How Much Protection Is Enough?
14 January 2021 / by Bill Russell
When designing an electronic system, the often overlooked and underestimated subject of protection must be considered. In some cases, the designer may be working to meet a certain standard such as IEC 61000-4-2 for electrostatic discharge (ESD) immunity. Equipment which is installed in harsh operating environments, such as remote meters, robotics and telecommunications systems, will require higher levels of lightning protection. These are somewhat obvious requirements. Other protection concerns include short circuits, voltage spikes, dirty power, cable discharge events, and so on. With all these transient threats, a designer may become overwhelmed and ask: how much protection is enough to ensure a reliable system?
The Smart Home Analogy
In order to answer this question, let’s consider an analogy of a home security system. After all, components of a home security system provide protection for the contents inside the home. If any fail, the entire dwelling can be compromised. A home security system works on the basic principle of securing entry points such as doors and windows, as well as key interior spaces which contain valuables. A security system is comprised of a network of integrated devices which must work together to protect against home intruders. A comprehensive system would include door locks, window and door sensors, motion sensors, alarms, cameras, and a control panel. At the bare minimum, a “budget” system should include sensors that lead into the house as well as easily accessible windows. Like anything, a system is only as good as its weakest link. It wouldn’t make much sense to secure some windows or doors while leaving others vulnerable.
But what happens if an intruder manages to enter? The interior can be secured with motion sensors and alarms. Of course, the system can be professionally installed and monitored, or can be a DIY system without automatic monitoring. Either way, the system has to work in unison. Systems that are “pieced” together may work individually, but not function well as a whole. You would also take care to choose quality components. After all, if a component is not reliable, it’s as bad as not installing it at all. Studies have shown that homes without security systems are three times more likely to be burglarized as compared to homes with professionally monitored systems. It makes sense as an intruder would look to capitalize on the easiest target.
If we apply the home security concept to protecting an electronic system or equipment, we can think of the circuit board/equipment as the “dwelling”. Each connector is like a door or portal into the interior of the equipment. Devices such as displays, buttons and switches act as doors or windows into the system. Like the home security analogy, each of these is an entryway for an unwanted intruder, but in this case, the intruders are electrical overstress (EOS) events. These transient events are far more ever present and frequent than the typical neighborhood burglar. Protecting some of the connectors and lines while leaving others unprotected is like not adding a security sensor to one of your homes doors. Any lines which connect to the inside of the system should include Transient Voltage Suppressors (TVS) for ESD and EOS or surge protection.
Take No Shortcuts in Home Security, or in Circuit Protection
In the case of a home security system, some people might think they don’t need sensors on the second floor windows, for example. In this way, the homeowner may attempt to save a few dollars in the “hope” that all will be fine. In reality, these shortcuts can render the entire home vulnerable. The same principle applies when it comes to protecting buttons and displays. A designer might be tempted to think the chances of an EOS event at these interfaces is low. However, seams around these interfaces provide a path for EOS events to enter your system. The bottom line here is if there is an entryway into the dwelling, it should be protected. So if all “doors and windows” are protected, that should be enough right? Again refer back to the home system, motion detectors, cameras and alarms are used inside the dwelling to protect against internal threats. In the case of electronic equipment, devices such as load switches and e-fuses protect input power lines from events such as short circuits on the bus or to data lines, lightning surges and inductive switching. Like in the home, care should be used when choosing protection devices. A device with poor characteristics, such as high clamping voltage or slow response time, will not protect the circuit as expected and can provide a false sense of security.
Reliable Protection Comes Full Circle
As mentioned, choosing reliable home security equipment is important, and quality equipment designs apply these system protection concepts. Surveillance and wireless cameras for example use TVS for ESD and EOS protection on Ethernet, RS-485, memory card, audio, and video interfaces. Devices which also guard against electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio frequency interference (RFI) can further enhance the memory card and audio ports. USB interfaces use TVS to protect high-speed data lines and an electronic fuse (e-fuse) for overcurrent and overvoltage protection on the power supply line. DC power inputs also require overcurrent protection as well as EOS protection. This is just one example of system protection. Other home security devices such as control panels, electronic locks, alarms, key fobs, proximity sensors, and video doorbells could all utilize similar protection solutions for increased system reliability.
Figure 1 – Surveillance Camera Protection Components © 2021 Semtech Corporation
Secure Your Electronics Like You Would Secure Your Home
When trying to answer the question of how much protection is enough, a lot of factors need to be considered. Most electronic equipment will be required to meet certain immunity standards. This usually helps dictate what level or what type of protection is needed. In general, any potential path for an EOS event into the PCB should be protected. Sometimes these paths are not always obvious. There may be temptation to leave a line or connector unprotected for cost savings. But if you use the analogy of home security, ask yourself what you would be willing to compromise. What entry points would you leave unprotected? Then the question as to “how much protection is needed” will be answered. Semtech offers system protection solutions for a variety of applications. Our team of applications engineers and online resources can help you choose a protection scheme to work seamlessly in your system.
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