Contactors, Control Circuits and Motors

1. Introduction

2. Common Relay / Contactor setup (Utilizing emergency stop circuit).

3. Common Relay / Contactor setup (Utilizing start / stop circuit).

4. Contactors controlling STAR-DELTA motors

5. Examples of STAR and DELTA winding configurations.

6. Important notes

7. Different types of AC motor

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1. Introduction 

A contactor is a relay which is capable of  switching large electrical loads.

Contactors and relays are operated by applying a voltage to the coil of an Electro-magnet, which will cause a switch, (or several switches) to close. The circuit that applies the voltage to the coil is referred to as the control circuit, because it controls the main device that the contactor or relay is switching.


The coil voltage of a contactor or relay can be installed for virtually any control circuit voltage, to provide complete flexibility for these devices (both AC and DC), as the control circuit can be completely independent of the load it is switching.

It should be noted that when installing contactors or relays that you always check the coil ratings. They often have not got a default rating of 230volts, and only go bang once if they are connected to the wrong voltage! 

This page explains how a simple contactor (or relay) works, and describes some examples of how this devices would control motors.

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2. Common relay/ Contactor set-up (utilising an emergency stop circuit)



The contactor is operated by the control circuit energizing a coil, which can be controlled by any sort of switching device (to perform an assortment of tasks). When the coil is energized, the circuit that the contactor is switching will be energized. 

In the above example, there are two stop buttons (in brown - fig1) in the supply to the coil (black zigzag - fig1). In the event that one of the stop buttons is struck, the circuit to the coil will become broken, de-energizing the coil. The supply that the contactor is switching (grey cables fig1) will therefore be switched off. 

IMPORTANT : The above diagram is designed to use lockable stop buttons only.

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3. Common relay/ Contactor set-up (utilising a start / stop circuit)



fig 2.


The contactor is operated by the control circuit energizing a coil, as in the example above. When the coil is energized, the circuit that the contactor is switching will be energized.

In the above example, there are two start, and two stop buttons (in brown - fig2) in the supply to the coil (black zigzag - fig2).

To close the contactor (to energize the switched circuit), one of the two start buttons (in green - fig2) must be pressed. Once the start button has been pressed, the contactor will close, which will also close the 'lock' circuit to the contactor (holding the supply to the coil).

To open the contactor (to de-energize the switched circuit), one of the stop buttons must be pressed. The circuit to the coil will become broken, de-energising the coil. The supply that the contactor is switching (grey cables fig1) will therefore be switched off. (See AC motor section at the bottom of this page).

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4. Contactors controlling a STAR-DELTA motor



fig 3.

Star-Delta starting for motors, utilises the same system as the previous example (fig 2), but incorperates a method of changing the switching of the coils of a motor (while it is in motion). NOTE: STAR-DELTA MOTORS HAVE 6 WINDINGS NOT 3 or 4.

When the start button is pressed, contactor 1 and 3 will close. Contactor 1 will energise the 3 motor windings on one end of the motor, while contactor 3 will bridge together the cables from the other side of the motor (windings 4,5 and 6). This is STAR mode running 230 volts per winding (see fig 4)...

A timer will be setup by the installation engineer to provide enough time for the motor to get up to speed properly in star mode. Once the motor is running, the time on the timer should expire, making the Contactor 3 switch off, and changeover to Contactor 2 (Contactor 1 will also stay energised). (See AC motor section at the bottom of this page).


(5. Examples of star-delta)

fig 4.


When contactor 2 has engaged, the windings 4,5 and 6 will now also be supplying the motor, but at 120 degrees from that of the supply to windings 1,2 and 3). ie... Winding 1 RED phase, Winding 4 YELLOW phase, Winding 2 YELLOW phase, Winding 5 BLUE phase, Winding 3 BLUE phase, Winding 6 RED phase. This is DELTA mode, each winding has a 415v supply across it. (see fig 5)....

fig 5.

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6. Notes

 It is important to remember that the coils of contactors come in allsorts of differing voltages, so be sure that you are using the correct one for the job!

Remember to fuse the coil of the contactor (and the control circuit itself) on its own circuit, as a coil need only be fused at 1 or 2 amps.


 If using a control circuit using SELV (safety extra low voltages < 50volts) to control loads running on mains voltages, it is essential that both the circuits are segregated from each other, to prevent faults developing in the wrong circuits, the introduction of eddy currents in the SELV wiring, and to prevent accidental wiring crossovers during maintenance.


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7. Different types of AC Motors


Electric motors can come in many different forms, being controlled in many different ways.

This page covers AC single and three phase motors.

Many of these motors are ‘contact less’ (ie, require no brushes), which gives them the advantage of having no parts that produce sparks* or that are likely to be vulnerable to high maintenance.    *under normal operating conditions. 

Common appliances such as electrical power tools do however use motors that require brushes, as these motors are generally lightly loaded, and are not used for prolonged periods of time.  Motors used in these instances also need to be cost effectively produced, which motors of this nature can be. 

Speed controls can be applied to motors in varying different ways, by either producing motors with differeing size windings to ‘stage speed’ a motor, or to use frequency controls to physically restrict the speed of the motor, by controlling the frequency of the supply voltage (ie, a 50Hz supply will run faster than a 40Hz supply).



The main types of motor you would find in single phase equipment are direct on-line.  These motors consist of a single winding (the main winding) and a method of starting the motor (the start winding or capacitor).  *for reference start windings refer to either a winding or capacitor.

Being single phase, this type of motor runs at 230 volt.

 AC motor windings alone are incapable of starting themselves, and need a start winding to ‘shunt’ them in the direction they are to run in (without the start winding, the motor will stall, and eventually burn out due to over heating).

It is important to remember this principle with these motors, because it is not possible to reverse the direction of travel with a single phase direct on-line motor by changing the phase and neutral supply  to the motor.  To reverse these motors, the start winding must have its polarity reversed, with the main winding remaining unchanged.



The direct on-line 3 phase motor is used for heavier work loads because these motors can provide substantially more torque than its single phase equivalent.  These motors run on a 400v 3 phase supply, and can run using less current than an equivalent single phase motor.

3 phase direct on-line motors consist of  three sets of windings (one for each phase), connected in delta.

These motors are connected directly to either a 3 phase switch or a contactor (as a method of control).


fig 6.


Three phase star-delta motors are constructed similarly to a direct online single phase motor, but the terminals for each winding are not terminated within the motor, instead they are brought out of the  motor for control wiring to connect to.

Three phase star-delta motors are used for maximum talk, where the motor will try to start under a heavy load. A star-delta motor starts in two stages, controlled by equipment connected to it.

Stage one

The motor is required to start. To provide the maximum available torque, the motor is started in ‘star’, which provides a supply of 230volts to each of the windings (providing high current to each winding).

Once the motor is running, it is running in an inefficient mode, due to the use of a high current supply, which will (if left) cause the motor to overheat.

Stage two

Once the motor is running, it  no longer needs a high torque supply, so to save energy and prevent the motor from destruction, the motor must change into a ‘delta’ configuration. 

By changing the configuration of the motor supply cables at the control equipment, the motor can be run in delta mode (running each winding at 400volts rather than 230v, which uses less current) 

fig 7.


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