Posted on Friday, May 6, 2011 • Category: Test and Measurement
"ESR" stands for equivalent series resistance. ESR is one of the characteristics that defines the performance of an electrolytic capacitor. Low ESR is highly desirable in a capacitor as any ripple current through the capacitor causes the capacitor to heat up due to the resistive loses. This heating accelerates the demise of the capacitor by drying out the electrolyte at an ever increasing rate. Over the lifetime of a capacitor, it is not uncommon for the ESR to increase by a factor of 10 to 30 times or even go open circuit. Typical lifetime ratings for electrolytics are 2000-15000 hours and are very dependant on ambient operating temperature. As the ESR increases, the filtering operation of the capacitor becomes impaired and eventually the circuit fails to operate correctly.
Why are ESR Meters so Useful?
A typical capacitor checker measures the capacity (usually in micro farads) of the test capacitor. Some advanced units also test for leakage current. Most of these testers require that the capacitor be removed from the circuit. Unless the capacitor has totally failed, they will not detect a high ESR value. In a typical circuit, there may be 10's or 100's of capacitors. Having to remove each one for testing is very tedious and there is a great risk of damaging circuit boards. This tester uses a low voltage ( 250mv ) high frequency (150khz) A/C current to read the ESR of a capacitor in the circuit. The in circuit testing is possible because of the low voltage used for obtaining the measurement. The voltage is low enough that solid state devices in the surrounding circuitry are not activated and do not affect the low resistance reading we are attempting to obtain. A lot of capacitor checkers will be damaged if you happen to test a charged capacitor. This circuit is A/C coupled and will withstand up to 400vdc of charge on a capacitor (but watch your fingers!). The ESR checker will not detect shorted capacitors as they will read with a very low ESR value. If you are trouble shooting a circuit, you will have to use several instruments including your nose, voltmeter and oscilloscope to locate all the possible failure modes. My experience has found that the ESR meter catches about 95% of capacitor problems and potential problems.
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