Getting a Handle on ESR with a Couple of DIY Meters

Got a bunch of questionable electrolytic caps sitting in your junk bin? Looking to recap a vintage radio chassis? Then you might need to measure the equivalent series resistance of the capacitors, in which case this simple five-transistor ESR meter might come in handy.

Even if you have no need for an ESR meter, [W2AEW]’s video below is a solid introduction to how ESR is determined. The circuit itself comes from EEVBlog forum user [Jay-Diddy_B] and is about as simple as such a circuit can get. Two transistors form an oscillator that generates a square wave that drives a resistor bridge network. The two legs of the bridge feed matched common-emitter amps, one leg through the device under test. The difference in voltage between the two legs is read on a meter, and you have a quick and simple way to sort through the caps in your junk bin. [Jay-Diddy_B]’s circuit is only presented in breadboard form; no attempt was made to field a practical instrument. Indeed, [W2AEW] already built a home-brew ESR meter using hex inverters and op amps to which he compares the five-transistor circuit’s results. His intention here seems to be to clarify the technique of ESR measurement and evaluate an even simpler circuit than his. We think he’s done a good job on both counts.

We’ve featured plenty of [WA2AEW]’s work before, like this Michigan Mity-Mite transmitter or his primer on oscilloscopes. We really like his laid back style and the way he makes complex topics easy to understand. Check them out.

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Testing caps with a DIY ESR meter

There’s a problem with collecting old tube amps and vintage electronics – eventually the capacitors in these machines will die. It’s not an issue of a capacitor plague that causes new electronics to die after a few years; with time, just about every capacitor will dry out, rendering antique electronics defective. The solution to getting old gear up and running is replacing the capacitors, but how do you know which ones are good and which are bad? With [Paulo]’s DIY ESR meter, of course.

An ideal capacitor has a zero equivalent series resistance, and failure of a capacitor can be seen as an increase in its ESR. Commercial ESR meters are relatively cheap, but [Paulo] was able to build one out of a 555 chip, a small transformer, and a few other miscellaneous components.

The entire circuit is built on stripboard, and if you’re lucky enough to find the right parts in your random parts bin, you should be able to build this ESR meter with components just laying around.