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Switchgear vs. Circuit Breakers: What’s the Difference?

Anyone familiar with electrical systems will know the words circuit breakers and switchgear. On the other hand, if you are not really into this field, you can easily mistake one term for another. Nevertheless, there are some key differences between the two, even if they have many similarities. Both circuit breakers and switchgear are essential parts of every electrical circuit, and we will discuss their main differences and characteristics. 

What is switchgear?

Switchgear refers to a variety of devices used to manage, protect, and isolate power systems. These devices include electrical disconnect switches, fuses, and circuit breakers. The primary function of switchgear is to protect devices that are hardwired into a power source from damage from electrical overload. They can also de-energize equipment to facilitate safe operations and fault clearance downstream.

Types of switchgear

Low-voltage switchgear controls systems up to 1 kilovolt. They are usually found in low-voltage end-of-power distribution transformers.

Systems operating at voltages higher than 1 kV and up to 33 kV use medium-voltage switchgear. MV switchgear is used in infrastructure, power distribution networks, and industrial settings. 

Power levels of 33 kV and more use high-voltage switchgear. These devices usually have extra safety measures since they are designed to handle high voltages.

Arc-resistant switchgear reduces the potential dangers of electrical arcing problems. An electrical arc can form when current flows unexpectedly through air between conductors which can cause extreme heat, fire, and even explosions. This is where arc-resistant switchgear helps to redirect this energy safely from people and other equipment. This type of switchgear finds its place in industrial facilities, data centers, and other places where electrical safety is a must.

Air-insulated switchgear uses open switchgear assemblies to insulate the conductors. It is easier to maintain than a gas-insulated one, which uses sulfur hexafluoride gas. However, GIS takes less space and is more environmentally friendly, reliable, and compact.

Metal-enclosed switchgear is perfect for places with severe weather conditions, as this equipment is literally encased in metal, which protects against physical and environmental damage. 

What is a circuit breaker?

Circuit breakers are a vital part of any electrical system. These switches prevent damage to an electrical circuit caused by overcurrent, overload, or short circuits. The switch detects the electrical current passing through the circuit, and it will cut power if there is an overload or short. These devices are very important in many different types of electrical systems, including those in homes, businesses, and factories. 

Types of circuit breakers

The most common types are standard, GFCI, and AFCI circuit breakers. Different types can manage different abilities and perform different roles. 

Standard circuit breakers measure the current flowing through the devices they control. The breaker will cut power to the circuit if it detects that any of the components are becoming too hot, so it reduces the possibility of an electrical fire. 

On the other hand, ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) shut down the power to the whole circuit rather than just a specific node. An excessive amount of current, a short circuit, or a failure that connects the line to the ground can trigger the breaker. 

Arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) breakers prevent fires from electrical cord or wire discharges. Before the arc can provide enough heat to ignite a fire, the breaker will immediately stop power to the circuit as soon as it detects the electrical jump and mistake.

What are the main differences?

Function

Circuit breakers and switchgear have quite distinct roles and functions. Circuit breakers are essentially electrical switches that work automatically to prevent electrical overloads and short circuits. Its main purpose is to trip the circuit the moment the relay senses a failure. It cuts off continuity and stops the electricity flow to ensure circuit protection.

Switchgear encompasses some additional features. Its primary function is to protect electrical equipment, but it can also regulate and isolate it. Also, it can de-energize the equipment. Although circuit breakers have a crucial role in electrical systems, the reliability of the power supply is directly related to the switchgear. 

Components

Switchgear features many parts, including control panels, fuses, circuit breakers, current transformers, potential transformers, protective relays, and others. Enclosures and busbars are also parts that enclose and link various components. 

Circuit breakers are separate components that function either as a part of switchgear or independently. They usually have electrical contacts, arc extinguishing mechanisms, primary functioning mechanisms, and trip components. 

Application

Switchgear finds its place in various fields including residential and commercial buildings, industrial plants, transmission systems, and power generation. It is crucial for the operation of extensive electrical distribution systems as it manages intricate electrical networks thanks to multiple circuit breakers and other protective devices.

Circuit breakers perform in circuits within a switchgear or independently in some simpler applications. They are often a part of electrical panels in homes, control systems in industries, and other places that need localized protection.

Installation and design

Switchgear is a more complex project which needs a substantial amount of work during installation. It can manage larger voltages and many circuits, and that is the main reason why it needs to be more complex and sturdy.

Circuit breakers, on the other hand, are easier to install and replace. You can also place them separately or integrate them into switchgear depending on what you need to use them for. 

Operation frequency

Circuit breakers are not meant for regular use, in contrast to switchgear. This is because the circuit breaker’s job is to activate the moment it senses a malfunction. It monitors the electric current going through each circuit, but it shouldn’t trip too often. Issues such as an overloaded circuit or a broken, old breaker might result from frequent resets of the circuit breaker. 

Although they perform different functions, switchgear, and circuit breakers are necessary parts of electrical systems. Circuit breakers protect from damage coming from high currents, while switchgear is a complete system that regulates, protects, and separates electrical equipment. It is important to understand the similarities and differences of both systems to make sure our electrical systems are safe and reliable. 

 

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