The Footprint Files – Electrolytic Capacitors

By The MacroFab Team  |  February 23, 2017

When designing footprints for electrolytic capacitors it is important to place clear indicating marks to show the components’ orientation. The importance of polarity cannot be overstated in these capacitors. Mistakes in polarity can harm not just the capacitor, but other components on the circuit as well. A product's success can depend on the precision and clarity with which components are marked.

Since this style of capacitor is polarized (they have to be placed in a certain orientation) they must have indicating marks on the PCB to help determine how they should be placed. Incorrect placement can disrupt the dielectric properties, potentially leading to a shorter lifespan of the capacitor or immediate failure.

Clarity in marking components is key to making sure that the manufacturing of your design goes smoothly and the blue smoke does not escape your capacitors. Beyond the immediate component functionality, consistent and clear markings help streamline the PCBA manufacturing process. Assemblers and technicians rely on these markings to place components efficiently. Any uncertainty can slow down the assembly process or, worse, lead to mistakes that are costly to rectify.

The tantalum electrolytic capacitors are even more prone to catastrophic failures when they are energized backward due to their unique construction and sensitivity to reverse voltage. It is possible to damage tantalum capacitors by reversing polarity, but it is also possible to damage the surrounding board and other devices as well.

The Electrolytic Capacitor

Electrolytic Capacitors are one of the most popular types of capacitors used on board design. Their popularity stems from their efficiency in storing large amounts of charge in a relatively small form factor. They are low cost and provide a good balance of physical size and capacity.

There are four physical flavors of electrolytic capacitors; SMT Can, SMT Case, PTH Radial, and PTH Axial. Each style is marked slightly differently. They are usually marked with a band on the cathode side of the capacitor indicating the negative terminal but there are some exceptions. This is different from the typical schematic symbol which is positive or anode marked!

Schematic Symbol

The typical polarized capacitor will look like the image below on the schematic. The positive or anode side of the capacitor is marked with a “+” symbol. When drafting a schematic, it's important to maintain consistency in symbol use to ensure that everyone reviewing the design can quickly understand the intended orientation. Since electrolytic capacitors are polarized, I use a symbol (shown below) on my schematics.

Capacitor Polarized Symbol

Capacitor Polarized Symbol

Schematic symbol for polarized capacitors as shown in Eagle.

SMT Can Style Electrolytic Capacitor

These capacitors are marked on the top of the can with a black mark. The mark’s color sometimes depends on the manufacture however. The plastic base of the capacitor are also chamfered on the positive or anode side.

Smd cap

Smd cap

SMT Can Electrolytic Capactor: Marking indicates negative or cathode side.

SMT EL Footprint

SMT EL Footprint

Footprint of a typical SMT can electrolytic capacitor.

SMT Case Electrolytic Capacitor

Capacitors of this type usually have tantalum or niobium inside but there are a few polymer electrolytic. Case style means it is shaped similar to a 0805 resistor or ceramic capacitor. Unlike the other packages for capacitors, these are typically positive or anode marked.

SM Tcasemarking

SM Tcasemarking

SMT case style electrolytics are usually anode/positive marked. Watch out!

SM Tcasefootprint

SM Tcasefootprint

Footprint for SMT case style electrolytic capacitors.

PTH Radial Electrolytic Capacitor

Radial caps have both the anode and cathode leaving one side of the capacitor. 99% of the time these are marked with a contrasting strap down the cathode or negative side of the capacitor.

PTH Radial Markings

PTH Radial Markings

PTH radial polarized electrolytic capacitor markings.

PTH Radial Footprint

PTH Radial Footprint

Footprint for PTH radial style electrolytic capacitors.

PTH Axial Electrolytic Capacitor

Axial style capacitors are not used very often but are interesting in how they are marked. A negative or cathode band runs down the side of them similarly to the radial style but there is an arrow in the marking that indicates which side is negative or the cathode.

Iccaps 1

PTH axial style electrolytic. The cathode strip points towards the cathode.

PTH Axial Cap

PTH Axial Cap

Footprint for a PTH axial style electrolytic capacitor.

Next time on the footprint files…

The most important thing to remember is to check your parts data sheet and see how the polarity is marked on the part. Copying how the part looks on your board's silkscreen will guarantee much higher success during the assembly of the board. I hope this will improve your footprints on your board and make your products and prototypes easier to build. Next time on the footprint files we will be discussing tantalum capacitors.

Check out the previous post in this series: The Footprint Files – Diodes

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Designing footprint files for diodes requires clear orientation marks. Learn what to do and when you can break footprint rules in this blog post.

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