RF Relay Contact Rating
Relay contact rating and current rating at dc or low frequency ac have almost nothing to do with RF performance.
Published or advertised contact ratings are usually for hot switching into specified load types at low frequencies (or dc) and at fixed voltages. At radio frequencies, things are quite different. At radio frequencies, effects unimportant at dc or 60 Hz come into play.
Skin effect pushes current to the outer edges or outer surfaces of conductors. While skin effect doesn't have a large effect on the small area actually connecting in relay contacts, it has a large effect on contact bar and wire heating in relays. Current handling of the very flexible woven braid used in relay movable contact wiring is greatly affected by frequency. With the loose, soft, fine-wire weave often used in very flexible relay leads, the safe current carrying capacity of wires can be 20% or less of the dc or low frequency AC rating.
Nearly any time a
component is rated
for power handling,
PEAK voltage must be
considered (not RMS
voltage). This is
breakdown RMS is
used only for
heating problems or
Power = 1500 watts into 50-ohm system.
Operating voltage = 1.414 times the sqrt (1500*50) = 388 volts peak
388 volts peak
into a matched load.
With 2:1 SWR maximum
voltage = sqrt 2 *
388 = 550 volts
Current causes heating, so RMS and time-averaged values of current are required. I = sqrt (P/R). RF current = sqrt (1500/50) = 5.5 amperes
We should also use a time, or short-term averaged current, because the failure is often caused by the accumulation of heat over time. The time interval over which we have to integrate or average current depends on the thermal lag or thermal inertia of the contact path and wiring.
Again we need the same SWR correction and a safety factor. With current we use the same SWR correction method as with voltage.
Contacts can instantly be destroyed, even in a very large relay at low power, if contacts are opened or closed while RF is present. Opening is particularly damaging because a small opening arc will ionize the air surrounding the contacts and create an arc-sustaining plasma. A second effect is standing waves. When a contact is open, the transmission line feeding the contact acts like a transformer. Under the right conditions, because of transmission lines and standing wave effects, voltage at the source can be stepped up dozens of times to extremely high voltages.
Contacts also can be ruined if high power RF is applied and an external voltage surge triggers a very tiny arc. A distant lightning hit several miles away can induce enough voltage into an antenna to cause a relay to arc. The arc ionizes air between contacts, and the resulting plasma lets high power RF follow a new path. The effect is very much like striking an arc with a welding rod. Once started, a peak RF voltage as low as 100 volts can sustain an arc 1/4 inch or more in length. Transmitter RF will sustain the arc until something fails.
Contrary to some opinions, a larger relay is almost always not better. Larger relay contacts often have less pressure per square inch of mating area, and are often materials designed for hot switching. The ideal contact material would have a gold flash with the smallest contact patch area the steady-state make current allows. At all costs, avoid silver or cad plated contacts, or exceptionally hard contacts. The ideal receive side relay would be designed with bifurcated (split) contacts.
Contact reliability in cold switched, near zero contact current and near zero contact voltage applications, and this is a cold switch application, rapidly decreases as the contact is made larger than the minimum size possible. Reliability also decreases significantly if hard contact materials are used, or if the contact is cadmium or silver plated.
Published Contact Ratings
There isn't a
good way to use dc
or low frequency AC
ratings of a relay
to determine RF
almost always must
be tested and
inspected in a