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October 10, 2016

Defeating the Challenges of Electromechanical and Solid-State Relays

Kevin Kilbane
Senior Product Manager, Silicon Labs

Power Channels: Automotive Electronics, Motion Control, Power Components, Renewable Energy

Electromagnetic relays (EMRs) are broadly used in motor control, automotive, HVAC, valve control, solar inverter and many other industrial applications. Over the last 10 years, solid-state relays (SSRs) have seen fast growth as they begin to replace EMRs. Designers have found that SSRs can address most of the limitations of EMRs. But as is often the case with alternative solutions, SSRs have their own set of tradeoffs that can challenge designers. A third alternative exists: using custom SSRs. Let's exam the limitations and tradeoffs of each approach.

Fast Growth of SSRs at the Expense of EMRs

Electromechanical relays use a coil that when sufficiently powered can move an armature to switch contacts based on the magnetic flux generated. EMRs have the benefit of truly being off without leakage current when not energized. However, they have many limitations that SSRs can address, which is contributing to SSR market growth. SSRs have no moving parts as they are based on semiconductor technology, which directly contributes to better reliability, much longer lifetime and fast switching speed. As EMRs switch, the contacts generate both acoustical and electrical noise along with arcing, which makes them unsuitable in some applications. EMRs are bulky, often impacting industrial design and placement options on a printed circuit board (PCB). The typically large, through-hole EMRs also increase manufacturing cost versus smaller surface-mount SSRs.

Design Challenges of Optocoupler based SSRs

As designers look to SSRs to address EMR limitations, they are finding a different set of challenges. SSRs offer small board space when used in low-power switching applications. However, higher power switching applications must use larger custom packages to deal with the power dissipation and heat of the integrated FETs. Quite often the SSR user must compromise on FET performance, power or cost as there are limited choices of integrated FETs.

SSRs typically use optocoupler based designs to achieve isolation. These optocoupler designs have inherent LED limitations such as poor reliability and stability across temperature and time. A key optocoupler wear-out mechanism is LED light output. As LEDs age their light output declines, which negatively impacts timing. The degradation in light output grows worse over time with increased temperature and higher currents. Other common issues include unstable input current thresholds and complicated current transfer ratio. Designers are forced to use more current and add external components to address these issues or use alternatives to optocoupler-based isolation. More and more industrial applications such as industrial drives, solar inverters, factory automation and metering are targeting 20+ years of system life so it is important for the designer to carefully consider these effects on the system lifetime.

Alternative Custom SSR Using Optocoupler-Based Isolation

Many system designers prefer to use existing high volume and cost-effective discrete FETs as their performance and thermal characteristics are well understood in contrast to the often unknown integrated FETs of SSRs in non-standard packaging. A custom SSR enables the use of these application optimized FETs instead of the typically compromised FETs that are integrated into SSRs. There is a tradeoff in board space versus low-power switching SSRs, but this tradeoff becomes less important with higher powered SSRs due to heat dissipation challenges of integrated SSRs.

Figure 1 shows a custom SSR based on traditional optocoupler based isolation. A secondary, switch side power supply is usually required with these types of solutions as power is not transferred across the isolation barrier.

Figure 1: Creating a custom SSR with optocoupler-based isolation

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