Residual-current Device - Limitations


A residual-current circuit breaker cannot remove all risk of electric shock or fire. In particular, an RCD alone will not detect overload conditions, phase to neutral short circuits or phase-to-phase short circuits (see three phase electric power). Over-current protection (fuses or circuit breakers) must be provided. Circuit breakers that combine the functions of an RCD with overcurrent protection respond to both types of fault. These are known as RCBOs, and are available in 1, 2, 3 and 4 pole configurations. RCBOs will typically have separate circuits for detecting current imbalance and for overload current but will have a common interrupting mechanism.

An RCD will help to protect against electric shock where current flows through a person from a phase (live / line / hot) to earth. It cannot protect against electric shock where current flows through a person from phase to neutral or phase to phase, for example where a finger touches both live and neutral contacts in a light fitting; a device can not differentiate between current flow through an intended load from flow through a person.

Whole installations on a single RCD, common in the UK, are prone to nuisance trips that can cause safety problems with loss of lighting and defrosting of food. RCDs also cause nuisance trips with appliances where earth leakage is common and not a cause of injury or mortality, such as water heaters.

A dangerous condition can arise if the neutral wire is broken or switched off on the supply side of the RCD, while the corresponding live wire remains uninterrupted. If the tripping circuit needs power to work, it cannot operate. Connected equipment will not work without a neutral, but the RCD cannot protect people from contact with the energized wire. For this reason circuit breakers must be installed in a way that ensures that the neutral wire cannot be switched off unless the live wire is also switched off at the same time. Where there is a requirement for switching off the neutral wire, two-pole breakers (or four-pole for 3-phase) must be used. To provide some protection with an interrupted neutral, some RCDs and RCBOs are equipped with an auxiliary connection wire that must be connected to the earth busbar of the distribution board. This either enables the device to detect the missing neutral of the supply, causing the device to trip, or provides an alternative supply path for the tripping circuitry, enabling it to continue to function normally in the absence of the supply neutral.

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