What You Need to Know About Electrolytic Capacitors

Capacitors are a fundamental electronic component and their property of capacitance in Farads (F) are a core part of radio circuitry.

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The basic capacitor is a pair of metal plates separated by some form of dielectric insulation.

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Electrolytic capacitors are special because they have a lot of capacitance—hundreds or thousands of microfarads (µF)—in a relatively small package.

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Electrolytic Cap
Electrolytic capacitor assortment

Most big electrolytic caps are in the radial package where both leads are on one side. The axial package with one lead on each end of the cylinder are sometimes used.  See axial vs radial.

Aluminum electrolytic capacitors provide the highest values while remaining relatively inexpensive so are commonly encountered in radio and electronics.   This is possible because of wet chemistry; specifically, an electrolyte solution as part of the dielectric layer between metal plates.  Aluminum foil is the primary conductive surface and the electrolyte is part of the separating insulator.

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Aluminum electrolytic capacitors are frequently used in power supply circuits such as shown below, and are found in most every type of electronics:

Figure T-2

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OK, so this is wet chemistry but a dry topic. Why are we boring you with all this?

There is a practical point here for those of you who are handy or brave enough to tackle your own electronics repair; hams tend to be a DIY group.  Be advised that many functional problems in all sorts of electronics—not just radios—can be attributed to failed aluminum electrolytic capacitors.  We hope to encourage you to fix an expensive piece of equipment, not just toss it or pay someone to repair it for you.

Usually an easy fix with just two component leads to un-solder and then re-soldering the replacement. Diagnosis Continue reading

Electrical Hazards

Safety is an important topic in ham radio.  There are 11 questions on electrical hazards in the USA Technician class license exam pool, 13 questions on tower safety and associated grounding, and 13 questions on radio frequency (RF) hazards.

Several of these have been used by us previously but in retrospect we should have given the safety topic more airtime, pun intended.  New hams are unlikely to have antenna towers so we don’t plan to discuss tower safety much.  That leaves electrical and RF hazards to cover.

This post will address general electrical hazards and related safety; a future post will focus on RF hazards.

Radios and accessories are electrical devices so let’s start with the most obvious hazard: electric shock, which is caused by current flowing through a human body.  Current is useful in electronics but harmful when flowing through a person.  Current can disrupt heart and lung function at even low levels.  It can also cause unwanted muscle movement, or prevent it (can’t let go).  At higher levels, electric current will damage skin and internal organs.

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There are many factors in electric shock and there are other electrical hazards.  But this is a big one and you should avoid touching live circuits.

Fire is another electrical hazard.  When too much current flows in conductors, the wires can get very hot and ignite combustible material.  In fact, the US National Electrical Code is actually a document of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), not a government agency.

To limit the risk of fire and other damage, every power circuit needs some form of  protection.  Fuses are quite common; their internal metal melts at a pre-determined current to disconnect power.

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Also, a smaller (amp rating) fuse can safely be inserted in a protective circuit but one should never put in a larger one.  A fuse is sized to the circuit requirements and wiring  is sized to the fuse.  So a higher-ampacity fuse will not properly protect the wires or the circuit and serious overheating may occur in both AC and DC power circuits.

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In addition to one-time use fuses, circuit breakers are another popular form of circuit protection; these may be reset and are often used as an on/off switch.

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While fuses and circuit breakers do not directly provide shock protection, they may do so Continue reading