Varistor Tutorial

Varistor Introduction

The varistor is a passive two-terminal solid state semiconductor device that is used to provide protection to electrical and electronic circuits. Unlike the fuse or circuit breaker which offers over-current protection, the varistor provides over-voltage protection by means of voltage-clamping in a similar way to the zener diode.

The word “Varistor” is an acronym, and is a combination of the words VARI-able resi-STOR used to describe their mode of operation way back in their early days of development which is a bit misleading since a varistor can not be manually varied like a potentiometer or rheostat.

metal oxide varistorA Varistor

But unlike a variable resistor whose resistance value can be manually varied between its minimum and maximum values, the varistor changes its resistance value automatically with the change in voltage across it making it a voltage-dependant, nonlinear resistor or VDR for short.

Nowadays the resistive body of a varistor is made from semiconductor material making it a type of semiconductor resistor with a non-ohmic symmetrical voltage and current characteristics suitable for both AC and DC voltage applications.

In many ways the varistor looks similar in size and design to a capacitor and is often confused as being one. However, a capacitor cannot suppress voltage surges in the same way a varistor can. When a high voltage surge is applied to a circuit, the outcome is usually catastrophic to the circuit, therefore the varistor plays an important role in the protection of delicate electronic circuits from switching spikes and over voltage transients.

Transient surges originate from a variety of electrical circuits and sources regardless of whether they operate from an AC or DC supply as they are often generated within the circuit itself or transmitted into the circuit from external sources. Transients within a circuit can rise rapidly increasing the voltage to several thousand volts, and it is these voltage spikes which must be prevented from appearing across delicate electronic circuits and components.

One of the most common sources of voltage transients is the L(di/dt) effect caused by the switching of inductive coils and transformer magnetizing currents, DC motor switching applications and surges from the switching-on of fluorescent lighting circuits or other supply surges.

Related Products: Circuit Protection Misc | Transient Blocking Units | Varistor | TVS | Surge Suppressors


AC Waveform Transients

voltage spikes and transients

Varistors are connected in circuits across a mains supply either phase-to-neutral, phase-to-phase for AC operation, or positive-to-negative for DC operation and have a voltage rating to suit their application. A varistor can also be used for DC voltage stabilization and especially for electronic circuit protection against over voltage pulses.

Varistor Static Resistance

varistor static resistance

Under normal operation the varistor has a very high resistance, hence part of its name, operating in a similar way to the zener diode by allowing lower threshold voltages to pass unaffected.

However, when the voltage across the varistor (either polarity) exceeds the varistors rated value, its effective resistance decreases strongly with an increasing voltage as shown.

We know from Ohms Law that the current-voltage (I-V) characteristics of a fixed resistor is a straight line provided that R is kept constant. Then the current is directly proportional to the potential difference across the ends of the resistor.

But the I-V curves of a varistor is not a straight line as a small change of voltage causes a significant change of current. A typical normalised voltage versus current characteristics curve for a standard varistor is given below.

Varistor Characteristics Curve

varistor characteristics curve

We can see from above, that the varistor has symmetrical bi-directional characteristics, that is the varistor operates in both directions (quadrant Ι and ΙΙΙ) of a sinusoidal waveform behaving in a similar way to two zener diodes connected back-to-back. When not conducting, the I-V curve shows a linear relationship as the current flowing through the varistor remains constant and low at only a few micro-amperes of “leakage” current. This is due to its high resistance acting as an open circuit and remains constant until the voltage across the varistor (either polarity) reaches a particular “rated voltage”.

This rated or clamping voltage is the voltage across the varistor measured with the specified DC current of 1mA. That is, the DC voltage level applied across its terminals that allows a current of 1mA to flow through the varistors resistive body which itself is dependant upon the materials used in its construction. At this voltage level, the varistor begins to change from its insulating state into its conducting state.

When the transient voltage across the varistor is equal to or greater than the rated value, the resistance of the device suddenly becomes very small turning the varistor into a conductor due to the avalanche effect of its semiconductor material. The small leakage current flowing through the varistor rapidly rises but the voltage across it is limited to a level just above the varistor voltage. In other words, the varistor self-regulates the transient voltage across it by allowing more current to flow through it and because of its steep nonlinear I-V curve it can pass widely varying currents over a narrow voltage range clipping-off any voltage spikes.

Varistor Capacitance

Since the main conducting region of a varistor between its two terminals behaves like a dielectric, below its clamping voltage the varistor acts like a capacitor rather than resistor. Every semiconductor varistor has a capacitance value that depends directly on its area and varies inversely with its thickness.

When used in DC circuits, the capacitance of the varistor remains more or less constant provided that the applied voltage does not increase above the clamping voltage level, and drops off abruptly near towards its maximum rated continuous DC voltage.

However, in AC circuits, this capacitance can affect the body resistance of the device in the non-conducting leakage region of its I-V characteristics. As they are normally connected in parallel with an electric device to protect it against over voltages, the varistors leakage resistance drops rapidly with an increase in frequency.

This relationship is approximately linear with the frequency and the resulting parallel resistance, its AC reactance, Xc can be calculated using the usual 1/2piƒC as for a normal capacitor. Then as the frequency increases so to does its leakage current.

But as well as the silicon semiconductor based varistor, metal oxide varistors have been developed to overcome some of the limitations associated with their silicon carbide cousins.

Metal Oxide Varistor

The Metal Oxide Varistor or MOV for short, is a voltage dependant resistor in which the resistance material is a metallic oxide, primarily zinc oxide (ZnO) pressed into a ceramic like material. Metal oxide varistors consist of approximately 90% zinc oxide as a ceramic base material plus other filler materials for the formation of junctions between the zinc oxide grains.

Metal oxide varistors are now the most common type of voltage clamping device and are available for use at a wide range of voltages and currents. The use of a metallic oxide within their construction means that MOV’s are extremely effective in absorbing short term voltage transients and have higher energy handling capabilities.

As with the normal varistor, the metal oxide varistor starts conduction at a specific voltage and stops conduction when the voltage falls below a threshold voltage. The main differences between a standard silicon carbide (SiC) varistor and a MOV type varistor is that the leakage current through the MOV’s zinc oxide material is very small current at normal operating conditions and its speed of operation in clamping transients is much faster.

MOV’s generally have radial leads and a hard outer blue or black epoxy coating which closely resembles disc ceramic capacitors and can be physically mounted on circuit boards and PCB’s in a similar manner. The construction of a typical metal oxide varistor is given as:

Metal Oxide Varistor Construction

metal oxide varistor construction

To select the correct MOV for a particular application, it is desirable to have some knowledge of the source impedance and the possible pulse power of the transients. For incoming line or phase borne transients, the selection of the correct MOV is a little more difficult as generally the characteristics of the power supply are unknown. In general, MOV selection for the electrical protection of circuits from power supply transients and spikes is often little more than an educated guess.

However, metal oxide varistors are available in a wide range of varistor voltages, from about 10 volts to over 1,000 volts AC or DC, so selection can be helped by knowing the supply voltage. For example, selecting a MOV or silicon varistor for that matter, for voltage, its maximum continuous rms voltage rating should be just above the highest expected supply voltage, say 130 volts rms for a 120 volt supply, and 260 volts rms for a 230 volt supply.

The maximum surge current value that a varistor will take depends on the transient pulse width and the number of pulse repetitions. Assumptions can be made upon the the width of a transient pulse which are typically 20 to 50 microseconds (uS) long. If the peak pulse current rating is insufficient, then the varistor may overheat and become damaged. So for a varistor to operate without any failure or degradation, it must be able to quickly dissipate the absorbed energy of the transient pulse and return safely to its pre-pulse condition.

Varistor Applications

Varistors have many advantages and can be used in many different types of applications for the suppression of mains borne transients from domestic appliances and lighting to industrial equipment on both AC or DC power lines. Varistors can be connected directly across mains supplies and across semiconductor switches for protection of transistors, MOSFET’s and thyristor bridges.

Varistor Applications

varistor applications

Varistor Summary

In this tutorial we have seen that the basic function of a Voltage Dependant Resistor, or VDR, is to protect electronic devices and electrical circuits against voltage surges and spikes, such as those generated by inductive switching transients.

As such varistors are used in sensitive electronic circuits to ensure that if the voltage does suddenly exceeds a predetermined value, the varistor will effectively become a short circuit to protect the circuit that it shunts from excessive voltage as they are able to withstand peak currents of hundreds of amperes.

Varistors are a type of resistor with a non-linear, non-ohmic current voltage characteristic and are a reliable and economical means of providing protection against over voltage transients and surges.

They achieve this by acting as a high resistance blocking device at lower voltages and as a good low resistance conducting device at higher voltages. The effectiveness of a varistor in protecting an electrical or electronic circuit depends on the proper selection of the varistor with regards to voltage, current and energy dissipation.

Metal Oxide Varistors, or MOV’s are typically made from a small disk-shaped metal zinc oxide material. They are available in many values for specific voltage ranges. An MOV’s voltage rating, called the “varistor voltage” is the voltage across a varistor when a current of 1mA is passed through the device. This varistor voltage level is essentially the point on the I-V characteristic curve when the device starts to conduct. Metal oxide varistors can also be connected in series to increase the clamping voltage rating.

While metal oxide varistors are widely used in many AC power electronics circuits to protect against transient over voltages, there are also other types of solid state voltage suppression devices such as diodes, zener diodes and suppressors which all can be used in some AC or DC voltage suppression applications along with Varistors.


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  • Amos

    “Varistor” is not an acronym. It is a portmanteau ( )
    On the subject of grammar and varistors: is “MOV” an acronym (pronounced “mauve” or “mahv”, perhaps) or is it an initialism (pronounced “emmovee”)? In other words, would it be “a MOV” or “an MOV”?

  • P
    Poul Borge Pedersen

    to Chris: If you know the inductance of your coils and their working current selecting a varistor is easy. For an inductance L the energy you should absorb is:
    W = I^2 * L.
    assuming sinevawe current and rms value.

  • c

    Hi. I have used MOVs on ac coils ( hyd sol coils etc) but how do I size them with out going too big? Voltage is 120vac so a 130 or 140 should be fine. what about the current generated when the field collapses thanks

    • Wayne Storr

      As explained previously, MOV’s have two electrical ratings, Clamping Voltage and Energy Dissipation as a result of a transient. The energy dissipation of an MOV can range from less than one to many thousands of joules depending on their size and voltage rating. As a Joule is defined as watts per second, that is, power in watts is equal to volts times amperes, the selection is made by how many amperes will flow through the MOV during suppression and for how long. Having said that, a typical mains borne transient is usually less than 50 micro-seconds in time so anything less than a 100 Joule MOV would suffice, but it depends on your particular application.

  • G

    Thanks Wayne for your valued reply. The 120VAC and 240VAC circuits I’m referring to are two HF RF amplifiers that I want to install these MOV in after the fused. I will also change the fuses from fast blow to Slo Blow. FYI I just found your electronics-tutorials.we Website today and I want to thank you for the wealth of very valuable information you openly share with the public. I’m an active radio amateur doing radio repairs on my equipment and fellow hams. I sincerely appreciate your time and effort and I’ll frequent your Website. How can I help you?

  • P

    Hii sir,

    I am working on non-isolated led bulb circuit , and my MOV selection is right.
    But still my circuit fail in surge.

    My requirement is to clear 2.5kv surge.
    At input, I am using fuse(FWR) ,MOV, capacitor,Bridge.
    Can u guide me in selecting fuse(FWR)?

    • s

      can you confirm the input fuse value in ampere and move specs, which brand mov you are you using , i am also using no problem working fine .

    • Wayne Storr

      The MOV is a resistive device that changes its resistance value with a change of voltage (spike). Under normal steady state conditions, the MOV will have a high resistance and low current. When exposed to a high voltage spike, the resistance of the MOV will reduce to clamp the voltage resulting in an increase in current blowing the fuse. As this happens very quickly try a slow-blow fuse or semiconductor rated fuse, as these can withstand a brief period of current overload before it blows.

  • T

    I’ve used MOV’s to alleviate issues when performing 61000-4-5 testing. However, please refer to the datasheet for the capacitance of the device you chose. I found that the MOV’s I used are 450pf each, and with any added capacitance to the AC line, you risk failing leakage current testing. Also, the added capacitance actually made my Line emission testing WORST.

  • s

    For all my 230V power sources, outlets and appliances I use these MOVs with great experience:

  • N

    I have a Bestec ATX0300D5WC the varistor located at VR4 between tw o big capcitor exploded.I dont know whetherbto use a 100v , 260v or 300v varistor.The higher voltage the better isn’t it?

    • Wayne Storr

      Varistors are energy absorbing devices (measured in Joules) that change their resistance value with a change of voltage and as such are very good at absorbing short-term transients. Their voltage rating relates to the continuous RMS (or equivalent DC) voltage they can withstand without clamping. If we assume a varistor has a continuous rating of 100V (either AC rms, AC peak, or DC) it may have a maximum clamping voltage or 2 or 3 times that up to 300V (100 x 3). So if you use one with a higher rating of 300V it may not clamp until 900V destroying your 100V circuit. Likewise, you can not use a 100V varistor on a 220V supply, its rating is too low and will eventually become destroyed. Then select one that has a continuous RMS or Peak vale rating just above that of your supply, RMS or Peak, as they can be easily destroyed by repetitive transients.

  • A
    Abhinand Ajayan

    Sir,pls reply me on how an MOV is connected in an extension box with 3 core wire?Also what type of MOV is needed for 220V 5A supply?

    • Wayne Storr

      Varistors can be connected and used line-to-line or line-to-ground. There are many suppliers of MOV’s for use on 220v lines. Decide your clamping voltage and maximum surge current capability.

      • G

        I would like to install MOV’s on a 120VAC and a 240VAC circuits. For the 120VAC circuit I plan on using a S20K150 MOV between line to line; and a S14K140 MOV on each line to chassis ground. On the 240VAC circuit I plan on using a S20K275 MOV between line to line; and a S14K250 MOV on each line to chassis ground. Both 120VAC and 240 VAC circuits are fused on each line and these proposed MOV installations will be placed after the fuse on each line. I did not see any typical installation of MOV’s so I would like to know what I’ve proposed is proper usage. Thanks.

        • Wayne Storr

          Sounds ok, when MOV’s supress voltage transients, the current increases (limited only by the applied voltage and source impedance) so use proper fusing on the protected lines. Slow-blow fuses are better as they allow time for transisents to be suppressed without blowing, but will blow if there is an actual fault.

  • A


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