Potential for Good and Evil (The Hard Start & Potential Relay)

I have spent most of my career being afraid of hard start kits, I heard too many horror stories of start caps exploding and sales technicians telling every customer they need one.

It dawned on me recently that it may be time for me to take a more mature look at start capacitors, potential relays and hard start kits and find some best practices.

Let’s start with how they work.

When a compressor first starts up, it requires a lot of torque to get from 0% up to 75% of running speed, especially when it has to start under pressure load (unequalized pressures). A start capacitor is designed to create the optimal phase shift for that first 75% of synchronous speed. A run capacitor is sized to create an optimal phase shift for a compressor that is running at full speed and at full design load because the run capacitor never comes out of the circuit.

While a run capacitor has heat dissipation capability for constant duty a start capacitor MUST be taken out of the circuit VERY quickly to avoid melting down as well as causing compressor damage.

The start capacitor is REMOVED from the circuit by a relay called the potential relay. The potential relay is normally closed and it OPENS when a sufficient PICKUP voltage is present between the 5 and 2 terminals on the relay. This pickup voltage is potential (voltage) that exists in the start winding when a motor gets above about 75% running speed and it is GENERATED in the start winding by the motor itself NOT the capacitor. A capacitor DOES NOT boost the voltage, when you see that increased voltage across the capacitor that is back EMF being generated by the motor, just like in a generator (pretty cool huh?).

Some hard start manufactures wire the coil on the potential between start and common and some wire it between start and run. You will find that most OEM’s wire between start and common but this does not mean that wiring between start and run is bad… it just needs to be designed correctly for that purpose (Kickstart does it this way for example).

A properly sized start capacitor and potential relay are not BAD for a compressor, they just must be sized and installed correctly and there are some cases where they are more likely to be useful that others.

Cases where they may be very useful useful

  • Long line set applications
  • Hard shut off valves
  • More often on reciprocating compressors than scroll or rotary (but still OK on scroll and rotary when beneficial)
  • on 208V single phase applications

Things to consider

  • Mount the relay properly, there is a proper UP configuration on most potential relays
  • Use hard starts with REAL potential relays not timers, solid state or other relay types (in my experience)
  • Size the relay and capacitor according to manufacturers specs
  • Ensure that you have a good quality, properly sized run capacitor on any system with a hard start

For a complete write up on potential relays you can read these articles HERE and HERE

— Bryan

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