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How a Potentiometer Works

1. Definition of a Potentiometer
A potentiometer is a resistor with three terminals that has a sliding contact at the center creating a voltage divider that can be adjusted. It provides a voltage output that is lesser compared to the voltage input. Potentiometers provide a smooth voltage level transitions and can be in either linear or rotary form. This electromechanical device adjusts the voltage or current flow in a circuit. The "knobs" on older TVs, radios and amplifiers are typically potentiometers, which are used to control such parameters as volume, treble, bass, brightness and contrast. They are also found in computer joystick controllers. Potentiometers are among the most important components in the field of electronics.

Shaft-Type Potentiometers

The most common form of potentiometer consists of a shaft with a contact arm (called a "wiper") that rotates around a flat semicircle of carbon material. The carbon particles present a resistance to electrical flow, so the more material an electrical current has to flow through, the more it is reduced. One end of the carbon strip is connected to a circuit, and the second connection is made to the wiper arm. The further the wiper arm moves away from the first connection, the more resistance there is to current flow. Some potentiometers have their connections mounted directly on printed circuit boards, and some are very tiny "trim pots" that require a screwdriver to turn. These are designed for use by service technicians to accurately adjust certain electronic equipment.

Slide-Type Potentiometers

Rather than being mounted on a round form with a knob that rotates on a shaft, "slide potentiometers" lay the carbon material out in a straight line. These potentiometer controls are slid up and down (or left and right, depending on how they are mounted). Slide "pots" are preferred on devices where the position of the control needs to be quickly seen. Applications include graphic equalizers used with stereo systems, volume controls on electronic music keyboards and volume "faders" on audio mixing boards found in recording studios and PA (public address) equipment.


Another type of potentiometer designed to handle higher voltages is often referred to as a "rheostat." Rather than using a carbon material, a wire-wound circular configuration is used for the resistance material, which makes contact with the wiper arm.

Why Are Potentiometers Used in Circuits?

1. Potentiometer Basics
o A potentiometer is a type of variable resistor, made so that it can be easily adjusted. A resistor is an electronic component whose function is to resist the flow of electricity. The more resistance, the slower the electric current flows. Because a potentiometer allows a user to adjust the resistance, it can be used to adjust a circuit while it is running.

Potentiometer Structure
o A potentiometer has three contacts - two fixed contacts on either end and a movable one called a wiper. As the wiper moves closer to one fixed contact, it moves further away from the other, decreasing the resistance with the closer one and increasing it with the further one. Some potentiometers, called rheostats only have two contacts - a fixed one and a wiper. In both cases, the position of the wiper is usually adjusted by turning a knob or moving a slider.

Potentiometer Use
o Rheostats are the most common type of potentiometer. They are often used to control light dimmers, triggering an electronic switch that decreases or increases the power to the lamp. Because they can continuously adjust the current between a pre-set maximum and minimum value, potentiometers can be used to control anything that might need to be adjusted between a wide range of values. Electric guitars, stereos, and electric motor controllers all commonly use potentiometers for this reason. Three-terminal potentiometers are used when a circuit needs to adjust value between two different outputs. For example, three-terminal potentiometers are often employed in stereo balance, since they can easily turn up the level of one speaker while turning down the level of the other. They are also used in joysticks, and other control mechanisms

What is a Potentiometer Used for?

Most people don't know it, but the average person uses a potentiometer almost every day. They are found in cars, stereos, light switches and a host of other devices. Without them, consumers would have a hard time operating the majority of electronics. What, however, exactly are potentiometers, and what functions do they serve?

1. What They Are


In order to understand the functions of potentiometers, one has to have a basic understanding of what potentiometers are. Potentiometers are three terminal resistors. These resistors have voltage dividers (linear circuits) that provide a voltage output that is less than the voltage input. Potentiometers provide smooth transitions of voltage levels and can be either rotary (circular) or linear.


One of the primary uses for potentiometers is audio control knobs. By turning the potentiometer dial one way or another, consumers can impact the volume of their audio device. Other potentiometers for audio are found in bass, treble and track knobs and allow consumers to select the degree of high and low frequencies heard or the specific song of a CD that will play. Studio producers have dozens of potentiometers on their sound equipment to get just the right sound and balance in a recording.

-Potentiometer used in a radio


Potentiometers commonly are found in the dimmers for lights. Dimmer switches operate linearly, but they work in the same way as the circular or knob type of potentiometer. When an individual adjusts the potentiometer, she impacts the current that is involved in the lighting and thus can make the lights softer or brighter according to the amount of electricity allowed to reach the bulb.


Although most televisions now employ buttons for the purposes listed next, potentiometers used to be standard on the devices. They controlled volume, but they also were used to control the brightness, color, contrast and vertical and horizontal hold.


Potentiometers also are found in transducers. Transducers are essentially a type of converter--they convert one type of energy into another. Often they are applied for the purposes of measurement.

How a transducer works

Other Uses and Advancements


Potentiometers can be applied in any device that requires smooth variation in current. They thus can be found in everything from electrical stoves to joysticks. As technology advances, manual potentiometers are being replaced with digital ones, and they are being increasingly applied in the area of computation.