Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of AC Adapters, Power Supplies, and Battery Packs

- and -
Other Related Information
Version 1.06

Copyright © 1994-2001
Samuel M. Goldwasser
--- All Rights Reserved ---

For corrections/comments/suggestions, please contact me via the Sci.Electronics.Repair FAQ Email Links Page.

Reproduction of this document in whole or in part is permitted if both of the following conditions are satisfied:
  1. This notice is included in its entirety at the beginning.
  2. There is no charge except to cover the costs of copying.

Table of Contents

PART I - AC Wall Adapters and Power Packs

Part II - Power Supplies in Consumer Electronic Equipment (Including UPSs)

Part III - Protection Devices in Consumer Electronic Equipment

Part IV - Power Transformers in Consumer Electronic Equipment

Part V - Batteries in Consumer Electronic Equipment

  • Back to AC Adapter and Power Supplies Table of Contents.


    Author and Copyright

    Author: Samuel M. Goldwasser

    For corrections/comments/suggestions, please contact me via the Sci.Electronics.Repair FAQ Email Links Page.

    Copyright © 1994-2001
    All Rights Reserved

    Reproduction of this document in whole or in part is permitted if both of the following conditions are satisfied:

    1.This notice is included in its entirety at the beginning.
    2.There is no charge except to cover the costs of copying.


    AC adapters, transformers, and even batteries, are critical safety components. Replacement with an improperly rated or incompatible device can result in damage or destruction of the powered equipment as well as the risk of shock or electrocution in certain cases.

    We will not be responsible for damage to equipment, your ego, blown parts, county wide power outages, spontaneously generated mini (or larger) black holes, planetary disruptions, or personal injury that may result from the use of this material.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.


    Scope of this Document

    The collection of information deals with the troubleshooting, repair, and use (normal or unconventional) of AC (wall) adapters, transformers, equipment power supplies (non-switching type), and batteries used in portable electronic devices and power tools. Note: This document replaces the chapters relating to these topics in the documents "Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Household Appliances and Power Tools" and "....Audio Equipment and Other Miscellaneous Stuff".

    Where another document is referenced, it is assumed to be at this site. If the link doesn't work, find the document of the same name at the Sci.Electronics.Repair FAQ or one of its mirror sites.


    For the common transformer based AC adapter, there is no danger anywhere inside the device once unplugged. For the switchmode variety, see the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Switchmode Power Supplies for information beyond what is covered in this document.

    Any internal overcurrent fuses or thermal fuses represent essential safety features of an AC adapter. These must not be removed except during testing. Where a fuse is found to be blown, use only an exact replacement. I really don't recommend running a repaired cobbled together AC adapter unattended in any case since even the sealed case provides some additional amount of fire protection. Inexpensive replacements are generally available.

    For power supplies inside equipment, the same basic precautions apply but access and repair are generally much more easily accomplished.

    The only real danger from an unplugged heavy iron transformer would be accidentally dropping it on your foot. :(

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    General AC Adapter Information

    AC Adapter Basics

    It seems that the world now revolves around AC Adapters or 'Wall Warts' as they tend to be called. There are several basic types. Despite the fact that the plugs to the equipment may be identical THESE CAN GENERALLY NOT BE INTERCHANGED. The type (AC or DC), voltage, current capacity, and polarity are all critical to proper operation of the equipment. Use of an improper adapter or even just reverse polarity can permanently damage or destroy the device. Most equipment is protected against stupidity to a greater or lessor degree but don't count on it.

    The most common problems are due to failure of the output cable due to flexing at either the adapter or output plug end. See section: AC Adapter Testing.

    1. AC Transformer. All wall warts are often called transformers. However, only if the output is stated to be 'AC' is the device simply a transformer. These typically put out anywhere from 3 to 20 VAC or more at 50 mA to 3 A or more. The most common range from 6-15 VAC at less than an Amp. Typically, the regulation is very poor so that an adapter rated at 12 VAC will typically put out 14 VAC with no load and drop to less than 12 VAC at rated load. To gain agency approval, these need to be protected internally so that there is no fire hazard even if the output is shorted. There may be a fuse or thermal fuse internally located (and inaccessible).

      If the output tested inside the adapter (assuming that you can get it open without total destruction - it is secured with screws and is not glued or you are skilled with a hacksaw - measures 0 or very low with no load but plugged into a live outlet, either the transformer has failed or the internal fuse had blown. In either case, it is probably easier to just buy a new adapter but sometimes these can be repaired. Occasionally, it will be as simple as a bad connection inside the adapter. Check the fine wires connected to the AC plug as well as the output connections. There may be a thermal fuse buried under the outer layers of the transformer which may have blown. These can be replaced but locating one may prove quite a challenge. Also see the section: Comments on Importance of Thermal Fuses and Protectors.

    2. DC Power Pack. In addition to a step down transformer, these include at the very least a rectifier and filter capacitor. There may be additional regulation but most often there is none. Thus, while the output is DC, the powered equipment will almost always include an electronic regulation.

      As above, you may find bad connections or a blown fuse or thermal fuse inside the adapter but the most common problems are with the cable.

    3. Switching Power Supply. These are complete low power AC-DC converters using a high frequency inverter. Most common applications are laptop computers and camcorders. The output(s) will be fairly well regulated and these will often accept universal power - 90-250 V AC or DC.

      Again, cable problems predominate but failures of the switching power supply components are also possible. If the output is dead and you have eliminated the cable as a possible problem or the output is cycling on and off at approximately a 1 second rate, then some part of the switching power supply may be bad. In the first case, it could be a blown fuse, bad startup resistor, shorted/open semiconductors, bad controller, or other components. If the output is cycling, it could be a shorted diode or capacitor, or a bad controller. See the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Switchmode Power Supplies for more info, especially on safety while servicing these units.

    Also see the chapter on "Equipment Power Supplies" in the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Audio Equipment and Other Miscellaneous Stuff.

    About AC Adapter Ratings

    The following mainly applies to AC adapters using transformers. Those based on switchmode power supplies adapters have tended to be well designed with decent regulation and realistic ratings. Of course, they are generally also much more expensive!

    There is no standard for rating AC adapters. When a particular adapter is listed as, say, 12 V, 1 A max, there's a good chance the output will average 12 V when outputting 1 A but what it does at lower currents is not known. In fact, lightly loaded, the output voltage may be more than double its nameplate rating! This could be disastrous where a piece of equipment is plugged into it that doesn't expect such a high voltage. The rating also doesn't say anything about the ripple (for DC models) - it could be almost anything.

    The lifetime of an AC adapter (particularly those outputting DC) when run at or near its nameplate rating may be very short. Why? Because they often use low temperature (cheap!) components that can't take the heat. For AC output models, the transformer itself may fail (or at least the thermal fuse). For DC models, the electrolytic capacitor(s) may go bad very quickly. The likely result will be that the output voltage will disappear entirely (AC models) or drop in value with greatly increased ripple (DC models).

    Where the adapter is used with its intended equipment, one can presume the manufacturer did the proper testing to assure compatibility and adequate life (though this isn't always the case!). However, where it is used in some other application, the life of the adapter and the equipment may be much shorter than expected, possibly failing almost immediately.

    Why do AC Adapters Usually Use Heavy Transformers?

    The main reasons are safety and cost.

    Line isolation is essential for safety with respect to electrical shock - no part accessible to the user must be connected to either side of the power line. A regular transformer provides this automatically. While combinations of passive components can reduce the risk of shock, nothing quite matches the virtually fail-safe nature of a simple transformer between the power line and the low voltage circuitry. To achieve similar isolation without a line transformer generally requires a switchmode power supply which actually contains a small high frequency transformer to provide the isolation. Until recently, such systems were much more expensive than a simple iron transformer but that is changing and many modern devices do now use a wall adapter based on this approach. These can be recognized by their light weight, DC (probably regulated) output, and the required warnings NOT to cut them off and replace them with an ordinary plug!

    Compact AC Adapters

    These use switchmode power supply technology and can therefore be quite small and light weight. In addition to the applications noted below, they are turning up on a variety of other high tech gadgets from shavers to Personal Digital Assistants.

    WARNING: DON'T attempt to disassemble or repair one of these unless you are familiar with the safety and troubleshooting information for larger switchmode power supplies - they can be quite deadly. See the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Switchmode Power Supplies.

    (From: Mike Schuster (

    For some reason I've been fascinated by tiny wall wart AC adaptors that use switch mode power supplies, since they're light and can supply more current than similar linear power cubes.

    One type that keeps catching my eye is used a lot for "AC travel charger" accessories for cellular phones. These things connect via a cable to the bottom of a cell phone, much like the cigarette-lighter "charger/saver" accessories, only these are driven by house current.

    The typical wart is a small rectangular box, about the size of two 9V transistor batteries side by side, manufactured in China or Taiwan. The wall side is distinguished by the fact that the AC prongs line up with the long axis of the box, rather than the other way around as with most wall cubes. This makes it possible to put them side by side on an AC power strip. The opposite face contains a tri-mode LED which may display red, green, or orange under conditions I've yet to figure out.

    Recently I noticed one of these thingies in K-Mart as part of a modular power system for cell phones. There are several models of cigarette lighter cords, however the actual 12VDC car plug in _interchangeable_ and connected to the cable using a 4-pin modular telephone handset jack. Each model comes with a cable constructed to mate with the phone it's sold for.

    Next to these on the pegboard is a variant of the wall wart being discussed, also having a 4-pin handset socket, and sold as an accessory to the DC cords. Instead of using the cigarette lighter plug, you connect the cable to the wall wart and create a new device which uses house current. So I picked up the wall wart and started to play.

    It's marked as being capable of 5-15 VDC at 750 mA. Playing with the 4 output pins; one is ground, two are tied together and supply 14.35 VDC open circuit, and can deliver about 1.5 amps. The other reads about 13 volts between it and the ground. Unpowered there is a small leakage between the ground and the "13 volt" pin.

    Looking inside, there are two 8-pin DIPs on the PC board; both having identifiers sanded off. One is near the transformer end and the other is near the DC output end. All of the DC side output traces lead, directly or indirectly, to the second IC.

    My guess is that the "13 volt" pin is really used to program the output voltage between ground and the other two pins that are tied together. The cable sold for any specific phone has some passive components inside that will cause the second IC to produce the required output voltage. Am I warm?

    I'd like to try programming this myself ... any ideas? Resistors?

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    AC Adapter Troubleshooting and Repair

    AC Adapter Testing

    AC adapters that are not the switching type (1) and (2), above, can easily be tested with a VOM or DMM. The voltage you measure (AC or DC) will probably be 10-25% higher than the label specification. If you get no reading, wiggle, squeeze, squish, and otherwise abuse the cord both at the wall wart end and at the device end. You may be able to get it to make momentary contact and confirm that the adapter itself is functioning.

    The most common problem is one or both conductors breaking internally at one of the ends due to continuous bending and stretching.

    Make sure the outlet is live - check with a lamp.

    Make sure any voltage selector switch is set to the correct position. Move it back and forth a couple of times to make sure the contacts are clean.

    If the voltage readings check out for now, then wiggle the cord as above in any case to make sure the internal wiring is intact - it may be intermittent.

    Although it is possible for the adapter to fail in peculiar ways, a satisfactory voltage test should indicate that the adapter is functioning correctly.

    Pocket Wall Adapter Tester/Polarity Checker

    This handy low cost device can be built into an old ball point pen case or something similar to provide a convenient indication of wall adapter type, operation, and polarity:
                Probe(+) o-----/\/\-----+----|>|----+---o Probe(-)
                             1K, 1/2 W  | Green LED |
                                           Red LED

    Getting Inside an AC Adapter

    Manufacturers come up with all sorts of creative ways of making access a challenge: For those that are glued: After the repair, the two halves (or pieces!) can be glued back together using something like Duco Cement or windshield sealer.

    AC Adapter Repair

    Although the cost of a new adapter is usually modest, repair is often so easy that it makes sense in any case.

    The most common problem (and the only one we will deal with here) is the case of a broken wire internal to the cable at either the wall wart or device end due to excessive flexing of the cable.

    Usually, the point of the break is just at the end of the rubber cable guard. If you flex the cable, you will probably see that it bends more easily here than elsewhere due to the broken inner conductor. If you are reasonably dextrous, you can cut the cable at this point, strip the wires back far enough to get to the good copper, and solder the ends together. Insulate completely with several layers of electrical tape. Make sure you do not interchange the two wires for DC output adapters! (They are usually marked somehow either with a stripe on the insulator, a thread inside with one of the conductors, or copper and silver colored conductors. Before you cut, make a note of the proper hookup just to be sure. Verify polarity after the repair with a voltmeter.

    The same procedure can be followed if the break is at the device plug end but you may be able to buy a replacement plug which has solder or screw terminals rather than attempting to salvage the old one.

    Once the repair is complete, test for correct voltage and polarity before connecting the powered equipment.

    This repair may not be pretty, but it will work fine, is safe, and will last a long time if done carefully.

    If the adapter can be opened - it is assembled with screws rather than being glued together - then you can run the good part of the cable inside and solder directly to the internal terminals. Again, verify the polarity before you plug in your expensive equipment.

    Warning: If this is a switching power supply type of adapter, there are dangerous voltages present inside in addition to the actual line connections. Do not touch any parts of the internal circuitry when plugged in and make sure the large filter capacitor is discharged (test with a voltmeter) before touching or doing any work on the circuit board. For more info on switching power supply repair, refer to the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Switchmode Power Supplies.

    If it is a normal adapter, then the only danger when open are direct connections to the AC plug. Stay clear when it is plugged in.

    AC Adapter Substitution and Equipment Damage

    Those voltage and current ratings are there for a reason. You may get away with a lower voltage or current adapter without permanent damage but using a higher voltage adapter is playing Russian Roulette. Even using an adapter from a different device - even with similar ratings, may be risky because there is no real standard. A 12 V adapter from one manufacturer may put out 12 V at all times whereas one from another manufacturer may put out 20 V or more when unloaded.

    A variety of types of protection are often incorporated into adapter powered equipment. Sometimes these actually will save the day. Unfortunately, designers cannot anticipate all the creative techniques people use to prove they really do not have a clue of what they are doing.

    The worst seems to be where an attempt is made to operate portable devices off of an automotive electrical system. Fireworks are often the result, see below and the section on: "Automotive power".

    If you tried an incorrect adapter and the device now does not work there are several possibilities (assuming the adapter survived and this is not the problem):

    1. An internal fuse or IC protector blew. This would be the easiest to repair.

    2. A protection diode sacrificed itself. This is usually reverse biased across the input and is supposed to short out the adapter if the polarity is reversed. However, it may have failed shorted particularly if you used a high current adapter (or automotive power).

    3. Some really expensive hard to obtain parts blew up. Unfortunately, this outcome is all too common.
    Some devices are designed in such a way that they will survive almost anything. A series diode would protect against reverse polarity. Alternatively, a large parallel diode with upstream current limiting resistor or PTC thermistor, and fuses, fusable resistors, or IC protectors would cut off current before the parallel diode or circuit board traces have time to vaporize. A crowbar circuit (zener to trigger an SCR) could be used to protect against reasonable overvoltage.

    I inherited a Sony Discman from a guy who thought he would save a few bucks and make an adapter cord to use it in his car. Not only was the 12-15 volts from the car battery too high but he got it backwards! Blew the DC-DC converter transistor in two despite the built in reverse voltage protection and fried the microcontroller. Needless to say, the player was a loss but the cigarette lighter fuse was happy as a clam!

    Moral: those voltage, current, and polarity ratings marked on portable equipment are there for a reason. Voltage rating should not be exceeded, though using a slightly lower voltage adapter will probably cause no harm though performance may suffer. The current rating of the adapter should be at least equal to the printed rating. The polarity, of course, must be correct. If connected backwards with a current limited adapter, there may be no immediate damage depending on the design of the protective circuits. But don't take chances - double check that the polarities match - with a voltmeter if necessary - before you plug it in! Note that even some identically marked adapters put out widely different open circuit voltages. If the unloaded voltage reading is more than 25-30% higher than the marked value, I would be cautious about using the adapter without confirmation that it is acceptable for your equipment. Needless to say, if you experience any strange or unexpected behavior with a new adapter, if any part gets unusually warm, or if there is any unusual odor, unplug it immediately and attempt to identify the cause of the problem.

    Or, a more dramatic result of the same principles:

    (From: Don Parker (

    A guy brought a Johnson Messenger CB to my shop a few decades back. He had been told it would run on 12 VDC *and* 115 VAC - so he tried it! I never saw so many little leads sticking up from any PCB since - that once were capacitors and top hat transistors. There was enough fluff from the caps to have the chassis rated at least R-10 :->).

    Power Reversal - Better Pray

    "That's right, I reversed power and ground on a Sony XR-6000 AM/FM cassette car stereo. (12V negative ground).

    The little fellow made a stinky smell, so I assume that at least one component is cooked."

    If it had not been turned on before you discovered your error, the damage may have been limited to the display and some filter caps. Then again...

    The problem is that an auto battery has a very high current capacity and any fuses respond too slowly to be of much value in a situation such as this. Any capacitors and solid state components on the 12 V bus at the time power was applied are likely fried - well done.

    "Is there any hope of my repairing it? (This assumes I show more ability than I did when installing it.) Which part(s) are likely damaged?"
    (From: Onat Ahmet (

    Well, based on that last statement ;-)

    If not, join the happy crowd, and gut the good old stereo for parts!

    Determining Voltage and Polarity of AC Adapter Powered Devices

    This is often required when the original adapter is lost or misplaced or isn't labeled so you are not sure if it is the correct one for your device. It's amazing how many things like modems and phone answering machines don't list the voltage and polarity on the case - it's not like the extra printing would cost anything! If you are simply replacing a broken adapter with a universal type, check the label on the old one - they almost always provide this information. There are three issues: AC versus DC, the voltage, and polarity. Unfortunately, fully determining these requirements experimentally can be non-trivial. While many devices have built in protection for reverse polarity (which would probably also include putting AC into a device requiring DC), others do not and may be damaged or may at least blow an internal fuse. Few devices protect against extreme overvoltage. If you have a multimeter, there are also some tests you can perform without opening the device but they are not foolproof. Here are some general guidelines. The more of these you can confirm, the greater the confidence of avoiding disaster.

    1. The best way would be to find the information without serious testing. It may be readily available:

      • Examine the device for labels, either embossed near the power jack or on the rear or underneath such as:
          DC 5V ----    AC 12 V ~
                ____            _

      • If there is a voltage listed but no indication of AC/DC, 6 V or less is likely to be DC (and may require decent regulation; higher voltages could be either AC or DC (probably filtered but unregulated though not always).

      • A symmetric (non-polarized) jack means it is supposed to operate on AC.

      • If the device has a metal case or you can get to the metal shields on connectors, check for continuity to the power jack. This probably is the negative input (though no guarantee - some manufacturers do really strange things!).

      • Check your user manual!

      • Contact the manufacturer or their Web site.

    2. The next best way would be to open it up and trace enough of the power circuitry to identify components which have obvious voltage ratings and polarities like electrolytic capacitors. There may even be labeling on the circuit board.

      • There will almost always be at least one electrolytic cap very near the power input.

      • If there is nothing between it and the power jack, then polarity will be that of the cap and you will have an upper bound on voltage (but the actual safe operating voltage will probably be considerably less).

      • If there is a diode in series with the cap, then the voltage and polarity will be as above (except for the 0.7 or so V diode drop) and the device is probably designed to operate on DC (and possibly AC but there may not be enough filtering).

      • If there is a bridge rectifier or multiple rectifier diodes between the input and any DC loads, it is probably designed to operate on AC.

      • If the device also has a battery compartment and the battery powers the device the same way as the adapter (possibly with one connection going through a diode or an interlock on the power jack), then the AC adapter polarity and voltage will be the same (+/- 0.7 V or so) as the battery. However, some devices use totally different means of powering themselves with battery and AC operation!

    If you have a multimeter for which you know the polarity of its output on the ohms ranges (VOMs may be reversed from the probes; DMMs are often the same - this can be determined by testing a diode or with another meter), then test on the low ohms range first in one direction, than the other. This is like applying a very low safe voltage to the device:

    1. Open in one direction and a charging cap (resistance starts low and increases relatively slowly) indicates a series diode (protection or a rectifier). The probe polarity where the cap is charging is the correct one. (Note: once the internal caps charge up, reversing the leads again may result in an apparent open reading.)

    2. A diode drop in one direction and charging cap in the other indicates a parallel protection diode. Again, the slowly charging direction is correct.

    3. Symmetric behavior may indicate it is supposed to use AC. However, this could just mean that a filter cap is directly across the input and DC is required.
    Anything else will probably require you do (1) or (2). And, except for manufacturer supplied information, even these are no guarantee of anything!

    Once AC versus DC and polarity (if relevant) are determined, start low on voltage to see at what point the device behaves normally. Depending on design, this may be quite low compared to the recommended input voltage or very near it - no way to really know. Devices with motors and solenoids may appear to operate at relatively low voltage but fail to do the proper mechanical things reliably if at all. RF devices capable of transmitting may behave similarly when asked to transmit. Devices with more constant power requirements may operate happily at these reduced voltages. However, depending on the type of power supplies they use, running at a low voltage may also be stressful (e.g., where DC-DC converters are involved).

    NOTE: Some devices with microcontrollers and/or logic will require a fast power turn-on so it may be necessary to switch off and then on for each input voltage you try for proper reset.

    Again, determining the requirements from the manufacturer is best!

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    AC Adapter Modifications or Enhancements

    Using AC Adapters in Series for Multiple Voltages

    Where a bipolar DC power supply is needed, it is possible to create this with a pair of DC output adapters in series. Each adapter must have voltage and current ratings adequate for your application. They can be used with or without external regulators (see the section: Adding an IC Regulator to a Wall Adapter or Battery. Since they are fully isolated from the AC line and each other, they can be tied together with any desired polarity and common point.

    The only caution is that if one of them is unpowered for any reason (it falls out of the AC outlet!), then current may be forced through the other one in the wrong direction possibly damaging its electrolytic capacitors or other components. To prevent this possibility, place a rectifier like a 1N4002 (this is 1 A, use a larger one if your adapters are really huge) in REVERSE across each output. This will bypass current safely around the internal circuitry.

    The idea of using multiple adapters can be extended to even more outputs but this is left as an exercise for the student.

    Using AC Adapters in Series for Higher or Lower Voltage

    Wall adapters are totally isolated from everything (except possibly for a very high value resistor to one side of the AC line which for this purpose can be ignored) so using one set of wires as a common for the series connection won't blow anything.

    However, obtaining an AC adapter with the proper ratings for long term use would be a good idea.

    There are two cases:

    1. DC output. It's probably not recommended and only the sum case (higher voltage output) is generally possible but will work (at least for testing purposes) as long as neither current rating is exceeded and both units are powered. (Else, you could end up with the wrong polarity on one of the unit's electrolytic capacitors.)

    2. AC output. There should be no problem as long as the current rating of neither adapter is exceeded. Unless they are identical units, you will probably have to experiment with the phasing to get the sum or difference of the voltages WITHOUT the equipment attached!

      WARNING: If one of the adapters is not plugged in, high voltage (possibly even more than the normal line voltage) may appear on its exposed prongs due to the AC from the other adapters present on its output (being stepped up going the wrong way through the transformer). The voltage and available current may be enough to be dangerous in some cases.

      CAUTION: For the difference case, if one of the units isn't powered, you may get a HIGHER voltage than expected at the output of the series combination which may let the smoke out of your equipment. :(

    Replacing Batteries With an AC Adapter

    While most appliances that run off of internal batteries also include a socket for an wall adapter, this is not always the case. Just because there is no hole to plug one in doesn't necessarily mean that you cannot use one.

    The type we are considering in this discussion are plug-in wall adapter that output a DC voltage (not AC transformers). This would be stated on the nameplate.

    The first major consideration is voltage. This needs to be matched to the needs of the equipment. However, what you provide may also need to be well regulated for several reasons as the manufacturer may have saved on the cost of the circuitry by assuming the use of batteries:

    Thus, the typical universal adapter found at Radio Shack and others may not work satisfactorily. No-load voltage can be much higher than the voltage at full load - which in itself may be greater than the marked voltage. Adding an external regulator to a somewhat higher voltage wall adapter is best. See the section: Adding an IC Regulator to a Wall Adapter or Battery.

    The other major consideration is current. The rating of the was adapter must be at least equal to the *maximum* current - mA or A - drawn by the device in any mode which lasts more than a fraction of a second. The best way to determine this is to measure it using fresh batteries and checking all modes. Add a safety factor of 10 to 25 percent to your maximum reading and use this when selecting an adapter.

    For shock and fire safety, any wall adapter you use should be isolated and have UL approval.

    To wire it in, you can obtain a socket like those used on appliances with external adapter inputs - from something that is lying in your junk-box or a distributor like MCM Electronics. Use one with an automatic disconnect (3 terminals) if possible. Then, you can retain the optional use of the battery. Cut the wire to the battery for the side that will be the outer ring of the adapter plug and wire it in series with the disconnect (make sure the disconnected terminal goes to the battery and the other terminal goes to the equipment). The common (center) terminal goes to other side of the battery, adapter, and equipment as shown in the example below. In this wiring diagram, it is assumed that the ring is + and the center is -. Your adapter could be wired either way. Don't get it backwards!
                           X V  | (Inserting plug breaks connection at X)
          Battery (+) o-------  |
          Adapter (+) o---------+------------------o Equipment (Ring, +)
          Battery/                            |
          Adapter (-) o-----------------------+----o Equipment (Center, -)
    WARNING: if you do not use an automatic disconnect socket, remove the battery holder or otherwise disable it - accidentally using the wall adapter with the batteries installed could result in leakage or even an explosion!

    A possibly simpler alternative is to fashion a 'module' the size and shape of the battery or battery pack with screw contacts at the same locations and connect your external power supply to it. For example, a couple of pieces of wooden dowel rod about 2-1/4" long taped together with wood screws in the appropriate ends would substitute for a pair of side-by-side AA batteries. Then, you don't need to modify the Walkman or whatever at all (or at most just file a slot for the wire to exit the battery door).

    Converting an AC Output Wall Adapter to DC

    Where a modest source of DC is required for an appliance or other device, it may be possible to add a rectifier and filter capacitor (and possibly a regulator as well) to a wall adapter with an AC output. While many wall adapter output DC, some - modems and some phone answering machines, for example - are just transformers and output low voltage AC.

    To convert such an adapter to DC requires the use of:

    Depending on your needs, you may find a suitable wall adapter in your junk box (maybe from that 2400 baud modem that was all the rage a couple of years ago!).

    The basic circuit is shown below:

                Bridge Rectifier   Filter Capacitor
        AC o-----+----|>|-------+---------+-----o DC (+)
                ~|              |+        |
       In from   +----|<|----+  |       +_|_   Out to powered device
       AC wall               |  |      C ___   or voltage regulator
       Adapter   +----|>|----|--+       - |
                 |           |            |
        AC o-----+----|<|----+------------+-----o DC (-)
                ~                -
    Considerations: The following examples illustrate some of the possibilities. Limiting your load to the VA ratings of the transformer should keep it from overheating. Whether you will get a decently smooth output will depend on how much filtering you have AND on the peak current available from the transformer to recharge the filter capacitors on each half-cycle. A high quality transformer (e.g. something from a manufacturer like Stancor or Thorderson that is designed with much more copper) will be much much better in this respect. A wall adapter is likely to have limited peak current and significant droop.

    Adding an IC regulator to either of these would permit an output of up to about 2.5 V less than the filtered DC voltage.

    Adding an IC Regulator to a Wall Adapter or Battery

    For many applications, it is desirable to have a well regulated source of DC power. This may be the case when running equipment from batteries as well as from a wall adapter that outputs a DC voltage or the enhanced adapter described in the section: Converting an AC Output Wall Adapter to DC.

    The following is a very basic introduction to the construction of a circuit with appropriate modifications will work for outputs in the range of about 1.25 to 35 V and currents up 1 A. This can also be used as the basis for a small general purpose power supply for use with electronics experiments.

    For an arbitrary voltage between about 1.2 and 35 V what you want is an IC called an 'adjustable voltage regulator'. LM317 is one example - Radio Shack should have it along with a schematic. The LM317 looks like a power transistor but is a complete regulator on a chip.

    Where the output needs to be a common value like +5 V or -12 V, ICs called 'fixed voltage regulators' are available which are preprogrammed for these. Typical ICs have designations of 78xx (positive output) and 79xx (negative output).

    For example:

                Positive                   Negative
            Voltage Regulator          Voltage Regulator
         -----------------------    -----------------------
             7805      +5 V             7905      -5 V
             7809      +9 V             7909      -9 V
             7812     +12 V             7912     -12 V
             7815     +15 V             7915     -15 V
    and so forth. Where these will suffice, the circuit below can be simplified by eliminating the resistors and tying the third terminal to ground. Note: pinouts differ between positive and negative types - check the datasheet!

    Here is a sample circuit using the LM317:

                        I +-------+ O                       
        Vin (+) o-----+---| LM317 |---+--------------+-----o Vout (+)
                      |   +-------+   |              |
                      |       | A     /              |
                      |       |       \ R1 = 240     |
                      |       |       /              |           ___
                     _|_ C1   |       |            +_|_ C2      |_0_|  LM317
                     ___ .01  +-------+             ___ 1 uF    |   |  1 - Adjust
                      |  uF   |                    - |          |___|  2 - Output
                      |       \                      |           |||   3 - Input
                      |       / R2                   |           123
                      |       \                      |
                      |       |                      |
        Vin(-) o------+-------+----------------------+-----o Vout (-)
    Note: Not all voltage regulator ICs use this pinout. If you are not using an LM317, double check its pinout - as well as all the other specifications.

    For the LM317:

    1. R2 = (192 x Vout) - 240, where R2 in ohms, Vout is in volts and must be at between 1.2 V and 35 V.

    2. Vin should be at least 2.5V greater than Vout. Select a wall adapter with a voltage at least 2.5 V greater than your regulated output at full load.

      However, note that a typical adapter's voltage may vary quite a bit depending on manufacturer and load. You will have to select one that isn't too much greater than what you really want since this will add unnecessary wasted power in the device and additional heat dissipation.

    3. Maximum output current is 1 A. Your adapter must be capable of supplying the maximum current safely and without its voltage drooping below the requirement in (2) above.

    4. Additional filter capacitance (across C1) on the adapter's output may help (or be required) to reduce its ripple and thus the swing of its input. This may allow you to use an adapter with a lower output voltage and reduce the power dissipation in the regulator as well.

      Using 10,000 uF per *amp* of output current will result in less than 1 V p-p ripple on the input to the regulator. As long as the input is always greater than your desired output voltage plus 2.5 V, the regulator will totally remove this ripple resulting in a constant DC output independent of line voltage and load current fluctuations. (For you purists, the regulator isn't quite perfect but is good enough for most applications.)

      Make sure you select a capacitor with a voltage rating at least 25% greater than the adapter's *unloaded* peak output voltage and observe the polarity!

      Note: wall adapters designed as battery chargers may not have any filter capacitors so this will definitely be needed with this type. Quick check: If the voltage on the adapter's output drops to zero as soon as it is pulled from the wall - even with no load - it does not have a filter capacitor.

    5. The tab of the LM317 is connected to the center pin - keep this in mind because the chip will have to be on a heat sink if it will be dissipating more than a watt or so. P = (Vout - Vin) * Iout.

    6. There are other considerations - check the datasheet for the LM317 particularly if you are running near the limits of 35 V and/or 1 A.
    More information on this topic can be found in the document: Various Schematics and Diagrams.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Equipment Power Supplies

    Types of Power Supplies

    See the document: Safety Guidelines for High Voltage and/or Line Powered Equipment before tackling any power supply problems!

    If your equipment uses an AC adapter (wall wart), see the sections on those devices.

    The power supplies built in to consumer electronic equipment are usually one of three types or a hybrid combination of these (There are no doubt others):

    1. Power transformer with linear regulator using 78/79XX ICs or discrete components. The power transformer will be large and very near the AC line cord.

    2. Power transformer with hybrid regulator like STK5481 or any of its cousins - multioutput with some outputs switched by power on. If it has one of these, check ECG, SK, or NTE, or post to and someone can probably provide the pinout. Again, the power transformer will be large and very near the AC line cord.

    3. Small switching power supply. Most common problems: shorted semiconductors, bad capacitors, open fusable resistors. In this case there is usually no large power transformer near the line input but a smaller transformer amidships. This is rare in audio equipment as the switching noise is difficult to keep out of the audio circuits. These are more often found found in some VCRs, TVs, monitors, fax machines, and printers.
    Some comments for each type:
    1. Troubleshooting is quite straightforward as the components are readily identified and it is easy to trace through from the power transformer, bridge or centertapped full wave rectifiers, regulators, caps, etc.

    2. Failures of one or more of the outputs of these hybrid regulators are very common. Use ECG/STK/NTE cross reference to identify the correct output voltages. Test with power switch in both positions. Any discrepancy indicates likely problem. While an excessive load dragging down a voltage is possible, the regulator is the first suspect. Replacement cost is usually under $10.

    3. Switching supplies. These are tougher to diagnose, but it is possible without service literature by tracing the circuit and checking for bad semiconductors with an ohmmeter. Common problems - dried up capacitors, shorted semiconductors, and bad solder joints. See the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Switchmode Power Supplies for more detailed information.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Power Supply Troubleshooting

    Totally Dead Power Supply (Non-Switching Type)

    Don't overlook the possibility of bad solder connections or even a bad line cord or plug. Maybe Fido was hungry.

    First, make sure the outlet is live - try a lamp. Even a neon circuit tester is not a 100% guarantee - the outlet may have a high resistance marginal connection.

    Check for blown fuses near the line cord input. With the unit unplugged, test for continuity from the AC plug to the fuse, on/off switch and power transformer. With the power switch in the 'on' position, testing across the AC plug should result in a resistance of 1 to 100 ohms depending on the size of the equipment:

    If the fuse blew and the readings are too low, the transformer primary may be partially or totally shorted. If the resistance is infinite even directly across the primary of the power transformer, it may be open or there may be an open thermal fuse underneath the outer layer of insulation wrapping. Also see the section: Comments on Importance of Thermal Fuses and Protectors.

    If the fuse blew but resistance is reasonable, try a new fuse of the proper ratings. If this blows instantly, there is still a fault in the power supply or one of its loads. See the section: About Fuses, IC Protectors, and Circuit Breakers.

    If these check out, then the problem is likely on the secondary side. One or more outputs may be low or missing due to bad regulator components. A secondary winding could be open though is is less common than primary side failure as the wire (in transistorized equipment at least) is much thicker.

    Low or Missing Power Supply Outputs (Non-Switching Type)

    Once the line input and primary circuits have been found to be good (or at have continuity and a resistance that is reasonable, the problems is most likely in the secondary side - fuses, rectifiers, filter capacitors, regulator components, bad connections, excess load due to electronic problems elsewhere.

    Depending on the type of equipment, there may be a single output of several outputs from the power supply. A failure of one of these can result in multiple systems problems depending on what parts of the equipment use what supply.

    Check for bad fuses in the secondary circuits - test with an ohmmeter. (I once even found an intermittent fuse!) Try a new fuse of the same ratings. If this one blows immediately, there is a fault in the power supply or one of its loads. See the section: About Fuses, IC Protectors, and Circuit Breakers. The use of a series current limiting resistor - a low wattage light bulb, for example - may be useful to allow you to make measurements without undo risk of damage and an unlimited supply of fuses.

    Locate the large electrolytic filter capacitor(s). These will probably be near the power transformer connections to the circuit board with the power supply components. Test for voltage across each of these with power on. If they are in pairs, this may be a dual polarity supply (+/-, very common in audio equipment). Sometimes, two or more capacitors are simply used to provide a higher uF rating. If you find no voltage on one of these capacitors, trace back to determine if the problem is a rectifier diode, bad connection, or bad secondary winding on the power transformer (the latter is somewhat uncommon as the wire is relatively thick, however).

    Dried up electrolytic capacitors will result in excessive ripple leading to hum or reduced headroom in audio outputs and possible regulation problems as well. Test with a scope or multimeter on its AC scale (but not all multimeters have DC blocking capacitors on its AC input and these readings may be confused by the DC level). If ripple is excessive - as a guideline if it is more than 10 to 20% of the DC level - then substitute or jumper across with a good capacitor of similar uF rating and at least the same voltage rating.

    If you find voltages that are lower than expected, this could be due to bad filter capacitors, an open diode or connection (one side of a full wave rectifier circuit), or excessive load which may be either in the regulator(s), if any, or driven circuitry.

    Disconnect the output of the power supply from its load. If the voltage jumps up dramatically (or the fuse now survives or the series light bulb now goes out or glows dimly), then a short or excess load is likely.

    If the behavior does not change substantially, the problem may be in the regulator(s). Transistors, zener diodes, resistors, and other discrete components, and IC regulators like LM317s or 7809s can be tested with an ohmmeter or by substitution. The most common failures are shorts for semiconductors, opens for resistors, and no or low output for ICs.

    Where the supply uses a hybrid regulator like an STK5481, confirming proper input and then testing each output is usually sufficient to identify a failure. A defective hybrid regulator will likely provide no or very low output on one or more outputs. Confirm by disconnecting the load. Test with any on/off (logic) control in both states.

    Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs) and Power Inverters

    Caution: reread safety guidelines as portions of these devices can be nasty.

    Note: inexpensive UPSs and inverters generate a squarewave output so don't be surprised at how ugly the waveform appears if you look at it on a scope. This is probably normal. More sophisticated and expensive units may use a modified sinewave - actually a 3 or 5 level discrete approximation to a sinewave (instead of a 2 level squarewave). The highest quality units will generate a true sinewave using high frequency bipolar pulse width modulation. Don't expect to find this in a $100 K-Mart special, however.

    A UPS incorporates a battery charger, lead-acid (usually) storage battery, DC-AC inverter, and control and bypass circuitry.

    Note that if finding a UPS that provides surge protection is an important consideration, look for one that runs the output off of the battery at all times rather than bypassing the inverter during normal operation. The battery will act as a nearly perfect filter in so far as short term line voltage variations, spikes, and noise, are concerned.

    A DC-AC power inverter used to run line powered equipment from an automotive battery or other low voltage source is similar to the internal inverter in a UPS.

    For a unit that appears dead (and the power has not been off for more than its rated holdup time and the outlet is live), first, check for a blown fuse - external or internal. Perhaps, someone was attempting to run their microwave oven off of the UPS or inverter!

    (See the section on: "Fuse post mortems" to identify likely failure mode.)

    If you find one - and it is blown due to a short circuit - then there are likely internal problems like shorted components. However, if it is blown due to a modest overload, the powered equipment may simply be of too high a wattage for the UPS or inverter - or it may be defective.

    Failures of a UPS can be due to:

    1. Battery charging circuit - if the battery does not appear to be charging even after an extended time, measure across the battery with the unit both unplugged and plugged in. The voltage should jump up some amount with power on - when it is supposed to be charging. Disconnect the battery and try again if there is no action - the battery may be shorted totally. Check for blown fuses, smoked parts, and bad connections.

    2. Battery - deteriorated or abused lead acid batteries are very common. If the battery will not charge or hold a charge, battery problems are likely. A UPS (or any kind of lead-acid battery powered equipment) that lies idle for a long time (say a year or two) without power to top off the battery will likely result in a dead - not salvageable - battery due to sulfation. Symptoms will be: voltage on battery climbs to more than 2.5 V per cell when first put on charge and even after a long charging period, the battery has essentially no capacity. If the battery voltage is at its nominal value - even when the inverter should be running from it (and there is no or low output), then there is a problem in the inverter or its connections or there is excess load.

    3. Inverter - troubleshooting is similar to that required for a switchmode power supply. Common problems: shorted power semiconductors, open fusable resistors, dried up electrolytic capacitors, and bad connections. See the document: Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Small Switchmode Power Supplies. A visual inspection may reveal parts that have exploded or lost their smoke.

    4. Line bypass circuit (if used) - check for problems in the controller or its standby power supply, or power switchover components, and bad connections.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Protection Devices

    About Fuses, IC Protectors, and Circuit Breakers

    The purpose of fuses and circuit breakers is to protect both the wiring from heating and possible fire due to a short circuit or severe overload and to prevent damage to the equipment due to excess current resulting from a failed component or improper use (i.e., excess volume to loudspeakers).

    Fuses use a fine wire or strip (called the element) made from a metal which has enough resistance (more than for copper usually) to be heated by current flow and which melts at a relatively low well defined temperature. When the rated current is exceeded, this element heats up enough to melt (or vaporize). How quickly this happens depends on the extent of the overload and the type of fuse.

    Fuses found in consumer electronic equipment are usually cartridge type consisting of a glass (or sometimes ceramic) body and metal end caps. The most common sizes are 1-1/4" mm x 1/4" or 20 mm x 5 mm. Some of these have wire leads to the end caps and are directly soldered to the circuit board but most snap into a fuse holder or fuse clips. Miniature types include: Pico(tm) fuses that look like green 1/4 W resistors or other miniature cylindrical or square varieties, little clear plastic buttons, etc. Typical circuit board markings are F or PR.

    IC protectors are just miniature fuses specifically designed to have a very rapid response to prevent damage to sensitive solid state components including intergrated circuits and transistors. These usually are often in TO92 plastic cases but with only 2 leads or little rectangular cases about .1" W x .3" L x .2" H. Test just like a fuse. These may be designated ICP, PR, or F.

    Circuit breakers may be thermal, magnetic, or a combination of the two. Small (push button) circuit breakers for electronic equipment are most often thermal - metal heats up due to current flow and breaks the circuit when its temperature exceeds a set value. The mechanism is often the bending action of a bimetal strip or disc - similar to the operation of a thermostat. Flip type circuit breakers are normally magnetic. An electro- magnet pulls on a lever held from tripping by a calibrated spring. These are not usually common in consumer equipment (but are used at the electrical service panel).

    At just over the rated current, it may take minutes to break the circuit. At 10 times rated current, the fuse may blow or circuit breaker may open in milliseconds.

    The response time of a 'normal' or 'rapid action' fuse or circuit breaker depends on the instantaneous value of the overcurrent.

    A 'slow blow' or 'delayed action' fuse or circuit breaker allows instantaneous overload (such as normal motor starting) but will interrupt the circuit quickly for significant extended overloads or short circuits. A large thermal mass delays the temperature rise so that momentary overloads are ignored. The magnetic type breaker adds a viscous damping fluid to slow down the movement of the tripping mechanism.

    Fuse Post Mortems

    Quite a bit can be inferred from the appearance of a blown fuse if the inside is visible as is the case with a glass cartridge type. One advantage to the use of fuses is that this diagnostic information is often available!

    A fuse which has an element that looks intact but tests open may have just become tired with age. Even if the fuse does not blow, continuous cycling at currents approaching its rating or instantaneous overloads results in repeated heating and cooling of the fuse element. It is quite common for the fuse to eventually fail when no actual fault is present.

    A fuse where the element is broken in a single or multiple locations blew due to an overload. The current was probably more than twice the fuse's rating but not a dead short.

    A fuse with a blackened or silvered discoloration on the glass where the entire element is likely vaporized blew due to a short circuit.

    This information can be of use in directly further troubleshooting.

    Fuse or Circuit Breaker Replacement

    As noted, sometimes a fuse will blow for no good reason. Replace fuse, end of story. In this situation, or after the problem is found, what are the rules of safe fuse replacement? It is inconvenient, to say the least, to have to wait a week until the proper fuse arrives or to venture out to Radio Shack in the middle of the night.

    Even with circuit breakers, a short circuit may so damage the contacts or totally melt the device that replacement will be needed.

    Four parameters characterizes a fuse or circuit breaker:

    1. Current rating - this should not be exceeded (you have heard about not putting pennies in fuse boxes, right?) (The one exception to this rule is if all other testing fails to reveal which component caused the fuse to blow in the first place. Then, and only then, putting a larger fuse in or jumpering across the fuse **just for testing** will allow the faulty component to identify itself by smoking or blowing its top!) A smaller current rating can safely be used but depending on how close the original rating was to the actual current, this may blow immediately.

    2. Voltage rating - this is the maximum safe working voltage of the circuit (including any inductive spikes) which the device will safety interrupt. It is safe to use a replacement with equal or high voltage rating.

    3. Type - normal, fast blow, slow blow, etc. It is safe to substitute a fuse or circuit breaker with a faster response characteristic but there may be consistent or occasional failure mostly during power-on. The opposite should be avoided as it risks damage to the equipment as semiconductors tend to die quite quickly.

    4. Mounting - it is usually quite easy to obtain an identical replacement.

      However, as long as the other specifications are met, soldering a normal 1-1/4" (3AG) fuse across a 20 mm fuse is perfectly fine, for example. Sometimes a fuse will have wire leads and be soldered directly onto the circuit board. However, your own wires can be carefully soldered to the much more common cartridge type to create a suitable replacement.

    Comments on Importance of Thermal Fuses and Protectors

    Like a normal fuse or circuit breaker, a thermal fuse or thermal protector provides a critical safety function. Therefore, it is extremely ill advised to just short it out if it fails. Some designs even make this option extra tempting by providing an easy way to bypass even one buried inside a power transformer - using an additional, normally unused terminal.

    For testing, it is perfectly acceptable to temporarily short out the device to see if the equipment then operates normally without overheating. However, while these fuses do sometimes just fail on their own, most likely, there was another cause. If you know what it was - you were trying to charge a shorted battery pack, using your window fan to mix cement, or something was shorted externally, then the fuse served its protective function and the equipment is fine. IT SHOULD BE REPLACED WITH THE SAME TYPE or the entire transformer, motor, or whatever it was in should be replaced! This is especially critical for unattended devices. Otherwise, especially with unattended devices, you have a situation where if the overload occurred again or something else failed, the equipment could overheat to the point of causing a fire - and your insurance company may refuse to cover the claim if they find that a change was made to the circuit. And even for portable devices like blow dryers and portable power tools, aside from personal safety should the device malfunction, the thermal protector is there to prevent damage to the equipment itself - don't leave it out!

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.


    Common Types of Transformers

    A transformer consists of a laminated iron or ferrite core and 2 or more insulated windings that are most often not connected to each other directly. If one set of windings is used as the input for AC power or an audio signal (the 'primary' winding), the voltage appearing on each of the other windings (the 'secondary' winding(s)) will be related by the ratio of the number of turns on each of the windings. However, you don't get something for nothing: The current is related by the inverse of this ratio so the power doesn't change (except due to unavoidable losses).

    Transformers are used in nearly every type of electronic equipment both for power and signals, and throughout the electrical distribution network to optimize the voltage/current used on each leg of the journey from the power plant to the user.

    The types we are interested in with respect to household appliances, power tools, and consumer electronic equipment are most often use to convert the AC line voltage to some other value, lower or higher:

    1. Low voltage power transformer are found in AC wall adapters and electronic equipment as part of their power supplies to generate 1 or more DC voltages to run the device, recharge its batteries, etc. Their outputs are typically between 2 and 48 VAC but almost any other value is possible.

    2. High voltage power transformers are found in microwave ovens, old TVs and audio equipment based on vacuum tubes, oil burner ignitions, and some neon signs. Their output can go as high as 15 kV or more.

    3. Flyback (or LOPT), inverter, and other more specialized transformers are driven by a high frequency oscillator or chopper in various equipment like TVs and monitors (HV, LV, and other power supplies), PCs and some of their peripherals, electronic flash units. Note that these will NOT operate from the AC line directly and are therefore useless unless driven by a proper electronic circuit.
    There are also a couple of other common types of AC line operated transformers used in servicing:
    1. Isolation transformers are wound 1:1 so that the output voltage is the same as the input voltage. However, with no direct connection between windings, equipment can be tested with less risk of shock.

    2. Variable transformers (or "Variac") allow the output voltage to be adjusted between 0 and full (or slightly above) line voltage which is useful for testing purposes where the behavior of a piece of equipment is being determined.
    See the document: Troubleshooting of Consumer Electronic Equipment for more information on these types of transformers.

    Testing a Power Transformer

    Here are some simple tests to perform where you want to determine if a used (or new) power transformer with known specifications is actually good:
    1. Look for obvious signs of distress. Smell it to determine if there is any indication of previous overheating, burning, etc.

    2. Plug it in and check for output voltages to be reasonably close (probably somewhat high) to what you expect.

    3. Leave it on for awhile. It may get anywhere from just detectable to moderately warm but not to hot to touch and it shouldn't melt down, smoke, or blow up. Needless to say, if it does any of the latter, the tests are concluded!

    4. Find a suitable load based on: R = V/I from the specifications and make sure it can supply the current without overheating. The voltage should also not drop excessively between no and full load (but this depends on the design, quality of constructions, whether you got it at Radio Shack :-), etc.

    Identifying the Connections on an Unknown Power Transformer

    Start with a good multimeter - DMM on the lowest ohms scale or VOM on the X1 resistance range. (You will need to be able to measure down to .1 ohms for many of these.) This will permit you to map the windings.

    First, identify all connections that have continuity between them. Except for the possible case of a water soaked transformer with excessive leakage, any reading less than infinity on the meter is an indication of a connection. The typical values will be between something very close to 0 ohms and 100 ohms.

    Each group of connected terminals represents one winding. The highest reading for each group will be between the ends of the winding; others will be lower. With a few measurements and some logical thinking, you will be able to label the arrangement ends and taps of each winding.

    Once you do this, applying a low voltage AC input (from another power transformer driven by a Variac) will enable you to determine voltage ratios. Then, you may be able to make some educated guesses as to the primary and secondary. Often, primary and secondary windings will exit from opposite sides of the transformer.

    For typical power transformers, there will be two primary wires but international power transformers may have multiple taps as well as a pair or primary windings (possibly with multiple taps) for switching between 110/115/120 VAC and 220/230/240 VAC operation. Typical color codes for the primary winding(s) will be black or black with various color stripes. Almost any colors can be used for secondary windings. Stripes may indicate center tap connections but not always.

    Note: for safety, use the Variac and another isolated transformer for this.

    Here is a more specific example:

    "I recently purchased at a local electronics surplus store at 35volt center tap 2A transformer for a model railroad throttle (power supply). The secondary wires are red-red/yellow-red and I understand how to hook up the secondary in order to get two 17.5 volt sources. My dilemma is the primary. There are SIX black wires (black, black/red, black/blue, black/green, black/yellow, black/grey). Two of the wires were already stripped and I hooked these up to 115 VAC but no voltage on the secondary side. Does anyone have any ideas? I don't know the manufacturer, the transformer is in an enclosed case (no open windings). I also don't know if it has multiple primaries that must be connected or if it has five taps for different input voltages. Any ideas????"
    Of course, I assume you did measure on the AC scale on the secondary! :-) Sorry, have to confirm the basics. My natural assumption would also be that the striped wires were the ones you needed.

    Here is a suggestion:

    1. Use an ohmmeter to determine which sets of primary wires are connected. The resistances will be very low but you should also be able to determine which are just taps as the resistance between them will be very low.

    2. Since you already know what the secondary should be, power the secondary from a low voltage AC source like another transformer. Then measure across each pair of primary wires. You should be able to determine which are the main wires and which are the taps.
    Using a combination of the above procedures should enable you to pretty fully determine what is going on. I suspect that you have a pair of primary windings that can be connected either series (for 220) or parallel (110) and a tap but who knows. Do the tests. If in doubt, don't just connect it to 110 - you could end up with a melt-down. Post your findings.

    Determining Unknown Connections on International Power Transformers

    Most likely, you can figure this out if you can identify the input connections.

    There will be two primary windings (resistance between the two will be infinite). Each of these may also have additional taps to accommodate various slight variations in input voltage. For example, there may be taps for 110/220, 115/230, 120/240, etc.

    For the U.S. (110 VAC), the two primary windings will be wired in parallel. For overseas (220 VAC) operation, they will be wired in series. When switching from one to the other make sure you get the phases of the two windings correct - otherwise you will have a short circuit! You can test for this when you apply power - leave one end of one winding disconnected and measure between these two points - there should be close to zero voltage present if the phase is correct. If the voltage is significant, reverse one of the windings and then confirm.

    A multimeter on the lowest resistance scale should permit you to determine the internal arrangement of any taps on the primaries and which sets of secondary terminals are connected to each winding. This will probably need to be a DMM as many VOMs do not have low enough resistance ranges.

    It is best to test with a Variac so you can bring up the voltage gradually and catch your mistakes before anything smokes.

    You can then power it from a low voltage AC source, say 10 VAC from your Variac or even an AC wall adapter, to be safe and make your secondary measurements. Then scale all these voltage readings appropriately.

    Determining Power (VA) Ratings of Unknown Transformers

    For a transformer with a single output winding, measuring temperature rise isn't a bad way to go. Since you don't know what an acceptable temperature is for the transformer, a conservative approach is to load it - increase the current gradually - until it runs warm to the touch after an extended period (say an hour) of time.

    Where multiple output windings are involved, this is more difficult since the safe currents from each are unknown.

    (From: Greg Szekeres (

    Generally, the VA rating of individual secondary taps can be measured. While measuring the no load voltage, start to load the winding until the voltage drops 10%, stop measure the voltage and measure or compute the current. 10% would be a very safe value. A cheap transformer may compute the VA rating with a 20% drop. 15% is considered good. You will have to play around with it to make sure everything is OK with no overheating, etc.

    (From: James Meyer (

    With the open circuit voltage of the individual windings, and their DC resistance, you can make a very reasonable assumption as to the relative amounts of power available at each winding.

    Set up something like a spread-sheet model and adjust the output current to make the losses equal in each secondary. The major factor in any winding's safe power capability is wire size since the volts per turn and therefore the winding's length is fixed for any particular output voltage.

    Determining the Ratings of a Fried Power Transformer

    A power transformer can die in a number of ways. The following are the most common: There are several approaches to analyzing the blown transformer and/or identifying what is needed as a replacement: If you cannot do this for whatever reason, some educated guesswork will be required. Each of the outputs will likely drive either a half wave (one diode), full wave (2 diodes if it has a centertap), or bridge (module or 4 diodes). For the bridge, there might be a centertap as well to provide both a positive and negative output.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Transformer Troubleshooting and Repair

    Transformer Fault Diagnosis

    Some power transformers include a thermal fuse under the outer layers of insulation. In many cases, an overload will result in a thermal fuse opening and if you can get at it, replacement will restore the transformer to health. Also see the section: Comments on Importance of Thermal Fuses and Protectors.

    Where an open thermal fuse is not the problem, aside from bad solder or crimp connections where the wire leads or terminals connect to the transformer windings, anything else will require unwrapping one or more of the windings to locate an open or short. Where a total melt-down has occurred and the result is a charred hunk of copper and iron, even more drastic measures would be required.

    In principle, it would be possible to totally rebuild a faulty transformer. All that is needed is to determine the number of turns, direction, layer distribution and order for each winding. Suitable magnet (sometimes called motor wire) is readily available.

    However, unless you really know what you are doing and obtain the proper insulating material and varnish, long term reliability and safety are unknown. Therefore, I would definitely recommend obtaining a proper commercial replacement if at all possible.

    See the section: Rewinding Power Transformers.

    However, DIY transformer construction is nothing new:

    (From: Robert Blum (

    I have a book from the Government Printing Office . The title is: "Information for the Amateur Designer of Transformers for 25 to 60 cycle circuits" by Herbert B. Brooks. It was issued June 14, 1935 so I do not know if it is still in print. At the time I got it it cost $.10.

    (From: Mark Zenier (

    "Practical Transformer Design Handbook" by Eric Lowdon. Trouble is, last I checked it's out of print. Published by both Sams and Tab Professional Books.

    (From: Paul Giancaterino (

    I found a decent article on the subject in Radio Electronics, May 1983. The article explains the basics, including how to figure what amps your transformer can handle and how to size the wiring.

    Rewinding Power Transformers

    Here is some information and recommendations from people who have successfully repaired power transformers that have self destructed:


    DISCLAIMER: There is a safety aspect of mains transformers. Use this information entirely at your own risk.

    I have wound and re wound several transformers. When I was first into Electronics (at about 12), I rewound a line output transformer of a colour TV. I reused the wire but I had to re insulate it by suspending it all around the garage and painting it with a special paint I had found. I would never do this again or suggest anyone else do it like this either! but it outlasted the tube.

    Since then as an electronics engineer I have wound many SMPS transformers and rewound some working mains transformers to get different voltages.

    If you do wind a transformer yourself you need a lot of patience and to be able to keep count of the number of turns (not as easy as it sounds) and strong fingers.

    However, the mains transformers that I have come across that have blown up have been beyond repair. This is because the plastic former or bobbin usually melts with the heat that is generated by the fault current that flows when the insulation on the windings gives up. I would not attempt to try and wind a small mains transformer without the coil former as it would be too difficult to SAFELY keep the windings insulated from each other and get the required amount of wire to fit.

    If the windings are severely shorted it would seem as though your transformer has suffered this fate. You would definitely have to replace all the windings.

    There is of course the problem of finding out what voltage/current the windings were in the first place.

    If the machine is only used at one input voltage you may be able to get away with one primary winding (where there were two before - a slight simplification but the wire will need to be slightly thicker - lower by 3 AWG numbers).

    Apart from obtaining a direct replacement the best bet would be to find a transformer that has outputs that are the right voltages and sufficient current. This may be tricky and it may not fit inside the case. there are many places that sell of the shelf transformers. maybe you would need two transformers to get the right combination of voltages.

    If you are very luck you might get just what you want from a junk shop. or from a piece of junk equipment.

    However if you are determined to try to wind a transformer there are several possibilities.

    The most critical aspect of winding a mains transformer is the primary winding as the wire used is incredibly fine on small transformers and is easily damaged or even broken and good insulation is of the utmost importance. Also there is a heck of a lot wire and it becomes impracticable unless you are prepared to set up some sort of rig. I would suggest that you consider the alternatives to winding this yourself which are :-

    You must of course use a transformer that is big enough and has the correct primary voltage. given that the original failed and hand made transformers are never as compact as manufactured ones it would be best to use the biggest transformer that you can possible get to fit. For safety sake only use a modern transformer that is in good condition.

    You may well be able to use one or more of the existing windings but you must bear in mind that each winding takes up an amount of space proportional to its current X voltage.

    To work out the number of turns and size of wire in the windings you need to know the turns per volt of the new transformer. this can be found by counting one of the secondary windings and dividing by its rated voltage. The number of turns you need is this number times the voltage you want. The size of wire is determined by the current rating. use the wire with the same area per amp as the existing winding. The ends of the windings must be terminated properly. Use enameled copper wire. the enamel might need to be scraped of to enable soldering unless it is the self fluxing type and you have a very hot soldering iron. usually there are tags to solder the ends to.

    Also, if it is in something like a tape recorder it most probably needs shielding.

    It is up to you to ensure that the finished transformer is safe. The best way to test the insulation is to test with a high voltage (a few kV) between primary and secondary and then between the core and each winding and check there is no leakage current. with mains applied check that there is correct voltages at the outputs. check that the transformer does not get too hot. All transformers get hot, some too hot to touch, but if after several hours its so hot that you skin sticks to it when you touch it it wont last very long !!

    There are various places to get the EC wire and junk transformers, a search on the internet would be a good place to start.

    (From: Bill Rothanburg (

    I've done this. It was more of an intellectual challenge, rather than something practical, but it can be done. Some requirements:

    I had a relatively easy transformer to work with - single primary, dual secondaries. The windings had not been saturated with varnish, so I was able to unwind them COUNTING THE TURNS. Did I mention that this required a great deal of patience? I was able to determine the wire gauge from the old windings.

    The transformer had overheated to the point the plastic bobbin was garbage. I was able to fabricate a replacement using fish paper and lots of varnish.

    To assist in rewinding I built a "tool" to help - Actually a crank through a piece of wood. The bobbin was held in place by a couple of nuts and spacers. The actual rewinding was the easiest part of the process.

    If I were to try this again, I would definitely use a thermal protector in the transformer.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Batteries and Battery Packs

    Battery Technology

    The desire for portable power seems to be increasing exponentially with the proliferation of notebook and palmtop computers, electronic organizers, PDAs, cellular phones and faxes, pagers, pocket cameras, camcorders and audio cassette recorders, boomboxes - the list is endless.

    Two of the hottest areas in engineering these days are in developing higher capacity battery technologies (electrochemical systems) for rechargeable equipment and in the implementation of smart power management (optimal charging and high efficiency power conversion) for portable devices. Lithium and Nickel Metal Hydride are among the more recent additions to the inventory of popular battery technologies. A variety of ICs are now available to implement rapid charging techniques while preserving battery life. Low cost DC-DC converter designs are capable of generating whatever voltages are required by the equipment at over 90% efficiency

    However, most of the devices you are likely to encounter still use pretty basic battery technologies - most commonly throwaway Alkaline and Lithium followed by rechargeable Nickel Cadmium or Lead-Acid. The charging circuits are often very simple and don't really do the best job but it is adequate for many applications.

    For more detailed information on all aspects of battery technology, see the articles at:

    There is more on batteries than you ever dreamed of ever needing. The sections below represent just a brief introduction.

    Battery Basics

    A battery is, strictly speaking, made up of a number of individual cells (most often wired in series to provide multiples of the basic cell voltage for the battery technology - 1.2, 1.5, 2.0, or 3.0 V are most common). However, the term is popularly used even for single cells.

    Four types of batteries are typically used in consumer electronic equipment:

    1. Alkaline - consisting of one or more primary cells with a nominal terminal voltage of 1.5 V. Examples are AAA, AA, C, D, N, 9V ('transistor'), lantern batteries (6V or more), etc. There are many other available sizes including miniature button cells for specialty applications like clocks, watches, calculators, and cameras. In general recharging of alkaline batteries is not practical due to their chemistry and construction. Exceptions which work (if not entirely consistently as of this writing) are the rechargeable Alkalines (e.g., 'Renewals'). Advantages of alkalines are high capacity and long shelf life. These now dominate the primary battery marketplace largely replacing the original carbon-zinc and heavy duty types. Note that under most conditions, it not necessary to store alkaline batteries in the 'fridge to obtain maximum shelf life.

    2. Lithium - these primary cells have a much higher capacity than alkalines. The terminal voltage is around 3 volts per cell. These are often used in cameras where their high cost is offset by the convenience of long life and compact size. Lithium batteries in common sizes like 9V are beginning to appear. In general, I would not recommend the use of lithiums for use in applications where a device can be accidentally left on - particularly with kids' toys. Your batteries will be drained overnight whether a cheap carbon zinc or a costly lithium. However, for smoke alarms, the lithium 9V battery (assuming they hold up to their longevity claims) is ideal as a 5-10 year service life without attention can be expected.

    3. Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) - these are the most common type of rechargeable battery technology use in small electronic devices. They are available in all the poplar sizes. However, their terminal voltage is only 1.2 V per cell compared to 1.5 V per cell for alkalines (unloaded). This is not the whole story, however, as NiCds terminal voltage holds up better under load and as they are discharged. Manufacturers claim 500-1000 charge-discharge cycles but expect to achieve these optimistic ratings only under certain types of applications. In particular it is usually recommended that NiCds should not be discharged below about 1 V per cell and should not be left in a discharged state for too long. Overcharging is also an enemy of NiCds and will reduce their ultimate life. An electric shaver is an example of a device that will approach this cycle life as it is used until the battery starts to poop out and then immediately put on charge. If a device is used and then neglected (like a seldom used printing calculator), don't be surprised to find that the NiCd battery will not charge or will not hold a charge next time the calculator is used.

    4. Lead Acid - similar to the type used in your automobile but generally specially designed in a sealed package which cannot leak acid under most conditions. These come in a wide variety of capacities but not in standard sizes like AA or D. They are used in some camcorders, flashlights, CD players, security systems, emergency lighting, and many other applications. Nominal terminal voltage is 2.0 V per cell. These batteries definitely do not like to be left in a discharged condition (even more so than NiCds) and will quickly become unusable if left that way for any length of time.

    Battery Chargers

    The (energy storage) capacity, C, of a battery is measured in ampere hours denoted a A-h (or mA-h for smaller types). The charging rate is normally expressed as a fraction of C - e.g., .5 C or C/2.

    In most cases, trickle charging at a slow rate - C/100 to C/20 - is easier on batteries. Where this is convenient, you will likely see better performance and longer life. Such an approach should be less expensive in the long run even if it means having extra cells or packs on hand to pop in when the others are being charged. Fast charging is hard on batteries - it generates heat and gasses and the chemical reactions may be less uniform.

    Each type of battery requires a different type of charging technique.

    1. NiCd batteries are charged with a controlled (usually constant) current. Fast charge may be performed at as high as a .5-1C rate for the types of batteries in portable tools and laptop computers. (C here is the amp-hour capacity of the battery. A .5C charge rate for a 2 amp hour battery pack would use a current equal to 1 A, for example.) Trickle charge at a 1/20-1/10C rate. Sophisticated charges will use a variety of techniques to sense end-of-charge. Inexpensive chargers (and the type in many cheap consumer electronics devices) simply trickle charge at a constant current.

      Rapid chargers for portable tools, laptop computers, and camcorders, do at least sense the temperature rise which is one indication of having reached full charge but this is far from totally reliable and some damage is probably unavoidable as some cells reach full charge before others due to slight unavoidable differences in capacity. Better charging techniques depend on sensing the slight voltage drop that occurs when full charge is reached but even this can be deceptive. The best power management techniques use a combination of sensing and precise control of charge to each cell, knowledge about the battery's characteristics, and state of charge.

      While slow charging is better for NiCds, long term trickle charging is generally not recommended.

      Problems with simple NiCd battery chargers are usually pretty easy to find - bad transformer, rectifiers, capacitors, possibly a regulator. Where temperature sensing is used, the sensor in the battery pack may be defective and there may be problems in the control circuits as well. However, more sophisticated power management systems controlled by microprocessors or custom ICs and may be impossible to troubleshoot for anything beyond obviously bad parts or bad connections.

    2. Lead acid batteries are charged with a current limited but voltage cutoff technique. Although the terminal voltage of a lead-acid battery is 2.00 V per cell nominal, it may actually reach more than 2.5 V per cell while charging. For an automotive battery, 15 V is still within the normal range of voltages to be found on the battery terminals when the engine (and alternator) are running.

      A simple charger for a lead-acid battery is simply a stepped down rectified AC source with some resistance to provide current limiting. The current will naturally taper off as the battery voltage approaches the peaks of the charging waveform. This is how inexpensive automotive battery chargers are constructed. For small sealed lead-acid batteries, an IC regulator may be used to provide current limited constant voltage charging. A 1 A (max) charger for a 12 V battery may use an LM317, 3 resistors, and two capacitors, running off of a 15 V or greater input supply.

      Trickle chargers for lead-acid batteries are usually constant voltage and current tapers off as the battery reaches full charge. Therefore, leaving the battery under constant charge is acceptable and will maintain it at the desired state of full charge.

      Problems with lead-acid battery chargers are usually pretty easy to diagnose due to the simplicity of most designs.

    Dave's Comments on Building Charger for Small Lead-Acid Batteries

    The following applies to the sort of lead-acid batteries found in some camcorders and other portable equipment:

    (From: Dave Martindale (

    The simple way is to build a power supply that outputs 13.8 volts regulated, with a current limit of 0.5 A. 13.8 V can be left connected to the battery forever without damage - this is called a float charge. The 0.5 A current limit protects the battery from drawing too much current and overheating if it's been deeply discharged. This sort of charger will get the battery back up to 80% charge within a few hours, so it's fine for most uses.

    However, when designing it, make sure the charger doesn't self-destruct if the input voltage goes away (due to AC power failure) while still connected to the battery. With a standard series regulator, when the input power fails the whole battery voltage gets applied to the base- emitter junction of the output transistor in reverse. Many transistors are only specified to withstand about 6 V reverse base-emitter voltage, so with this design your charger will be toast at the first power failure.

    If you want higher-performance charging, there are special charge controller chips that provide 3 or more charge phases. They are:

    By using the 14.5 V instead of 13.8 V for the initial charge voltage, this type of charger gets the battery back up to 90% charged in considerably less time. But if you only care about charging overnight, you don't need the extra complexity.

    On the other hand, NiCd batteries can safely be charged in less than an hour with suitable electronics. Lead-acid simply can't be recharged that fast.

    Substituting NiCds for Alkalines

    First note that rechargeable batteries are NOT suitable for safety critical applications like smoke detectors unless they are used only as emergency power fail backup (the smoke detector is also plugged into the AC line) and are on continuous trickle charge). NiCds self discharge (with no load) at a rate which will cause them to go dead in a month or two.

    For many toys and games, portable phones, tape players and CD players, and boomboxes, TVs, palmtop computers, and other battery gobbling gadgets, it may be possible to substitute rechargeable batteries for disposable primary batteries. However, NiCds have a lower terminal voltage - 1.2V vs. 1.5V - and some devices will just not be happy. In particular, tape players may not work well due to this reduced voltage not being able to power the motor at a constant correct speed. Manufacturers may specifically warn against their use. Flashlights will not be as bright unless the light bulb is also replaced with a lower voltage type. Other equipment may perform poorly or fail to operate entirely on NiCds. When in doubt, check your instruction manual. And, there is a slight, but non-zero chance that some equipment may actually be damaged. This might occur if its design assumed something about the internal resistance of the batteris; the resistance is much lower for NiCds than Alkalines.

    Can a Large Electrolytic Capacitor be Substituted for a NiCd?

    The quick answer is: probably not. The charger very likely assumes that the NiCds will limit voltage. The circuits found in many common appliances just use a voltage source significantly higher than the terminal voltage of the battery pack through a current limiting resistor. If you replace the NiCd with a capacitor and the voltage will end up much higher than expected with unknown consequences. For more sophisticated chargers, the results might be even more unpredictable.

    Furthermore, even a SuperCap cannot begin to compare to a small NiCd for capacity. A 5.5 V 1 F (that's Farad) capacitor holds about 15 W-s of energy which is roughly equivalent to a 5 V battery of 3 A-s capacity - less than 1 mA-h. A very tiny NiCd pack is 100 mA-h or two orders of magnitude larger.

    Determining the Actual Capacity of a NiCd Battery Pack

    When a battery pack is not performing up to expectations or is not marked in terms of capacity, here are some comments on experimentally determining the A-h rating.

    When laying eggs, start with a chicken. Actually, you have to estimate the capacity so that charge and discharge rates can be approximated. However, this is usually easy to do with a factor of 2 either way just be size:

            Size of cells       Capacity range, A-h
                 AAA               .2 - .4
                 AA                .4 - 1
                 C                  1 - 2
                 D                  1 - 5
            Cordless phone         .1 - .3
              Camcorder             1 - 3+
           Laptop computer          1 - 5+
    First, you must charge the battery fully. For a battery that does not appear to have full capacity, this may be the only problem. Your charger may be cutting off prematurely due to a fault in the charger and not the battery. This could be due to dirty or corroded contacts on the charger or battery, bad connections, faulty temperature sensor or other end-of-charge control circuitry. Monitoring the current during charge to determine if the battery is getting roughly the correct A-h to charge it fully would be a desirable first step. Figure about 1.2 to 1.5 times the A-h of the battery capacity to bring it to full charge.

    Then discharge at approximately a C/20 - C/10 rate until the cell voltages drops to about 1 V (don't discharge until flat or damage may occur). Capacity is calculated as average current x elapsed time since the current for a NiCd will be fairly constant until very near the end.

    NiCd Batteries and the Infamous 'Memory Effect'

    Whether the NiCd 'memory effect' is fact or fiction seems to depend on one's point of view and anecdotal evidence. What most people think is due to the memory effect is more accurately described as voltage depression - reduced voltage (and therefore, reduced power and capacity) during use.

    (The next section is from: Bob Myers ( and are based on a GE technical note on NiCd batteries.)

    The following are the most common causes of application problems wrongly attributed to 'memory':

    1. Cutoff voltage too high - basically, since NiCds have such a flat voltage vs. discharge characteristic, using voltage sensing to determine when the battery is nearly empty can be tricky; an improper setting coupled with a slight voltage depression can cause many products to call a battery "dead" even when nearly the full capacity remains usable (albeit at a slightly reduced voltage).

    2. High temperature conditions - NiCds suffer under high-temp conditions; such environments reduce both the charge that will be accepted by the cells when charging, and the voltage across the battery when charged (and the latter, of course, ties back into the above problem).

    3. Voltage depression due to long-term overcharge - Self-explanatory. NiCds can drop 0.1-0.15 V/cell if exposed to a long-term (i.e., a period of months) overcharge. Such an overcharge is not unheard-of in consumer gear, especially if the user gets in the habit of leaving the unit in a charger of simplistic design (but which was intended to provide enough current for a relatively rapid charge). As a precaution, I do NOT leave any of my NiCd gear on a charger longer than the recommended time UNLESS the charger is specifically designed for long-term "trickle charging", and explicitly identified as such by the manufacturer.

    4. There are a number of other possible causes listed in a "miscellaneous" category; these include -

      • Operation below 0 degrees C.
      • High discharge rates (above 5C) if not specifically designed for such use.
      • Inadequate charging time or a defective charger.
      • One or more defective or worn-out cells. They do not last forever.

      To close with a quote from the GE note:

      "To recap, we can say that true 'memory' is exceedingly rare. When we see poor battery performance attributed to 'memory', it is almost always certain to be a correctable application problem. Of the problems noted above, Voltage Depression is the one most often mistaken for 'memory'.....

      This information should dispel many of the myths that exaggerate the idea of a 'memory' phenomenon."

    Care and Feeding of NiCds

    Here are six guidelines to follow which will hopefully avoid voltage depression or the memory effect or whatever:

    (Portions of the following guidelines are from the NiCd FAQ written by: Ken A. Nishimura (KO6AF))

    1. DON'T deliberately discharge the batteries to avoid memory. You risk reverse charging one or more cell which is a sure way of killing them.

    2. DO let the cells discharge to 1.0V/cell on occasion through normal use.

    3. DON'T leave the cells on trickle charge for long times, unless voltage depression can be tolerated.

    4. DO protect the cells from high temperature both in charging and storage.

    5. DON'T overcharge the cells. Use a good charging technique. With most inexpensive equipment, the charging circuits are not intelligent and will not terminate properly - only charge for as long as recommended in the user manual.

    6. DO choose cells wisely. Sponge/foam plates will not tolerate high charge/discharge currents as well as sintered plate. Of course, it is rare that this choice exists.
    Author's note: I refuse to get involved in the flame wars with respect to NiCd battery myths and legends --- sam.

    Why There Will Never Actually be Closure on This Topic

    (From: Mark Kinsler (

    All of which tends to support my basic operating theory about the charging of nickel-cadmium batteries:

    1. Man is born in sin and must somehow arrange for the salvation of his immortal soul.

    2. All nickel-cadmium batteries must be recharged.

    3. There is no proper method of performing either task (1) or task (2) to the satisfaction of anyone.

    Nickel Cadmium Versus Nickel-Metal-Hydride in a Nutshell

    NiCds are inexpensive, reliable, and easy to charge, but may suffer from voltage depression (what people call the memory effect) from repeated shallow discharge cycles.

    NiMHs have slightly higher capacity and no memory effect but have higher initial cost and are more sensitive to overcharging. Must be used with compatible charger.

    Identifying Technology of Unmarked Battery Packs

    Since the nominal (rated) voltages for the common battery technologies differ, it is often possible to identify which type is inside a pack by the total output voltage: Note that these are open circuit voltages and may be very slightly higher when fully charged or new.

    Therefore, it is generally easy to tell what kind of technology is inside a pack even if the type is not marked as long as the voltage is marked. Of course, there are some - like 6 V that will be ambiguous.

    Powering LEDs with Batteries

    LEDs look like diodes with a high forward voltage drop. Above the that voltage, the incremental resistance is very low and without current limiting, the current would be critically dependent on the exact voltage of the power source. Most of the time, they are spec'd at a particular maximum current and need some means to limit the current to that value based on the input voltage. Some devices may depend on the internal resistance of the batteries to provide the current limiting - this is a poor approach and depends greatly on the type and capacity of the batteries being used. Most common is just a resistor but this provides no regulation and poor efficiency. Better designs (used in LED flashlights) will use a DC to pulse inverter with regulation achieving constant light output regardless of battery state-of-charge and high efficiency. LEDs can usually withstand short high current pulses and this allows the circuit to be designed with low losses.

    The specifications for LEDs you see in electronics distributor's catalogs may look the same as those for incandescent lamps but they are not. Incandescent lamps provide their own current limiting; LEDs do not. It's possible to luck out and happen to have a given LED work without current limiting with a particular set of batteries but it hardly an acceptable design approach. Slight variations in battery parameters will result in gross changes in light intensity and possible shortening of life or outright destruction of the LED.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Battery Problem Troubleshooting and Repair

    Problems with Battery Operated Equipment

    For primary batteries like Alkalines, first try a fresh set. For NiCds, test across the battery pack after charging overnight (or as recommended by the manufacturer of the equipment). The voltage should be 1.2 x n V where n is the number of cells in the pack. If it is much lower - off by a multiple of 1.2 V, one or more cells is shorted and will need to be replaced or you can attempt zapping it to restore the shorted cells. See the section: Zapping NiCds to Clear Shorted Cells. Attempt at your own risk!

    If the voltage drops when the device is turned on or the batteries are installed - and the batteries are known to be good - then an overload may be pulling the voltage down.

    Assuming the battery is putting out the proper voltage, then a number of causes are possible:

    1. Corroded contacts or bad connections in the battery holder.
    2. Bad connections or broken wires inside the device.
    3. Faulty regulator in the internal power supply circuits. Test semiconductors and IC regulators.
    4. Faulty DC-DC inverter components. Test semiconductors and other components.
    5. Defective on/off switch (!!) or logic problem in power control.
    6. Other problems in the internal circuitry.

    NiCd Battery Pack Will Not Hold a Charge

    This applies if the pack appears to charge normally and the terminal voltage immediately after charging is at least 1.2 x n where n is the number of cells in the pack but after a couple of days, the terminal voltage has dropped drastically. For example, a 12 V pack reads only 6 V 48 hours after charging without being used.

    What is most likely happening is that several of the NiCd cells have high leakage current and drain themselves quite rapidly. If they are bad enough, then a substantial fraction of the charging current itself is being wasted so that even right after charging, their capacity is less than expected. However, in many cases, the pack will deliver close to rated capacity if used immediately after charging.

    If the pack is old and unused or abused (especially, it seems, if it is a fast recharge type of pack), this is quite possible. The cause is the growth of fine metallic whiskers called dendrites that partially shorts the cell(s). If severe enough, a dead short is created and no charge at all is possible.

    Sometimes this can be repaired temporarily at least by 'zapping' using a large charged capacitor to blow out the whiskers or dendrites that are causing the leakage (on a cell-by-cell basis) but my success on these types of larger or high charge rate packs such as used in laptop computers or camcorders has been less than spectacular. See the section: Zapping NiCds to Clear Shorted Cells.

    What is This Thing in my NiCd Battery Pack?

    In addition to the NiCd cells, you will often find one or more small parts that are generally unrecognizable. Normally, you won't see these until you have a problem and, ignoring all warnings, open the pack.

    If it is a little rectangular silver box in series with one of the positive or negative terminals of the pack, it is probably a thermostat and is there to shut down the charging or discharging if the temperature of the pack rises too high. If it tests open at room temperature, it is bad. With care, you can safely substitute a low value resistor or auto tail light bulb and see if the original problem goes away or at least the behavior changes. However, if there is a dead short somewhere, that device may have sacrificed its life to protect your equipment or charger and going beyond this (like shorting it out entirely) should be done with extreme care. These may be either mechanical (bimetal strip/contacts) or solid state (Polyfuse(tm) - increases resistance overcurrent).

    If it looks like a small diode or resistor, it could be a temperature sensing thermistor which is used by the charger to determine that the cells are heating which in its simple minded way means the cells are being overcharged and it is should quit charging them. You can try using a resistor in place of the thermistor to see if the charger will now cooperate. Try a variety of values while monitoring the current or charge indicators. However, the problem may actually be in the charger controller and not the thermistor. The best approach is to try another pack.

    It could be any of a number of other possible components but they all serve a protective and/or charge related function.

    Of course, the part may be bad due to a fault in the charger not shutting down or not properly limiting the current as well.

    Zapping NiCds to Clear Shorted Cells

    Nickel-Cadmium batteries that have shorted cells can sometimes be rejuvenated - at least temporarily - by a procedure affectionately called 'zapping'.

    The cause of these bad NiCd cells is the formation of conductive filaments called whiskers or dendrites that pierce the separator and short the positive and negative electrodes of the cell. The result is either a cell that will not take a charge at all or which self discharges in a very short time. A high current pulse can sometimes vaporize the filament and clear the short.

    The result may be reliable particularly if the battery is under constant charge (float service) and/or is never discharged fully. Since there are still holes in the separator, repeated shorts are quite likely especially if the battery is discharged fully which seems to promote filament formation,

    I have used zapping with long term reliability (with the restrictions identified above) on NiCds for shavers, Dustbusters, portable phones, and calculators.

    WARNING: There is some danger in the following procedures as heat is generated. The cell may explode! Take appropriate precautions and don't overdo it. If the first few attempts do not work, dump the battery pack.

    Attempt sapping at your own risk!!!

    You will need a DC power supply and a large capacitor - one of those 70,000 uF 40 V types used for filtering in multimegawatt geek type automotive audio systems, for example. A smaller capacitor can be tried as well.

    Alternatively, a you can use a 50 to 100 A 5 volt power supply that doesn't mind (or is protected against) being overloaded or shorted.

    Some people recommend the use of a car battery for NiCd zapping. DO NOT be tempted - there is nearly unlimited current available and you could end with a disaster including the possible destruction of that battery, your NiCd, you, and anything else that is in the vicinity.

    OK, you have read the warnings:

    Remove the battery pack from the equipment. Gain access to the shorted cell(s) by removing the outer covering or case of the battery pack and test the individual cells with a multimeter. Since you likely tried charging the pack, the good cells will be around 1.2 V and the shorted cells will be exactly 0 V. You must perform the zapping directly across each shorted cell for best results.

    Connect a pair of heavy duty clip leads - #12 wire would be fine - directly across the first shorted cell. Clip your multimeter across the cell as well to monitor the operation. Put it on a high enough scale such that the full voltage of your power supply or capacitor won't cause any damage to the multimeter.

    Wear your eye protection!!!

    1. Using the large capacitor:

      • Charge the capacitor from a current limited 12-24 V DC power supply.

      • Momentarily touch the leads connected across the shorted cell to the charged capacitor, + to +, - to -. CAUTION: Polarity is critical - do it backwards and you will make the problem worse, probably terminal. There will be sparks. The voltage on the cell may spike to a high value - up to the charged voltage level on the capacitor. The capacitor will discharge almost instantly.

    2. Using the high current power supply:

      • Turn on the supply.

      • Momentarily touch the leads connected across the shorted cell to the power supply output, + to +, - to -. CAUTION: Polarity is critical - do it backwards and you will make the problem worse, probably terminal. There will be sparks. DO NOT maintain contact for more than a couple of seconds. The NiCd may get warm! While the power supply is connected, the voltage on the cell may rise to anywhere up to the supply voltage.
    Now check the voltage on the (hopefully previously) shorted cell.

    If the dendrites have blown, the voltage on the cell should have jumped to anywhere from a few hundred millivolts to the normal 1 V of a charged NiCd cell. If there is no change or if the voltage almost immediately decays back to zero, you can try zapping couple more times but beyond this is probably not productive.

    If the voltage has increased and is relatively stable, immediately continue charging the repaired cell at the maximum SAFE rate specified for the battery pack. Note: if the other cells of the battery pack are fully charged as is likely if you had attempted to charge the pack, don't put the entire pack on high current charge as this will damage the other cells through overcharging.

    One easy way is to use your power supply with a current limiting resistor connected just to the cell you just zapped. A 1/4 C rate should be safe and effective but avoid overcharging. Then trickle charge at the 1/10 C rate for several hours. (C here is the amp-hour capacity of the cell. Therefore, a 1/10 C rate for a 600 mA NiCd is 50 mA.)

    This works better on small cells like AAs than on C or D cells since the zapping current requirement is lower. Also, it seems to be more difficult to reliably restore the quick charge type battery packs in portable tools and laptop computers that have developed shorted cells (though there are some success stories).

    My experience has been that if you then maintain the battery pack in float service (on a trickle charger) and/or make sure it never discharges completely, there is a good chance it will last. However, allow the bad cells to discharge to near 0 volts and those mischievous dendrites will make their may through the separator again and short out the cell(s).

    Tom's Comments on NiCd Care and Feeding

    (From: Tom Lamb (

    Battery Juice and Corroded Contacts

    Unless you have just arrived from the other side of the galaxy (where such problems do not exist), you know that so-called 'leak-proof' batteries sometimes leak. This is a lot less common with modern technologies than with the carbon-zinc cells of the good old days, but still can happen. It is always good advice to remove batteries from equipment when it is not being used for an extended period of time. Dead batteries also seem to be more prone to leakage than fresh ones (in some cases because the casing material is depleted in the chemical reaction which generates electricity and thus gets thinner or develops actual holes).

    In most cases, the actual stuff that leaks from a battery is not 'battery acid' but rather some other chemical. For example, alkaline batteries are so called because their electrolyte is an alkaline material - just the opposite in reactivity from an acid. Usually it is not particularly reactive (but isn't something you would want to eat).

    The exception is the lead-acid type where the liquid inside is sulfuric acid of varying degrees of strength depending on charge. This is nasty and should be neutralized with an alkaline material like baking soda before being cleaned up. Fortunately, these sealed lead-acid battery packs rarely leak (though I did find one with a scary looking bulging case, probably due to overcharging - got rid of that is a hurry).

    Scrape dried up battery juice from the battery compartment and contacts with a plastic or wooden stick and/or wipe any liquid up first with a dry paper towel. Then use a damp paper towel to pick up as much residue as possible. Dispose of the dirty towels promptly.

    If the contacts are corroded, use fine sandpaper or a small file to remove the corrosion and brighten the metal. Do not an emery board or emery paper or steel wool as any of these will leave conductive particles behind which will be difficult to remove. If the contacts are eaten through entirely, you will have to improvise alternate contacts or obtain replacements. Sometimes the corrosion extends to the solder and circuit board traces as well and some additional repairs may be needed - possible requiring disassembly to gain access to the wiring.

    Exploding Batteries - These Things Really Happen

    (From: Greg Raines (

    When I was about 10 years old I was sitting in my dad's driveway in a '65 Plymouth Fury III station wagon while he disconnected the trickle charger from the '67 Fiat in the garage. I heard a pop and saw my dad throw his hands over his face, run to the back door and start kicking it to get someone to open it. Fortunately he wasn't injured. But it was an eye opener. It was probably 30 or below, there was no flame present, and the double garage door was open (this happened in Connecticut). Also in a Fiat 850 sport coupe the battery is in the trunk (front) so there really isn't anything up there that would cause a spark (engine & gas tank in back). So it must have been a spark off of the charger when he pulled it off the terminal (he hadn't unplugged the charger).

    Soldering Tabs Onto NiCd Batteries

    When replacing NiCd batteries in packs or portable tools, it is often necessary to attach wires to the individual cells. It may be possible to obtain NiCds with solder tabs attached (Radio Shack has these) but if yours do not, here are two ways that work. They both require a (Weller) high wattage soldering gun.

    I use a high power Weller (140 W) soldering gun. Use fine sandpaper to thoroughly clean and roughen up the surface of the battery cell at both ends. Tin the wires ahead of time as well. Arrange the wire and cell so that they are in their final position - use a vise or clamp or buddy to do this. Heat up the soldering gun but do not touch it to the battery until it is hot - perhaps 10 seconds. Then, heat the contact area on the battery end while applying solder. It should melt and flow quite quickly. As soon as the solder adheres to the battery, remove the heat without moving anything for a few seconds. Inspect and test the joint. A high power soldering iron can also be used.

    Here is a novel approach that appears to work:

    (From: Clifford Buttschardt (

    There is really no great amount of danger spot welding tabs! They usually are made of pure nickel material. I put two sharp pointed copper wires in a soldering gun, place both on the tab in contact with the battery case and pull the trigger for a short burst. The battery remains cool.

    (From: (Michael Covington).)

    Of course! A soldering gun is a source of about 1.5 V at 100 A RMS. Should make a fine spot-welder. You should write that up for QST ("Hints and Kinks") or better yet, send it in a letter to the editor of "Electronics Now" (the magazine I write for).

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    Battery Related Information

    Automotive Power

    While it is tempting to want to use your car's battery as a power source for small portable appliances, audio equipment, and laptop computers, beware: the power available from your car's electrical system is not pretty. The voltage can vary from 9 (0 for a dead battery) to 15 V under normal conditions and much higher spikes or excursions are possible. Unless the equipment is designed specifically for such power, you are taking a serious risk that it will be damaged or blown away.

    Furthermore, there is essentially unlimited current available from the battery (cigarette lighter) - 20 A or more. This will instantly turn your expensive CD player to toast should you get the connections wrong. No amount of internal protection can protect equipment from fools.

    My recommendation for laptop computers is to use a commercially available DC-AC inverter with the laptop's normal AC power pack. This is not the most efficient but is the safest and should maintain the laptop's warranty should something go wrong. For CD players and other audio equipment, only use approved automotive adapters.

    How Do Those On-Battery or On-the-Package Battery Testers Work?

    There is a graded width resistance element that gets connected when you pinch those two points. It heats up - substantially, BTW. Some sort of liquid crystal or other heat sensitive material changes from dark to clear or yellow at a fairly well defined temperature.

    Incidentally, since the current is significant, repeated 'testing' will drain the batteries - as with any proper under-load battery test! This isn't an issue for occasional testing but if the kids figure how to do this....

    Personally, I would rather use a $3 battery checker instead of paying for throw-away frills!

    Battery Eliminator for Laptop or Appliance with Dead NiCds

    Even where you have the AC adapter, it is quite likely that simply removing the (shorted) battery pack will not allow you to use it. This is because it probably uses the battery as a smoothing capacitor. You cannot simply replace the battery with a large electrolytic capacitor because the battery also limits the voltage to a value determined by the number of cells in the pack. Without it, the voltage would be much too high, possibly resulting in damage. You could use N power diodes in series (i.e., N=Vb/.7) to drop the approximate voltage of the battery pack AND a large capacitor but you would be wasting a lot of power in the form of heat.

    One alternative is to substitute a regulated power supply with an output equal to the the battery voltage and current capacity found by dividing the VA rating of the normal wall adapter by the battery's nominal terminal voltage (this will be worst case - actual requirements may be less). Connect this directly in place of the original battery pack. Unless there is some other sort of interlock, the equipment should be perfectly happy and think it is operating from battery power!

    Also see the other parts of this document dealing with AC Adapters and Transformers.

  • Back to AC Adapters and Power Supplies Table of Contents.

    -- end V1.06

    Written by Samuel M. Goldwasser. | [mailto]. The most recent version is available on the WWW server [Copyright] [Disclaimer]