A residual current device (RCD) is similar to that of a residual current circuit breaker (RCCB), is an electrical wiring device that disconnects a circuit whenever it detects that the electric current is not balanced between the phase ("hot") conductor and the neutral conductor. Such an imbalance is sometimes caused by current leakage through the body of a person who is grounded and accidentally touching the energized part of the circuit. A lethal shock can result from these conditions; RCDs are designed to disconnect quickly enough to mitigate the harm caused by such shocks.
Differences clarified by BS 7671:2008:
By definition an RCD is a mechanical switching device or association of devices intended to cause the opening of the contacts when the residual current attains a given value under specific conditions. A RCCB is without integral overcurrent protection, the circuit breaker is a residual current operated switching device not designed to perform the functions of protection against overload and/or short-circuit.
In the United States and Canada, a residual current device is also known as a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), ground fault interrupter (GFI) or an appliance leakage current interrupter (ALCI). In Australia they are sometimes known as "safety switches".
RCDs are designed to prevent electrocution by detecting the leakage current, which can be far smaller (typically 5–30 milliamperes) than the currents needed to operate conventional circuit breakers or fuses (several amperes). RCDs are intended to operate within 25–40 milliseconds, before electric shock can drive the heart into ventricular fibrillation, the most common cause of death through electric shock.
In the United States, the National Electrical Code, requires GFCI devices intended to protect people to interrupt the circuit if the leakage current exceeds a range of 4–6 mA of current (the trip setting is typically 5 mA) within 25 milliseconds. GFCI devices which protect equipment (not people) are allowed to trip as high as 30 mA of current. In Europe, the commonly used RCDs have trip currents of 10–300 mA.
Residual current detection is complementary to over-current detection. Residual current detection cannot provide protection for overload or short-circuit currents.
RCDs with trip currents as high as 500 mA are sometimes deployed in environments (such as computing centers) where a lower threshold would carry an unacceptable risk of accidental trips. These high-current RCDs serve more as an additional fire-safety protection than as an effective protection against the risks of electrical shocks.
In some countries, two-wire (ungrounded) outlets may be replaced with three-wire GFCIs to protect against electrocution, and a grounding wire does not need to be supplied to that GFCI, but the outlet must be tagged as such. The GFCI manufacturers provide tags for the appropriate installation description.
The photograph depicts the internal mechanism of a Residual Current Device (RCD). The device pictured is designed to be wired in-line in an appliance power cord. It is rated to carry a maximum current of 13 amperes and is designed to trip on a leakage current of 30 mA. This is an active RCD; that is, it doesn't latch mechanically and therefore trips out on power failure, a useful feature for equipment that could be dangerous on unexpected re-energisation.
The incoming supply live and the grounded neutral conductors are connected to the terminals at (1) and the outgoing load conductors are connected to the terminals at (2). The earth conductor (not shown) is connected through from supply to load uninterrupted.
The sense coil (6) is a differential current transformer which surrounds (but is not electrically connected to) the live and neutral conductors. In normal operation, all the current down the live conductor returns up the neutral conductor. The currents in the two conductors are therefore equal and opposite and cancel each other out.
Any fault to earth, for example caused by a person touching a live component in the attached appliance, causes some of the current to take a different return path which means there is an imbalance (difference) in the current in the two conductors (single phase case), or, more generally, a nonzero sum of currents from among various conductors (for example, three phase conductors and one neutral conductor).
This difference causes a current in the sense coil (6) which is picked up by the sense circuitry (7). The sense circuitry then removes power from the solenoid (5) and the contacts (4) are forced apart by a spring, cutting off the electricity supply to the appliance.
The device is designed so that the current is interrupted in a fraction of a second, greatly reducing the chances of a dangerous electric shock being received.
The test button (8) allows the correct operation of the device to be verified by passing a small current through the orange test wire (9). This simulates a fault by creating an imbalance in the sense coil. If the RCD does not trip when this button is pressed then the device must be replaced.
Use and regulations differ widely from country to country. In Europe, the UK has only mandated the use of RCDs in new installations since July 2008. In contrast, Germany requires the use of RCDs on all sockets up to 20A which are for general use. This rule was introduced in June 2007 (DIN VDE 0100-410 Nr. 411.3.3). In the U.S., the National Electrical Code requires GFCIs in bathrooms, kitchens, garages, outdoor areas, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, near wet bars, swimming pools, and spas in residential construction.
Residual current and overcurrent protection may be combined in one device for installation into the service panel; this device is known as a GFCI breaker in the US and as an RCBO in Europe. In the US, RCBOs are much more expensive than RCD outlets.
More than one RCD feeding another is unnecessary, provided they have been wired properly. One exception is the case of a TT earthing system where the earth loop impedance may be high, meaning that a ground fault might not cause sufficient current to trip an ordinary circuit breaker or fuse. In this case a special 100 mA (or greater) trip current time-delayed RCD is installed covering the whole installation and then more sensitive RCDs should be installed downstream of it for sockets and other circuits which are considered high risk.
An RCD will help to protect against electric shock where current flows through a person from a phase (live / line / hot) to earth. It cannot protect against electric shock where current flows through a person from phase to neutral or phase to phase, for example where a finger touches both live and neutral contacts in a light fitting; a device can not differentiate between current flow through an intended load from flow through a person.
Whole installations on a single RCD, common in the UK, are prone to nuisance trips. Nuisance trips can cause safety problems with loss of lighting and defrosting of food.
RCDs also cause nuisance trips with appliances where earth leakage is common and not a cause of injury or mortality, such as water heaters.
In Europe RCDs can fit on the same DIN rail as the MCBs, however the busbar arrangements in consumer units and distribution boards can make it awkward to use them in this way. If it is desired to protect an individual circuit an RCBO (Residual-current Circuit Breaker with Overcurrent protection) can be used. This incorporates an RCD and a miniature circuit breaker in one device.
It is common to install an RCD in a consumer unit in what is known as a split load configuration where one group of circuits is just on the main switch (or time delay RCD in the case of a TT earth) and another group is on the RCD.
Electrical plugs which incorporate an RCD are sometimes installed on appliances which might be considered to pose a particular safety hazard, for example long extension leads which might be used outdoors or garden equipment or hair dryers which may be used near a tub or sink. Occasionally an in-line RCD may be used to serve a similar function to one in a plug. By putting the RCD in the extension lead you provide protection at whatever outlet is used even if the building has old wiring.
In North America, RCD ("GFCI") sockets are usually of the decora size (a size that harmonizes outlets and switches, so that there is no difference in size between an outlet cover and a switch cover). For example, using the decora size outlets, RCD outlets can be mixed with regular outlets or with switches in a multigang box with a standard cover plate.
The first type is used when the power-drawing equipment is regarded as a safety hazard if it is unexpectedly re-energised after a power failure e.g. lawn-mowers and hedge trimmers.
The second type may be used on equipment where unexpected re-energisation after a power failure is not a hazard. An example may be the use of an RCD on a circuit providing power to a food freezer, where having to reset an RCD after a power failure may be inconvenient.
It should be borne in mind that nameplate rating and real trip current are not necessarily the same. For example UK 30mA RCDs must trip at an imbalance current lower than 30mA.