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Testing Electrolytic Capacitors - Capacitance, ESR, and


In Power Supply applications, Capacitors are used to help smooth ripple on an otherwise
fluctuating DC supply. A common use is as a Filter Capacitor - used after a Half Wave, Full
Wave, or Bridge Rectifier. Without the use of this component (or if it is degraded) the DC
supply would consist of many hills and troughs at the line frequency (if using a Half Wave
Rectifier: 50 or 60 Hz), or at double the line frequency (if using a Full Wave or Bridge
Rectifier: 100 or 120 Hz). For this type of application, the Capacitor is normally an Electrolytic
Capacitor (it uses a chemical electrolyte as the Dielectric material).

Electrolytic Capacitors will become damaged by being in close proximity to High
Temperatures over a long period of time. Because of this, the temperature rating of the
Capacitor (105 degrees C is now common) must be taken into account in relation to the
application. Unfortunately, in a lot of Power Supply designs (Inverter and Transformer
based), the Filter capacitors almost always end up being placed close to Heatsinks. This is
called 'Bad Engineering'! It occurs when the Hardware Engineer considers the lack of board
Real-Estate as being more important than longevity of the product in the field. Some
Engineers might argue that the devices are rated at 105 degrees C and that the Heatsinks
only get up to say 95 degrees C. Not a problem. Wrong! There must always be a margin for

The issue is that Capacitor Manufacturers don't chart or scale down the specifications for the
temperature rating to a lower displacement temperature (in this case 10 degrees C). Thus,
our 95 degree C temperature becomes an indeterminate value, and a reliability risk (you
have to manage all design risks). Adding to this, the temperature rating is usually specified
for 10,000 hours or less (only 1 year). This does not make for good product life!

Of cause, there are other factors to consider in the life of a Filter Capacitor such as: Dielectric
puncturing (due to Voltage Spikes), outgasing (caused by the electrolyte heating up, and
changing from a solid to Hydrogen gas), and internal connection degradation (due to
mechanical stress, and the effects of heat). When a Capacitor suffers in these ways, they will
eventually explode - Violently! When it gets to this point, the product is dead in the water!
Electrolytic Capacitors

To thoroughly test Electrolytic Capacitors (out of circuit, with no residual charge), I would
suggest using the following procedure:

1. Visually inspect the component. Look for can distortion (the 'can' is a term to describe the
outer housing), Electrolyte leakage, and outgasing (although some devices are vented).

2. Using a Capacitance Meter: Measure the components Capacitance. Usually the tolerance
is within +-20% of the specified value.

3. Using an ESR Meter: Measure the components ESR (Effective Series Resistance). This
will help determine the validity of bonding between the Capacitors leads and plates. This will
normally be well less than 3 ohms.

4. Using a Capacitor Leakage Tester: Measure the leakage. This is the DC current that flows
when a High Voltage is applied to the capacitor (within the Working Voltage of the Capacitor).
Ideally this would be zero Amps (leakage values measured in micro Amps), as a Capacitor
only passes AC Voltages (and currents).

Electrolytic Capacitors