What are Potentiometers and How Are They Used?

In regards to electronics and electrical systems, potentiometers are a type of three-terminal resistor that allows for the manual adjustment of resistance to govern current flow. With their various types, potentiometers serve many applications such as audio, television, motion control, transducers, and computations as a variable resistor or rheostat. To best understand how potentiometers can be used for a particular system, it is best to be aware of their functionality and common types.

Across the electronics industry, potentiometers have various names dictating their type, including those such as slide pots, slider pots, thumb pots, thumbwheel pots, trimpots, and trimmer pots. Despite their varying characteristics, most potentiometers remain fairly the same in their basic construction. Within the potentiometer, a sliding contact moves across a resistive element, and end terminals are placed on each end of the component. By moving the contact across the resistive strip, the resistance of each terminal can be adjusted to change an output voltage. As passive devices, potentiometers do not require any external power supply for their operations, and they are commonly used to precisely measure voltage to accommodate variable voltages from fixed-voltage sources.

Across the various categories of potentiometers on the market, the two major types include those that are manually adjustable and those that are electronically controlled. As the most common form of potentiometer, the rotary type features an adjustable sliding contact (wiper) that can be adjusted by manually operating a knob or dial. With one resistive element placed in a semi-circular pattern and another connected to the knob or dial, such potentiometers may serve well for applications such as audio equipment in order to adjust volume.

The linear potentiometer is similar to the rotary type, though its wiper moves in straight lines. With a pin attached to the slider and pins on each end of the output circuit, the slider can move across the resistive element in order to adjust the operation of the component. Depending on the type of linear potentiometer, the slider can be used for single channel control, increasing precision, controlling two potentiometers, and more. Typically found in audio equipment as well, linear potentiometers may be used for audio mixing or graphic equalizing. Due to its functionality and construction, it is important to ensure that linear potentiometers are kept clean and protected as contaminants can enter the long track and adversely affect performance.

With a digital potentiometer, control is conducted electronically. As a three terminal device, two pins are present on each end terminal with the last pin attached to the wiper. By inducing input signals to the potentiometer, the resistance of the component can be adjusted. Despite their higher complexity as compared to their mechanical counterparts, digital potentiometers are very desired for use in factory settings due to their high accuracy, reliability, no moving parts, and resistance to harsh environmental conditions.

The rheostat is another common electronic component, serving as a function of the potentiometer. As a type of variable resistor, rheostats may be used to govern currents through connections. As such, they often serve for conducting tuning and calibration for circuits. As compared to a standard potentiometer, the rheostat is only capable of using two of the three pins, and the second pin is attached to a resistive element.


July 14, 2023

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