| When a starving monkey is faced with two buttons, one representing access to a banana, the other cocaine, which will he push? The cocaine, every time. The presence of buttons usually indicates a choice must be made, and electric relays illustrate this dynamic.
Last week we looked at a basic electric relay and saw how it was used to facilitate a choice in electricity flow between two paths in a circuit. Now let’s see what happens when we put a relay to use within a basic industrial control system making use of lit bulbs.
Figure 1 shows an electric relay that’s connected to both hot and neutral wires. At the left side is our pushbutton and the hot wire, on the right two bulbs, one lit, one not, and the neutral wire. No one is depressing the pushbutton, so an air gap exists, preventing current from flowing through the wire coil between the hot and neutral sides. With these conditions in place the relay is said to be in its “normal state.”
The relaxed spring positioned on the relay armature keeps it touching the N.C. contact. This allows current to flow between hot and neutral through the armature and the N.C. contact. When these conditions exist the red bulb is lit, and this is accomplished without the need for anyone to throw a switch or press a button. In this condition the other lamp will remain disengaged and unlit.
Now let’s refer to Figure 2 to see what happens when someone presses the button.
When the button is depressed the air gap is eliminated and the coil and wire become magnetized. They will attract the steel armature closer to them, the spring to expand, and the armature to engage with the N.O. contact. Under these conditions current will no longer flow along a path to light the red bulb because an air gap has been created between the armature and N.C. contact. The current instead flows through the N.O. contact, lighting the green bulb. It will stay lit so long as someone holds the button down.
If our monkey were faced with the scenarios presented in Figures l and 2 and a banana was placed in the position of the red bulb, the cocaine in the position of the green, he might find that the regular delivery of bananas that takes place when the relay is in the N.C. contact position is enough to keep him happy. In this state he might be so full of bananas he won’t want to expend the energy to engage the button into the N.O. contact position for the delivery of cocaine.
Next time we’ll revisit the subject of ladder diagrams and see how they are used to denote the paths of electric relays.
Posts Tagged ‘hot wire’
| I’ve been talking about how I was asked to be a subject matter expert for an upcoming series on The Discovery Channel titled Curious and Unusual Deaths. Most of the accidents discussed involved electrocutions, and in each case the electrocution occurred because the victim’s body, usually their hand, inadvertently contacted a source of current. When that happened their bodies essentially became like a wire, providing an unintended path for current to travel on its way to the ground. Why does it travel to the ground, you ask? Because electric current, by its very nature, always wants to flow along a conductor of electricity from a higher voltage to a lower voltage. The ground is the lowest voltage area on our planet. When electricity flows to ground along an unintended path it’s referred to as a “ground fault,” because that’s where the electricity is headed, to the ground, or Earth. By “fault” I mean that something in an electrical circuit is broken or not right, allowing the electrical current to leak out of the circuit along an unintended path, like through a person’s body.
For example, in one of the Curious and Unusual Deaths segments I was asked to explain how a fault in wiring caused electrical current to flow through a woman’s body to the ground that she was standing on. This happened when she unintentionally came in contact with a metal door that was, unbeknownst to her, electrically charged from an unanticipated source. The current was strong enough to cause her death. Where did the electric current originate from? Watch the program to find out, but I’m sure you’d never guess. To say that it was an unlikely source is an understatement.
When ground faults pass through a person’s body, bad things often happen, ranging from a stinging shock to stopping your heart muscle to burning you from the inside out. The severity depends on a number of factors, including the strength of the current to the amount of time your body is exposed to it. It might surprise you to know that if your skin is wet at the time of contacting a current, you risk a greater chance of injury. Water, from most sources, contains dissolved minerals, making it a great conductor of electricity.
But what exactly is electrical current? Scientifically speaking it’s the rate of flow of electrons through a conductor of electricity. Let’s take a closer look at a subject close to home, a power cord leading from a wall’s outlet to the electric motor in your kitchen hand mixer. That power cord contains two wires. In the electrical world one wire is said to be “hot” while the other is “neutral.” The mixer whirrs away while you whip up a batch of chocolate frosting because electrons flow into its motor from the outlet through the hot wire, causing the beaters to spin. The electrons then safely flow back out of the motor to the wall outlet through the neutral wire. Now normally the number of electrons flowing into the motor through the hot wire will basically equal the number flowing out through the neutral wire, and this is a good thing. When current flow going in equals current flow going out, we end up enjoying a delicious chocolate cake.
Since the human body can conduct electricity, serious consequences may result if there is an electrical defect in our hand mixer that creates a ground fault through the operator’s body while they are using it. In that situation the flow of electrons coming into the mixer from the hot wire will begin to flow through the operator’s body rather than flowing through the neutral wire. The result is that the number of electrons flowing through the hot wire does not equal the flow of electrons flowing through the neutral wire. Electrons are leaking out of what should be a closed system, entering the operator’s body instead while on its way to find the ground.
Next time we’ll look at a handy device called a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) and how it keeps an eye on the flow of electrons, which in turn keeps us safe from being electrocuted.