How Relays Work
Relays are switches that open and close circuits electromechanically or electronically. Relays control one electrical circuit by opening and closing contacts in another circuit. As relay diagrams show, when a relay contact is normally open (NO), there is an open contact when the relay is not energized. When a relay contact is Normally Closed (NC), there is a closed contact when the relay is not energized. In either case, applying electrical current to the contacts will change their state.
Relays are generally used to switch smaller currents in a control circuit and do not usually control power consuming devices except for small motors and Solenoids that draw low amps. Nonetheless, relays can "control" larger voltages and amperes by having an amplifying effect because a small voltage applied to a relays coil can result in a large voltage being switched by the contacts.
Protective relays can prevent equipment damage by detecting electrical abnormalities, including overcurrent, undercurrent, overloads and reverse currents. In addition, relays are also widely used to switch starting coils, heating elements, pilot lights and audible alarms.

Electromechanical Relays vs Solid State Relays
Relays are either electromechanical relays or solid-state relays. In electromechanical relays (EMR), contacts are opened or closed by a magnetic force. With solid-state relays (SSR), there are no contacts and switching is totally electronic. The decision to use electromechanical or solid state relays depends on an application's electrical requirements, cost constraints and life expectancy. Although solid-state relays have become very popular, electromechanical relays remain common. Many of the functions performed by heavy-duty equipment need the switching capabilities of electromechanical relays. Solid State Relays switche the current using non-moving electronic devices such as silicon controlled rectifiers.
These differences in the two types of relays result in advantages and disadvantages with each system. Because solid state relays do not have to either energize a coil or open contacts, less voltage is required to "turn" Solid State Relays on or off. Similarly, Solid State Relays turn on and turn off faster because there are no physical parts to move. Although the absence of contacts and moving parts means that Solid State Relays are not subject to arcing and do not wear out, contacts on Electromechanical Relays can be replaced, whereas entire Solid State Relays must be replaced when any part becomes defective. Because of the construction of Solid State Relays, there is residual electrical resistance and/or current leakage whether switches are open and closed. The small voltage drops that are created are not usually a problem; however, Electromechanical Relays provide a cleaner ON or OFF condition because of the relatively large distance between contacts, which acts as a form of insulation.
Electromechanical and Solid State Relays Although Solid State Relays accomplish the same results as Electromechanical Relays, the physical structure and functionality of Solid State Relays is different from that of Electromechanical Relays.
Electromechanical Relays
Basic parts and functions of electromechanical relays include:
  1. Frame: Heavy-duty frame that contains and supports the parts of the relay.
  2. Coil: Wire is wound around a metal core. The coil of wire causes an electromagnetic field.
  3. Armature: A relays moving part. The armature opens and closes the contacts. An attached spring returns the armature to its original position.
  4. Contacts: The conducting part of the switch that makes (closes) or breaks (opens) a circuit.

How Relays Work: Relay Diagrams
Relays involve two circuits: the energizing circuit and the contact circuit. The coil is on the energizing side; and the relays contacts are on the contact side. When a relays coil is energized, current flow through the coil creates a magnetic field. Whether in a DC unit where the polarity is fixed, or in an AC unit where the polarity changes 120 times per second, the basic function remains the same: the magnetic coil attracts a ferrous plate, which is part of the armature. One end of the armature is attached to the metal frame, which is formed so that the armature can pivot, while the other end opens and closes the contacts. Contacts come in a number of different configurations, depending on the number of Breaks, poles and Throws that make up the relay. For instance, relays might be described as Single-Pole, Single-Throw (SPST), or Double-Pole, Single-Throw (DPST). These terms will give an instant indication of the design and function of different types of relays.
  • Break -This is the number of separate places or contacts that a switch uses to open or close a single electrical circuit. All contacts are either single break or double break. A single break (SB) contact breaks an electrical circuit in one place, while a double break (DB) contact breaks it in two places. Single break contacts are normally used when switching lower power devices such as indicating lights. Double break contacts are used when switching high-power devices such as solenoids.
  • Pole -This is the number of completely isolated circuits that relays can pass through a switch. A single-pole contact (SP) can carry current through only one circuit at a time. A double-pole contact (DP) can carry current through two isolated circuits simultaneously. The maximum number of poles is 12, depending upon a relays design.
  • Throw -This is the number of closed contact positions per pole that are available on a switch. A switch with a single throw contact can control only one circuit, while a double-throw contact can control two.
Types of Relyas: Electromechanical
  1. General Purpose Relays are electromechanical switches, usually operated by a magnetic coil. General purpose relays operate with AC or DC current, at common voltages such as 12V, 24V, 48V, 120V and 230V, and they can control currents ranging from 2A-30A. These relays are economical, easy to replace and allow a wide range of switch configuration.
  2. Machine Control Relays are also operated by a magnetic coil. They are heavy-duty relays used to control starters and other industrial components. Although they are more expensive than general purpose relays, they are generally more durable. The biggest advantage of machine control relays over general purpose relays is the expandable functionality of Machine Control Relays by the adding of accessories. A wide selection of accessories is available for machine control relays, including additional poles, convertible contacts, transient suppression of electrical noise, latching control and timing attachments.
  3. Reed Relays are a small, compact, fast operating switch design with one contact, which is NO. Reed Relays are hermetically sealed in a glass envelope, which makes the contacts unaffected by contaminants, fumes or humidity, allows reliable switching, and gives contacts a higher life expectancy. The ends of the contact, which are often plated with gold or another low resistance material to increase conductivity, are drawn together and closed by a magnet. Reed relays are capable of switching industrial components such as solenoids, contactors and starter motors. Reed relays consists of two reeds. When a magnetic force is applied, such as an electromagnet or coil, it sets up a magnetic field in which the end of the reeds assume opposite polarity. When the magnetic field is strong enough, the attracting force of the opposite poles overcomes the stiffness of the reeds and draws them together. When the magnetic force is removed, the reeds spring back to their original, open position. These relays work very quickly because of the short distance between the reeds.
Solid State Relays
Solid state relays consist of an input circuit, a control circuit and an output circuit. The Input Circuit is the portion of a relays frame to which the control component is connected. The input circuit performs the same function as the coil of electromechanical relays. The circuit is activated when a voltage higher than the relays specified Pickup Voltage is applied to the relays input. The input circuit is deactivated when the voltage applied is less than the specified minimum Dropout voltage of the relay. The voltage range of 3 VDC to 32 VDC, commonly used with most solid-state relays, makes it useful for most electronic circuits. The Control Circuit is the part of the relay that determines when the output component is energized or de-energized. The control circuit functions as the coupling between the input and output circuits. In electromechanical relays, the coil accomplishes this function. A relays Output Circuit is the portion of the relay that switches on the load and performs the same function as the mechanical contacts of electromechanical relays. Solid-state relays, however, normally have only one output contact.
Solid State Relays Solid State Relays, like the one pictured above, are capable of switching high voltages up to 600 VACrms. These relays are designed to switch various loads such as heating elements, motors, and transformers.
Types of Relays: Solid State
  1. Zero-Switching Relays - relays turns ON the load when the control (minimum operating) voltage is applied and the voltage of the load is close to zero. Zero-Switching relays turn OFF the load when the control voltage is removed and the current in the load is close to zero. Zero-Switching relays are the most widely used.
  2. Instant ON Relays - turns ON the load immediately when the pickup voltage is present. Instant ON Relays allow the load to be turned ON at any point in it's up and down wave.
  3. Peak Switching Relays - turns ON the load when the control voltage is present, and the voltage of the load is at its peak. Peak Switching relays turn OFF when the control voltage is removed and the current in the load is close to zero.
  4. Analog Switching Relays - has an infinite number of possible output voltages within the relays rated range. Analog switching relays have a built in synchronizing circuit that controls the amount of output voltage as a function of the input voltage. This allows a Ramp-Up function of time to be on the load. Analog Switching relays turn OFF when the control voltage is removed and current in the load is near zero.
A Relays Contact Life
A relays useful life depends upon its contacts. Once contacts burn out, the relays contacts or the entire relay has to be replaced. Mechanical Life is the number of operations (openings and closings) a contact can perform without electrical current. A relays mechanical life is relatively long, offering up to 1,000,000 operations. A relays Electrical life is the number of operations (openings and closings) the contacts can perform with electrical current at a given current rating. A relays Contact electrical life ratings range from 100,000 to 500,000 cycles. A Relay Diagram of a Solid State Relay Circuit
This diagram represents the basic circuit of Solid State Relays.
What is a Relay?