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High voltage disconnect switches:

critical to smart grid deployment

by Patrick Lalongé and William Morse, EHT International

With the massive investments globally in smart grid architecture projects as part of the economic stimulus packages injected in the world economies, we are witnessing new strategies in the high voltage industry internationally.

The challenge is serious; to build architectures capable of integrating multiple innovations developed to improve overall practices in the electrical production, transport and distribution cycle. Technologies such as wind or solar devices, specialised monitoring devices for high voltage equipment and household energy management devices will all speak the same language and rely on smart grid architecture to communicate.

Utilities are in the process of determining the strategies to optimise their operation and maintenance practices. In short, they are determining the equipment they will monitor, the parameters that will be recorded. It has become apparent that utilities all agree to monitor high value equipment such as power transformers, circuit breakers, alternators and turbines. But we notice the strategies for monitoring high voltage (HV) disconnect switches is far from being unanimous. This article discusses the reasons why many utilities are not integrating or simply ignoring HV disconnect switches in their smart grid monitoring strategies. It also demonstrates the technical and economical value of monitoring this equipment. Finally, it takes a look at the progress that has been made in the field of monitoring disconnect switches.

The main reason utilities are reluctant to integrate the HV disconnect switches in their smart grid strategies is that disconnect switches are relatively inexpensive compared to other HV equipment and do not attract the attention of management. There has been no development in HV disconnect switches technology in the past 30 years. Surprisingly, disconnect switch controls are still electromechanical and have not yet been converted to electronic controls. Therefore, when utility decision makers set their priorities for monitoring devices, HV disconnect switches are generally at the bottom of the list. But is this attitude justifiable?

In a document titled the Smart Grid:

an introduction, prepared for the US Department of Energy by Litos Strategic Communication, we learn: “ More blackouts and brownouts are occurring [in United States] due to the slow response times of mechanical switches, a lack of automated analytics, and poor visibility – a lack of situational awareness on the part of

TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION High voltage disconnect switches: critical to smart grid deployment by Patrick Lalongé and

Fig. 1: Pantograph disconnect switches.

TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION High voltage disconnect switches: critical to smart grid deployment by Patrick Lalongé and

Fig. 2: Vertical break disconnect switch.

the grid operators”. Every time a blackout occurs, utilities and their customers lose millions of dollars in transit loss penalties, and operational losses. This statement shows the immediate relation between outages and HV disconnect switches. However, economic costs caused by disconnect switch failures are not limited to these isolated events. We have determined that between 10 and 20% of the total annual maintenance costs in substations is allocated to HV disconnect switches. Considering the human resources, and the economic costs related to the equipment breakages, we determined that hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance is allocated to HV disconnect switches every year. Therefore ignoring disconnect switch monitoring does not make sense.

H V d i s c o n n e c t s w i t c h e s c a n b e monitored primarily from the motor operating mechanism. To do so, the old electromechanical technology is replaced by an intelligent electronic controller and an optical positioning system is incorporated for precise position control and measurement of the arm of the disconnect. Ironically, this technology can be installed in most existing disconnect switch housings at more or less the same cost as utilities pay for refurbishing the electromechanical technology of their old motor operating mechanisms. Electronic controls allow for variable speed control and monitoring of the following parameters:

  • Disconnect mechanism position

  • Motor current, voltage and torque

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TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION Fig. 3: Disconnect contacts. Fig. 4: Conventional cabinet with cam switches. Fig. 5:

Fig. 3: Disconnect contacts.

TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION Fig. 3: Disconnect contacts. Fig. 4: Conventional cabinet with cam switches. Fig. 5:

Fig. 4: Conventional cabinet with cam switches.

TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION Fig. 3: Disconnect contacts. Fig. 4: Conventional cabinet with cam switches. Fig. 5:

Fig. 5: Optical positioning system.

  • Monitoring of the controller

  • Temperature

  • Humidity

  • Operation time


Based on the recorded data, the operator benefits from real time alarm generation and various time and position based analysis allowing for just-in-time maintenance. As well ageing, maintenance, and mechanical studies can be performed to increase life of the equipment. On an economic perspective, electronically monitored controllers decrease the HV disconnect switch operational costs thanks to the following aspects.

Preventive maintenance time reduction

The monitoring of the disconnect motor operation allows for the substantial reduction of the preventive maintenance

time, energy and labour. The preventive maintenance is replaced by just-in-time maintenance. Therefore, maintenance is performed only when required prior to failures saving time and money.

Energy loss reduction

Real time monitoring allows for the detection of failures before they occur such that energy losses caused by substation equipment failure are significantly reduced. Energy losses can be reduced by ensuring

better contact pressure by monitoring the position of the blade in the jaw of the switch.

Mechanical failure rate reduction

Electronic monitoring has the ability to detect a significant change in the motor torque, according to predefined values, and adjusts the operational speed to avoid mechanical failures. Motor current is continuously monitored such that overcurrent situations can be prevented thus increasing motor life.

D e t e c t i o n

a n d

i n t e r v e n t i o n

t i m e

significantly reduced


Intelligent controllers generate alarms to notify operators when a problem occurs or when motor torque exceeds predetermined parameters. Error codes are displayed to help diagnose the

problem source. Operational data is stored within the controller for diagnosis when an alarm is raised.

Equipment and grid life time increase due to reduction of harmful harmonics

Electronically controlled HV disconnect switches with the variable speed motors can decrease the duration of the electric arc reducing the harmful harmonics injected in the grid. Decreasing the harmonics, which damage the insulating paper of current and power transformers

will, therefore, increase the operational life of the transformers.

The development of a motorised control

cabinet with smart grid capabilities

Five years of research and development

have culminated in iCOD (intelligent control operation disconnect) and iMCC (intelligent motorised control cabinet). Designed to provide utilities and heavy industrials a level of security for their substations and grids not previously available. Disconnect switches by their very nature are used in part to isolate areas within substations in order that maintenance can be performed, thus they are an integral part in the security and safety of substation personnel. However, conventional designs have elements that cannot be relied upon should connection to a smart grid be required. One main component that requires much attention of substation personnel is the cam switches found in conventional motorised control cabinets (Fig. 4).

The cam switches are used to signal

TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION Fig. 3: Disconnect contacts. Fig. 4: Conventional cabinet with cam switches. Fig. 5:

Fig. 6: Intelligent motorised control cabinet.

the utility and other devices within the substation on the proper opening and closing of the disconnect switch. Over time the cams become loose and they can no longer be trusted. Also, since they can lose their positioning with time, they may not maintain the proper closed position of the disconnect switch itself over time. If the blade is not properly seated within the jaw of the switch, there will be losses and the switch will overheat. iCOD ensures that the proper position of the blade in the jaw occurs at each closing. If not, an alarm is raised. This positioning system has eliminated the need for cam switches completely. The optical positioning system (Fig. 5) provides the added smart grid abilities whereby the user can now trust the signals sent by the controller. Since the unit now knows where the arm of the disconnect is, at all times throughout manoeuvres, the devise can now be truly operated remotely. In many cases, with the conventional technology, crews must be sent to witness openings and closings of disconnects. This can now be eliminated.

All monitored parameters can be communicated to substation control rooms via many popular communication protocols. Alarms can be trigger remotely or simply by the local display. As more than a year's worth of operations are stored in the unit, stored data can be used to diagnose incipient faults in the disconnect.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that including HV disconnect switches in smart grid deployment would benefit utilities by optimizing their maintenance practices and increasing their grid reliability. It is not justifiable that utility decision makers ignore this piece of equipment in their smart grid strategies. The last major piece of equipment found in substations now has the ability to be controlled more efficiently, monitored in real time, predict failures and alarm when required. Proper monitoring of the lowly disconnect switch in the end will save millions of revenue dollars. The savings will come in the form of less maintenance required, less load losses due to overheating, predictive maintenance instead of preventive maintenance, catastrophic failure prevention and less human intervention.

Contact Mario Kuisis, Martec, Tel 011 485-2717, mario@martec.co.za

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