In electronics and electrical engineering a fuse (from the Latin “fusus” meaning to melt) is a type of sacrificial overcurrent protection device. Its essential component is a metal wire or strip that melts when too much current flows, which interrupts the circuit in which it is connected. Short circuit, overload or device failure is often the reason for excessive current.
A fuse interrupts excessive current (blows) so that further damage by overheating or fire is prevented. Wiring regulations often define a maximum fuse current rating for particular circuits. Overcurrent protection devices are essential in electrical systems to limit threats to human life and property damage. Fuses are selected to allow passage of normal current and of excessive current only for short periods.
A fuse was patented by Thomas Edison in 1890 as part of his successful electric distribution system.
A fuse consists of a metal strip or wire fuse element, of small cross-section compared to the circuit conductors, mounted between a pair of electrical terminals, and (usually) enclosed by a non-conducting and non-combustible housing. The fuse is arranged in series to carry all the current passing through the protected circuit. The resistance of the element generates heat due to the current flow. The size and construction of the element is (empirically) determined so that the heat produced for a normal current does not cause the element to attain a high temperature. If too high a current flows, the element rises to a higher temperature and either directly melts, or else melts a soldered joint within the fuse, opening the circuit.
When the metal conductor parts, an electric arc forms between the un-melted ends of the element. The arc grows in length until the voltage required to sustain the arc is higher than the available voltage in the circuit, terminating current flow. In alternating current circuits the current naturally reverses direction on each cycle, greatly enhancing the speed of fuse interruption. In the case of a current-limiting fuse, the voltage required to sustain the arc builds up quickly enough to essentially stop the fault current before the first peak of the AC waveform. This effect significantly limits damage to downstream protected devices.
The fuse element is made of zinc, copper, silver, aluminum, or alloys to provide stable and predictable characteristics. The fuse ideally would carry its rated current indefinitely, and melt quickly on a small excess. The element must not be damaged by minor harmless surges of current, and must not oxidize or change its behavior after possibly years of service.
The fuse elements may be shaped to increase heating effect. In large fuses, current may be divided between multiple strips of metal. A dual-element fuse may contain a metal strip that melts instantly on a short-circuit, and also contain a low-melting solder joint that responds to long-term overload of low values compared to a short-circuit. Fuse elements may be supported by steel or nichrome wires, so that no strain is placed on the element, but a spring may be included to increase the speed of parting of the element fragments.
The fuse element may be surrounded by air, or by materials intended to speed the quenching of the arc. Silica sand or non-conducting liquids may be used.
Rated current IN
A maximum current that the fuse can continuously conduct without interrupting the circuit.
The speed at which a fuse blows depends on how much current flows through it and the material of which the fuse is made. The operating time is not a fixed interval, but decreases as the current increases. Fuses have different characteristics of operating time compared to current, characterized as “fast-blow”, “slow-blow” or “time-delay”, according to time required to respond to an overcurrent condition. A standard fuse may require twice its rated current to open in one second, a fast-blow fuse may require twice its rated current to blow in 0.1 seconds, and a slow-blow fuse may require twice its rated current for tens of seconds to blow.
Fuse selection depends on the load’s characteristics. Semiconductor devices may use a fast or ultrafast fuse since semiconductor devices heat rapidly when excess current flows. The fastest blowing fuses are designed for the most sensitive electrical equipment, where even a short exposure to an overload current could be very damaging. Normal fast-blow fuses are the most general purpose fuses. The time delay fuse (also known as anti-surge, or slow-blow) are designed to allow a current which is above the rated value of the fuse to flow for a short period of time without the fuse blowing. These types of fuse are used on equipment such as motors, which draw a large initial current for a few milliseconds after they have been switched on.
The I2t value
A measure of energy required to blow the fuse element and so a measure of the damaging effect of overcurrent on protected devices; sometimes known as the let-through energy. Unique I2t parameters are provided by charts in manufacturer data sheets for each fuse family. The energy is mainly dependent on current and time for fuses.
The breaking capacity is the maximum current that can safely be interrupted by the fuse. Generally, this should be higher than the prospective short circuit current. Miniature fuses may have an interrupting rating only 10 times their rated current. Some fuses are designated High Rupture Capacity (HRC) and are usually filled with sand or a similar material. Fuses for small, low-voltage, usually residential, wiring systems are commonly rated to interrupt 10,000 amperes. Fuses for larger power systems must have higher interrupting ratings, with some low-voltage current-limiting high interrupting fuses rated for 300,000 amperes. Fuses for high-voltage equipment, up to 115,000 volts, are rated by the total apparent power (megavolt-amperes, MVA) of the fault level on the circuit.
Voltage rating of the fuse must be greater than or equal to what would become the open circuit voltage. For example, a glass tube fuse rated at 32 volts would not reliably interrupt current from a voltage source of 120 or 230 V. If a 32 V fuse attempts to interrupt the 120 or 230 V source, an arc may result. Plasma inside that glass tube fuse may continue to conduct current until current eventually so diminishes that plasma reverts to an insulating gas. Rated voltage should be larger than the maximum voltage source it would have to disconnect. This requirement applies to every type of fuse.
Rated voltage remains same for any one fuse, even when similar fuses are connected in series. Connecting fuses in series does not increase the rated voltage.
Medium-voltage fuses rated for a few thousand volts are never used on low voltage circuits, because of their cost and because they cannot properly clear the circuit when operating at very low voltages.
A voltage drop across the fuse is usually provided by its manufacturer. Resistance may change when a fuse becomes hot due to energy dissipation while conducting higher currents. This resulting voltage drop should be taken into account, particularly when using a fuse in low-voltage applications. Voltage drop often is not significant in more traditional wire type fuses, but can be significant in other technologies such as resettable fuse (PPTC) type fuses.
Ambient temperature will change a fuse’s operational parameters. A fuse rated for 1 A at 25°C may conduct up to 10% or 20% more current at -40°C and may open at 80% of its rated value at 100°C. Operating values will vary with each fuse family and are provided in manufacturer data sheets.
Most fuses are marked on the body or end caps with markings that indicate their ratings. Surface-mount technology “chip type” fuses feature few or no markings, making identification very difficult.
Similar appearing fuses may have significantly different properties, identified by their markings. Fuse markings will generally convey the following information;
- Ampere rating of the fuse
- Voltage rating of the fuse
- Time-current characteristic, i.e. fuse speed
- Approvals by national and international standards agencies
- Manufacturer / Part number / Series
- Breaking capacity
Packages and materials
Fuses come in a vast array of sizes and styles to serve in many applications, manufactured in standardised package layouts to make them easily interchangeable. Fuse bodies may be made of ceramic, glass, plastic, fiberglass, molded mica laminates, or molded compressed fibre depending on application and voltage class.
Cartridge (ferrule) fuses have a cylindrical body terminated with metal end caps. Some cartridge fuses are manufactured with end caps of different sizes to prevent accidental insertion of the wrong fuse rating in a holder, giving them a bottle shape.
Fuses for low voltage power circuits may have bolted blade or tag terminals which are secured by screws to a fuseholder. Some blade-type terminals are held by spring clips. Blade type fuses often require the use of a special purpose extractor tool to remove them from the fuse holder.
Renewable fuses have replaceable fuse elements, allowing the fuse body and terminals to be reused if not damaged after a fuse operation.
Fuses designed for soldering to a printed circuit board have radial or axial wire leads. Surface mount fuses have solder pads instead of leads.
High-voltage fuses of the expulsion type have fiber or glass-reinforced plastic tubes and an open end, and can have the fuse element replaced.
Semi-enclosed fuses are fuse wire carriers in which the fusible wire itself can be replaced. These are used in consumer units in some parts of the world, but are becoming less common.
While glass fuses have the advantage of a fuse element visible for inspection purposes, they have a low breaking capacity which generally restricts them to applications of 15 A or less at 250 VAC. Ceramic fuses have the advantage of a higher breaking capacity, facilitating their use in circuits with higher current and voltage. Filling a fuse body with sand provides additional cooling of the arc and increases the breaking capacity of the fuse. Medium-voltage fuses may have liquid-filled envelopes to assist in the extinguishing of the arc. Some types of distribution switchgear use fuse links immersed in the oil that fills the equipment.
Fuse packages may include a rejection feature such as a pin, slot, or tab, which prevents interchange of otherwise similar appearing fuses. For example, fuse holders for North American class RK fuses have a pin that prevents installation of similar-appearing class H fuses, which have a much lower breaking capacity and a solid blade terminal that lacks the slot of the RK type.
Fuses can be built with different sized enclosures to prevent interchange of different ratings or types of fuse. For example, “Bottle style” fuses distinguish between ratings with different cap diameters. Automotive glass fuses were made in different lengths, to prevent high-rated fuses being installed in a circuit intended for a lower rating.
Glass cartridge and plug fuses allow direct inspection of the fusible element. Other fuses have other indication methods including:
- Indicating pin or striker pin — extends out of the fuse cap when the element is blown.
- Indicating disc — a coloured disc (flush mounted in the end cap of the fuse) falls out when the element is blown.
- Element window — a small window built into the fuse body to provide visual indication of a blown element.
- External trip indicator — similar function to striker pin, but can be externally attached (using clips) to a compatible fuse.
Some fuses allow a special purpose micro switch or relay unit to be fixed to the fuse body. When the fuse element blows, the indicating pin extends to activate the micro switch or relay, which, in turn, triggers an event.
Some fuses for medium-voltage applications use two separate barrels and two fuse elements in parallel.
IEC 60269 fuses
The International Electrotechnical Commission publishes standard 60629 for low-voltage power fuses. The standard is in four volumes, which describe general requirements, fuses for industrial and commercial applications, fuses for residential applications, and fuses to protect semiconductor devices. The IEC standard unifies several national standards, thereby improving the interchangeability of fuses in international trade. All fuses of different technologies tested to meet IEC standards will have similar time-current characteristics, which simplifies design and maintenance.
UL 248 fuses (North America)
In the United States and Canada, low-voltage fuses to 1000 v AC rating are made in accordance with Underwriters Laboratories standard UL 248 or the harmonized Candian Standards Association standard C22.2 No. 248. This standard applies to fuses rated 1000 V or less, AC or DC, and with breaking capacity up to 200 kA. These fuses are intended for installations following Canadian Electrical Code, Part I (CEC), or the National Electrical Code, NFPA 70 (NEC).
IEC and UL nomenclature varies slightly. IEC standards refer to a “fuse” as the assembly of a fuse link and fuse holder. In North American standards the “fuse” is the replaceable portion of the assembly, and a “fuse link” would be a bare metal element for installation in a fuse.
Automotive fuses are used to protect the wiring and electrical equipment for vehicles. There are several different types of automotive fuses and their usage is dependant upon the specific application, voltage, and current demands of the electrical circuit. Automotive fuses can be mounted in fuse blocks, inline fuse holders, or fuse clips. Some automotive fuses are occasionally used in non-automotive electrical applications. Standards for automotive fuses are published by SAE International (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers).
Automotive fuses can be classified into four distinct categories:
1) Blade Fuses
2) Glass Tube or Bosch Type
3) Fusible Links
4) Fuse Limiters
Most automotive fuses rated at 32 volts are used on circuits rated 24 volts DC and below. Some vehicles use a dual 12/42 VDC electrical system that will require a fuse rated at 58 VDC.
High voltage fuses
Fuses are used on power systems up to 115,000 volts AC. High-voltage fuses are used to protect instrument transformers used for electricity metering, or for small power transformers where the expense of a circuit breaker is not warranted. For example, in distribution systems, a power fuse may be used to protect a transformer serving 1-3 houses. A circuit breaker at 115 kV may cost up to five times as much as a set of power fuses, so the resulting saving can be tens of thousands of dollars. Pole-mounted distribution transformers are nearly always protected by a fusible cutout, which can have the fuse element replaced using live-line maintenance tools.
Large power fuses use fusible elements made of silver, copper or tin to provide stable and predictable performance. High voltage expulsion fuses surround the fusible link with gas-evolving substances, such as boric acid. When the fuse blows, heat from the arc causes the boric acid to evolve large volumes of gases. The associated high pressure (often greater than 100 atmospheres) and cooling gases rapidly quench the resulting arc. The hot gases are then explosively expelled out of the end(s) of the fuse. Such fuses can only be used outdoors.
High voltage high power fuses are standalone protective switching devices used to 115 kV. They are used in power supply networks and for distribution uses. The most frequent application is in transformer circuits, with further uses in motor circuits and capacitor banks. These type of fuses may have an impact pin to operate a switch mechanism, so that all three phases are interrupted if any one fuse blows.
“High-power fuse” means that these fuses can interrupt several kiloamperes. Some manufacturers have tested their fuses for up to 63 kA cut-off current.
Fuses compared with circuit breakers
Fuses have the advantages of often being less costly and simpler than a circuit breaker for similar ratings. The blown fuse must be replaced with a new device which is less convenient than simply resetting a breaker and therefore likely to discourage people from ignoring faults. On the other hand, replacing a fuse without isolating the circuit first (most building wiring designs do not provide individual isolation switches for each fuse) can be dangerous in itself, particularly if the fault is a short circuit.
High rupturing capacity fuses can be rated to safely interrupt up to 300,000 amperes at 600 V AC. Special current-limiting fuses are applied ahead of some molded-case breakers to protect the breakers in low-voltage power circuits with high short-circuit levels.
“Current-limiting” fuses operate so quickly that they limit the total “let-through” energy that passes into the circuit, helping to protect downstream equipment from damage. These fuses open in less than one cycle of the AC power frequency; circuit breakers cannot match this speed.
Some types of circuit breakers must be maintained on a regular basis to ensure their mechanical operation during an interruption. This is not the case with fuses, which rely on melting processes where no mechanical operation is required for the fuse to operate under fault conditions.
In a multi-phase power circuit, if only one fuse opens, the remaining phases will have higher than normal currents, and unbalanced voltages, with possible damage to motors. Fuses only sense overcurrent, or to a degree, over-temperature, and cannot usually be used independently with protective relaying to provide more advanced protective functions, for example, ground fault detection.
Some manufacturers of medium-voltage distribution fuses combine the overcurrent protection characteristics of the fusible element with the flexibility of relay protection by adding a pyrotechnic device to the fuse operated by external protection relays.
MEM rewirable fuse box
MEM rewirable fuse holders (30A & 15A)
Wylex fuse box
fuse wire as sold to UK consumers
In the UK, older electrical consumer units (also called fuse boxes) are fitted either with semi-enclosed (rewirable) fuses (BS 3036) or cartridge fuses (BS 1361). (Fuse wire is commonly supplied to consumers as short lengths of 5A-, 15A- and 30A-rated wire wound on a piece of cardboard.) Modern consumer units usually contain miniature circuit breakers (MCBs) instead of fuses, though cartridge fuses are sometimes still used, as MCBs are rather prone to nuisance tripping.
Renewable fuses (rewirable or cartridge) allow user replacement, but this can be hazardous as it is easy to put a higher-rated or double fuse element (link or wire) into the holder (“overfusing”), or simply fitting it with copper wire or even a totally different type of conducting object (hairpins, paper clips, nails etc.) to the existing carrier. Such tampering will not be visible without full inspection of the fuse. Fuse wire was never used in North America for this reason, although renewable fuses continue to be made for distribution boards.
The fuse boxes pictured in this section are (right) a MEM consumer unit with four rewirable fuse holders (two 30A and two 15A) installed c. 1957 (cover removed); a “Wylex standard” unit with eight rewirable fuse holders.
The “Wylex standard” consumer unit was very popular in the United Kingdom until the wiring regulations started demanding Residual-Current Devices (RCDs) for sockets that could feasibly supply equipment outside the equipotential zone. The design does not allow for fitting of RCDs or RCBOs. Some Wylex standard models were made with an RCD instead of the main switch, but (for consumer units supplying the entire installation) this is no longer compliant with the wiring regulations as alarm systems should not be RCD-protected. There are two styles of fuse base that can be screwed into these units — one designed for rewirable fusewire carriers and one designed for cartridge fuse carriers. Over the years MCBs have been made for both styles of base. In both cases, higher rated carriers had wider pins, so a carrier couldn’t be changed for a higher rated one without also changing the base. Cartridge fuse carriers are also now available for DIN-rail enclosures.
In North America, fuses were used in buildings wired before 1960. These “Edison Base” fuses would screw into a fuse socket similar to Edison-base incandescent lamps. Ratings were 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 amperes. To prevent installation of fuses with an excessive current rating, later fuse boxes included rejection features in the fuseholder socket. Some installations use resettable miniature thermal circuit breakers, which screw into a fuse socket.
One form of fuse box abuse was to put a penny in the socket, which defeated overcurrent protection and resulted in a dangerous condition.
In the 1950s, fuses in new residential or industrial construction for branch circuit protection were superseded by low voltage circuit breakers.
Coordination of fuses in series
Where several fuses are connected in series at the various levels of a power distribution system, it is desirable to blow (clear) only the fuse (or other overcurrent device) electrically closest to the fault. This process is called “coordination” and may require the time-current characteristics of two fuses to be plotted on a common current basis. Fuses are selected so that the minor, branch, fuse disconnects its circuit well before the supplying, major, fuse starts to melt. In this way, only the faulty circuit is interrupted with minimal disturbance to other circuits fed by a common supplying fuse.
Where the fuses in a system are of similar types, simple rule-of-thumb ratios between ratings of the fuse closest to the load and the next fuse towards the source can be used.
Other fuse types
So-called “self-resetting” fuses use a thermoplastic conductive element known as a Polymeric Positive Temperature Coefficient (or PPTC) thermistor that impedes the circuit during an overcurrent condition (by increasing device resistance). The PPTC thermistor is self-resetting in that when current is removed, the device will cool and revert back to low resistance. These devices are often used in aerospace/nuclear applications where replacement is difficult, or on a computer motherboard so that a shorted mouse or keyboard does not cause motherboard damage.
A “thermal fuse” is often found in consumer equipment such as coffee makers or hair dryers or transformers powering small consumer electronics devices. They contain a fusible, temperature-sensitive alloy which holds a spring contact mechanism normally closed. When the surrounding temperature gets too high, the alloy melts and allows the spring contact mechanism to break the circuit. The device can be used to prevent a fire in a hair dryer for example, by cutting off the power supply to the heater elements when the air flow is interrupted (e.g. the blower motor stops or the air intake becomes accidentally blocked). Thermal fuses are a ‘one shot’, non-resettable device which must be replaced once they have been activated (blown).