Practical capacitors and inductors as used in electric circuits are not ideal components with only capacitance or inductance. However, they can be treated, to a very good degree of approximation, as being ideal capacitors and inductors in series with a resistance; this resistance is defined as the equivalent series resistance (ESR). If not otherwise specified, the ESR is always an AC resistance measured at specified frequencies, 100 kHz for switched-mode power supply components, 120 Hz for linear power-supply components, and at the self-resonant frequency for general-application components. Audio components may report “Q factor”, incorporating ESR among other things, at 1000 Hz.
In a non-electrolytic capacitor and electrolytic capacitors with solid electrolyte the metallic resistance of the leads and electrodes and losses in the dielectric cause the ESR. Typically quoted values of ESR for ceramic capacitors are between 0.01 and 0.1 ohms. ESR of non-electrolytic capacitors tends to be fairly stable over time; for most purposes real non-electrolytic capacitors can be treated as ideal components.
Aluminium and tantalum electrolytic capacitors with non solid electrolyte have much higher ESR values, up to several ohms; electrolytics of higher capacitance have lower ESR. ESR decreases with frequency up to the capacitor’s self-resonant frequency. A very serious problem, particularly with aluminium electrolytics, is that ESR increases over time with use; ESR can increase enough to cause circuit malfunction and even component damage, although measured capacitance may remain within tolerance. While this happens with normal aging, high temperatures and large ripple current exacerbate the problem. In a circuit with significant ripple current, an increase in ESR will increase heat dissipation, thus accelerating aging.
Electrolytic capacitors rated for high-temperature operation and of higher quality than basic consumer-grade parts are less susceptible to become prematurely unusable due to ESR increase. A cheap electrolytic capacitor may be rated for a life of less than 1000 hours at 85°C (a year is 8760 hours). Higher-grade parts are typically rated at a few thousand hours at maximum rated temperature, as can be seen from manufacturers’ datasheets. If ESR is critical, specification of a part with higher temperature rating, “low ESR” or larger capacitance than is otherwise required may be advantageous. There is no standard for “low ESR” capacitor rating.
Polymer capacitors usually have lower ESR than wet-electrolytic of same value, and stable under varying temperature. Therefore, polymer capacitors can handle higher ripple current. From about 2007 it became common for better-quality computer motherboards to use only polymer capacitors where wet electrolytics had been used previously.
The ESR of capacitors larger than about 1 μF is easily measured in-circuit with an ESR meter.
The following table shows rough guide of typical values of ESR for a range of difference capacitance and voltage rating.