What makes a harsh environment connector?

There is a growing demand for power, signal and data to be made available just about everywhere we look – even in the most extreme types of environments. This means that the cables providing connectivity to these technological components have to work reliably under tough conditions – on automated factory floors, inside heavy machinery, exposed to outdoor elements or even underwater. One of the most common points for potential damage in any electrical system is any place where these cables get plugged in – the connectors.

So what’s the difference between a normal connector and a harsh connector?

Harsh connectors are expertly designed for extreme environments where technology is being pushed to new frontiers.

Some of the main elements that rugged electrical connectors will protect against include:

Water – this includes rain, water vapour, and possible water submersion.

Dust – industrial and outdoor environments often contain a lot of dust or dirt, which can be harmful to electrical systems.

Extreme temperatures – very low or high temperatures can be detrimental to technology.

Explosive environments – ATEX zones are work areas that could be potentially explosive because of the presence of dangerous substances in the form of combustible dust, gas, vapour or mist.

Rough handling – some connectors need to be mated and unmated multiple times in a day, often hurriedly, which increases the risk of wear and tear on the connector. Connectors being dropped or dragged along hard surfaces can also cause damage to the components inside the connector and affect the integrity of power, signal or data connections being passed through the cable.

Pressure – power, data and fibre optics are needed in aircraft, in space and even at the bottom of the ocean, where pressures can reach up to 9,000 pounds per square inch.

Salinity – the high salt content of water and air in coastal and marine environments can cause corrosion and calcareous growth. The correct material selection is therefore vital to ensure the maximum lifecycle of technology components used in coastal and marine environments.

Key features of a harsh environment connector:

IP rating – depending on the application, harsh connectors should have Ingress Protection (IP) Ratings of IP67 (protection from dust and immersion between 15cm – 1m), IP68 (protection from dust and long-term immersion up to a specified depth) or IP69K (protection from dust, close-range high pressure and high temperature spray downs). IP69K is ideal for applications in the food processing and medical industries, where equipment must be regularly sanitised.

Locking/coupling mechanisms – a robust coupling mechanism is a must for harsh connectors. There are many different types of connector couplings, including ring, twist locking, threaded, bayonet, push-pull and quick disconnect couplings, all with different attributes for various types of applications.

Housing and insulation – the type of material the connector is made of is an equally important consideration. For applications where the connector is likely to be exposed to extremes of temperature and plenty of moisture and dust, a corrosion-resistant metal housing may be the most appropriate option. For other uses requiring lightweight and flexible connectors, high-temperature resistant plastic composites may be more attractive. Overmoulded cable versions are also sometimes available as an option where it is not a requirement for the unit to be re-terminated.

Seals & grommets – rubbery seals can be used inside the coupling for keeping the connection tightly in place and watertight.

The shape of the connector, thread pattern or mating mechanism and positioning of pins also play an important role in the creation of a truly rugged and reliable connector. Circular connectors allow for better ease of engagement and disengagement as well as capacity for a wider variety of contacts and voltages. Circular connectors are also easier to seal and less likely to wear or break, and an intelligent ‘scoop proof’ design can avoid damage to the pins if the connector is mis-mated.

Bulgin’s popular Buccaneer range is an excellent example of IP66, IP67, IP68 and IP69K rated environmentally sealed circular connectors. These secure, rugged and highly reliable connectors can be used in harsh or hostile environments and offer a wide choice of options from 2 to 32 poles with screw, solder or crimp terminations as well as USB, SMB & RJ45 options for data to solve any type of design requirement.

Additional products to consider...