Warning: The voltages involved with most electrolytic capacitors used in valve based
equipment are lethal. If in doubt seek expert help. The old adage -
The electrolytic capacitor is a critical part of both old and modern electronic equipment and it must be used correctly in order to get the longest and safest operational life and is particularly important with high voltage versions of these components. Electrolytic capacitors rely on a chemical process to provide the insulator between the two metal plates and this process can degrade over a period of years if the capacitor has not had power applied. The result is that the working voltage of any electrolytic capacitors in equipment gradually falls. If full power is applied to long unused equipment then the electrolytic capacitors can pass excessive amounts of current that could cause a catastrophic failure to the entire equipment and a potential fire hazard to surrounding property.
The correct course of action is to ensure that each electrolytic capacitor’s insulation is ‘reformed’ by the application of a current limited voltage to each individual capacitor. Current limiting ensures that the heat generated within the capacitor is kept at a sufficiently low level that damage does not occur. My preferred method is to carefully disconnect each electrolytic capacitor and apply a voltage, equal to the working voltage of the respective capacitor, via a suitable current limiting resistor to that capacitor.
For example, for a 450V working capacitor, I apply 450V DC, observing the correct
polarity, via a 470K 2W resistor to the capacitor and measure the voltage drop across
the resistor with a volt meter -
The circuit assumes that the negative line of the power supply is connected to ground but this is not mandatory. Should the positive line be grounded instead then move the 470K resistor to the positive side of the capacitor.
Over a period of time, which can be up to 24 or more hours for older components,
the voltage across the resistor will fall and eventually stabilise at some much lower
value. My rule of thumb is that if the voltage drop across the resistor after 24
hours is significantly more than 22V (indicating a leakage current in excess of 50
microamps) than I repeat the reforming process. If no improvement is obtained then
I replace the capacitor with a new one. You may also find that very old capacitors
have dried out and cannot be reformed in which case they must be replaced. A similar
process may be required for new electrolytic capacitors that were manufactured two
or more years ago -
Once the reforming process is complete then the capacitor may be fully discharged with a resistor (not a short circuit), disconnected from the reforming supply and reconnected to its original circuit. As soon as any further inspections or tests on the equipment are completed then it may be powered up.
NB Another well known problem with older equipment is that solid carbon resistors
will gradually show an increase in their resistance and it is not unusual to see
increases from 50% to 500% after periods in excess of twenty years. All resistors
outside of their original tolerance should be replaced -