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What is a Variable Resistor?

By Rachel Moon
Updated May 17, 2024
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In an electrical circuit, a resistor acts as a fixed restriction to current flow without switching the current completely on or off. A variable resistor allows for finer control over current by changing the amount of resistance. As resistance increases, the amount of current decreases. Some examples of variable resistors are the volume control knob on a radio and a dimmer switch used for a light. Rheostats and potentiometers are two common types of these devices.

Variable resistors have two basic components. The material that provides the resistance is called the element. The element has one of two types of tracks: linear or logarithmic.

A linear track means the change in resistance is constant throughout the whole element. In general, a linear track variable resistor will have one-half total possible resistance when the wiper is in the direct center of the track. A logarithmic track has a slow change in resistance at one end and a much faster change at the other. In a logarithmic track, the halfway point of the element is not one-half total possible resistance.

The movable component, which is used to set the resistance, is called the wiper, or brush. Depending on the construction of the resistor, the wiper will often be controlled with a sliding switch or knob. To complete the circuit, the wiper makes contact anywhere along the length of the element. The resistance will change based on where the wiper contacts the element.

A rheostat is the simplest type of variable resistor, designed to handle the full current of the circuit. Generally, it has only two terminals and is placed in series with the load it controls. The circuit is directly wired to the element and to the wiper. Rheostats are generally larger than potentiometers because of the loads they must carry.

Visually, the element is the most recognizable part of a rheostat. Wire length affects resistance, so the coil of wire increases the available length, thus increasing the possible resistance. As the wiper passes over the coil, resistance increases or decreases.

A potentiometer is a variable resistor that allows much finer control than a rheostat, because it also functions as a voltage divider. It supplies a voltage other than what is available to the circuit from the power supply. It usually has three terminals, one of which is used for reference voltage, which increases precision. The element in a potentiometer is usually a carbon film.

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Discussion Comments
By SkyWhisperer — On Jul 18, 2011

@miriam98 - Most examples given here are mechanical in nature. I think I should point out that there is also the digital variable resistor which doesn’t rely on mechanical parts to change its resistance. I believe they use switches.

Obviously you would expect to see these things in electronic components as everything is pretty much stuck onto an electronic circuit board, without the need for much wiring.

By miriam98 — On Jul 17, 2011

@everetra - Yeah, I think anything that’s variable from an electronics perspective will work the same way. It does the same thing that a regular component would do but it just lets you vary the input.

Another example is a variable capacitor. A regular capacitor would let you store electrical charges. A variable capacitor, I assume, would vary the amount of electrical charge that you could store.

I haven’t played with them much but I understand that they’re used in things like radios. They help in tuning radios and they’re called tuning capacitors.

I don’t know how the technology works in that context, but I’m sure they’re very useful in those and in a variety of other settings.

By everetra — On Jul 17, 2011

I think that there are lots of common applications for a variable power resistor like a potentiometer.

For example, every time that you use a light dimmer for a room, you’re using a variable resistor. I have one in my master bedroom. The light dimmer basically varies the voltage that is sent to the lamp that is being controlled.

You’ll also find potentiometers in television remotes. These aren’t the rotary kind of potentiometers like you have with light dimmers. They’re the push button variety. You press a button and a meter comes on screen allowing you to adjust levels like audio and brightness for your television.

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