littelfuse Blog

Motor Protection

Littelfuse 10/10/2018
Motor Protection


Motors are a significant investment and often run critical processes. Motor protection relays are used to protect the windings from damage due to electrical faults and thermal overloads. Adequate motor protection not only prevents motor damage, but also ensures optimal process efficiency and minimal interruption. Cost recovery for protection is achieved by extending the life of the motor, preventing motor rewinds and reducing downtime.

Common Motor Problems

Overload and Overtemperature
Insulation breakdown is a common reason for motor failure. Windings in the motor are insulated with organic materials including epoxy and paper. Insulation degradation occurs when winding temperature exceeds its rating. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) states that the time-to-failure of organic insulation is halved for each 8 to 10°C rise above the motor insulation-class rating. This point is illustrated in Figure 11.

Solution: An I2t Thermal Model provides thermal-overload protection of motor windings during all phases of operation. By integrating the square of the current over time, a thermal model can predict motor temperature and react much quicker than embedded temperature devices. A thermal model takes into consideration the motor service factor, full-load current and class. A dynamic thermal model adjusts the time-to-trip depending on how much motor thermal capacity has been used. Figure 12 illustrates the adjustment in trip time for different current levels at different levels of used thermal capacity (I2t).

A dynamic thermal model allows accurate protection of a motor and allows operations to get the maximum work out of a motor without sacrificing available life. If the motor is hot (high % used thermal capacity) it will trip more rapidly during an overload than if the motor is cold (0% used thermal capacity). In the event of a stall condition, when available motor torque is lower than the torque required by the load, the motor can be de-energized before it overheats.

Many old-technology electronic thermal overloads do not take into consideration the values of load current below the full-load current (FLA) pick-up value. Modern overload relays should model currents above and below the FLA pick-up current to achieve maximum output of the motor and maximum life of insulation.

On larger induction motors, blockage or loss of ventilation can cause motor hot spots that current-based protection cannot detect without the use of temperature sensors. Resistance temperature detectors (RTDs) are inexpensive devices installed between the stator windings during manufacturing and may be included on motor-end bearings.

Motor Protection
An RTD has a linear change in resistance over its rated temperature range. Using information from an RTD, motor- protection relays can provide protection for loss-of-ventilation, loss-of-cooling, or high-ambient-temperature.

The RTD temperature reading can also be used as an input to the thermal model to improve protection. When hot- motor compensation is enabled, the maximum stator-RTD temperature is used to bias the thermal model by increasing used I2t when the RTD temperature is greater than the thermal-model temperature.

Overcurrent, Jam and Undercurrent

Overcurrent faults, also referred to as short circuits, can cause catastrophic motor failures and fires. Overcurrents can be caused by phase-to-phase, phase-to-ground, and phase-to- ground-to-phase faults.

A mechanical jam, such as a failed bearing or load, can cause stalling and locked-rotor current to be drawn by the motor, resulting in overheating.

Undercurrent protection is loss-of-load protection and is required by some codes as a safety measure. A water pump that cavitates can be dangerous. The water typically provides pump cooling. Without the cooling water, case temperature can reach an extremely high value. If valves are opened under these conditions and cold water is allowed to reach red-hot metal parts, the resulting steam pressures can destroy the pump and pose a serious personnel hazard.

Solution: A multifunction motor protection relay has multiple trip and alarm settings for current protection. Overcurrent protection is typically set above locked rotor current and has a minimal delay time. Overcurrent protection may be used to trip a breaker instead of a starter due to the high fault levels. Jam protection is set below overcurrent and has a slightly longer delay time. Jam protection prevents motor heating that would otherwise lead to an overload trip. Jam protection is enabled after the motor is running to avoid tripping on starting current. Undercurrent is set below full-load current to detect loss of load.

Motor Protection
Under and Overvoltage

Overvoltages cause insulation stress and premature breakdown. Undervoltages, such as those caused by brownouts, can lead to increased motor heating. Torque developed by an electric motor changes as the square of the applied voltage. A 10% reduction in voltage results in a 19% reduction in torque. If the motor load is not reduced, the motor will be overloaded.

Solution: Under and overvoltage protection are features found in higher-end motor protection relays. Voltage protection can be used pro-actively to inhibit a start.

Ground Faults

Ground faults are the most common fault and can lead to more serious problems. Ground-fault protection, described elsewhere in this text, is an important consideration in motor loads.

Solution: The motor protection relay should be able to detect low-level ground-fault current when used on a resistance-grounded system.

High-Resistance Winding Faults

Winding-to-winding and winding-to-ground failures inside the motor are difficult to detect using the phase and ground-fault CTs due to low magnitudes of current.

Solution: Differential protection in high-end motor protection relays use multiple CTs to compare the current entering and leaving the winding. If there is a difference in currents then leakage is occurring. This sensitive protection is used on very large or critical motors.

Current and Voltage Imbalance, Phase Loss, Phase Reverse

Older motor protection devices did not consider current imbalance and today it is often overlooked. Imbalance increases negative-sequence current which causes additional rotor heating.

Phase loss is also referred to as single phasing. When a phase loss occurs, negative-sequence current is equal to the positive-sequence current and imbalance is 100%. In this condition, one motor winding attempts to do the work of three, inevitably leading to overheating.

Phase reversal causes the negative-sequence current and voltage to be greater than the positive-sequence current and voltage. Voltage-based protection is advantageous to prevent a start with incorrect sequence. In some applications attempting to spin the motor backwards will result in damage to the load. An example of this is certain impeller designs in downhole pumps.

Solution: Modern motor protection relays use digital signal analysis to measure true-sequence components. These sequence components are used for thermal model calculations and take the extra heating into consideration. Voltage imbalance which drives current imbalance can be used as a start inhibit. Sequence components are also used for calculating imbalance, phase loss and phase reversal.

Motor Jogging

NEMA-designed motors are rated for two starts from cold and one start from hot per hour. Motor jogging refers to excessive starts and can cause overheating. The motor may not get up to full speed and the forced air cooling is not effective.

Solution: Since the thermal model accurately tracks the motor’s used thermal capacity at all times, including during starts and between starts, the starts-per-hour feature may not be required.

It is included for compatibility with protection relays that do not have dynamic thermal-modeling capability.

Motor Protection and the NEC

The NEC requires the motor to be protected by overload devices against excessive heating due to overload and failure to start (Article 430 Section III). Article 430, Section IV also specifies the use of devices to protect against overcurrents such as short circuits and grounds. Both of these NEC requirements and many additional functions can be met with the use of a multifunction motor protection relay.

Article 430.32 (A)(4) requires the use of a protection device having embedded temperature detectors that cause current to the motor to be interrupted when the motor attains a temperature rise greater than marked on the nameplate in an ambient temperature of 40°C for motors larger than 1500 hp.

The NEC defines minimum requirements and is intended to provide protection from fire. Protection relays can provide many enhancements above simple fire protection.


Network communications can be added to a motor protection relay to allow remote metering of currents, voltages and temperatures. Data logging is a useful feature for troubleshooting and comparing event sequences with process stages. Analysis of information can often show operational issues.