What Is A Relay?
A relay is an electrically operated switch. It consists of a set of input terminals for a single or multiple control signals, and a set of operating contact terminals. The switch may have any number of contacts in multiple contact forms, such as make contacts, break contacts, or combinations thereof.
Relays are used where it is necessary to control a circuit by an independent low-power signal, or where several circuits must be controlled by one signal. Relays were first used in long-distance telegraph circuits as signal repeaters: they refresh the signal coming in from one circuit by transmitting it on another circuit. Relays were used extensively in telephone exchanges and early computers to perform logical operations.
The traditional form of a relay uses an electromagnet to close or open the contacts, but other operating principles have been invented, such as in solid-state relays which use semiconductor properties for control without relying on moving parts. Relays with calibrated operating characteristics and sometimes multiple operating coils are used to protect electrical circuits from overload or faults; in modern electric power systems these functions are performed by digital instruments still called protective relays.
Latching relays require only a single pulse of control power to operate the switch persistently. Another pulse applied to a second set of control terminals, or a pulse with opposite polarity, resets the switch, while repeated pulses of the same kind have no effects. Magnetic latching relays are useful in applications when interrupted power should not affect the circuits that the relay is controlling.
Relays are used wherever it is necessary to control a high power or high voltage circuit with a low power circuit, especially when galvanic isolation is desirable. The first application of relays was in long telegraph lines, where the weak signal received at an intermediate station could control a contact, regenerating the signal for further transmission. High-voltage or high-current devices can be controlled with small, low voltage wiring and pilots switches. Operators can be isolated from the high voltage circuit. Low power devices such as microprocessors can drive relays to control electrical loads beyond their direct drive capability. In an automobile, a starter relay allows the high current of the cranking motor to be controlled with small wiring and contacts in the ignition key.