A simple electromagnetic relay consists of a coil of wire wrapped around a soft iron core (a solenoid), an iron yoke which provides a low reluctance path for magnetic flux, a movable iron armature, and one or more sets of contacts (there are two contacts in the relay pictured). The armature is hinged to the yoke and mechanically linked to one or more sets of moving contacts. The armature is held in place by a spring so that when the relay is de-energized there is an air gap in the magnetic circuit. In this condition, one of the two sets of contacts in the relay pictured is closed, and the other set is open. Other relays may have more or fewer sets of contacts depending on their function. The relay in the picture also has a wire connecting the armature to the yoke. This ensures continuity of the circuit between the moving contacts on the armature, and the circuit track on the printed circuit board (PCB) via the yoke, which is soldered to the PCB.
When an electric current is passed through the coil it generates a magnetic field that activates the armature, and the consequent movement of the movable contact(s) either makes or breaks (depending upon construction) a connection with a fixed contact. If the set of contacts was closed when the relay was de-energized, then the movement opens the contacts and breaks the connection, and vice versa if the contacts were open. When the current to the coil is switched off, the armature is returned by a force, approximately half as strong as the magnetic force, to its relaxed position. Usually this force is provided by a spring, but gravity is also used commonly in industrial motor starters. Most relays are manufactured to operate quickly. In a low-voltage application this reduces noise; in a high voltage or current application, it reduces arcing.
When the coil is energized with direct current, a diode is often placed across the coil to dissipate the energy from the collapsing magnetic field at deactivation, which would otherwise generate a voltage spike dangerous to semiconductor circuit components. Such diodes were not widely used before the application of transistors as relay drivers, but soon became ubiquitous as early germanium transistors were easily destroyed by this surge. Some automotive relays include a diode inside the relay case.
If the relay is driving a large, or especially a reactive load, there may be a similar problem of surge currents around the relay output contacts. In this case, a snubber circuit (a capacitor and resistor in series) across the contacts may absorb the surge. Suitably rated capacitors and the associated resistor are sold as a single packaged component for this commonplace use.
If the coil is designed to be energized with alternating current (AC), some method is used to split the flux into two out-of-phase components which add together, increasing the minimum pull on the armature during the AC cycle. Typically this is done with a small copper “shading ring” crimped around a portion of the core that creates the delayed, out-of-phase component, which holds the contacts during the zero crossings of the control voltage.
Contact materials for relays vary by application. Materials with low contact resistance may be oxidized by the air, or may tend to “stick” instead of cleanly parting when opening. Contact material may be optimized for low electrical resistance, high strength to withstand repeated operations, or high capacity to withstand the heat of an arc. Where very low resistance is required, or low thermally-induced voltages are desired, gold-plated contacts may be used, along with palladium and other non-oxidizing, semi-precious metals. Silver or silver-plated contacts are used for signal switching. Mercury-wetted relays make and break circuits using a thin, self-renewing film of liquid mercury. For higher-power relays switching many amperes, such as motor circuit contatctors, contacts are made with a mixtures of silver and cadmium oxide, providing low contact resistance and high resistance to the heat of arcing. Contacts used in circuits carrying scores or hundreds of amperes may include additional structures for heat dissipation and management of the arc produced when interrupting the circuit. Some relays have field-replaceable contacts, such as certain machine tool relays; these may be replaced when worn out, or changed between normally open and normally closed state, to allow for changes in the controlled circuit.