Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

  • Interpret circuit diagrams with parallel resistors
  • Calculate equivalent resistance of resistor combinations containing series and parallel resistors
Section Key Terms
in parallel

Resistors in Parallel

Resistors in Parallel

In the previous section, we learned that resistors in series are resistors that are connected one after the other. If we instead combine resistors by connecting them next to each other, as shown in Figure 19.19, then the resistors are said to be connected in parallel. Resistors are in parallel when both ends of each resistor are connected directly together.

Note that the tops of the resistors are all connected to the same wire, so the voltage at the top of the each resistor is the same. Likewise, the bottoms of the resistors are all connected to the same wire, so the voltage at the bottom of each resistor is the same. This means that the voltage drop across each resistor is the same. In this case, the voltage drop is the voltage rating V of the battery, because the top and bottom wires connect to the positive and negative terminals of the battery, respectively.

Although the voltage drop across each resistor is the same, we cannot say the same for the current running through each resistor. Thus, I1,I2,andI3I1,I2,andI3 are not necessarily the same, because the resistors R1,R2,andR3R1,R2,andR3 do not necessarily have the same resistance.

Note that the three resistors in Figure 19.19 provide three different paths through which the current can flow. This means that the equivalent resistance for these three resistors must be less than the smallest of the three resistors. To understand this, imagine that the smallest resistor is the only path through which the current can flow. Now add on the alternate paths by connecting other resistors in parallel. Because the current has more paths to go through, the overall resistance (i.e., the equivalent resistance) will decrease. Therefore, the equivalent resistance must be less than the smallest resistance of the parallel resistors.

On the left is a circuit diagram with three resistors connected in parallel. On the right is a circuit diagram with only one resistor that has equivalent resistance to the three resistors shown on the left.
Figure 19.19 The left circuit diagram shows three resistors in parallel. The voltage V of the battery is applied across all three resistors. The currents that flow through each branch are not necessarily equal. The right circuit diagram shows an equivalent resistance that replaces the three parallel resistors.

To find the equivalent resistance RequivRequiv of the three resistors R1,R2,andR3R1,R2,andR3, we apply Ohm’s law to each resistor. Because the voltage drop across each resistor is V, we obtain

19.21V=I1R1,V=I2R2,V=I3R3V=I1R1,V=I2R2,V=I3R3

or

19.22I1=VR1,I2=VR2,I3=VR3.I1=VR1,I2=VR2,I3=VR3.

We also know from conservation of charge that the three currents I1,I2,andI3I1,I2,andI3 must add up to give the current I that goes through the battery. If this were not true, current would have to be mysteriously created or destroyed somewhere in the circuit, which is physically impossible. Thus, we have

19.23I=I1+I2+I3.I=I1+I2+I3.

Inserting the expressions for I1,I2,andI3I1,I2,andI3 into this equation gives

19.24I=VR1+VR2+VR3=V(1R1+1R2+1R3)I=VR1+VR2+VR3=V(1R1+1R2+1R3)

or

19.25V=I(11/R1+1/R2+1/R3).V=I(11/R1+1/R2+1/R3).

This formula is just Ohm’s law, with the factor in parentheses being the equivalent resistance.

19.26V=I(11/R1+1/R2+1/R3)=IRequiv.V=I(11/R1+1/R2+1/R3)=IRequiv.

Thus, the equivalent resistance for three resistors in parallel is

19.27Requiv=11/R1+1/R2+1/R3.Requiv=11/R1+1/R2+1/R3.

The same logic works for any number of resistors in parallel, so the general form of the equation that gives the equivalent resistance of N resistors connected in parallel is

19.28 Requiv=11/R1+1/R2++1/RN.Requiv=11/R1+1/R2++1/RN.

Worked Example

Find the Current through Parallel Resistors

The three circuits below are equivalent. If the voltage rating of the battery is Vbattery=3VVbattery=3V, what is the equivalent resistance of the circuit and what current runs through the circuit?

Three equivalent circuit diagrams are shown, each with three resistors connected in parallel.

STRATEGY

The three resistors are connected in parallel and the voltage drop across them is Vbattery. Thus, we can apply the equation for the equivalent resistance of resistors in parallel, which takes the form

19.29Requiv=11/R1+1/R2+1/R3.Requiv=11/R1+1/R2+1/R3.

The circuit with the equivalent resistance is shown below. Once we know the equivalent resistance, we can use Ohm’s law to find the current in the circuit.

A circuit diagram showing only one resistor that is equivalent to the three resistors shown in each of the three diagrams shown above.
Solution

Inserting the given values for the resistance into the equation for equivalent resistance gives

19.30Requiv=11/R1+1/R2+1/R3=11/10Ω+1/25Ω+1/15Ω=4.84Ω.Requiv=11/R1+1/R2+1/R3=11/10Ω+1/25Ω+1/15Ω=4.84Ω.

The current through the circuit is thus

19.31V=IRI=VR=3V4.84Ω=0.62A.V=IRI=VR=3V4.84Ω=0.62A.
Discussion

Although 0.62 A flows through the entire circuit, note that this current does not flow through each resistor. However, because electric charge must be conserved in a circuit, the sum of the currents going through each branch of the circuit must add up to the current going through the battery. In other words, we cannot magically create charge somewhere in the circuit and add this new charge to the current. Let’s check this reasoning by using Ohm’s law to find the current through each resistor.

19.32I1=VR1=3V10Ω=0.30AI2=VR2=3V25Ω=0.12AI3=VR3=3V15Ω=0.20AI1=VR1=3V10Ω=0.30AI2=VR2=3V25Ω=0.12AI3=VR3=3V15Ω=0.20A

As expected, these currents add up to give 0.62 A, which is the total current found going through the equivalent resistor. Also, note that the smallest resistor has the largest current flowing through it, and vice versa.

Worked Example

Reasoning with Parallel Resistors

Without doing any calculation, what is the equivalent resistance of three identical resistors R in parallel?

STRATEGY

Three identical resistors R in parallel make three identical paths through which the current can flow. Thus, it is three times easier for the current to flow through these resistors than to flow through a single one of them.

Solution

If it is three times easier to flow through three identical resistors R than to flow through a single one of them, the equivalent resistance must be three times less: R/3.

Discussion

Let’s check our reasoning by calculating the equivalent resistance of three identical resistors R in parallel. The equation for the equivalent resistance of resistors in parallel gives

19.33Requiv=11/R+1/R+1/R=13/R=R3.Requiv=11/R+1/R+1/R=13/R=R3.

Thus, our reasoning was correct. In general, when more paths are available through which the current can flow, the equivalent resistance decreases. For example, if we have identical resistors R in parallel, the equivalent resistance would be R/10.

Practice Problems

Practice Problems

Three resistors, 10, 20, and 30 Ω, are connected in parallel. What is the equivalent resistance?

  1. The equivalent resistance is 5.5 Ω
  2. The equivalent resistance is 60 Ω
  3. The equivalent resistance is 6 × 103 Ω
  4. The equivalent resistance is 6 × 104 Ω
If a 5-V drop occurs across R1, and R1 is connected in parallel to R2, what is the voltage drop across R2?
  1. Voltage drop across is 0V.
  2. Voltage drop across is 2.5V.
  3. Voltage drop across is 5V.
  4. Voltage drop across is 10V.

Resistors in Parallel and in Series

Resistors in Parallel and in Series

More complex connections of resistors are sometimes just combinations of series and parallel. Combinations of series and parallel resistors can be reduced to a single equivalent resistance by using the technique illustrated in Figure 19.20. Various parts are identified as either series or parallel, reduced to their equivalents, and further reduced until a single resistance is left. The process is more time consuming than difficult.

Four steps are shown to simplify a complex circuit diagram of seven resistors to one with only a single equivalent resistor. Initially, two groups of parallel resistors, circled by the blue dashed loop, are combined; then, two resistors in series, circled by the red dashed loop, are combined, which is then combined with a resistor in parallel, circled by the green dashed loop; finally, two resistors in series are combined, circled by the purple dashed loop, yielding the final diagram.
Figure 19.20 This combination of seven resistors has both series and parallel parts. Each is identified and reduced to an equivalent resistance, and these are further reduced until a single equivalent resistance is reached.

Let’s work through the four steps in Figure 19.20 to reduce the seven resistors to a single equivalent resistor. To avoid distracting algebra, we’ll assume each resistor is 10 ΩΩ. In step 1, we reduce the two sets of parallel resistors circled by the blue dashed loop. The upper set has three resistors in parallel and will be reduced to a single equivalent resistor RP1RP1. The lower set has two resistors in parallel and will be reduced to a single equivalent resistor RP2RP2. Using the equation for the equivalent resistance of resistors in parallel, we obtain

19.34RP1=11/R2+1/R3+1/R4=11/10Ω+1/10Ω+1/10Ω=103ΩRP2=11/R5+1/R6=11/10Ω+1/10Ω=5Ω.RP1=11/R2+1/R3+1/R4=11/10Ω+1/10Ω+1/10Ω=103ΩRP2=11/R5+1/R6=11/10Ω+1/10Ω=5Ω.

These two equivalent resistances are encircled by the red dashed loop following step 1. They are in series, so we can use the equation for the equivalent resistance of resistors in series to reduce them to a single equivalent resistance RS1RS1. This is done in step 2, with the result being

19.35RS1=RP1+RP2=103Ω+5Ω=253Ω.RS1=RP1+RP2=103Ω+5Ω=253Ω.

The equivalent resistor RS1RS1 appears in the green dashed loop following step 2. This resistor is in parallel with resistor R7R7, so the pair can be replaced by the equivalent resistor RP3RP3, which is given by

19.36RP3=11/RS1+1/R7=13/25Ω+1/10Ω=5011Ω.RP3=11/RS1+1/R7=13/25Ω+1/10Ω=5011Ω.

This is done in step 3. The resistor RP3RP3 is in series with the resistor R1R1, as shown in the purple dashed loop following step 3. These two resistors are combined in the final step to form the final equivalent resistor RequivRequiv, which is

19.37Requiv=R1+RP3=10Ω+5011Ω=16011Ω.Requiv=R1+RP3=10Ω+5011Ω=16011Ω.

Thus, the entire combination of seven resistors may be replaced by a single resistor with a resistance of about 14.5 ΩΩ.

That was a lot of work, and you might be asking why we do it. It’s important for us to know the equivalent resistance of the entire circuit so that we can calculate the current flowing through the circuit. Ohm’s law tells us that the current flowing through a circuit depends on the resistance of the circuit and the voltage across the circuit. But to know the current, we must first know the equivalent resistance.

Here is a general approach to find the equivalent resistor for any arbitrary combination of resistors:

  1. Identify a group of resistors that are only in parallel or only in series.
  2. For resistors in series, use the equation for the equivalent resistance of resistors in series to reduce them to a single equivalent resistance. For resistors in parallel, use the equation for the equivalent resistance of resistors in parallel to reduce them to a single equivalent resistance.
  3. Draw a new circuit diagram with the resistors from step 1 replaced by their equivalent resistor.
  4. If more than one resistor remains in the circuit, return to step 1 and repeat. Otherwise, you are finished.

Fun In Physics

Robot

Robots have captured our collective imagination for over a century. Now, this dream of creating clever machines to do our dirty work, or sometimes just to keep us company, is becoming a reality. Robotics has become a huge field of research and development, with some technology already being commercialized. Think of the small autonomous vacuum cleaners, for example.

Figure 19.21 shows just a few of the multitude of different forms robots can take. The most advanced humanoid robots can walk, pour drinks, even dance (albeit not very gracefully). Other robots are bio-inspired, such as the dogbot shown in the middle photograph of Figure 19.21. This robot can carry hundreds of pounds of load over rough terrain. The photograph on the right in Figure 19.21 shows the inner workings of an M-block, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These simple-looking blocks contain inertial wheels and electromagnets that allow them to spin and flip into the air and snap together in a variety of shapes. By communicating wirelessly between themselves, they self-assemble into a variety of shapes, such as desks, chairs, and someday maybe even buildings.

All robots involve an immense amount of physics and engineering. The simple act of pouring a drink has only recently been mastered by robots, after over 30 years of research and development! The balance and timing that we humans take for granted is in fact a very tricky act to follow, requiring excellent balance, dexterity, and feedback. To master this requires sensors to detect balance, computing power to analyze the data and communicate the appropriate compensating actions, and joints and actuators to implement the required actions.

In addition to sensing gravity or acceleration, robots can contain multiple different sensors to detect light, sound, temperature, smell, taste, etc. These devices are all based on the physical principles that you are studying in this text. For example, the optics used for robotic vision are similar to those used in your digital cameras: pixelated semiconducting detectors in which light is converted into electrical signals. To detect temperature, simple thermistors may be used, which are resistors whose resistance changes depending on temperature.

Building a robot today is much less arduous than it was a few years ago. Numerous companies now offer kits for building robots. These range in complexity something suitable for elementary school children to something that would challenge the best professional engineers. If interested, you may find these easily on the Internet and start making your own robot today.

A “dogbot” in the general shape of a dog is shown
Figure 19.21 Robots come in many shapes and sizes, from the classic humanoid type to dogbots to small cubes that self-assemble to perform a variety of tasks.

Watch Physics

Resistors in Parallel

This video shows a lecturer discussing a simple circuit with a battery and a pair of resistors in parallel. He emphasizes that electrons flow in the direction opposite to that of the positive current and also makes use of the fact that the voltage is the same at all points on an ideal wire. The derivation is quite similar to what is done in this text, but the lecturer goes through it well, explaining each step.

Grasp Check

True or false—In a circuit diagram, we can assume that the voltage is the same at every point in a given wire.

  1. false
  2. true

Watch Physics

Resistors in Series and in Parallel

This video shows how to calculate the equivalent resistance of a circuit containing resistors in parallel and in series. The lecturer uses the same approach as outlined above for finding the equivalent resistance.

Grasp Check

Imagine connected N identical resistors in parallel. Each resistor has a resistance of R. What is the equivalent resistance for this group of parallel resistors?

  1. The equivalent resistance is (R)N.
  2. The equivalent resistance is NR.
  3. The equivalent resistance is RN.RN.
  4. The equivalent resistance is NR.NR.

Worked Example

Find the Current through a Complex Resistor Circuit

The battery in the circuit below has a voltage rating of 10 V. What current flows through the circuit and in what direction?

A circuit diagram showing six resistors, some in series and others parallel.

STRATEGY

Apply the strategy for finding equivalent resistance to replace all the resistors with a single equivalent resistance, then use Ohm’s law to find the current through the equivalent resistor.

Solution

The resistor combination R4R4 and R5R5 can be reduced to an equivalent resistance of

19.38RP1=11/R4+1/R5=11/45Ω+1/60Ω=25.71ΩR.RP1=11/R4+1/R5=11/45Ω+1/60Ω=25.71ΩR.

Replacing R4R4 and R5R5 with this equivalent resistance gives the circuit below.

The same circuit diagram from above but with the two parallel resistors combined.

We now replace the two upper resistors R2R2 and R3R3 by the equivalent resistor RS1RS1 and the two lower resistors RP1RP1 and R6R6 by their equivalent resistor RS2RS2. These resistors are in series, so we add them together to find the equivalent resistance.

19.39RS1=R2+R3=50Ω+30Ω=80ΩRS2=RP1+R6=25.71Ω+20Ω=45.71ΩRS1=R2+R3=50Ω+30Ω=80ΩRS2=RP1+R6=25.71Ω+20Ω=45.71Ω

Replacing the relevant resistors with their equivalent resistor gives the circuit below.

The same circuit diagram as above, but with two pairs of resistors in series combined.

Now replace the two resistors RS1 and RS2RS1 and RS2, which are in parallel, with their equivalent resistor RP2RP2. The resistance of RP2RP2 is

19.40RP2=11/RS1+1/RS2=11/80Ω+1/45.71Ω=29.09Ω.RP2=11/RS1+1/RS2=11/80Ω+1/45.71Ω=29.09Ω.

Updating the circuit diagram by replacing RS1 and RS2RS1 and RS2 with this equivalent resistance gives the circuit below.

The same circuit diagram shown above but with the two resistors in series combined.

Finally, we combine resistors R1 and RP2R1 and RP2, which are in series. The equivalent resistance is RS3=R1+RP2=75Ω+29.09Ω=104.09Ω.RS3=R1+RP2=75Ω+29.09Ω=104.09Ω. The final circuit is shown below.

The final circuit diagram showing the final two resistors combined.

We now use Ohm’s law to find the current through the circuit.

19.41V=IRS3I=VRS3=10V104.09Ω=0.096AV=IRS3I=VRS3=10V104.09Ω=0.096A

The current goes from the positive terminal of the battery to the negative terminal of the battery, so it flows clockwise in this circuit.

Discussion

This calculation may seem rather long, but with a little practice, you can combine some steps. Note also that extra significant digits were carried through the calculation. Only at the end was the final result rounded to two significant digits.

Worked Example

Strange-Looking Circuit Diagrams

Occasionally, you may encounter circuit diagrams that are not drawn very neatly, such as the diagram shown below. This circuit diagram looks more like how a real circuit might appear on the lab bench. What is the equivalent resistance for the resistors in this diagram, assuming each resistor is 10 ΩΩ and the voltage rating of the battery is 12 V.

A circuit diagram with curved lines between all components instead of straight lines.

STRATEGY

Let’s redraw this circuit diagram to make it clearer. Then we’ll apply the strategy outlined above to calculate the equivalent resistance.

Solution

To redraw the diagram, consider the figure below. In the upper circuit, the blue resistors constitute a path from the positive terminal of the battery to the negative terminal. In parallel with this circuit are the red resistors, which constitute another path from the positive to negative terminal of the battery. The blue and red paths are shown more cleanly drawn in the lower circuit diagram. Note that, in both the upper and lower circuit diagrams, the blue and red paths connect the positive terminal of the battery to the negative terminal of the battery.

The circuit diagram above redrawn with straight lines. In the upper circuit, the blue resistors constitute a path from the positive terminal of the battery to the negative terminal. In parallel with this circuit are the red resistors, which constitute another path from the positive to negative terminal of the battery.

Now it is easier to see that R1 and R2R1 and R2 are in parallel, and the parallel combination is in series with R4R4. This combination in turn is in parallel with the series combination of R3 and R5R3 and R5. First, we calculate the blue branch, which contains R1,R2, and R4R1,R2, and R4. The equivalent resistance is

19.42Rblue=11/R1+1/R2+R4=11/10Ω+1/10Ω+10Ω=15Ω.Rblue=11/R1+1/R2+R4=11/10Ω+1/10Ω+10Ω=15Ω.

where we show the contribution from the parallel combination of resistors and from the series combination of resistors. We now calculate the equivalent resistance of the red branch, which is

19.43Rred=R3+R5=10Ω+10Ω=20Ω.Rred=R3+R5=10Ω+10Ω=20Ω.

Inserting these equivalent resistors into the circuit gives the circuit below.

The same circuit diagram but with the red resistors combined and the blue resistors combined.

These two resistors are in parallel, so they can be replaced by a single equivalent resistor with a resistance of

19.44Requiv=11/Rblue+1/Rred=11/15Ω+1/20Ω=8.6Ω.Requiv=11/Rblue+1/Rred=11/15Ω+1/20Ω=8.6Ω.

The final equivalent circuit is show below.

The simplified circuit diagram with one resistor equivalent to the original five resistors.
Discussion

Finding the equivalent resistance was easier with a clear circuit diagram. This is why we try to make clear circuit diagrams, where the resistors in parallel are lined up parallel to each other and at the same horizontal position on the diagram.

We can now use Ohm’s law to find the current going through each branch to this circuit. Consider the circuit diagram with RblueRblue and RredRred. The voltage across each of these branches is 12 V (i.e., the voltage rating of the battery). The current in the blue branch is

19.45Iblue=VRblue=12V15Ω=0.80A.Iblue=VRblue=12V15Ω=0.80A.

The current across the red branch is

19.46Ired=VRred=12V20Ω=0.60A.Ired=VRred=12V20Ω=0.60A.

The current going through the battery must be the sum of these two currents (can you see why?), or 1.4 A.

Practice Problems

Practice Problems

What is the formula for the equivalent resistance of two parallel resistors with resistance R1 and R2?

  1. Equivalent resistance of two parallel resistors Reqv=R1+R2Reqv=R1+R2
  2. Equivalent resistance of two parallel resistors Reqv=R1×R2Reqv=R1×R2
  3. Equivalent resistance of two parallel resistors Reqv=R1-R2Reqv=R1-R2
  4. Equivalent resistance of two parallel resistors Reqv=11/R1+1/R2Reqv=11/R1+1/R2
This shows a vertical parallel circuit. In the middle of either side there are resistors. The left resistor is labeled R1 = 35Ω. The right resistor is labeled R1 = 55Ω
Figure 19.22

What is the equivalent resistance for the two resistors shown below?

  1. The equivalent resistance is 20 Ω
  2. The equivalent resistance is 21 Ω
  3. The equivalent resistance is 90 Ω
  4. The equivalent resistance is 1,925 Ω

Check Your Understanding

Check Your Understanding

Exercise 6

The voltage drop across parallel resistors is ________.

  1. the same for all resistors
  2. greater for the larger resistors
  3. less for the larger resistors
  4. greater for the smaller resistors
Exercise 7

Consider a circuit of parallel resistors. The smallest resistor is 25 Ω . What is the upper limit of the equivalent resistance?

  1. The upper limit of the equivalent resistance is 2.5 Ω.
  2. The upper limit of the equivalent resistance is 25 Ω.
  3. The upper limit of the equivalent resistance is 100 Ω.
  4. There is no upper limit.