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Working with Series and Parallel Circuits

By Landon S Johnson

Series and parallel circuit analysis can be one of the most difficult concepts for someone
new to the discipline of electronics, yet it is one of the most basic and universal concepts
that must be mastered in order to gain proficiency in nearly any area of the field.

This is because the analysis relies on the theory that matter and energy are neither created
nor destroyed, which as a physical concept makes its way into all we do and all we are
(what goes up must come down). In electronics, this is borne out in Kirchoffs Voltage
and Current Laws, which state that all voltages and all currents must sum to zero,
respectively.

Side note: Because the voltages across (and therefore currents through) the components
are reversed with respect to the source, the following two statements are equivalent:

In a series circuit:
1. All the voltages in a series circuit sum to zero
2. The sum of all the component voltages equals the source voltage

In a parallel circuit:
1. All the currents in a parallel circuit sum to zero
2. The sum of all the component currents equals the source current

These concepts, along with Ohms Law and our series and parallel resistance formulas
(which, incidentally are derived from the aforementioned laws) are the tools we need to
solve these types of circuits, but it is also expected that a familiarity with basic algebra is
needed in order to solve arithmetic problems of this nature. Therefore, this is where we
will begin, with a review of algebra and simple equations.

This tutorial assumes that the reader is familiar with Kirchoffs Laws, Ohms Law, and
resistances in series and parallel.

Consider Ohms Law, V = I X R. This equation can be rewritten to solve for either of the
three variables.

V=IXR I = V/R R = V/I

It is understood that each of the above formulas have an unknown (on the left side of the
equals sign) which we call the dependent variable because its value depends on the other
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values. This is what we are actually calculating. The other two variables, which we are
going to divide together or multiply together, are the values we do know, and they are
grouped on the right side of the equals sign as independent variables.

In all three equations there are three variables. In order to solve we must know the value
of two out of three; we can only have one unknown.

In any equation we intend to solve, we must know the value of all but one variable.
This is law !!

This will also be the key to solving these series and parallel circuits.

The method about to be suggested allows you to view the results and progress of your
analysis as you go, and allows you to solve as much as you possibly can with the least
amount of work and the highest degree of certainty.

Consider the series circuit in Figure 1:

1k

+
10V 2mA
-
4V
2v

Figure 1

In order to start the analysis, we shall lay some groundwork in the form of a table in
which to tabulate our results.

We wish to determine voltage, current, and resistance for each component as well as the
total resistance, voltage and current. Hence our table will provide space for these values
as they are determined.

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The first thing we will do is write down what we can determine through inspection. This
means looking at the circuit to see what we do already know; what we are given, or
mathematically the independent variables we will have to work with.

From what we see, there is only one known value for each component in the circuit, and
one known value for the circuit total. But, wait we learned a few basic things about
series circuits, and one that should make sense is that, according to Kirchoffs Current
Law, the current in R2 which is known must be the same as the current in R1, because all
the current leaving R1 is flowing into R2. There is nowhere else for it to go! This means
that (as we know) the current in a series circuit must be the same in each component, and
further, it must be the same as supplied by the source!

So whatever we see in R2 can be copied to R1, R3, and total as shown below.

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Good! Now, looking at the TOTAL row, we have two out of three variables and we can
use Ohms Law to calculate the third.

Rtotal = V/I = 10V/2mA = 5K put it in the table!

Next, R3 has two out of three, solve for R also and we get

R3 = 4V/2mA = 2K. put it in the table!

Now, we can calculate R2 using the idea that series resistances add (keep in mind that
we could also solve for V across R1 its your choice which to solve first

Rtotal = R1 + R2 + R3 which leads to R2 = (Rtotal - R1 - R3) so R2 = (5K 1K 2K) which


equals 2K.

Put it in the table!!!

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All thats left now is to finish up R1 and R2; we have two out of three for both, lets just
do them together.

VR1 = I X R = 2mA X 1K = 2V

VR2 = I X R = 2mA X 2K = 4V (the observant among you might notice that we already
did this same computation for R3 earlier. Same variables, same result.)

Complete the table

Now, just for grins lets check our work. We also know from a series circuit theory that
the voltages across each resistor when added together must equal the total voltage, or 10V
in this example. We never actually used this idea to calculate values, but Kirchoff says
that it must be so. If it is, that should raise the level of confidence that the work was done
properly.

Do the voltages across R1, R2, and R3 total 10V? 2V + 4V + 4V = 10V yes, they do!

Analysis complete!

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Lets move on to parallel circuits and we will find that there are differences between their
respective solution methods, but that those differences are complementary to each other
and therefore easy to reconcile.

The circuit we will analyze is as shown in Figure 2:

+ R1 R2 R3
10V
12V 1k 20 mA 4K
-

Figure 2

First, make a table with spaces for all the components and their values, as was done in the
series circuit:

Fill in the values we are given:

Uh-oh it looks like there is nothing to solve, because there are no rows with two out of
three variables knownbut, from our knowledge of parallel circuits, (and we can see this
from inspection) we know that in a parallel circuit the voltages across each component is
equal to the source voltage, so updating the table gives us:

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And now, we can begin calculating some unknowns.

So many possibilities! You can feel free to do them in any order you wish; one
calculation will not affect the others. So, arbitrarily working from top to bottom starting
with R1, we arrive at

I = V/R = 10V/1K gives us 10 mA

Put it in the table!

Next, the value for R2 is calculated using Ohms Law

R2 = V/I = 10V/20 mA = 500 ohms. Fill in the table with your result!

Next, Current thru R3 is calculated:

I = V/R I = 10V/4K = 2.5 mA Fill in the table!

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Now, Kirchoffs Current Law tells us that the sum of the currents must equal the source
current, or

I1 + I2 + I3 = Itotal or 10mA + 20mA + 2.5 mA = 32.5 mA for the total current.

Lastly, total resistance can be calculated two ways. We will do it both ways, one to come
up with the answer, and another to verify the answer. If we get the same answer two
different ways, we can be more confident that it is the correct answer.

Rtotal = Vtotal/Itotal = 10V/32.5 mA = about 307.69 ohms.

Checking our work does the 307 ohms make sense? Yes, in one sense, because we
know that the total resistance of a parallel circuit must be less than the lowest branch
resistance in the circuit (which for this circuit is 500 ohms).

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Lets see what the total resistance is using the parallel resistance formula this is a
different method than used to get the 307 ohms in the table if this comes out correctly,
we can be pretty sure that our calculations are correct and that 307 ohms is the correct
answer.

Rt = 1
1/R1 + 1/R2 + 1/R3

And calculating this gives us. Drum roll please.307.69 ohms!

Analysis complete!

The observant student will note that the similarities between series and parallel circuits
lie in the differences between them. In other words:

For series circuits, current is constant through all components and the individual voltages
add to equal the source.

For parallel circuits, voltage is constant across all the components and the individual
currents add to equal the source.

For many people who are visual learners, this method will prove useful because it allows
the student to monitor his/her progress through the analysis and also allows the student to
see graphically what steps could be taken next. REMEMBER anytime you have an
equation that has only one unknown, the value of that unknown can be calculated using
the remaining known values.

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Now, we will combine the things we have learned in Series and Parallel circuit analysis
into a process by which we can solve combination circuits; those that include series
elements and parallel elements.

Consider the circuit shown in Figure 3:

R1 R3 R5
1k 2k 1k

R7
+ 1.2k
10V R2 R6
600 470
-

R4
330

Figure 3

Keep in mind that when dealing with series/parallel circuits (combinations) the sum of
the parts is definitely less than the whole. This is because there are more steps to be taken
in arriving at a solution. Unlike analysis methods for individual series and parallel
circuits, each circuit is different and thereby requires a slightly different path to the
solution.

The method about to be described, while a bit more rigorous than some, is designed to be
of use for any series/parallel circuit. We will begin by noting on the schematic diagram
the voltage polarities for each component. Refer to Figure 4:

+ R1 - R3 R5
1k + 2k - + 1k -

+
+ R7
+ + 1.2k
10V R2 R6
600 470 -
-
- -

R4
- 330 +

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Figure 4

Next, we will create a table, similar to that used in the previous examples.

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1
R2
R3
R4
R5
R6
R7
Total

Notice that there are additional entries placed in this table. This is because as voltages
around the circuit are determined, we must often calculate the voltage across a
component by comparing (subtracting) the individual voltages on either side of that
component.

Lets begin by writing in the values that are given in the circuit.

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 1K
R2 600
R3 2K
R4 330
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V

By inspection, it should be apparent that all components tied directly to the source have
one known voltage, either 0V or 10V. Putting these in the table yields

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 1K
R2 0V 600
R3 2K
R4 0V 330
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V

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In solving combinational circuits, we will generally calculate the total circuit resistance
using series and parallel resistance formulae. This often involves redrawing the circuit
numerous times in order to reduce it to one resistance. This allows Ohms law to be used
to calculate total circuit current. We need this number to move forward.

As we redraw, it is important to keep good records of the steps we have taken once
current is established, we will then expand the circuit back to its original form as we
discover the values for each component.

Lets redraw the circuit, each time slightly different, in order to reduce it to one resistor.

+ R1 - R3 R5
1k + 2k - + 1k -

+
+ R7
+ + 1.2k
10V R2 R6
600 470 -
-
- -

R4
- 330 +
Figure 5
Combine R5 and R7, in series (add)

+ R1 - R3
1k + 2k -

+
R5/7
+ + 2.2k
+
10V R2 R6
600 470 -
-
- -

R4
- 330 +
Figure 6

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Combine R6 with the result of the last combination, in parallel (reciprocal)

+ R1 - R3
1k + 2k -

+ +
+ R5/6/7
10V R2
600 387.27
-
- -

R4
- 330 +
Figure 7

Combine this result with R4 in series (add)

+ R1 - R3
1k + 2k -

+ +
+ R4/5/6/7
10V R2
600 717.27
-
- -

Figure 8

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Combine this result with R3 in series (add)

+ R1 -
1k

+ +
+ R3/4/5/6/7
10V R2
600 2,717.27
-
- -

Figure 9

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Combine this result with R2 in parallel (reciprocal)

+ R1 -
1k

+ +
10V
491.47
- R2/3/4/5/6/7
-

Figure 10

Combine this with R1 in series (add)

+ +
10V 1,491 .47
- R1/2/3/4/5/6/7
-

Figure 11

and we are down to one resistance total current is equal to Total Voltage / total
resistance, or in this case 6.70476 mA or, 6,704.76 microamperes.

Lets put that in the table, along with the total resistance.

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 1K
R2 0V 600
R3 2K
R4 0V 330
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200

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Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

Lets return to Figure 10:

+ R1 -
1k

+ +
10V
491.47
- R2/3/4/5/6/7
-

Now, using our total current value of 6,704.76 uA, we can calculate the voltages across
the two components shown in the circuit since they are in series.

VR1 = 6704.76uA X 1000 Ohms = 6.70476 Volts.

The voltage across R1 is 6.70476 Volts, and we know that the voltage on the + side of R1
is 10V, therefore the voltage on the side of R1 must be 10V 6.70476V or 3.295V.
Lets enter these in the table, shall we?

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.70476 1K 6704.76 uA
R2 0V 600
R3 2K
R4 0V 330
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

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Now, lets review Figure 9:

R1 3.295V
+ 1k -

6704.76 uA

+ +
+ R3/4/5/6/7
10V R2
600 2,717.27
-
- 5492 uA -

Placing the 3.294V we have determined in the previous step, we see that the same voltage
appears at the + side of R2. Lets put that in the table.

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.70476 1K 6707 uA
R2 3.295V 0V 3.295V 600 5492 uA
R3 2K
R4 0V 330
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

and we see from this entry that we can now compute the voltage across R2 as 3.295V
0V = 3.295V. Current in R2 then, is 3.295V/600 Ohms or 5.492 mA. Kirchoffs Current
Law tells us that the current flowing through the combination of R3/4/5/6/7 is whats left
over, or 6704.76uA 5492uA or 1213uA.

Lets look at Figure 8:

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.27

+ R1 - R3
1k 3.295V + 2k - 0.8695V

6704.76uA 1213uA

+ + +
R2 R4/5/6/7
10V 5492uA
600 717.27
-
- - + R1 - + R3
-
1k 2k

And, the table is now revised also: +


+
10V R2
Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I 600
R1 10V 3.295V 6.70476 V - uA
1K 6704.76
R2 3.295V 0V 3.294V 600 5492 uA -
R3 3.295V 0.8695V 2.4255V 2K 1213uA
R4 0V 330
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

We now have two out of three values for R3, we can calculate the voltage across R3
using Ohms Law:

VR3 = 1213uA X 2000 Ohms = 2.4255V. The voltage at the Minus side of R3 is the
difference between the voltage + and voltage across, or 3.295V 2.4255V which is
0.8695V.

Weve done all we can for now; lets look at Figure 7 again.

+ R1 - 3.295V R3 0.8695V
1k + 2k -
6704.76uA 1213uA

+ +
+ R5/6/7
10V 5492uA R2
600 387
-
- -

R4
- 330 +

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Note that we must also have 1213uA flowing through R4 (Kirchoffs Current Law) and
that this value gives us two out of three R4 values and a voltage across R4 of 330 ohms
X 1213uA (Ohms Law) or 0.4003 volts can be calculated.

Lets edit our table

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.70476V 1K 6704.76 uA
R2 3.295V 0V 3.295V 600 5492 uA
R3 3.295V 0.8695V 2.4255V 2K 1213uA
R4 0.4003V 0V 0.4003V 330 1213uA
R5 1K
R6 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA
Also, we can calculate the voltage on the + side of R4 by adding the component voltage
of 0.4003V to the side voltage of 0V for a + side voltage of 0.4003V.

+ R1 - R3
1k 3.295V + 2k - 0.8695V

6704.76uA 1213uA

+ +
+ R5/6/7
10V 5493uA
R2
600 387 .27
-
- -

R4
- 330 +
0.4003V
1213uA

Moving on to Figure 6:

Lets write in what we have so far

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+ R1 - R3
1k 3.295V + 2k - 0.8695

6704.76uA 1213uA +
R5/7
+ + 2.2k
+
10V 5493uA
R2 R6
600 470 -
-
- - 998.28uA

R4
- 330 +
0.4003V
1213uA

We can see by inspection that we have voltages for the + and sides of R6, and we can
easily write the component voltage as the difference between these two values, or
0.4692V.

Lets put it in the table and see what we can do from there

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.704.76V 1K 6704.76 uA
R2 3.295V 0V 3.295V 600 5492 uA
R3 3.295V 0.8695V 2.4255V 2K 1213uA
R4 0.4003V 0V 0.4003V 330 1213uA
R5 1K
R6 0.8695V 0.4003V 0.4692V 470
R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

It is apparent that we have two out of three unknowns to solve Ohms Law for R6.

IR6 = 0.4692V/470 Ohms = 998.28uA

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.704.76V 1K 6704.76 uA
R2 3.295V 0V 3.295V 600 5492 uA
R3 3.295V 0.8695V 2.4255V 2K 1213uA
R4 0.4003V 0V 0.4003V 330 1213uA
R5 1K
R6 0.8695V 0.4003V 0.4692V 470 998.298 uA

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R7 1200
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

Lets move on to the next figure Figure 5, which is our original circuit.:

+ R1 - R3 R5
1k 3.295V + 2k - 0.8695V + 1k -
6704.76uA 1213uA
+
+ R7
+ + 1.2k
10V 5492uA R2 R6 0.4692V
600 470 -
- 998.28uA
- -

R4
- 330 +
1213uA 0.4003V

From Kirchoffs Current Law, it appears that the current through R5 and R7 (same value
as they are in series) will be whats left over from the 1213uA after 998.298uA have
taken the path through R6. This amount will be equal to 214.7uA. Lets put it in the table.

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.704.76V 1K 6704.76 uA
R2 3.295V 0V 3.295V 600 5492 uA
R3 3.295V 0.8695V 2.4255V 2K 1213uA
R4 0.4003V 0V 0.4003V 330 1213uA
R5 1K 214.7uA
R6 0.8695V 0.4003V 0.4692V 470 998.298 uA
R7 1200 214.7uA
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

This gives us two out of three of our unknowns for both R5 and R7; we can now calculate
the respective voltages across each and the + side and side voltages for R5 and R7, and
we are done!

VR5 : 214.7uA X 1000 Ohms = 214.7 mV


VR7 : 214.7 uA X 1200 Ohms = 257.6 mV

Component Voltage + Voltage - V R I


R1 10V 3.295V 6.704.76V 1K 6704.76 uA

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R2 3.295V 0V 3.295V 600 5492 uA
R3 3.295V 0.8695V 2.4255V 2K 1213uA
R4 0.4003V 0V 0.4003V 330 1213uA
R5 0.8695V 0.6548V 0.2147V 1K 214.7uA
R6 0.8695V 0.4003V 0.4692V 470 998.298 uA
R7 0.6579V 0.4003V 0.2576V 1200 214.7uA
Total 10 0 10V 1491.47 6704.76 uA

The table, and the analysis, are complete. The student will notice that some of the
additive values do not add exactly to the sum given; this is due to rounding off
numbers as calculations are performed. Keep in mind that although these
inaccuracies exist (and they will in nearly all calculations) they are overshadowed by
the tolerances of the components, power supply, and measurement instruments.

Again, it must be stated that the specific steps in this example pertain to this example.
Every circuit configuration will require a different combination or sequence of steps, but
remember that the tools we have used in these analyses are:

Ohms Law
Kirchoffs Voltage Law
Kirchoffs Current Law

The difference between the analyses of different circuits lies in the order in which
specific steps are taken. It will take some practice for the student to be able to recognize
where to start, what step to take in what order, and what info is hidden in the schematic
or in the table.

It may help to mentally picture these circuits and their analyses as puzzles rather than as
problems. It will also help the student to recognize instances of Kirchoffs Law and use
them to check the work you have done, as we did in the series analysis and the parallel
analysis.

Like many analyses in the field of electronics, developing a methodical step-by-step


procedure is usually of benefit to the student, and in most cases over time the student
relies less and less on the published procedure and more on their experience in order to
solve these circuits.

In summary, the ability to recognize, analyze, and troubleshoot series and parallel
circuitry is fundamental to the career in electronics. After all, any circuit, no matter how
simple or complex, can be broken down into series and parallel components to which
Kirchoffs Laws and Ohms Law, as well as Watts Law can be applied.

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