Air Conditioning A/C System Operating Controls & Overcurrent Protection
1. Thermostats: The air conditioning system is operated by thermostat in the living area.
2. Air conditioning system zone dampers: Some air conditioning system designs may use a single air handler and compressor, but may add zone dampers in the duct work to provide individual "zoning" of cool air distribution. In this case each zone thermostat both calls for the system blower/compressor to operate and also causes a motorized zone damper to open to direct cool air to a particular portion of the building.
3. Manual duct dampers may also be present in duct work to manually balance air distribution among building areas. Be sure to look for these when diagnosing poor cool air delivery to an area.)
4. Electrical switches for air conditioning systems will often be found as follows:
o Electrical panel circuit breakers or fuses will be provided separately to control the air handler (blower system) circuit and the compressor/condenser circuit. Of these the compressor is usually supplied by a 240V circuit and the air handler by a 120V circuit.
o Compressor safety shut off switch outside at the compressor/condenser. The switch may be a circuit breaker, fuse, or a simple "pull-out" disconnect located close to the compressor.
o Air handler service switch inside on or close to the air handler unit itself
o Air handler blower compartment safety switch: a safety interlock that will turn off electricity to the air handler or blower unit if the blower compartment door is not securely shut. If your air conditioner blower will not start this switch and the blower compartment doors should be checked.
SAFETY CONTROLS - Air Conditioning Automatic Safety Controls - Cooling System Fuse or Circuit Breaker Size Requirements
Electric Power Controls - Safety Disconnects for Air Conditioners
Safety disconnects should installed outside next to the compressor/condenser unit and are often also installed next to or mounted on the air handler/blower unit.
If you cannot find an outside electrical disconnect one should be installed. These controls are recommended for safety to reduce the temptation to open the cabinet and work on the equipment with power on. Working on electrically "live" cooling equipment risks both shock and mechanical injury such as being cut by the fan if the motor starts unexpectedly. Safety shutoffs are required for new equipment.
How to Specify the Breaker or Fuse Size for Air Conditioning Circuits
Amperage rating of safety disconnects and A/C circuit breakers: the safety switch on newer equipment may be a simple pull-out fuse-block type power disconnect, leaving circuit protection to be provided only at the circuit breaker or fuse for the A/C circuit where it originates in the electrical panel. Where the actual overcurrent protection is provided (at older circuit breakers used as auxiliary safety disconnects at the equipment, and at the main panel at the origin of the cooling circuit for the compressor/condenser unit) electrical overload protection size (circuit breaker or fuse amperage rating) for modern A/C equipment is specified by the manufacturer.
The Maximum Fuse or HACR type Breaker: specifies the maximum overcurrent protection or MOP to be used to protect the equipment. The permitted ampacity of the equipment electrical circuit protection (fuse or circuit breaker amps) expressed as MOP or Maximum Overcurrent Protection. If MOP is specified, the breaker or fuse protecting the equipment should match this number.
As we explained at the beginning of this document, a hermetic compressor draws varying amounts of current (measured in amps) as its internal pressure changes during operation. We said that current draw is higher when starting the motor than when the system is in steady state operation. Current draw is highest if the motor is starting against its highest back pressure such as if the air conditioning system has been turned off and then back on in the middle of operation. Because fusing an air conditioning compressor at the minimum level can result in blown fuses or tripped breakers during these intervals of heavy current draw during compressor startup, compressors are either protected by a slow-blow fuse or a somewhat larger than minimum circuit breaker.]
Rules of thumb for over sizing air conditioning system breakers or fuses: On some older equipment MOP is not specified. Only when MOP has not been specified can the overcurrent protection required be determined by alternative means such as [RLA OR BCSC whichever is greater x 175%], or if the compressor keeps tripping that device or blowing that fuse, RLA x 225% might be used. The National Electrical Code (NEC) specifies the degree to which a breaker or fuse may exceed the RLA. [For example, if the MOP or fuse size is specified by the manufacturer to be 40 amps, then a 40 amp breaker must be installed with no increase or change in that rating.]
Multiple switches are often present on cooling systems. As we reminded in the previous chapter, if the air conditioning system won't run, before requesting a service call check all of the switches as well as the thermostat for proper settings.
Air Conditioner Fuse or Circuit Breaker Size Details
Generally, what is the ampacity we see in the field when inspecting an air conditioning compressor circuit?
When the air conditioning system is running, if you measured the amperage, it would be roughly 80% of the RLA. The breaker size is typically about 125% of the total of the compressor RLA and the condenser fan FLA (full load amperage).
The rationale is that the circuit breaker protecting the air conditioner compressor unit should trip in the event of a locked rotor [the revolving axle of a compressor motor, for example] or some significant electrical event, but should not trip during start up loads which, as we know can be significantly higher than the RLA momentarily [as the compressor motor draws higher amperage to get itself started].
Why can we put an "oversized" fuse or circuit breaker on an air conditioning compressor circuit?
An air conditioning electrical circuit is different than a general household circuit in that we have a known current load. [There is only one device connected to the air conditioning electrical circuit, and we can read its operating characteristics.] We are not worried about an overload situation where people plug several appliances into receptacles on a single circuit. Generally speaking, the amperage draw is fine or is way too big.
NEC States "Branch circuits for air conditioning and heat pump equipment. The ampacity of the conductors supplying a multi motor and combination load equipment shall not be less than the minimum circuit and capacity marked on the equipment. The branch-circuit overcurrent device rating shall be the size and type marked on the appliance and shall be listed for the specific purpose." In short, do what it says on the data plate.