Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A relay is an electrically operated switch. Current flowing through the coil of the relay creates a magnetic field which attracts a lever and changes the switch contacts. The coil current can be on or off so relays have two switch positions and they are double throw (changeover) switches.

Relays allow one circuit to switch a second circuit which can be completely separate from the first. For example a low voltage battery circuit can use a relay to switch a 230V AC mains circuit. There is no electrical connection inside the relay between the two circuits, the link is magnetic and mechanical.

The coil of a relay passes a relatively large current, typically 30mA for a 12V relay, but it can be as much as 100mA for relays designed to operate from lower voltages. Most ICs (chips) cannot provide this current and a transistor is usually used to amplify the small IC current to the larger value required for the relay coil. The maximum output current for the popular 555 timer IC is 200mA so these devices can supply relay coils directly without amplification.

Relays are usually SPDT or DPDT but they can have many more sets of switch contacts, for example relays with 4 sets of changeover contacts are readily available. For further information about switch contacts and the terms used to describe them please see the page on switches

Most relays are designed for PCB mounting but you can solder wires directly to the pins providing you take care to avoid melting the plastic case of the relay.

The supplier's catalogue should show you the relay's connections. The coil will be obvious and it may be connected either way round. Relay coils produce brief high voltage 'spikes' when they are switched off and this can destroy transistors and ICs in the circuit. To prevent damage you must connect a protection diode across the relay coil.

The animated picture shows a working relay with its coil and switch contacts. You can see a lever on the left being attracted by magnetism when the coil is switched on. This lever moves the switch contacts. There is one set of contacts (SPDT) in the foreground and another behind them, making the relay DPDT.

Relay showing coil and switch contacts

Protection diodes for relays

Signal diodes are also used with relays to protect transistors and integrated circuits from the brief high voltage produced when the relay coil is switched off. The diagram shows how a protection diode is connected across the relay coil, note that the diode is connected 'backwards' so that it will normally NOT conduct. Conduction only occurs when the relay coil is switched off, at this moment current tries to continue flowing through the coil and it is harmlessly diverted through the diode. Without the diode no current could flow and the coil would produce a damaging high voltage 'spike' in its attempt to keep the current flowing.
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