Blog  /  Capacitor Polarity: Understanding Polarity for Seamless Installation

Capacitor Polarity: Understanding Polarity for Seamless Installation

Just like the other components on a circuit board, a capacitor polarity will have distinctive polarities, both positive and negative. It helps to understand how you can identify capacitor polarity, even as you build your circuit from scratch. However, not all capacitors have polarity, the ones that do have one trick up their sleeve. 

Above all, polarity works to have only one terminal acting to the voltage applied. To have an edge when linking capacitor polarity, this article here to educate you more on that. After you get to the end, you should have a better idea of why it is crucial to know capacitor polarity.


1. What is Capacitor Polarity?


A capacitor consists of parallel thin metal sheets separated by a dielectric material. The two thin metal sheets work as the electrodes, while the dielectric is the insulator. Insulation is vital because it acts as a partition between the electrodes. The standard symbol of a capacitor is a clear depiction of this inside structure. 

The dielectric could be either rubber, paper, ceramic, or glass. On the other hand, the thin metal sheets consist of either tantalum, aluminum, or silver. Carbon nanotubes are sometimes a better option owing to their better conduction features. Initially, capacitor polarity is proof of symmetry in a capacitor. But first, you have to know how balance works.

A non-polarized capacitor will still work like it should, regardless of how you connect it to your circuit. It doesn't matter what lead goes where. It is a clear case of non-symmetry. On the other hand, a polar capacitor is highly sensitive when placing it on a circuit board. Often, a capacitor will have two terminals, though you may see some with more than that. 

A polarized capacitor only works if the placement sticks to the vital outline rules. What this means is that placing the element on the circuit should be in one direction. Putting the capacitor in the wrong way will end in disaster. 

The capacitor could blow or fail to work as you'd like. Therefore, a capacitor should be on your list of concerns when building a circuit. If you want to weld work on PCB or breadboard constructing circuits, this method is most accurate.


2. How to Determine the Capacitor Polarity 


When it comes to capacitor polarity, there are many ways to tell between the different ends. Quite often, the contrasts in polarity marks depend on what material makes up the capacitor's body. For instance, electrolyte capacitors have stripes that show the cathode end. 

On the other hand, axial lead capacitors have arrows that show the lead where the cathode end is. Another way to tell capacitor polarity is through analyzing the leads. In this case, the longer lead is the anode end, while the short one is the cathode end. However, you will need to be extra cautious with these types of capacitors, mostly if they're second-hand items. 

In any case, the leads are likely to be shortened, and it is difficult to distinguish each end’s polarity. Some capacitors, especially Tantalum ones, have + and – signs to show the anode and cathode ends. On the other hand, others will have the marks ' BP' and 'NP' to show that a capacitor is non-polar. 

These types of capacitors include paper, ceramic, film, and polystyrene capacitors. It is vital that you correctly work out capacitor polarity before mounting the capacitor on a circuit board. If things go wrong, the capacitor may not work and could explode, ruining the whole circuit. 


An Electrolytic capacitor

(An Electrolytic capacitor )


Determining the Polarity of a Diode 


Generally, there are three most common types of diodes; plastic, glass, and stud diodes. Showing polarity on these diodes differs only slightly. In a plastic diode, a white band is on one end that shows the diode's contradiction. For the glass diode, the band is black. In this case, the future that is near the band is opposing. 

This outline means that a positive current will flow into this end from the positive terminal, the band’s furthest. Just like with any diode, the wind can’t flow in reverse. A schematic drawing will always have a 'T' showing the band. It can also have the markings' +' and '-' to show the anode and cathode ends.  

Finally, for the stud diode, the end with thread marks shows the cathode or opposing end. The soldered end is, therefore, the anode. A diode will often have a label on its body, but sometimes you may have to use a magnifying glass to see it.


A semiconductor diode

(A semiconductor diode)


 LED Polarity Identification


Knowing an LED's polarity is easy. These units could either be red, white, or green. It depends on what you prefer. A standard LED will have two leads, with one longer than the other. Like capacitor polarity, the more comprehensive information is the positive end, which means that the shorter information is harmful.


A red LED

(A red LED )


Transistor Identification


Picking out a transistor is also very easy because of its marks. They will have a model number inscribed on the body instead of an expected value. Most importantly, the outline will differ depending on the model. 

This approach is what makes it easy to identify them even though the leads have other names. The shape of the transistor should always be the same as the shape on your PCB.  


Integrated Circuits (IC)


Similarly, a model number is also present on an IC body, just like with a transistor. They also have a batch number that doesn't always make any significant difference in arranging your circuit. A manufacturer may choose to represent a standard IC's orientation in several ways. 

First, an IC might have a dot near the first pin labeled '1'. Second, it might have a notch on one section of its structure. This notch can be present between the first and the eighth pin. You will also find this notch on your PCB.   


A 14-pin IC

(A 14-pin IC)


3. Some Capacitors Do Not Have Polarity 


Ideally, there are two types of capacitors; polar and non-polar capacitors. Polar capacitors have either or both negative and positive ends. On the contrary, non-polar capacitors have no distinct lots. You can randomly insert these capacitors in your PCB without considering what lot goes where

Even so, there will not be any adverse impact on your circuit or ruining of your components. These designs are quite familiar with coupling and decoupling circuits, oscillation circuits, compensation, and feedback circuits. In the ideal case, polarity shouldn't exist in a capacitor. However, that isn't practical, mostly where large capacitance is vital. 

In such a case, unique materials make up the body of the unit. Ultimately, this is the reason that they end up having a distinct capacitor polarity. Notable examples of such polar capacitors are tantalum electrolytic capacitors, electrolyte, and aluminum capacitors. Non-polar capacitors are often small in size since the large ones are tough to fabricate. 

On the one hand, polar capacitors can only work in a circuit where the voltage acts in one direction, i.e., DC voltage. Non-polar capacitors, however, can work even with AC voltage, where voltage works for both sides.

For this reason, non-polar capacitors have a better edge due to their ability to work with AC voltages. Since capacitor polarity isn't an issue, the non-polar capacitors can replace polar capacitors in a circuit. The only rule here is to make sure that working voltage and capacity values are the same.


Non-Polarized Capacitors

(Non-Polarized Capacitors)


3.1 Types of Non-Polarized Capacitors


Here are the most common examples of non-polarized capacitors:

  • Polyester capacitors
  • Glass capacitors
  • Film capacitors
  • Polystyrene capacitors
  • Mica silver capacitors
  • ceramic capacitors


3.2 Comparing the Non-Polarized Capacitors and Polarized Capacitors


The idea behind the working of both nonpolar and polar capacitors is the same. Generally, they all work to store and release electric energy. Consequently, the voltage levels can't change suddenly. 

When comparing elements with capacitor polarity and those that don't, apparent differences stand out. Below are some of the differences between nonpolar and polar capacitors. 

  • The Dielectric Material

Polar capacitors have electrolytes as the primary dielectric, which helps achieve a high capacitance. The dielectric in the structure is what mainly dictates the amount of capacitance possible. 

It also sets the level of voltage that the capacitor can withstand. On the other hand, those without polarity use a metal oxide layer as the dielectric substance. Polyester is another compound that can work as a dielectric. 

  • Capacitor Performance

The performance of any electrical component is what finally shows the accuracy of your circuit. You may find that some power supply units need a metal oxide dielectric capacitor as a filter. In such a case, your best option would be a polar capacitor, often above 1 MF. 

Its performance is what makes it ideal for filtering, coupling, and decoupling. In comparison, a non-polar capacitor is usually below 1 MF. Its performance makes it a perfect choice for frequency selection, resonance, and as a current limiter. Thus, by lacking capacitor polarity, this unit has a limit when it comes to other circuit functions. 

  • Capacitance

Since nonpolar and polar capacitors use different dielectric structures; their capacities can’t be the same. It doesn't matter if they have equal volumes. Therefore, an opposing unit can be of a higher capacitance than a nonpolar one. 

  • Structural Appearance

Capacitor polarity will often determine the shape of a capacitor. The main factor here is the element's point discharge. For electrolyte polar capacitors, you will find that most of them take a circular shape. Finding squared ones is quite rare. Depending on how you intend to use it in a circuit, a capacitor can either be rectangular, tubular, sheet, or circular. 

  • Capacitor Usage

As mentioned before, polar capacitors can have high capacitance and other elements that render them inadequate for high-frequency operations. Although some can handle high frequencies, such as tantalum capacitors, they can, in turn, be quite pricey.

On the other hand, non-polar capacitors have good high-frequency characteristics and are much smaller. They are relatively cheap but aren't ideal for large capacity tasks. 


A capacitor set up in a hybrid low-pass-high-pass filter

(A capacitor set up in a hybrid low-pass-high-pass filter)


4.Polarity of the Electrolytic Capacitor


  • Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitors-These types of electrolyte capacitors have an aluminum structure acting as a valve. After applying a positive voltage through the electrolyte fluid, a metal oxide layer forms. This oxide layer is now an insulator that takes the place of a dielectric.

Polarization occurs on the oxide layer preventing the flow of electric charge. Aluminum electrolytic capacitors have manganese dioxide as the cathode, with aluminum making up the anode.


An aluminum electrolytic capacitor

(An aluminum electrolytic capacitor )


  • Niobium and Tantalum Capacitors-Tantalum electrolytic capacitors are ideal for surface-mount gadgets more common in medical, military, and space applications. By having tantalum as the anode, oxidation is relatively easy, similar to aluminum electrolytic capacitors. Tantalum has high conductivity, mostly when in contact with a wire. As soon as the oxide forms on the surface, there is more room for charge storage. 

Niobium capacitors work by oxidizing the material in a wire to create an insulator. The insulator acts as the dielectric with a much higher permittivity compared to tantalum-based capacitors. They are now quite popular since they are less costly than their tantalum counterparts.


4.1 The Advantages of Electrolytic Capacitors


  • Electrolyte capacitors rely on the formation of an oxide layer about capacitor polarity. The oxide is a much more reliable dielectric with stimulating effects. For this reason, these units can achieve high levels of capacitance than the other capacitors. Here are some of the other benefits.
  • Size-Tantalum capacitors are the most popular capacitors. The other types are prone to gaseous breakdown. The capacitance that is possible is higher in comparison to non-electrolyte units. The non-electrolyte capacitors would have to be larger to achieve the same capacity.
  • Greater Capacitance-When it comes to volume, electrolyte capacitors can achieve high capacitance for small work. As such, there are very few non-electrolyte capacitors with over ten MFD of capacity.


4.2 What are the Disadvantages? 


When it comes to electrolyte capacitors, there is always the risk of current leaking. The leakage can, at times, be relatively high. They also have a much shorter life-span.  


4.3 The Application of Electrolytic Capacitors 


Since capacitor polarity is a crucial factor in electrolyte capacitors, using them demands a great deal of care. Incorrect placement means that you will not obtain precise results and could trigger an explosion of the unit. They are also quite sensitive to temperature, which is why you need to factor in the thermal conditions. e

These capacitors are ideal for reducing voltage ripples from a power source for their filtering properties. They are also mostly preferred in tasks requiring large capacitance, such as filtering high-frequency signals. 


5. What Happens after Reversing the Polarity of a Capacitor?


The capacitor polarity shows that a polar capacitor needs to be forward-biased. The anode terminal needs to be at a high voltage level for the charge to flow as expected. You could first examine the unit to see the different polarities before connection. 

If you happen to connect the unit wrong through reverse polarity, the dielectric will break. The result is a short circuit, making the capacitor overheat, and eventually, the electrolyte fluid leaks.  


The Circuit Symbol for a nonpolarized capacitor

(The Circuit Symbol for a nonpolarized capacitor)




In any case, you must know how to show capacitor polarity before placing the unit on a PCB. This approach is the difference between poor results and a functional, solid circuit design.

That’s why capacitor polarity plays a massive role in the production, assembly, and design of a PCB. Here at OurPCB, we are always happy for the chance to interact with you as we gain more knowledge about PCBs.