducing the number of components in the panel. That can mean simpler, smaller, lower-cost panels. 

The motor controller looks downstream through to the motor and is most valuable in critical processes. The controller has some short-circuit capability but can’t quite interrupt a fault; it relies on opening the downstream contactor, which unfortunately means there could be some damage. 

2. Standard circuit breaker with smart, connected motor controller

This option lets you look at voltage, current, and other power parameters with a more finite lens, enabling more-precise motor protection. Built-in trip curves open the circuit when the controller senses any potential issues. The controller can also provide some remote open and close functionality via communication with other devices. Higher-level control is possible via interaction with a PLC programmed with logic to take action.

3. Smart, connected breaker with a standard motor controller

This option is the right choice in applications where remote monitoring is the biggest concern. For remote pumps or other motors, this is an easy and economical way to be alerted to issues like dropping a phase for voltage or abnormally high inrush. The smart, connected breaker gives you a good picture of the overall power circuit.

4. Motor-protecting circuit breaker (MPCB)

The MPCB combines a smart, connected breaker and controller in a single device. As such, it offers the same features and functions as option 1, above, but in less space. An MPCB can also, in some cases, replace the overload relay and allow the setting of motor trip and operating class.

The MPCB not only provides overall branch-circuit protection but can also be “tuned” to the amperage of the downstream motor. With the breaker and controller combined, all you need downstream is the contactor. Where space is an issue, the MPCB can be the solution. 

Deep and detailed data 

These smart devices can capture, store, and share data on all key operating metrics including voltage, current, power, power factor, and others ‒ as well as useful information like the number of cycles or trips, and environmental factors like temperature, which can indicate possible problems.

This data can be used in many ways and can create higher-functioning protection systems with remote monitoring, adjustment, and control. Embedded logic can use this data to automate functions like throw-over switching for main-tie-main and other actions. And, using predetermined power-controller logic within the breaker trip unit, you can connect and control external I/O to open/close loads (load shedding) like contactors or motors when defined power-usage levels are reached. The connection to the external I/O can either be hardwired or controlled through a common communication protocol like Modbus.

Plenty of device communication protocols

Investing in smart, connected breakers can be a waste of money if they lack the ability to communicate with other devices/assets, your other systems/processes, and the network. Many breaker OEMs offer only Modbus as standard, requiring additional gateways to convert the signal to the desired communication protocol. That means more connections to make and more panel complexity. 

Other breaker manufacturers include a wide range of standard communication protocols: Modbus, RTU and TCP/IP, Profibus, Profinet, DeviceNet, EtherNet/IP, and IEC 61850. Having a wide variety of communication protocols makes it much more likely the panel will easily integrate with a customer’s network.

Add asset management

To truly maximize the data from your smart, connected devices, you need an asset-management software package. By supervising your electrical system and monitoring its conditions and energy flows, this software can identify worrisome trends like a rise in nominal current over time. This could be an indicator of possible issues that need to be investigated. This makes it possible to move beyond simple, and often wasteful, scheduled or preventive maintenance to a more effective, lower-cost, predictive maintenance program. 

Based on data and calculated trends, you can know right down to the motor bearings when there’s potential trouble. That lets you make proactive decisions to repair or replace assets before they fail. The software can also provide you with valuable data about power usage, making it possible to implement energy-saving steps. 

Look for opportunities

There are many applications requiring nothing more than simple, low-cost standard thermal mag breakers and standard motor contactors. But panel builders should be alert for opportunities where customers can benefit from smart, connected protective devices. 

These devices in your panel can elevate the safety of panel-user assets and teams, enhance process control, and improve their efficiency. Panel builders who take advantage of these opportunities can provide increased value to customers and make themselves more competitive.

Related blog post: “Smarter breakers enable higher-performing panels”

Daniel Lightsey

ABB AbilityTM Technical Manager

ABB Electrification Business