Crowbar is an appliance typically used by construction workers. It is a heavy steel rod with one of its ends pointed and the other shaped like a spatula – both very useful for digging or breaking up construction rubble. Normally, one would not associate such a crude instrument for use by engineers dealing in electronics, were it not for one unusual property of the crowbar. Throw it across a power line, whether accidentally or with a purpose, and the power line trips – a fail-safe arrangement to protect the load in case of an emergency.
In electronics, a crowbar protection is generally an electronic circuitry placed across the outputs of a power supply. It activates to protect the load against overvoltage. When it activates, it shorts the output terminals – the crowbar action. This serves to blow the fuse, trip the circuit breaker or to shut down some part of the circuit so that power to the load is cut off. Most power supplies, whether low- or high-voltage, employ this kind of protection.
The crowbar protection circuit has a sensor that monitors the output voltage of the supply, comparing it against a preset value. When an overvoltage occurs, it triggers the crowbar circuit, which in turn short circuits the output terminals, thereby cutting off power to the load.
Crowbar devices typically use one of two types of components as their main protection. These are the Silicon Controlled Rectifier or SCR, and the Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor or MOSFET. The design of the monitoring circuit of the crowbar depends on the sensitivity of the load circuit to be protected. For instance, the reaction time of the monitoring circuit depends on how long the protected circuit can survive the excess voltage without damage, and the response time of the main protection device.
Several fault-conditions may lead to possible over voltages. These include a fault in either the power supply or the load, and operator error. Present day electronics are sensitive and often operate at very low voltages with small margin. That makes it imperative to ensure that the safe voltages are not exceeded, and sensitive and expensive equipment remain undamaged.
Although blowing the fuse is a popular method of protecting a circuit, it has its disadvantages. Recovery is only possible by manually replacing the fuse, once the fault condition is repaired. This is a time consuming affair, and not helpful for low downtime appliances. Therefore, most engineers prefer a fold-back type of crowbar protection.
In a typical crowbar protection, the entire load current is diverted from the load and directed to the short circuit across the output terminals. This is constant current limiting and puts the fuse under tremendous stress, causing it to blow, thereby protecting the power supply and its load. In contrast, with the fold-back crowbar protection, the load current through the short circuit reduces once the crowbar has activated and shorted the outputs.
The short circuit current reduces to the extent that the power dissipated by the supply can remain within its safe operating area. This prevents the fuse from blowing, and at the same time, the power supply keeps the load circuit safe because of the crowbar action. As soon as the cause of the overvoltage is repaired, the power supply resumes automatically.