Introduction: How Electronic Switches Work for Noobs: Relays and Transistors

About: I enjoy building things which i need or want, like coilwinders, coilguns, laser burners ect. I am into a bit of everything, electronics, programming, animating ect.

This Instructable is targeted at those just stepping into the world of electronics.

In this guide I will explain how the two main types of electronic switches work, these being relays, and transistors.

Firstly, what is an electronic switch?

An electronic switch is essentially just a switch that uses an electrical current, to turn on, usually turning off when the current is turned off. Some applications of switches can be quite inconvenient for someone to go and press a button to turn on or off, such as for the starter motor in a car, or the "turn off nuclear meltdown" button inside a nuclear reactor, or in an electronics project, a small low power device such as a receiver, must somehow power a large energy guzzling component, like the motor in a garage door opener. And others just want to control their houses with their computer's, which could never possible supply the 240v/120v mains needed to run some appliances.

This guide will include a very noob friendly explanation of the internal workings of relays and transistors. First, we will begin with the simplest one to explain, the relay!

Step 1: What Is a Relay

For the beginner, a relay can be a very difficult application to first understand, it was for me, i spent 3-4 days researching for a simple explanation as to how a relay works, and quite recently found myself being asked for an explanation, by a clueless noob who didn't understand.

In simple terms, a relay is a device that uses an electromagnet to mechanically pull two connections together to complete a circuit, in the exact same way your finger mechanically pushes two contacts together in a toggle switch.

A relay is used wherever a small low power device or power supply needs to switch on a much larger one, usually completely isolated from the signals power source, or at a much higher voltage than the signal could provide.

However this is usually not enough to help someone really grasp the idea of how these mysterious boxes work.

Move over to the next step for a better explanation along with an flash animation to show you how it all works.

Step 2: What Happens Inside the Relay?

A typical relay generally has 5 pins on it.

These are referred to as, Input 1, Input 2, COM, N/O, N/C

Here's a better description of what these are and what they do, remembering signal means the power turning on the relay:
  • Input 1: is generally the positive of your relay, where the + of your signal goes, it is at the top of the electromagnet coil that pulls the contact pin
  • Input 2: is where the negative of your signal goes, it is at the bottom or top (end of the coil winding), of the coil, though in most relays it shouldn't matter because an electromagnet just pulls metal towards the center of the magnet. input 2 should always be thought of as negative, as some relays only work one way, but it's up to you
  • COM: is short for common ground, in most cases you connect the negative of the power you are switching to this. If your application uses the same power source , you can connect Input 2 and COM together. COM is the middle terminal, and is connected to the pin that gets pulled towards N/C when power is off
  • N/C: Short for normally closed, this terminal is not connected to COM when there is no signal, but when there is a signal, the pin inside the relay is pulled down until it touches N/C, which would connect it to COM
  • N/O:  short for Normally Open, uses a small spring to make it always touches COM when the magnet is off . N/O is used in most cases to turn on the standby light, as it switches on when there is no power.
  • Contact: is not a terminal, but rather the pin that either connects COM with N/O or N/C. It is often coated in gold or vanadium/platinum to stop it welding onto N/O or N/C.
If you have a relay and a 9v battery laying about, try connecting the + and - pins together, you should hear a small click, this is the pin hitting the contact. when you take power off you'll hear another, quieter click, which is the pin being pulled back to NC

If this still confuses you, i can explain it in pseudo terms which most programmers will get

If input = on (power going through coil)
Else/otherwise (no power)

If you still don't get it, this flash loop should explain far better.

Obviously you can see, when the electromagnet turns on, the magnet pulls the pin towards the N/O contact, and when off, the spring pulls the pin towards the N/C contact.

On the next step there is another animation, this one though is interactive where you press a button to turn on a circuit, which even a 12yo should understand (tested on a 12yo with no prior knowledge, as well as explained what the electromagnet does).
It also shows the internal workings of the relay.

Step 3: Using a Relay

As previously mentioned, relays are used so that small low power components and devices, can switch on larger more power consumptive devices.
The most common examples which most anyone can see for themselves, is in a car.
If you've ever wondered why your car makes that clicking noise when the indicator is on, its because a relay is being switched on and off, by a small timer chip. I don't know exactly what kind, but chances are its a 555 timer.

A 555 timer is used to create pulses (just turn on and off) of any length at any rate, however, it will quickly burn up if more than 200ma is drawn from it.

If we tried to power the indicator lights with a 555 timer, you wouldn't see anything, because it wouldn't be able to supply enough power for the lights to actually do something, even at say 700ma, plus, it would burn up the chip after about 5-10 seconds.

Now, if we were to just use the 555 timer to turn on the relay, which would then connect the indicator lights with the battery, perhaps 50ma would be drawn, a safe load for the chip to handle, while anything up to 5A might be flowing through the relay from the battery, powering the lights.(As a general rule , avoid using more than 100mA from a 555 when powering any kind of coil including a relay)

If you have an expensive new car though, chances are you wont hear that click because either the manufacturer went to the trouble of sound insulating the relay, or a high powered transistor is being used, or MOSFET (similar), probably since your indicators are LED's.

This interactive animation shows you a very simple scenario in which both the N/O and N/C are used, to turn either a red or green light source on depending on whether there is or isn't power going through the relay.
Press the grey switch to turn the relay on, and release to turn off, or hold to keep it on.

Because of the way flash detects mouse clicks, you can trick the switch into saying its still being pressed if you hold the mouse down and move it off the button , if you lock the relay in "ON", just click the switch and it will work properly again.
Obviously this doesn't happen in real life. its just a bug in the code.

Step 4: What Is a Transistor

A transistor is one of the elementary components of most any electronics device.
Although difficult to grasp at first, a transistor is actually very simple and easily relatable to the relay.

A transistor has 3 pins, base, emitter and collector, and comes in two types. PNP and NPN.

Because both work the same, but PNP has reversed polarities, and is a little bit trickier to use than NPN. This Instructable will be about NPN transistors.

the way the transistor works is very much the same as a relay. when power passes through two pins, power is allowed through the two others. in this case though the emitter is shared as the negative.

transistors are used sometimes just like relays, switching on slightly bigger power supplies from low signals, but unlike the relay, the time it takes to switch on is considered simultaneous or instant, which is why it can be used to drive speakers which require high frequencies while relays cannot as there is a delay in the time it takes for the state to switch. Most generic transistors can operate at over 1 million switches per second

transistors also have the benefit of being very small, which means they can be used in places using a relay, would be impossible, or impractical. But, transistors are easily broken by magnetic fields, static electricity and heat, meaning that they have limitations on where they can be used.

Step 5: How a Does a Transistor Work

A transistor works by changing its resistance between the pins collector (power going in), and emitter (power going out), depending on how much current flows through the base to the emitter.

Unfortunately, all transistor's base collector and emitter pins , are in different places varying from transistor to transistor, which is why you'll never find any transistor pin assignment diagrams, that apply to all transistors, and that is why you should never listen to any which aren't exclusively for your transistor.

Transistors unlike relays, can open up by specific amounts, which are directly proportional to the current going through the base.
This proportion is the gain.For example, if a transistor had a gain of 100, then for every 1ma flowing through the base, 100ma could flow through the collector to the emitter, which technically is considered to be an amplification effect. However when you do this, a transistor tends to get rather hot, transistors operate best either when they are fully ON or fully OFF.

All transistors have a maximum input before the input starts to have no effect on the current gain, and eventually, if it gets too high, the current stops all together, which happens only when the voltage on the base is too close or the same to the voltage on the collector.

When we talk about using transistors just as on/off switches, we generally operate at currents that would saturate, or fully switch on, the transistor which is what i will focus on in this guide.

Here is an animation to show you how a transistor works. In the animation, the arrows represent the flow of water, and show that the smaller source is enabling the larger source to flow. This of course is meant to represent the flow of electricity as well, but its easier to just think of it as being water.

From this example its easy to understand why the base must always be less that the collector.
If the flow from the base was the same as or greater than the voltage at the collector, the hypothetical base water flow, would take up the entire pipe, which on its own would block the collector current as there is no room for it.
A situation like this though often results in a combusting transistor.

Step 6: How to Use a Transistor

The most common use for a transistor is as a switch,

When current flows from base to emitter, the resistance between collector and emitter drops while there is current flow.

In a simple on/off switch for an LED, where our signal comes from a signal chip, it would work like in the animation.
When the signal goes through the base, it simultaneously allows current to flow through the emitter, which happens because the resistance drops.

Between the base and the signal, there is a low value resistor to ensure the base voltage is less positive than the collector voltage.
if it is (and there is current), the resistance drops and turns on the led.

In this situation, to make it more realistic to a real life problem, we switch on multiple LED's in parallel at a frequency, which is something a 555 would burn up trying to do, if powering the LED's directly off the chip.

Step 7: Notes

Relays come in all different specs. Unfortunately, relays which are built to handle high current and / or voltage, also have larger coils, as they are expected to be able to be used on the same current and voltage they switch, by this i mean they are made so they wont short the current and draw like 10A from the potential 30A current they could switch, which would melt the coil.
this means bigger coils, and as a result, require more power

This means that its unlikely you would find something like a 12v relay capable of switching 30A, which requires only 1mA to switch.

That is with relays alone, but with a relay driver, a signal can be changed to switch a relay that needs 100ma (still not recommended from the 555), to switch on 1uA (micro amp).

Transistors also come in many different shapes and sizes, and s a result, the pin assignment, for pin 1, 2 and 3, will most often be different. When using transistors, always check the datasheet to see which pin is which.

Due to ignorance, many beginners use relays as their electronic switches in their circuits and projects.
Many are put off by the fact that the relay they will need , costs $5-15 , which many of the younger people, would consider quite allot.

In a large majority of these cases, the current being switches might be as little as a few milliamps, but generally only as much as an amp.
People don't realize that a small transistor, could easily handle that 1 amp load , at as much as 50v, whereas the relay is limited to about 28v or so, but can handle up to 10A, which probably isn't even close to what is used.
The relay, would cost around $5-10 at the least at those specs, whereas the 50v 1A transistor, which is not even a power transistor i might add, with no heat sink or anything, would cost about $0.25 ea.

the relay at those specs would take maybe 100-1000mA at 12v to turn on. at 9v, it might need double the current.
The transistor though, would require maybe a couple milliamps, at maybe over 3-5v.

Depending on the voltage needed to switch on the transistor, and what the transistor would switch, you might not even need an external resistor to lower the base voltage.

Step 8: Notes 2

You might be wondering what is the difference between power transistors, normal transistors and mosfets.

Well, power transistors are plain and simply just transistors which can handle more power, and named as such. generally they also have a heatsink attached as they get quite hot in their use. Normal transistors would have a typical range of 0-150v @ 0-2A , anything higher is a power transistor.

A MOSFET though, is actually completely different all together, by the way it works. But it achieves the same outcome.
MOSFET's are also considered to be power transistors, but they handle much higher voltages, which is essentially their main use. High voltage power transistors.
MOSFET's however have either an infinite, or absolute zero resistance depending on their state, meaning that they can safely operate at high voltages with little power dissipation as heat. MOSFET's, like transistors, can also have a variable output, but are dependent on the voltage, not current.

Most all transistors, with higher values, can also switch at higher rates. However MOSFET's even at lowest values, can handle rather high frequencies, simply because of they way they work.

All however, if they can handle the loads, can be interchanged. if a power transistor can handle the load of a MOSFET, chances are it can be used instead, and vice versa.

Step 9: Notes 3: Finding and Salvaging Relays and Transistors

If like me, you would rather rip open an old TV or toy car for your electronics components rather than pay for them, here is where to look for scrap relays and transistors
Relays: As said before, relays can be found in cars, but these are generally very heavy duty relays, capable of handling over 100A, and consequently require something like 2A to switch.
Smaller more general purpose relays can be found inside microwave boards, Air conditioners (indoor unit) , large, but cheap/simple RC toys , garage door openers, TV's (Large LCD's more-often than CRT) and generally anything that makes a click when it turns on or off.
Surprisingly there are usually 2 or 3 relays inside microwave oven boards , often of different type, such as single throw single pole (SPST), double pole single throw (DPST) and double pole double throw (DPDT)

In each on these, there is a single coil, however there is a different amount of contacts.
When these mention "Pole", it refers to the terminal connected to the pin which would change position, aka, the COM
When these mention "Throw", it refers to the amount of positions that the pin can reside in. single throw switches will not have an N/O, or N/C, depending on the type.

SPST however are the most commonly found on control boards.

Transistors: transistors can be found in most every electronic device in the form of a surface mount, or regular.
You want to avoid surface mount chips as they require a special oven and soldering technique to attach.
Places to avoid are new compact computers, car FM radios and CD players, and most high tech devices.
Places to look for an abundance of removable transistors are RC toy receivers (most often have many moderate duty transistors of both types), old computers and data handling devices like game consoles, electronics kits and projects, simple children's toys, microwaves , TV's , but  big ones (any kind) in particular (also great source of capacitors), many simple output devices , any radio receivers (avoid transmitters) and big portable sound systems (tape players radios, CD player ect).

In most disposable cameras, connected to the transformer you will often find a small PNP transistor, likely marked d2470 or similar.

Despite its looks, this thing can handle massive loads, -8A at -40V (8A at -40V) , and its spec sheet even says it is OK to drive motors, (Good for PWM speed controller) but would require different wiring to a PNP, generally the polarities would be reversed as far as i know.

If you are only really interested in power transistors or MOSFET's, for your high voltage projects though, i advise looking in big speakers and sub woofers, speed controllers (Most common use of MOSFET's), lamp dimmers, volume control ect, DC inverters, anything that spits out more voltage than it takes in (applies to battery DC devices), computer power supplies (caution, capacitors inside can kill), RC toy cars (usually the ones with the big heatsink), microwave oven boards, sometimes TV's, Jacobs ladder kits, ignition coil drivers (Some high tech cars don't use manual distributors anymore) and Pulse width modulation devices (provide variable outputs, like heat, light, audio volume), plus some laser/strobe drivers.

Thankyou for reading my instructable i drew and animated all the content, don't forget to comment, and ask questions if your not sure, or troubled by something.
Feel free to redistribute any content in this guide.