Smarter breakers

Smarter breakers enable higher-performing panels

Some panel builders are content to offer traditional, serviceable designs. Others position themselves as higher-value providers, offering panels with more functions and performance. They often achieve that by relying on smarter breakers.

What words would customers use to describe your panels: Low cost? Dependable? Simple? Those could all be desirable ways to be thought of. Some panel builders want to be known as good bread-and-butter suppliers, consistently producing reliable panels that do the job. Others want to establish a reputation as a technology leader. Builders aspiring to the latter can achieve this objective by selecting advanced components to give customers digital capabilities that expand panel features beyond what customers are accustomed to. One of the most-valuable components supporting this kind of technology leadership is the latest generation of smart breakers.

Digitalized breaker capabilities
Digital breakers offer several features that panel builders can capitalize on. High on the list of features are their communication capabilities. They enable panel builders and owners to talk to the breakers via I/O network communications and Bluetooth® links, providing remote monitoring, adjustment, and control.

Smart breakers are what you might call “self-aware”.

They can generate, capture, and share data on voltage, current, power, power factor, temperature, and other operating metrics. That data can be put to use in many ways, and can create a more accurate and precise protection system.

Embedded breaker logic can use that 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 through a common communication protocol like Modbus.

The final, major feature of the current generation of smart breakers is that they can take over a number of functions traditionally performed by external devices like meters and relays. That significantly reduces the number of components in the panel.

These key features provide a long list of benefits that panel builders and their customers will appreciate.

Simplified panel design
Fewer components mean simpler designs with reduced panel-layout time. Fewer components to place and connect means reduced time and complexity for panel assembly and wiring. It also creates more reliable panels because there are fewer potential points of failure.

It’s obvious that the panel builders who are taking advantage of these streamlined design capabilities are proud of how it’s freed them to be more creative. You can find social-media sites featuring posts of their cleaner, simpler panel designs. These designs create a difference customer can see and will appreciate even more as they discover the operational benefits.

Streamlined commissioning
Commissioning panels that include digital breakers tends to be easier and quicker. The richer, more intuitive user interface for interacting with the breaker will be appreciated by installers and maintenance technicians.

Rather than setting switches and other controls on the breaker, most commissioning can be done via a PC. Wizards and other setup tools walk techs through the process, with reminders and guides to ensure proper protection settings and breaker operation.

Data about the setup parameters and testing can be captured in a report, increasing confidence commissioning was done correctly and providing a valuable record of what was done. And, for high-volume panel production, configuration settings can be saved and reused, greatly reducing programming time.

Easier maintenance
A properly setup breaker may need little to no future programming; the breaker will reliably protect the connected asset or process. Some panel owners rely on the operational history captured by the breaker – alarms, type of trips, power conditions, number of operations, etc. – to troubleshoot and fine tune their process. This history may also help evaluate warranty claims.

Breaker data can also be used to provide alarm and action status-data to operations and maintenance teams. Whether presented locally via warning devices, or via texts or emails to appropriate personnel, data from the breaker enable alerts that will reduce or eliminate unexpected issues.

The fact that almost all routine interaction with the breaker can be accomplished remotely creates a huge safety advantage. Techs seldom need to be in proximity to the breaker to diagnose issues or change settings. And if the machine or process is modified, it’s relatively simple to upgrade the panel through breaker add-ons and upgrades that can often accommodate the required protection-related changes.

Smart breaker cost/benefit
While smart breakers may have a higher cost than traditional thermal mag or electronic breakers, the benefits they provide to protect the assets and their cabling outweigh the added cost.

For applications where the customer needs increased functionality, safety, and/or reliability, smart panel builders specify one of the many current-generation smart breakers. In applications where power quality is critical, like data centers, the higher accuracy and data-gathering features of these breakers are especially valuable benefits.

Providing digitalized power control devices, particularly smart breakers, enables panel builders to provide a higher level of value to their customers, while setting themselves apart by delivering process protection systems.

Daniel Lightsey
ABB Ability(TM), Smart Power
ABB Electrification Business