Vacuum Contactor vs Circuit Breaker Selection Considerations

By | December 19, 2018

To compare the application of medium-voltage circuit breakers and of fused contactors, we must understand the basic characteristics of each switching technology.

The below table shows the major characteristics of medium-voltage circuit breakers and medium-voltage fused contactors that influence the application.

Of course, the table entries are generalized, and the information varies by the voltage and current ratings of the equipment. However, the table is valid for an overall understanding. From the data in the table, Siemens makes these observations:

Medium-voltage circuit breakers are favored when:

Typical loads include transformers, capacitors, larger motors, generators or distribution feeders

Ratings required exceed those of vacuum contactors (400 A or 720 A at up to 7.2 kV)

Continuous load current is high (e.g., larger transformers, larger motors)

Switching is not very frequent (e.g., weekly or monthly); high endurance (1,000s of operations) is satisfactory

Process continuity is critical (e.g., no time for fuse replacement)

Reduced-voltage (RV) starting is not needed (RV starting complicates switchgear bus arrangements).

Medium-voltage NEMA Class E2 controllers (fused contactors) are favored when:

  • Typical loads include motors or smaller transformers
  • Continuous load current is low or moderate (e.g., smaller motors or transformers)
  • Switching is very frequent (e.g., daily or several times per day); very high endurance (100,000s of operations) is
  • Process continuity is compatible with fuse replacement time
  • Reduced-voltage starting is needed to reduce starting duty (and voltage fluctuation) on system.

contactor vs circuit breaker

Historically, circuit breakers have been used for medium voltage motors in certain industries, especially in utility
generating stations.

As these stations have aged, and station operation has changed from base-load to peaking service, many of these motor-starting circuit breakers have experienced total operations well in excess of the endurance required by the ANSI/IEEE standards.

As a result, these applications have had higher maintenance costs than if medium-voltage fused contactors had been used originally. In contrast, users in the process industries have long favored the use of fused contactors for such applications, and have enjoyed long service with lower maintenance costs.

When applied properly, both medium-voltage circuit breakers and medium-voltage fused contactors should provide decades of reliable service. Applied incorrectly, either can lead to major headaches.


Circuit breaker

Contactor (NEMA E2 with fuses)


Continuous current


High (1,200 A, 2,000 A, 3,000 A or 4,000 A)

Moderate (400 A enclosed – NEMA size H3, or 720 A enclosed – NEMA size H6) in SIMOVAC controller



Switching capability



Switch currents from very low (magnetizing) values to full system short-circuit current

Switch currents from very low (magnetizing) values to interrupting capability of vacuum contactor without fuses (at least 10 x continuous rating)

Fuses operate for currents higher than the interrupting capability of the vacuum contactor alone, up to the interrupting capacity of the fuse


Endurance – mechanical

High (typically 10,000 operations) (refer to ANSI/IEEE C37.06)  

Very high, 750,000 operations for 400 A and 400,000 for 720A




Endurance – electrical



For vacuum, typically 10,000 operations at rated continuous current

For vacuum, typically 30 to 100 operations at full short-circuit rating

Very high

Switching continuous current, 400,000 operations for 400A or

200,000 operations for 720 A

Switching short-circuit current, endurance data not established in NEMA or UL standards; short-circuit current interruption requires replacement of current-limiting fuses

Application limitations Not appropriate for very high endurance applications Well suited for very frequent switching operations


Electrically operated (manual operation for maintenance or emergency)  

Electrically operated only




Control scheme



Mechanically latched – circuit breaker remains closed on loss of system voltage


Usually magnetically held – vacuum contactor opens on loss of system voltage; vacuum contactor will close automatically

on system voltage return with two-wire control; manual restart required on system voltage return with three-wire control Latched contactors are available


short-circuit protection


Requires protective relays

Requires protective relays for overload protection and current- limiting fuses for short-circuit protection
Short-circuit let-through energy High (three to five cycles or more of short-circuit current) Low (current-limiting fuses interrupt in 1/4 cycle for highest short-circuit currents, and peak magnitude is limited)
Remote operation Well suited Well suited

Control power

Control power needed for protective relays, circuit breaker operation and space heaters (if present) Control power usually provided by control power transformer

(CPT) incorporated in the controller



Drawout, if metal-clad (ANSI/IEEE C37.20.2) Stationary, if metal-enclosed (ANSI/IEEE C37.20.3)  

Drawout or stationary


Space requirements


Larger enclosure

NEC® required workspace equal

Smaller enclosure

NEC® required workspace equal

Rear access not required

Purchase cost Relatively high Moderate


Medium (long maintenance intervals, need to clean insulation)  

Low (simple mechanism, need to clean insulation, replace fuses)


Source: Siemens Technical Paper

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