Permissive and interlock circuits

A practical application of switch and relay logic is in control systems where several process conditions have to be met before a piece of equipment is allowed to start. A good example of this is burner control for large combustion furnaces. In order for the burners in a large furnace to be started safely, the control system requests "permission" from several process switches, including high and low fuel pressure, air fan flow check, exhaust stack damper position, access door position, etc. Each process condition is called a permissive, and each permissive switch contact is wired in series, so that if any one of them detects an unsafe condition, the circuit will be opened:

If all permissive conditions are met, CR1 will energize and the green lamp will be lit. In real life, more than just a green lamp would be energized: usually a control relay or fuel valve solenoid would be placed in that rung of the circuit to be energized when all the permissive contacts were "good:" that is, all closed. If any one of the permissive conditions are not met, the series string of switch contacts will be broken, CR2 will de-energize, and the red lamp will light.

Note that the high fuel pressure contact is normally-closed. This is because we want the switch contact to open if the fuel pressure gets too high. Since the "normal" condition of any pressure switch is when zero (low) pressure is being applied to it, and we want this switch to open with excessive (high) pressure, we must choose a switch that is closed in its normal state.

Another practical application of relay logic is in control systems where we want to ensure two incompatible events cannot occur at the same time. An example of this is in reversible motor control, where two motor contactors are wired to switch polarity (or phase sequence) to an electric motor, and we don't want the forward and reverse contactors energized simultaneously:

When contactor M1 is energized, the 3 phases (A, B, and C) are connected directly to terminals 1, 2, and 3 of the motor, respectively. However, when contactor M2 is energized, phases A and B are reversed, A going to motor terminal 2 and B going to motor terminal 1. This reversal of phase wires results in the motor spinning the opposite direction. Let's examine the control circuit for these two contactors:

Take note of the normally-closed "OL" contact, which is the thermal overload contact activated by the "heater" elements wired in series with each phase of the AC motor. If the heaters get too hot, the contact will change from its normal (closed) state to being open, which will prevent either contactor from energizing.

This control system will work fine, so long as no one pushes both buttons at the same time. If someone were to do that, phases A and B would be short-circuited together by virtue of the fact that contactor M1 sends phases A and B straight to the motor and contactor M2 reverses them; phase A would be shorted to phase B and vice versa. Obviously, this is a bad control system design!

To prevent this occurrence from happening, we can design the circuit so that the energization of one contactor prevents the energization of the other. This is called interlocking, and it is accomplished through the use of auxiliary contacts on each contactor, as such:

Now, when M1 is energized, the normally-closed auxiliary contact on the second rung will be open, thus preventing M2 from being energized, even if the "Reverse" pushbutton is actuated. Likewise, M1's energization is prevented when M2 is energized. Note, as well, how additional wire numbers (4 and 5) were added to reflect the wiring changes.

It should be noted that this is not the only way to interlock contactors to prevent a short-circuit condition. Some contactors come equipped with the option of a mechanical interlock: a lever joining the armatures of two contactors together so that they are physically prevented from simultaneous closure. For additional safety, electrical interlocks may still be used, and due to the simplicity of the circuit there is no good reason not to employ them in addition to mechanical interlocks.