Using Second Hand Capacitors

This week’s post will be a how-to for a question I get asked a lot.  Can I use second-hand Capacitors?

The reason I often get asked this is modelers often want to use second-hand capacitors to make StayAlive units for their DCC locomotives, and these can be very effective.  But where are they getting second-hand capacitors from?  Most electrical appliances have capacitors in them of one form or another.  A good example of this is an old stereo system I took apart for the motor.  Below you can see the main printed circuit board (PCB) and it has lots of black cylinders which are mostly all capacitors, and ideally sized to fit into small locomotives.

Even the smaller secondary PCBs have capacitors on them.

The main power input board below is a bridge rectifier, the smaller black cylinders are diodes, and it turns AC voltage into DC for the stereo to use, the nice big capacitor is there to smooth out the DC.

These capacitors are all soldered onto the PCB.  With a good soldering iron the capacitor can be removed without damage by heating the two soldered joints, once you have figured out which ones they are, and pulling the capacitor out. 

This capacitor has a working voltage of 24v and a capacity of 1000 microfarads.  The voltage is important because it needs to be higher than the voltage in the DCC locomotive decoder.  This normally does not exceed 16v, so a capacitor like this is ideal. 

But I find the more important question is not whether second had capacitors can be used, its do the work?  Luckily there is a simple test to check this without any expensive equipment.  Some high-end multimeters have the ability to test capacitance but most do not.  Mine does not, but what it can do is test voltage and resistance.

One thing to do before the test is to remove the charge from the capacitor, a full capacitor could damage the multimeter.  This can be done with a metal screwdriver by shorting across the two terminals.  Please note, this is okay for small capacitors in the Microfarad range used in modeling, I would not recommend doing this with large capacity capacitors with capacitance measured in farads!

The two settings I use are both on the left of my multimeter.  Below it is set to 200k ohms and is used for testing resistance.  I will also be rotating the dial clockwise by three positions to 2 which is a DC voltage measurement.

The way this works is first you discharge the capacitor.  Then, with the multimeter set to resistance, connect the probes to the capacitor.  Black negative to the capacitor negative and red positive to capacitor positive.  The capacitor negative is normally clearly marked.  As the multimeter has a battery inside when the probes are connected to the capacitor it will start to draw and store power.  As the stored power increases the resistance will increase so on the display you will see a steady increase in resistance from 0 to infinity.  If there are any big surges or erratic readings, then the capacitor is not working.

The second part of the test is to set the multimeter to volts DC and reconnect the probes.  This will measure the stored voltage and you will see it decease as the capacitor discharges through the multimeter.  Again this should be smooth.

As it happens the capacitor I took out of the stereo was faulty, probably one of the several reasons it didn’t work!

But to show you the principle, I created a short video of me testing a new capacitor.

So the answer to the question “Can I use second-hand Capacitors” is yes, but I would recommend testing them before spending any time wiring them into your locomotives.

If you have a similar question you would like to be answered or explained in more detail, please contact me and maybe I can help.