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Top Five Switchgear Failure Cases - and how to avoid them
By Don A Genutis
Over the years, we have all gained valuable field experiences that provide insight into how and why equipment fails. I have created the following list of top five general causes for switchgear failures and how they can be prevented, based upon my particular experiences. I hope that this information can spark creative thinking from our readers to prevent future switchgear failures due to their own unique field observations.
Loose and faulty connections cause an increase of resistance at that localized point.The increased resistance causes increased heat in accordance with Ohm's law, P = I2R . The increase in heat will escalate until complete thermal failure of the connection occurs or the nearby insulation fails resulting in a fault. One major insurance carrier estimates that approximately 25 percent of all electrical failures occur due to loose connections.
The solution to avoiding these types of failures is to perform regular infrared inspections of all switchgear. Infrared viewing ports should be installed and medium-voltage switchgear should have ports that also pass ultraviolet light so that corona cameras can be used to inspect for corona and surface partial discharge activity.
A whole series of articles could be written about these types of problems, but we will focus just on the most common culprits here. Low-voltage insulation is fairly simple and is not subject to the same voltage stresses as medium voltage switchgear insulation. Keeping low-voltage insulation failures in check mostly involves keeping the insulation dry and clean and ensuring clearances are adequate.
Medium-voltage insulation systems are much more complex due to the greater voltage stresses that exist. Areas within the switchgear that are overstressed will initially fail over a small portion of the insulation but will then escalate over time until complete failure occurs. The most likely areas for these problems to occur are: Jumper Cables, Bus and Cable Terminations.
Localized partial insulation failures are known as partial discharges. Fortunately, the partial discharge activity creates detectable signals which are the early warning signs of future complete insulation failure. The solution to preventing medium-voltage switchgear failures begins with utilizing the hand-held partial discharge detector equipped with an ultrasonic sensor to detect surface insulation defects and a transient earth voltage sensor to detect internal insulation defects.
Water - Water intrusion or immersion due to natural disasters or accidents can create instant short circuits, long term insulation damage, and long term metallic component corrosion, among other complications. Medium-voltage switchgear that is exposed to high humidity conditions will absorb moisture, and voltage stresses will attack the hydrophobic insulation surfaces which were designed to inhibit moisture-related insulation faults while the infrared camera can detect abnormal heating of corroded connections.
Breaker Racking - Racking in a closed circuit breaker onto an energized bus can quickly cause severe personal injury or death and immediate severe equiptment damage. Additionally, the breaker may not always line up properly or may encounter other difficulties as it is being racked, and these problems can cause a sudden severe fault. Unfortunately, the traditional act of break racking requires personnel to manually perform this task directly in harm's way.
The solution to this problem is to always make sure that mechanical and electrical interlocks are functional and all breaker and cell components are properly inspected and serviced. To ensure personnel safety, strong consideration should be given to employment of a remote curcuit breaker racking device.
Faulty Ground Fault Protection - Unlike the items above, a defective ground fault protective device will not create a fault itself. However, it will not offer protection from an arcing ground fault which is a common failure mode in 480Y/277V solidly-grounded switchgear. These types of faults are very destructive but do not draw high enough currents to trip breakers or cause fuses to open and can persist until catastrophic failure of the switchgear occurs.
Thed solution to this problem requires an outage and manually testing the ground fault protection system by current injection. Just as important is to pay close attention to ensure that the equipment is properly installed. Sensor polarities must be tested when applicable and the neutral ground connection must be located in the correct position so that the sensors will detect fault currents properly. A list of recommended test procedures can be found in the NETA ATS and MTS standards.