Power Supply Loading

PC power supplies are of a switching rather than a linear design. The switching type of design uses a high-speed oscillator circuit to convert the higher wall-socket AC voltage to the much lower DC voltage used to power the PC and PC components. Switching-type power supplies are noted for being very efficient in size, weight, and energy in comparison to the linear design, which uses a large internal transformer to generate various outputs.

This type of transformer-based design is inefficient in at least three ways. First, the output voltage of the transformer linearly follows the input voltage (hence the name linear), so any fluctuations in the AC power going into the system can cause problems with the output.

Second, the high current-level (power) requirements of a PC system require the use of heavy wiring in the transformer. Third, the 60Hz frequency of the AC power supplied from your building is difficult to filter out inside the power supply, requiring large and expensive filter capacitors and rectifiers.

The switching supply, on the other hand, uses a switching circuit that chops up the incoming power at a relatively high frequency. This enables the use of high-frequency transformers that are much smaller and lighter. Also, the higher frequency is much easier and cheaper to filter out at the output, and the input voltage can vary widely.

Input ranging from 90V to 135V still produces the proper output levels, and many switching supplies can automatically adjust to 240V input. One characteristic of all switching-type power supplies is that they do not run without a load. Therefore, you must have something such as a motherboard and hard drive plugged in and drawing power for the supply to work.

If you simply have the power supply on a bench with nothing plugged into it, either the supply burns up or its protection circuitry shuts it down. Most power supplies are protected from no-load operation and shut down automatically. Some of the cheapest supplies, however, lack the protection circuit and relay and can be destroyed after a few seconds of no-load operation.

A few power supplies have their own built-in load resistors, so they can run even though there isn't a normal load (such as a motherboard or hard disk) plugged in. Some power supplies have minimum load requirements for both the +5V and +12V sides.

According to IBM specifications for the 192-watt power supply used in the original AT, a minimum load of 7.0 amps was required at +5V and a minimum of 2.5 amps was required at +12V for the supply to work properly. As long as a motherboard was plugged into the power supply, the motherboard would draw sufficient +5V at all times to keep those circuits in the supply happy.

However, +12V is typically used only by motors (and not motherboards), and the floppy or CD/DVD drive motors are off most of the time. Because floppy or optical (CD/DVD) drives don't present any +12V load unless they are spinning, systems without a hard disk drive could have problems because there wouldn't be enough load on the +12V circuit in the supply.

To alleviate problems, when IBM used to ship the original AT systems without a hard disk, it plugged the hard disk drive power cable into a large 5-ohm, 50-watt sandbar resistor that was mounted in a small, metal cage assembly where the drive would have been. The AT case had screw holes on top of where the hard disk would go, specifically designed to mount this resistor cage.

This resistor would be connected between pin 1 (+12V) and pin 2 (Ground) on the hard disk power connector. This placed a 2.4-amp load on the supply's +12V output, drawing 28.8 watts of power (it would get hot!) and thus enabling the supply to operate normally.

Note that the cooling fan in most power supplies draws approximately 0.1–0.25 amps, bringing the total load to 2.5 amps or more. If the load resistor were missing, the system would intermittently fail to start up. Most of the power supplies in use today do not require as much of a load as the original IBM AT power supply.

In most cases, a minimum load of 0–0.3 amps at +3.3V, 2.0–4.0 amps at +5V, and 0.5–1.0 amps at +12V is considered acceptable. Most motherboards easily draw the minimum +5V current by themselves. The standard power supply cooling fan draws only 0.1–0.25 amps, so the +12V minimum load might still be a problem for a diskless workstation.

Generally, the higher the rating on the supply, the more minimum load required. However, exceptions do exist, so this is a specification you should check when evaluating power supplies. Some switching power supplies have built-in load resistors and can run in a no-load situation.

Most power supplies don't have internal load resistors but might require only a small load on the +5V line to operate properly. Some supplies, however, might require +3.3V, +5V, and +12V loads to work—the only way to know is by checking the documentation for the particular supply in question.

No matter what, if you want to properly and accurately bench test a power supply, be sure you place a load on at least one (or preferably all) of the positive voltage outputs. This is one reason it is best to test a supply while it is installed in the system, instead of testing it separately on the bench. For impromptu bench testing, you can use a spare motherboard and one or more hard disk drives to load the outputs.