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A relay is a device which is operated by a variation in its electrical or physical conditions to effect the
operation of other devices in an electric circuit. A protective relay is a relay, the principal function of
which is to protect service from interruption or to prevent or limit damage to apparatus. [1] In electrical
engineering, aprotective relay is a device designed to trip a circuit breaker when a fault is
detected[2]:4. The first protective relays were electromagnetic devices, relying on coils operating on
moving parts to provide detection of abnormal operating conditions such as over-current, overvoltage, reverse power flow, over- and under- frequency.[3] Microprocessor-based digital protection
relays now emulate the original devices, as well as providing types of protection and supervision
impractical with electromechanical relays. Electromechanical relays provide only rudimentary
indications of involved phase and zone targets.[4] In many cases a single microprocessor relay
provides functions that would take two or more electromechanical devices. By combining several
functions in one case, numerical relays also save capital cost and maintenance cost over
electromechanical relays.[5] However, due to their very long life span, tens of thousands of these
"silent sentinels"[1] are still protecting transmission lines and electrical apparatus all over the world.
An important transmission line or generator unit will have cubicles dedicated to protection, with many
individual electromechanical devices, or one or two microprocessor relays.

Electromechanical protective relays at a hydroelectric generating plant. The relays are in round glass cases.
The rectangular devices are test connection blocks, used for testing and isolation of instrument transformer

The theory and application of these protective devices is an important part of the education of
an electrical engineer who specializes in power systems. The need to act quickly to protect circuits
and equipment as well as the general public often requires protective relays to respond and trip a
breaker within a few thousandths of a second. In some instances these clearance times are
prescribed in legislation or operating rules.[6] A maintenance or testing program is used to determine
the performance and availability of protection systems.[7]
Based on the end application and respective user geography, there are various standards such as
ANSI C37.90, IEC255-4, IEC60255-3, IAC, etc. that govern the response time of the relay to the
fault conditions that may occur.[8]

Courtesy: Wikipedia
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protective_relay