Each month this year, we’re exploring a different electronic component, delving into what it is, how it works, and how you use it in projects. Last month we looked at batteries. This month, we’ll tackle the resistor, the job of which is to limit the flow of electricity and thereby control it, guiding it toward one component while protecting another. As always, we’ll start things off with an introduction to resistors via an edited excerpt from Charles Platt’s essential Encyclopedia of Electronic Components: Volume 1.
A resistor is one of the most fundamental components in electronics. Its purpose is to impede a flow of current and impose a voltage reduction. It consists of two wires or conductors attached at opposite ends or sides of a relatively poor electrical conductor, the resistance of which is measured in ohms, universally represented by the Greek omega symbol.
Schematic symbols that represent a resistor are shown above (Left: The traditional schematic symbol. Right: The more recent European equivalent). The US symbol is still sometimes used in European schematics, and the European symbol is sometimes used in US schematics. Letters K or M indicate that the value shown for the resistor is in thousands of ohms or millions of ohms, respectively. Where these letters are used in Europe, and sometimes in the US, they are substituted for a decimal point. Thus, a 4.7K resistor may be identified as 4K7, a 3.3M resistor may be identified as 3M3, and so on.
A resistor is commonly used for purposes such as limiting the charging rate of a capacitor; providing appropriate control voltage to semiconductors such as bipolar transistors; protecting LEDs or other semiconductors from excessive current; adjusting or limiting the frequency response in an audio circuit (in conjunction with other components); pulling up or pulling down the voltage at the input pin of a digital logic chip; or controlling a voltage at a point in a circuit. In this last application, two resistors may be placed in series to create a voltage divider.
A potentiometer may be used instead of a resistor where variable resistance is required.
Sample resistors of various values are shown to the right. From top to bottom, their power dissipation ratings are 3W, 1W, 1/2W, 1/4W, 1/4W, 1/4W, and 1/8W. The accuracy (tolerance) of each resistor, from top to bottom, is plus-or-minus 5%, 5%, 5%, 1%, 1%, 5%, and 1%. The beige-colored body of a resistor is often an indication that its tolerance is 5%, while a blue-colored body often indicates a tolerance of 1% or 2%. The blue-bodied resistors and the dark brown resistor contain metal-oxide film elements, while the beige-bodied resistors and the green resistor contain carbon film.
How It Works
In the process of impeding the flow of current and reducing voltage, a resistor absorbs electrical energy, which it must dissipate as heat. In most modern electronic circuits, the heat dissipation is typically a fraction of a watt.
If R is the resistance in ohms, I is the current flowing through the resistor in amperes, and V is the voltage drop imposed by the resistor (the difference in electrical potential between the two contacts that are attached to it), Ohm’s law states:
V = I * R
This is another way of saying that a resistor of 1 Ohm will allow a current of 1 amp when the potential difference between the ends of the resistor is 1 volt.
If W is the power in watts dissipated by the resistor, in a DC circuit:
W = V * I
By substitution in Ohm’s law, we can express watts in terms of current and resistance:
W = I2 * R
We can also express watts in terms of voltage and resistance:
W = V2 / R
These alternates may be useful in situations where you do not know the voltage drop or the current, respectively.
Approximately similar relationships exist when using alternating current, although the power will be a more complex function.
- Axial resistors have two leads that emerge from opposite ends of a usually cylindrical body. Radial resistors have parallel leads emerging from one side of the body and are unusual.
- Precision resistors are generally defined as having a tolerance of no more than plus-or-minus 1%.
- General-purpose resistors are less stable, and their value is less precise.
- Power resistors are generally defined as dissipating 1 or 2 watts or more, particularly in power supplies or power amplifiers. They are physically larger and may require heat sinks or fan cooling.
- Wire-wound resistors are used where the component must withstand substantial heat. A wire-wound resistor often consists of an insulating tube or core that is flat or cylindrical, with multiple turns of resistive wire wrapped around it. The wire is usually a nickel-chromium alloy known as nichrome (sometimes written as Ni-chrome) and is dipped in a coating. The heat created by current passing through resistive wire is a potential problem in electronic circuits where temperature must be limited. However, in household appliances such as hair dryers, toaster ovens, and fan heaters, a nichrome element is used specifically to generate heat. Wire-wound resistors are also used in 3D printers to melt plastic (or some other compound) that forms the solid output of the device.
- Thick film resistors are sometimes manufactured in a flat, square format. A sample is shown to the right, rated to dissipate 10W from its flat surface. The resistance of this component is 1K.
- Surface-mount resistors generally consist of a resistive ink film printed on top of a tablet of aluminum oxide ceramic compound, often approximately 6mm long, known as a 2512 form factor. Each surface-mount resistor has two nickel-plated terminations coated in solder, which melts when the resistor is attached to the circuit board. The upper surface is coated, usually with black epoxy, to protect the resistive element.
Through-hole axial resistors are traditionally printed with a sequence of three colored bands to express the value of the component, each of the first two bands representing a digit from 0 through 9, while the third band indicates the decimal multiplier (the number of zeroes, from 0 to 9, which should be appended to the digits). A fourth band of silver or gold indicates 10% or 5% tolerance respectively. No fourth band would indicate 20% tolerance, although this has become very rare.
Many resistors now have five color bands, to enable the representation of intermediate or fractional values. In this scheme, the first three bands have numeric values (using the same color system as before) while the fourth band is the multiplier. A fifth band, at the opposite end of the resistor, indicates its tolerance.
In the chart below, the numeric or multiplier value of each color is shown as a “spectrum” at the top of the figure. The tolerance, or precision of a resistor, expressed as a plus-or-minus percentage, is shown using silver, gold, and various colors, at the bottom of the figure.
Two sample resistors are shown. The upper one has a value of 1K, indicated by the brown and black bands on the left (representing numeral 1 followed by a numeral 0) and the third red band (indicating two additional zeroes). The gold band at right indicates a precision of 5%. The lower one has a value of 1.05K, indicated by the brown, black, and green bands on the left (representing numeral 1 followed by numeral 0 followed by a numeral 5) and the fourth band brown (indicating one additional zero). The brown band at right indicates a precision of 1%.
In extremely old equipment, resistors may be coded with the body-tip-dot scheme, in which the body color represents the initial digit, the end color represents the second digit, and a dot represents the multiplier. The numeric identities of the colors is the same as in the current color scheme.
In all modern schemes, the three or four bands that show the resistance value are spaced close together, while a larger gap separates them from the band that shows the tolerance. The resistor value should be read while holding the resistor so that the group of closely-spaced numeric bands is on the left.
Confusingly, some resistors may be found where the first three bands define the value, using the old three-band convention; the fourth band indicates tolerance; and a fifth band at the opposite end of the component indicates reliability. However, this color scheme is uncommon.
Other color-coding conventions may be found in special applications, such as military equipment.
It is common for through-hole carbon-film resistors to have a beige body color, while through-hole metal-film resistors often have a blue body color. However, in relatively rare instances, a blue body color may also indicate a fusible resistor (designed to burn out harmlessly like a fuse, if it is overloaded) while a white body may indicate a non-flammable resistor. Use caution when replacing these special types.
Some modern resistors may have their values printed on them numerically. Surface-mount resistors also have digits printed on them, but they are a code, not a direct representation of resistance. The last digit indicates the number of zeroes in the resistor value, while the preceding two or three numbers define the value itself. Letter R is used to indicate a decimal point. Thus a 3R3 surface-mount resistor has a value of 3.3 Ohms, while 330 would indicate 33 Ohms, and 332 indicates 3,300 Ohms. A 2152 surface-mount resistor would have a value of 21,500 Ohms.
A surface-mount resistor with a single zero printed on it is a zero ohm component that has the same function as a jumper wire. It is used for convenience, as it is easily inserted by automated production-line equipment. It functions merely as a bridge between traces on the circuit board.
When resistor values are printed on paper in schematics, poor reproduction may result in omission of decimal points or introduction of specks that look like decimal points. Europeans have addressed this issue by using the letter as a substitute for a decimal point so that a 5.6K resistor will be shown as 5K6, or a 3.3M resistor will be shown as 3M3. This practice is followed infrequently in the United States.
For more on microswitches, rockers, sliders, toggles, DIPs, SIPs, paddle switches, and more, check out the Encyclopedia of Electronic Components Volume 1 by Charles Platt. It’s the informative, concise, and well-organized resource that's perfect for teachers, hobbyists, engineers, and students wanting a go-to electronics quick reference.