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What are Voltage Regulators?

By Katharine Swan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Voltage regulators are electromechanical components that maintain a consistent output of volts, which are units of electromotive force. Electric or electronic components are often made to accept certain maximum voltages and can be badly damaged by power surges. Low voltage, on the contrary, might not provide enough power for the components to function. Regulators keep the voltage within the range that the components can safely accept and use to function properly.

In Electronic Devices

A computer is an example of an electronic device that requires a voltage regulator. The regulator transmits the voltage from the computer's power supply at a level that will not damage the microprocessor. A computer might need more than one regulator, depending on the system. Some computers use special programmable regulators that interface with the microprocessor to ensure a specific voltage level.

In Automobiles

Cars also use voltage regulators within the system that maintains the battery's charge. Regulators usually are part of the car's alternator, although many cars, particularly older cars and modern American models, have exterior voltage regulators. Alternators or generators are used to generate power, which is fed into the car's battery to maintain a full charge. The power generated by the car's charging system is also used to run the car's electrical systems, such as its headlights, stereo, power windows and ventilation systems.

The car's alternator or generator has a pulley on one side that is turned by one of the engine's drive belts; the force of the engine is used to run the alternator or generator. The engine's speed varies during acceleration and shifting gears, so voltage regulators are needed to control the output produced by the alternator or generator. Without a regulator, the engine could produce an excessively high voltage output when the car is being driven at faster speeds, sending a surge through the system, overcharging the battery and damaging the car's electrical systems. A very low voltage output might not produce enough power to maintain the battery's charge and run the car's electronic systems, creating a load on the battery and potentially reducing the battery's life.

Replacing Regulators

When voltage regulators stop working, they need to be replaced. Regulators for computers or other basic household electronics are available through dealers that specialize in electronic components. For cars, voltage regulators are available from dealerships or aftermarket parts stores. Some cars might have external voltage regulators, in which case they can be purchased separately and easily replaced. Most cars' voltage regulators are inside the alternator, however, so the owner would need to buy a new alternator or rebuild the existing alternator with a new voltage regulator.

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Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Feb 05, 2011

@anon33391-- I believe what you need is a voltage converter. The US uses 110v for devices whereas Europe uses 220v. A converter helps convert one to the other and will allow you to use American bought devices in Europe and vice versa.

Many electronics these days are made to suit both of these voltage systems. If you check the electrical plug of your electronic device or its manual, it will tell you if it is adapted for both 110v and 220v. Usually, there is a small switch that allows you to switch back and forth to these voltages. If it is made to suit both, you don't need to buy a voltage regulator circuit or converter.

By fify — On Feb 03, 2011

This explains why my electricity went out the other day! I moved to a new place and plugged in an electrical heater. Clearly, there was no voltage regulator...my new heater is unusable now. I do wish I had bought a device for voltage regulation before I started using it!

By anon33391 — On Jun 05, 2009

I have a Sony Vaio and am going to the Netherlands and Germany. What adapter or regulator do I need to use it there? Thank You, Judy

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