555 Capacitor Tester

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Introduction: 555 Capacitor Tester

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first to…

This is something I built from a published schematic late in the 1980s. It works very well. I gave away the magazine with the schematic because I believed I would never need it again and we were downsizing.

The circuit is built around a 555 timer. These are very inexpensive and very available. I am always nervous about ruining a semiconductor by applying too much heat while soldering, so I used an 8 pin socket and soldered it into place. Then I pressed the 555 timer chip into the socket when the soldering was finished.

The photo shows my tester. I drilled holes through 1/8 inch Plexiglas to make a circuit board. Just decide where each component should be located and mark the location for the holes. Drill with a small drill. I place the component on top of the Plexiglass and connect leads below the Plexiglass. There is a selector for different resistance arrays. I tapped the Plexiglass for 8-32 brass screws. I soldered leads to the screw heads under the Plexiglass and I attach an alligator clip to the appropriate screw for the desired resistance range on each test. I used hot glue to fasten components to the Plexiglass where necessary. The battery holder is fastened to the Plexiglass with a screw.

Step 1: Removing the Mystery

I know just a little about electronics, but not a lot. For a long time I was in awe of the genius who used a 555 Timer chip to make a capacitor tester. Then I began reading a little more about 555 Timer circuits. According to my rudimentary understanding, they can be configured in different ways, including astable, monostable, and bi-stable. Each works a bit differently with different results for different purposes. After reading about each of these just a little, I decided the capacitor tester I built is a very common monostable multivibrator or “one-shot” configuration.

A monostable multivibrator turns “on” when a momentary contact switch is depressed and released. The multivibrator produces a continuous pulse that lasts until the capacitor in a resistance/capacitance bridge charges up to a particular percentage of a full charge. When that happens, it signals the 555 Timer chip to stop the pulse. In this case, that means an LED came “on” when the momentary contact switch was depressed and released. It continued to be lit until the capacitor charged to its threshold level. Then the 555 Timer turned the LED “off.” If the resistance has been carefully chosen, counting the number of seconds the LED was “on” indicates the value of the capacitor multiplied by 1 or by 10 or by 100 according to the selected test range.

This link at Circuit Digest discusses the resistance/capacitance bridge in a monostable multivibrator circuit using a 555 Timer chip, and it gives the standard formula for calculating the time in seconds an LED will be “on” based on a specified resistance and a specified capacitance. It also provides a schematic for the configuration of a 555 Timer chip to be used. As noted, R1 and C1 are the variables. On my tester, if R1 is 900,000 Ohms the multiplication factor is 1. If R1 is 90,000 Ohms the multiplication factor is 10. If R1 is 9000 Ohms the multiplication factor is 100. In the photo I used for the Introduction I connected a 100 microfarad electrolytic capacitor to the test alligator clips while observing polarity. The LED went out in 10 seconds. The selector was set on the 10x option. 10 x 10 = 100. The capacitor’s value is very close to its specified value. (This tester does not indicate other things, like internal resistance of the capacitor.)

The image is a monostable multivibrator circuit from the link above to Circuit Digest. You could build the circuit as shown. R1 and C1 are conveniently marked. I would add a three-position selector for the resistances mentioned in the paragraph above. It would make the tester easier to use.

Step 2: My Circuit

As I mentioned, I did not save the magazine with the schematic that I built, but gave it away. I have looked, but not found anything exactly like it on the Internet. I believe any monostable multivibrator circuit would work. They seem to vary just a little. Variations are usually a matter of adding very small capacitors for the sake of decoupling one part of the circuit from an influence that might effect functionality.

I did try to trace the circuit from my actual tester. It can be viewed in the photo with this step. I viewed my circuit board from the bottom and tried to trace the connections accurately. There is always the possibility I made an error, although I checked it a few times.*

I am accustomed to pin out diagrams on IC chips that begin with #1 in the upper left corner and progress to pin #2 and so on. See the circuit diagram in the image from the previous step. Pin #1 is on the bottom at the center. What you see in that diagram is now the standard way to show the pin out for a 555 Timer chip. My diagram of what I built is further complicated because the pin out is from the back side of the circuit board.

See the second photo. Notice the shiny round area on the 555 Timer. It indicates pin #1. Pin #2 is below it. The lower right corner is pin #5. Pin #6 is above it. Pin #8 is at the top right corner.

*Even from the underside of my Plexiglas circuit board the wiring looks like a rat’s nest. This circuit tracing was done with the aid of a continuity tester and double checked. Later I did it a second time on a new piece of paper and got the same schematic. I am reasonably confident this is an accurate description of the circuit I used.

Step 3: How to Use the Tester

The magazine that contained the circuit diagram for my tester gave no information on how to use it. I had to work that out by trial and error. This tester is for electrolytic capacitors of a larger size, normally 10 microfarads and larger. It will work for capacitors down to 1 microfarad in size.

Notice the 9 volt battery is connected. I always remove the battery when I am finished and install it when I want to use the tester. An alligator clip has been attached to a brass screw to choose the range. Alligator clips have been connected to the capacitor under test. The LED is “on” and the test is underway.

1. Always discharge the capacitor first.

2. Select the appropriate resistance range. (If you are testing a 4700 microfarad capacitor counting 47 seconds makes more sense than counting 4700 seconds to arrive at the approximate value of the capacitor.)

3. Attach the positive (+) and negative (-) test leads to the capacitor. Be careful to observe the correct polarity.

4. Depress the momentary contact switch and release it.

5. Count the number of seconds until the LED goes out. Multiply by the appropriate factor for the resistance range selected.

Good capacitor—The LED stays “on” for the appropriate number of seconds before turning “off.”

Range set too high—The LED turns “off” as soon as the momentary contact switch is depressed and released.

Capacitor is “open” and must be replaced—The LED turns “off” as soon as the momentary contact switch is depressed and released.

LED stays “on”—The capacitor’s connection to the tester is the wrong polarity, or the capacitor is shorted and needs to be replaced.

Step 4: Do You Need This?

About the time I found the magazine with the capacitor tester circuit I bought a 40 year-old Zenith Trans-oceanic AM-Shortwave radio built with vacuum tubes. Electrolytic capacitors began to blow one by one when I began using the radio, and I used it quite a bit at the time. It was helpful to test suspect capacitors rather than just throwing money and new capacitors at the radio indiscriminately. This tester helped me identify a faulty capacitor and change it. I no longer have that radio, but occasionally I find it very helpful to check a capacitor when I am trying make something work again. I do not use this tester often, but it is very helpful when I need it. I do have a multi-meter with a capacitance scale now, but such meters often do not cover the range I need. The tester I built usually does.

The image is from Monitoring Times by way of the Internet. It is very much like the radio I had, but not a photo of it.

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    50 Comments

    0
    Franks Instructables
    Franks Instructables

    12 months ago

    I built a similar cap tester in the 80's and I still use it. The one I have uses a radio shack analog meter movement which goes up to a certain number on the scale and stays there as long as the button is pressed. There are a number of switchable scales which go from 500pF full scale to 50 uF full scale. I also have that Zenith Trans Oceanic that you show in the photo. In my opinion, that's the nicest of them all. I think it's 1950 A600 model.

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 12 months ago

    I did find some schematics for capacitance testers on the Internet that use an analog dial. I do not know if they hold the reading. The original owner of the radio had died. From a conversation with his family I got the impression he had bought it a year or two later than 1950. I know Zenith eventually made it smaller and it was transistorized.

    0
    AE7HD
    AE7HD

    Reply 2 days ago

    Mine continuously shows you the capacitance. So as long as it is turned on, you can attach a variable capacitor and watch the capacitance change as you rotate it.

    It is great for teaching, as you can build a big capacitor with aluminum plates, then change the spacing or insert different materials as a dielectric and see in real time how it affects the capacitance.

    PS I'm Polymorph, I had to recreate my account and decided to do so under my callsign.

    0
    Franks Instructables
    Franks Instructables

    Reply 1 day ago

    Yes, a continuously updating display is a very useful feature in a capacitance meter.

    0
    AE7HD
    AE7HD

    Reply 1 day ago

    And clearly labeled. My original capacitance meters used a 50uA display with a readout that didn't have to be calculated beyond 2x (range switch used 1-2-10 scaling). When I started building them to use DMMs for a digital display, the lowest range is 1mV = 1pF, and then it is 1-10-100-1000-10000 on the range switch. Each range was good for over 2V.

    0
    Polymorph
    Polymorph

    Reply 12 months ago

    I was building capacitance meters in Montana in the mid to late '70s, and in Arizona in the early '80s. Mostly using the Radio Shack 50uA meter movement. Two 555 timers or a 556, rotary switch, and momentary pushbutton. Although I did a few with toggle or on-off pushbuttons. I kept costs down by shopping the surplus stores in and around Phoenix, and looking for project boxes on close-out. 50pF low, 50uF high scale.

    I sold a number of them, some to electronic stores around the Phoenix area, most directly to people.

    My later capacitance meters use a DMM as the display as DMMs dropped in price. On the 200.0mV range, the lowest scale is 200pF with resolution to a tenth of a farad. I don't pretend that it is =accurate= to that level! But that is useful when matching capacitors or detecting a change.

    I came across one of my schematics in a notebook I still had and scanned it. I still have the prototype I built to test this particular circuit, built into an ugly orange plastic box that I think originally came with a bottle of perfume in it. It still works. I connected it to a modern DMM with teh lowest range 600.00mV, so the last digit is a femtofarad. It is surprisingly stable!
    https://www.polyphoto.com/tutorials/ElectronicCircuits/Dual555CapMeter150dpi.jpg

    Dual555CapMeter150dpi.jpg
    0
    Captain Simion
    Captain Simion

    12 months ago

    See Elektor magazine July/August 1977 "Digital Capacitance Meter with 555 Timer" by J. Borgman .

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 12 months ago

    I found the article. The circuit configuration is astable rather than monostable, I retyped the short article in Dutch and fed it into Google translator. It tells how owners of a digital counter can connect it to an astable 555 circuit to determine the value of a capacitor. A procedure is described for interpreting the data, including a table of resistance values for the two resistors key to the circuit. Thank you for the reference. For anyone else who wants to find it, the page is 91. The magazine is fairly easy to find.

    0
    bgordon
    bgordon

    Reply 4 months ago

    Hi, please excuse me if I am missing something, but you provide the page number, but not the magazine. Could you please give the reference so that I can look at it? (I can read Dutch).

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 4 months ago

    Captain Simion gave the magazine and the issue in his initial comment above. Elektor, July/August 1977.

    0
    bgordon
    bgordon

    Reply 4 months ago

    Thanks for the quick reply. It seems that different countries had different layouts, because the one I found was a South African edition, and in English. There it was project #42 on page 39. That's why I did not understand the reference to page 91. :-)
    My source:
    https://worldradiohistory.com/UK/Elektor/70s/Elektor-1977-07-08.pdf

    Capacitance_Meter.jpg
    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 4 months ago

    Thank you for the link. I downloaded the whole magazine. The projects are interesting, even if dated and characteristic of their time. The article seems to be the same one I saw in Dutch. (I can read German, and there are frequent similarities.)

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 12 months ago

    Thank you. I am not familiar with that magazine. I am grateful for the reference, but it is not the magazine I used when I built my tester.

    0
    k24tea
    k24tea

    8 months ago

    Thanks, Phil! Another great Instructable. I made that capacitor tester in the '80s, too, and found it quite useful. I lost both the magazine and the tester after a few moves and guests who occasionally "borrowed" things. This Instructable comes as a timely reminder to make another.

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 8 months ago

    Thank you for the comment. It is handy to know a monostable multivibrator circuit can be used as a capacitor tester. If you try one and there is an omission in the schematic, you can easily try another.

    0
    Lee Wilkerson
    Lee Wilkerson

    8 months ago on Step 4

    I built a 555-based capacitor tester in the 80s from a TAB Books or H.W.Sams publication schematic. I also built several more projects from that book including a DTMF generator for telephone dial tones, a telephone warble ringer, several sirens, and a windshield wiper delay for my 62 Fairlane.

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 8 months ago

    There are quite a few circuits on-line for people to build, even though the electronics hobbyist magazines have largely disappeared. I am surprised a capacitor tester based on a 555 IC is very rare now. It seems like it would be a very popular item. Thank you for looking and for commenting.

    0
    datoo786
    datoo786

    9 months ago

    Majority of circuits have many capacitors. It can be difficult to unsolder selective capacitors to test them. It is much easier to use a multimeter which tells you the capacitance.

    0
    Phil B
    Phil B

    Reply 9 months ago

    I built this long before multimeters had capacitance testing capability. I also mentioned the capacitance tester on my multimeter does not always have the range I need, but this does.

    0
    craneman
    craneman

    12 months ago on Step 4

    If you name that magazine, I probably have a copy of it.