Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bad capacitors and ESR testing

I have an old Soltek SL-65KVB motherboard. It was taken out of service due to AGP graphics instability which was probably due to bad capacitors. This diagnosis seemed pretty obvious because capacitors right by the AGP slot were bulging, but I didn't bother fixing the motherboard because it was a good time for an upgrade.

Now I would like to repair the motherboard, mainly because the combination of a Pentium 3, 640MB of RAM and an ISA slot could provide a nice way to use old hardware. By now, even more capacitors are obviously bad. However, only the GSC 1000µF and 1500µF 6.3V capacitors with gold/brown lettering have obvious problems and more numerous smaller GSC capacitors with silver/white lettering seem fine.

I didn't feel like unnecessarily replacing the smaller capacitors, so I quickly built a very simple capacitor ESR tester. The basic idea is the same as various other ESR measuring devices documented online: a stepdown transformer outputs low voltage and low impedance pulses which are used to measure capacitor ESR. I built the stepdown transformer from an inductor with a short secondary wrapped around it, and I used a 555 chip to supply low duty cycle pulses at high frequency. The 555 can supply enough current that it's possible to directly drive the transformer with a resistor in series with the primary.

My first attempt with a secondary of just a few turns worked pretty well when capacitors were plugged into the breadboard. However, test leads had enough impedance to make the circuit useless. Reducing the oscillation frequency to around 100 kHz and adding more turns to the secondary improved performance, making the bad capacitors very obvious. Test leads were still a problem however. Adding a 1Ω resistor in series with the secondary improved the situation significantly, so I proceeded to test the small capacitors on the motherboard via test leads.

It seems the small capacitors are all ok. However, among the large capacitors, even most that weren't bulging are bad. Only two of the ten 1000µF capacitors have a low ESR. Of course, considering the other failures, these shouldn't be used for anything either.

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