Wednesday, 3 August 2016

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Basics of Switches – NO/NC Contact


Perhaps the most confusing aspect of discrete sensors is the definition of a sensor’s normal status. Electrical switch contacts are typically classified as either normally­open or normally­closed, referring to the open or closed status of the contacts under “normal” conditions. But what exactly defines “normal” for a switch? The answer is not complex, but is often misunderstood due to the ambiguous nature of the word normal. The “normal” status for a switch is the status its electrical contacts are in during a condition of no physical stimulation. Another way to think of the “normal” status is to think in terms of the switch being at rest. For a momentary­contact pushbutton switch, this would be the status of the switch contact when it is not being pressed. Electrical switches are always drawn in schematic diagrams in their “normal” statuses, regardless of their application. For instance, the following diagram shows a normally­open pushbutton switch controlling a lamp on a 120 volt AC circuit (the “hot” and “neutral” poles of the AC power source labeled L1 and L2, respectively): 

We can tell this switch is a normally­open (NO) switch because it is drawn in an open position. The lamp will energize only if someone presses the switch, holding its normallyopen contacts in the “closed” position. Normally­open switch contacts are sometimes referred to in the electrical industry as form­A contacts.







This seems rather simple, don’t you think? What could possibly be confusing about the “normal” status of a switch? The confusion becomes evident, though, when you begin to consider process switches (i.e. switches actuated by process measurements such as pressure, flow, level, etc.). In order to better understand this concept, we will consider a simple application of a flow switch: a switch built to actuate when a sufficient rate of fluid flows through a pipe.



A flow switch is built to detect fluid flow through a pipe. In a schematic diagram, the switch symbol appears to be a toggle switch with a “flag” hanging below. The schematic diagram, of course, only shows the circuitry and not the pipe where the switch is physically mounted: 



This particular flow switch is used to trigger an alarm light if coolant flow through the pipe   ever falls to a dangerously low level, and the contacts are normally­closed as evidenced by the closed status in the diagram. Here is where things get confusing: even though this switch is designated as “normally­closed,” it will spend most of its lifetime being held in the open status by the presence of adequate coolant flow through the pipe. Only when the flow through the pipe slows down enough will this switch return to its “normal” status and conduct electrical power to the lamp. In other words, the “normal” status for this switch (closed) is actually an abnormal status for the process it operates within (low flow), for the simple reason that the switch should be stimulated and not at rest while the process is operating as it should. We often wonder why process switch contacts are labeled according to this convention of “no stimulation” instead of according to the typical status of the process in which the switch is used. The answer to this question is that the manufacturer of the switch has no idea whatsoever as to your intended use. A flow switch manufacturer does not know or care whether their product gets used as a low­flow detector or as a high­flow detector. In other words, the manufacturer cannot predict what the typical status of your process will be, and so the definition of “normal” status for the switch must be founded on some common criterion unrelated to your particular application. That common criterion is the resting status: when the sensor is exposed to the least (or no) amount of stimulation from the process it sense