A contactor is an electrically controlled switch (a relay) used for switching a power or control circuit. A contactor is controlled by a circuit which has a much lower power level than the switched circuit. Contactors come in many forms with varying capacities and features. Unlike a circuit breaker a contactor is not intended to interrupt a short circuit current.
Contactors range from those having a breaking current of several amps and 24 V dc to thousands of amps and many kilovolts. The physical size of contactors ranges from a device small enough to pick up with one hand, to large devices approximately a meter (yard) on a side.
A contactor is composed of three different items. The contacts are the current carrying part of the contactor. This includes power contacts, auxiliary contacts, and contact springs. The electromagnet provides the driving force to close the contacts. The enclosure is a frame housing the contact and the electromagnet. Enclosures are made of insulating materials like Bakelite, Nylon 6, and thermosetting plastics to protect and insulate the contacts and to provide some measure of protection against personnel touching the contacts. Open-frame contactors may have a further enclosure to protect against dust, oil, explosion hazards and weather.
High voltage contactors (greater than 1000 volts) may use vacuum or an inert gas around the contacts.
Magnetic blowouts use blowout coils to lengthen and move the electric arc. These are especially useful in DC power circuits. AC arcs have periods of low current, during which the arc can be extinguished with relative ease, but DC arcs have continuous high current, so blowing them out requires the arc to be stretched further than an AC arc of the same current. The magnetic blowouts in the pictured Albright contactor (which is designed for DC currents) more than double the current it can break, increasing it from 600 A to 1,500 A.
Sometimes an economizer circuit is also installed to reduce the power required to keep a contactor closed; an auxiliary contact reduces coil current after the contactor closes. A somewhat greater amount of power is required to initially close a contactor than is required to keep it closed. Such a circuit can save a substantial amount of power and allow the energized coil to stay cooler. Economizer circuits are nearly always applied on direct-current contactor coils and on large alternating current contactor coils.
A basic contactor will have a coil input (which may be driven by either an AC or DC supply depending on the contactor design). The coil may be energized at the same voltage as the motor, or may be separately controlled with a lower coil voltage better suited to control by programmable controllers and lower-voltage pilot devices. Certain contactors have series coils connected in the motor circuit; these are used, for example, for automatic acceleration control, where the next stage of resistance is not cut out until the motor current has dropped.
 Operating Principle
Unlike general-purpose relays, contactors are designed to be directly connected to high-current load devices. Relays tend to be of lower capacity and are usually designed for both normally closed and normally open applications. Devices switching more than 15 amperes or in circuits rated more than a few kilowatts are usually called contactors. Apart from optional auxiliary low current contacts, contactors are almost exclusively fitted with normally open contacts. Unlike relays, contactors are designed with features to control and suppress the arc produced when interrupting heavy motor currents.
When current passes through the electromagnet, a magnetic field is produced, which attracts the moving core of the contactor. The electromagnet coil draws more current initially, until its inductance increases when the metal core enters the coil. The moving contact is propelled by the moving core; the force developed by the electromagnet holds the moving and fixed contacts together. When the contactor coil is de-energized, gravity or a spring returns the electromagnet core to its initial position and opens the contacts.
For contactors energized with alternating current, a small part of the core is surrounded with a shading coil, which slightly delays the magnetic flux in the core. The effect is to average out the alternating pull of the magnetic field and so prevent the core from buzzing at twice line frequency.
Most motor control contactors at low voltages (600 volts and less) are air break contactors; i.e., ordinary air surrounds the contacts and extinguishes the arc when interrupting the circuit. Modern medium-voltage motor controllers use vacuum contactors.
Motor control contactors can be fitted with short-circuit protection (fuses or circuit breakers), disconnecting means, overload relays and an enclosure to make a combination starter.
Contactors are rated by designed load current per contact (pole), maximum fault withstand current, duty cycle, voltage, and coil voltage. A general purpose motor control contactor may be suitable for heavy starting duty on large motors; so-called “definite purpose” contactors are carefully adapted to such applications as air-conditioning compressor motor starting. North American and European ratings for contactors follow different philosophies, with North American general purpose machine tool contactors generally emphasizing simplicity of application while definite purpose and European rating philosophy emphasizes design for the intended life cycle of the application.
Current rating of the contactor depends on utilization category. For example IEC Categories are described as:
- AC1 – Non-inductive or slightly inductive rows
- AC2 – Starting of slip-ring motors
- AC3 – Starting of squirrel-cage motors and switching off only after the motor is up to speed. (Make LRA, Break FLA)
- AC4 – Starting of squirrel-cage motors with inching and plugging duty. Rapid Start/Stop. (Make and Break LRA)
- AC11 – Auxiliary (control) circuits
 Lighting control
Contactors are often used to provide central control of large lighting installations, such as an office building or retail building. To reduce power consumption in the contactor coils, latching contactors are used, which have two operating coils. One coil, momentarily energized, closes the power circuit contacts, which are then mechanically held closed; the second coil opens the contacts.
 Magnetic starter
A magnetic starter is a contactor designed to provide power to electric motors. The magnetic starter has an overload relay attached physically and electrically. The overload relay will open the supply voltage to the starter if it detects an overload on a motor.  Overload relays may rely on heat produced by the motor current to operate a bimetal contact or release a contact held closed by a low-melting-point alloy. The overload relay opens a set of contacts that are wired in series with the supply to the contactor feeding the motor. The characteristics of the heaters can be matched to the motor so that the motor is protected against overload. Recently, microprocessor-controlled motor protection relays offer more comprehensive protection of motors.
- ^ Terrell Croft and Wilford Summers (ed), American Electricans’ Handbook, Eleventh Edition, McGraw Hill, New York (1987) ISBN 0-07013932-6 page 7-124
- ^ Croft, page 7-125
- ^ All about circuits
- ^ Frane, James T. (1994). “Magnetic starter”. Craftsman’s Illustrated Dictionary of Construction Terms. Craftsman Book Company. ISBN 1572180080.
- ^ Smeaton, Robert W.; Ubert, William H. (1998). Switchgear and Control Handbook. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070584516.