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Alternating Current (AC) | Direct Current (DC) | Properties of signals | RMS values

Also See: Diodes | Power Supplies

AC means Alternating Current and DC means Direct Current. AC and DC are also used when

referring to voltages and electrical signals which are not currents! For example: a 12V AC power

supply has an alternating voltage (which will make an alternating current flow). An electrical signal is

a voltage or current which conveys information, usually it means a voltage. The term can be used

for any voltage or current in a circuit.

other way, continually reversing direction.

positive (+) and negative (-).

AC from a power supply

The rate of changing direction is called the This shape is called a sine wave.

frequency of the AC and it is measured in hertz

(Hz) which is the number of forwards-backwards

cycles per second.

50Hz.

This triangular signal is AC because it changes

An AC supply is suitable for powering some between positive (+) and negative (-).

devices such as lamps and heaters but almost all electronic circuits require a steady DC supply

(see below).

http://www.kpsec.freeuk.com/acdc.htm 1/4

1/24/2010 AC, DC and Electrical Signals

Direct Current (DC) always flows in the same

direction, but it may increase and decrease.

negative), but it may increase and decrease.

supply which is constant at one value or a smooth

Steady DC

DC supply which has a small variation called from a battery or regulated power supply,

ripple. this is ideal for electronic circuits.

provide steady DC which is ideal for electronic

circuits.

converts the mains AC supply to a safe low

voltage AC. Then the AC is converted to DC by a

bridge rectifier but the output is varying DC which

Smooth DC

is unsuitable for electronic circuits. from a smoothed power supply,

this is suitable for some electronics.

Some power supplies include a capacitor to

provide smooth DC which is suitable for less-

sensitive electronic circuits, including most of the

projects on this website.

supply.

information. Varying DC

from a power supply without smoothing,

this is not suitable for electronics.

Power supplies are also covered by the

Electronics in Meccano website.

which conveys information, usually it means a

voltage. The term can be used for any voltage

or current in a circuit.

various properties of an electrical signal. In

addition to the properties labelled on the

graph, there is frequency which is the number

of cycles per second.

http://www.kpsec.freeuk.com/acdc.htm 2/4

1/24/2010 AC, DC and Electrical Signals

The diagram shows a sine wave but these properties apply to any signal with a constant shape.

It is measured in volts, V.

Peak voltage is another name for amplitude.

Peak-peak voltage is twice the peak voltage (amplitude). When reading an

oscilloscope trace it is usual to measure peak-peak voltage.

Time period is the time taken for the signal to complete one cycle.

It is measured in seconds (s), but time periods tend to be short so milliseconds (ms) and

microseconds (µs) are often used. 1ms = 0.001s and 1µs = 0.000001s.

Frequency is the number of cycles per second.

It is measured in hertz (Hz), but frequencies tend to be high so kilohertz (kHz) and

megahertz (MHz) are often used. 1kHz = 1000Hz and 1MHz = 1000000Hz.

1 1

frequency = and time period =

time period frequency

so it has a time period of 1/50 = 0.02s = 20ms.

up to the positive peak, through zero to the negative peak and

back to zero again. Clearly for most of the time it is less than

the peak voltage, so this is not a good measure of its real

effect.

is 0.7 of the peak voltage (Vpeak):

They are only true for sine waves (the most common type of AC) because the 0.7 and 1.4 are

different values for other shapes.

The RMS value is the effective value of a varying voltage or current. It is the equivalent steady

DC (constant) value which gives the same effect.

For example a lamp connected to a 6V RMS AC supply will light with the same brightness when

connected to a steady 6V DC supply. However, the lamp will be dimmer if connected to a 6V

peak AC supply because the RMS value of this is only 4.2V (it is equivalent to a steady 4.2V DC).

You may find it helps to think of the RMS value as a sort of average, but please remember that it is

NOT really the average! In fact the average voltage (or current) of an AC signal is zero because the

http://www.kpsec.freeuk.com/acdc.htm 3/4

1/24/2010 AC, DC and Electrical Signals

positive and negative parts exactly cancel out!

AC voltmeters and ammeters show the RMS value of the voltage or current. DC meters also show

the RMS value when connected to varying DC providing the DC is varying quickly, if the frequency

is less than about 10Hz you will see the meter reading fluctuating instead.

What does '6V AC' really mean, is it the RMS or peak voltage?

If the peak value is meant it should be clearly stated, otherwise assume it is the RMS value. In

everyday use AC voltages (and currents) are always given as RMS values because this allows a

sensible comparison to be made with steady DC voltages (and currents), such as from a battery.

For example a '6V AC supply' means 6V RMS, the peak voltage is 8.6V. The UK mains supply is

230V AC, this means 230V RMS so the peak voltage of the mains is about 320V!

First square all the values, then find the average (mean) of these square values over a complete

cycle, and find the square root of this average. That is the RMS value. Confused? Ignore the maths

(it looks more complicated than it really is), just accept that RMS values for voltage and current are

a much more useful quantity than peak values.

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