20 February, 2016

Series capacitors that failed according to the book

0.33 uF X2 capacitors which measured only
0.097, 0.1, and 0.118 uF.
Many devices now use a capacitor power supply thus saving the space that a mains transformer occupies. The principle is that a series capacitor from the mains supply is used to drop the voltage and reduce the current. Provided that the circuit is completely isolated from human touch, this is an economical way to provide DC power.

The image shows three such capacitors as I were measuring them. They came from three malfunctioning devices in my home: two wall-mounted thermostats for floor heating and a remote controlled mains switch.

Their power supplies were designed with a capacitor of 330 nF in series with a bridge rectifier which supplies the low voltage DC. This value is typical, it seems, for 230 Vac, 50 Hz circuits that are designed for about 20 mA. The value will be higher for an equivalent 115 Vac, 60 Hz circuit.

The malfunctioning happened because the value of the capacitor in my cases was reduced to 1/3 and less of the nominal value. These capacitors are all marked X2 and a voltage of 275 Vac.

The X2 means that they are safety capacitors which will not fail by short-circuiting as this would be a fire hazard in this circuit. They have self-healing properties and that means that they fail by "burning away" on their own foil, leading to a reduction in capacitance and eventually failure of the circuit as the power supply cannot supply the required current any more. They should never be replaced by anything but X2 capacitors with the same or higher voltage rating.

Go to the Wikipedia page Capacitive power supply for more description of this circuit.

By the way, the devices which these capacitor came from were 15 year old Microtemp MTN-1991 thermostats and a 20 years old Nobø System 500 RCE 512 remote receiver. They now all work again thanks to the fitting of new 0.33 uF capacitors. And all of them are safety capacitors of type X2 of course - no gambling with safety here.