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How a Switchmode Power Supply Works

The role of a power supply is convert the mains voltage into a lower DC voltage which the components can run on.
While there are two types of PSUs out there (linear and switching/switch-mode), we’ll just look at switch-modepower
supplies (SMPSs) in this article, since they are the only type of power supply used in computers.

A switchmode power supply consists of 8 main stages: The input filtering (green), primary bridge rectifier (dark blue),
primary capacitors (yellow), primary switching transistors (red), transformers (orange), secondary rectifiers (light
blue), output filtering (purple) and the feedback and protection circuits (black). In this article, we will look at each of
them and discuss what they are for.

Input filtering

The input filtering has two main roles. The first is to prevent any interference on the mains from affecting thepower
supply. The second is to prevent any interference generated by the power supply itself from getting back into the
grid and affecting other appliances.

The minimum recommended number of components for the input filtering are two coils, two ceramic Y-capacitors, two
polyester X-capacitors, an NTC current inrush limiter and an MOV. The above left power supply (an Aywun A1-5000)
includes more than enough X-capacitors, but lacks an MOV, whose job it is to eat up any spikes on the power line, so
it’s unlikely that it would handle handle them too well. The one pictured to the right of it however (an NSCom P4-
500W) doesn’t have any input filtering whatsoever, so it would no only be very susceptible to interference and surges
from the power grid, but would also cause a lot of interference. Suchpower supplies are illegal in many countries.

The fuse, while not considered as part of the input filtering, is often located in that area of the PCB. Its job is not to
filter surges and interference, but to blow should something go seriously wrong such as one of the components failing
shorted, preventing the shorted part from causing a fire.

The bridge rectifier

This part converts the AC current from the mains into a pulsed, non-continuous DC. The rating of the rectifier will not
have a huge effect on the performance of the PSU, but it can determine how much the PSU can deliver without
causing them to short. To get an idea of how much it can handle, find it’s rating, multiply it by the mains voltage and
multiply that by the PSU’s efficiency (which is typically around 75% for a cheaper unit on a 120v mains voltage). For
example, if the rectifier is rated at 4A and the mains voltage is 120v, then 480W (4 x 120) is the maximum the PSU
can draw from the mains and 360W (480 x 75%) would be the maximum theoretical output if the efficiency was 75%,
assuming that the other components can handle it. Some cheaper power supplies (like the NSCom unit pictured
earlier) use four discrete diodes instead of a rectifier. While this essentially achieves the same result, they are often
rated much lower than a bridge rectifier, with 2A being a common rating.

The primary capacitors

These smooth the pulsed DC current coming from the rectifier into a smooth, constant DC for the primary switchers to
work with. In a 120v power line, they are used in voltage doubler mode, where they are charged inparallel and
discharged in series, so the output voltage is double the voltage coming from the rectifier. This doesn’t generally put a
lot of stress on them, so even capacitors from low quality brands usually hold up fine here.

The primary switching transistors (switchers)

These pulse the current into the transformer. You may be wondering right now “Why does it have to be converted
from pulsed DC to continuous DC, and then back again? Couldn’t you just use the pulsed current from the grid?”
Well, for two main reasons, that doesn’t work. The first is that using current straight from the grid requires a physically
large transformer, since the frequency from the grid is different from that used by the switching transistors. The
second reason is because the duty cycle of the transistors can be adjusted to keep the voltages roughly constant
even when the load and input voltage changes. They generate a lot of heat during operation, which is why they are
bolted to a heat sink
The 5vsb transistor as is actually part of a two-transistor circuit. They do a similar thing to the main switchers, only,
they pulse the current onto the smaller 5vsb transformer. Some PSUs lack 5vsb transistors, since two
transistor circuits are much more failure prone than ones based on a PWM IC such as a DM311. One classic
example was the Bestec ATX-250-12E. The two-transistor 5vsb circuits in these PSUs would often fail
catastrophically and the 5vsb voltage would go way over 5v, as high as 18v in some cases. These power supplies
earned Bestec the nickname “Worstec”.

The switchers are probably the most common failure point on cheap power supplies. When overloaded or
overheated, they generally generally go out with a bang. The two explosions from this Thermal Master TM-420-
PMSR were the two primary switchers failing in this manner.

The transformers

These are what actually change the voltage. They are essentially a heap of coils wound around a main core. In
general, the bigger the core, the more current the transformer can handle. If the transformer core is overloaded, it
goes into what is known as saturation, which often damages the switchers, causing them to explode as if they were
being overloaded.

Like most PSUs, this Aywun A1-5000 has three transformers. The big main transformer, which generates the 12v, 5v
and 3.3v voltages, the feedback transformer, which is part of the circuit that drives the switchers and the 5vsb
transformer, which generates the 5vsb voltage. In some PSUs, the feedback transformer is replaced be 3 opto

The secondary rectifiers

These do a similar thing to the bridge rectifier on the primary side, only allowing the current to flow one way, which
avoids reverse-polarising the secondary capacitors. The rating of the rectifier is the maximum amount of current that
that rail can handle. Some cheap PSUs simply use a pair of discreet diodes in place of a rectifier. The problem with
this is that they are only rated for around 3-4A each, meaning that you will only be able to pull 6-8A from that rail
before they fail, and most PCs nowadays will pull a bit more than that. Like the primary switchingtransistors, they get
hot and are bolted to a heat sink. Unlike the switchers, however, they don’t go out with a fireworks display when they
fail. The output voltage for whichever rail it is controlling will briefly spike, damaging attached hardware and the
rectifier will then short internally, and the PSU’s SCP (Short Circuit Protection) will step in and shut the PSU down.

You can generally tell which rectifier controls which rail by it’s position in relation to the wires. In most PSUs, including
the NSCom P4-550W, there are 3 main groups of output wires, one for the 3.3v rail, one for the 5v and one for the
12v. The rectifier for each rail is located behind the group of wires which it powers.

The output filtering

The output filtering is intended to smooth out the ripple in the current generated by the switching transistors. The 3
main rails should have at least two capacitors and one PI filter coil, while the other two low current rails (the -12 and
5vsb) are often OK with just one capacitor and a PI filter coil. The NSCom P4-550W pictured above uses no PI filter
coils at all. As a result, the ripple is out-of spec, which can cause stability problems and shorten the life of the PC it
powers. Some even cheaper units also omit one of the capacitors, using just one capacitor per rail. This makes the
ripple even worse. The Aywun A1-5000 (pictured below), however, does have PI filter coils, so the ripple will be much
The capacitors on the secondary side are put under a lot more stress than the two on the primary side, so it is
important for long term reliability of a PSU to use high quality ones. When the secondary filter capacitors fail, the
ripple will go through the roof. One PSU with bad caps we connected to our oscilloscope was an Antec SP-350. The
two capacitors on the 5vsb rail were Fuhjyyu branded (which is one of the worst brands available) and both were
bulging. The PSU made a horrible high pitched squeal when plugged in and the ripple on the 5vsb rail was 5v. Yes,
five volts of ripple. Not only is this above the maximum 50mv (0.05v) allowed in ATX specifications, but more than
enough to damage a motherboard.

The Feedback and Protection

The feedback circuit is for monitoring the output voltages and adjusting the duty cycle of the switching transistors
accordingly. The monitoring IC may also feature protections which shut the PSU down when necessary to avoid
damaging it or the attached hardware. Over Current Protection (OCP) will shut the power supply down if too much
current is drawn from one or more rails. Over Power Protection (OPP) steps in if the PSU is being overloaded,
preventing the primary switching transistors from exploding. Over Voltage Protection (OVP) and Under Voltage
Protection (UVP) step in when the voltages are too high or too low. Short Circuit Protection (SCP) kicks in when one
of the rails is shorted by faulty hardware or when one of the secondary rectifiers shorts. Over Temperature Protection
(OTP) shuts the PSU down when things get too hot and prevents the PSU from starting again until it cools down.

The Power Good (PG) signal is essentially a signal from the PSU to the motherboard that the PSU has started up,
the voltages are stable and the PC can POST. The PG Generator IC monitors the voltages during start up and
generates the PG signal when they have stabilised. Some power supplies lack a separate PG generator, but rather,
they use a monitoring IC with a PG Generator integrated, so there will only be one IC.