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An electrical unit is built with great care to ensure that each separate electrical circuit is fully insulated from all the others. This is done so that the current in a circuit will follow its intended path. Once the unit is placed into service, however, many things can happen to alter the original circuitry. Some of the changes can cause serious problems if they are not detected and corrected. While circuit protection devices cannot correct an abnormal current condition, they can indicate that an abnormal condition exists and protect personnel and circuits from that condition. In this chapter, you will learn what circuit conditions require protection devices and the types of protection devices used.


As has been mentioned, many things can happen to electrical and electronic circuits after they are in use. Chapter 1 of this module contains information showing you how to measure circuit characteristics to help determine the changes that can occur in them. Some of the changes in circuits can cause conditions that are dangerous to the circuit itself or to people living or working near the circuits. These potentially dangerous conditions require circuit protection. The conditions that require circuit protection are direct shorts, excessive current, and excessive heat.

Direct Short

One of the most serious troubles that can occur in a circuit is a DIRECT SHORT. Another term used to describe this condition is a SHORT CIRCUIT.

The two terms mean the same thing and, in this chapter, the term direct short will be used. This term is used to describe a situation in which some point in the circuit, where full system voltage is present, comes in direct contact with the ground or return side of the circuit. This establishes a path for current flow that contains only the very small resistance present in the wires carrying the current.

According to Ohm's law, if the resistance in a circuit is extremely small, the current will be extremely large. Therefore, when a direct short occurs, there will be a very large current through the wires. Suppose, for instance, that the two leads from a battery to a motor came in contact with each other. If the leads were bare at the point of contact, there would be a direct short. The motor would stop running because all the current would be flowing through the short and none through the motor. The battery would become discharged quickly (perhaps ruined) and there could be the danger of fire or explosion.

The battery cables in our example would be large wires capable of carrying heavy currents. Most wires used in electrical circuits are smaller and their current carrying capacity is limited. The size of wire used in any given circuit is determined by space considerations, cost factors, and the amount of current the wire is expected to carry under normal operating conditions. Any current flow greatly in excess of normal, such as there would be in the case of a direct short, would cause a rapid generation of heat in the wire.

If the excessive current flow caused by the direct short is left unchecked, the heat in the wire will continue to increase until some portion of the circuit burns. Perhaps a portion of the wire will melt and open the circuit so that nothing is damaged other than the wire involved. The probability exists, however, that much greater damage will result. The heat in the wire can char and burn the insulation of the wire and that of other wires bundled with it, which can cause more shorts. If a fuel or oil leak is near any of the hot wires, a disastrous fire might be started.

Excessive Current

It is possible for the circuit current to increase without a direct short. If a resistor, capacitor, or inductor changes value, the total circuit impedance will also change in value. If a resistor decreases in ohmic value, the total circuit resistance decreases. If a capacitor has a dielectric leakage, the capacitive reactance decreases. If an inductor has a partial short of its winding, inductive reactance decreases. Any of these conditions will cause an increase in circuit current. Since the circuit wiring and components are designed to withstand normal circuit current, an increase in current would cause overheating (just as in the case of a direct short). Therefore, excessive current without a direct short will cause the same problems as a direct short.

Excessive Heat

As you have read, most of the problems associated with a direct short or excessive current concern the heat generated by the higher current.

The damage to circuit components, the possibility of fire, and the possibility of hazardous fumes being given off from electrical components are consequences of excessive heat. It is possible for excessive heat to occur without a direct short or excessive current. If the bearings on a motor or generator were to fail, the motor or generator would overheat. If the temperature around an electrical or electronic circuit were to rise (through failure of a cooling system for example), excessive heat would be a problem. No matter what the cause, if excessive heat is present in a circuit, the possibility of damage, fire, and hazardous fumes exists.

Q.1 Why are circuit protection devices necessary? answer.gif (214 bytes)
Q.2 What are the three conditions that require circuit protection?
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Q.3 What is a direct short?
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Q.4 What is an excessive current condition?
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Q.5 What is an excessive heat condition?
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