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Rheostat vs potentiometer: understanding the differences and applications

Rheostats and potentiometers are two commonly used variable resistors in electronic circuits, each with its unique characteristics and applications.

While both devices serve similar purposes of varying resistance, they differ in design, construction, and usage. This article explores the differences between rheostats and potentiometers, highlighting their functions, advantages, and typical applications.

Rheostats: the variable resistors

Rheostats are variable resistors primarily used to control the current in a circuit by adjusting the resistance. Unlike potentiometers, which have three terminals, rheostats typically feature only two terminals: the wiper and one end terminal. The resistance value of a rheostat varies linearly with the position of the wiper.

Rheostats are commonly used in applications where precise current control is required, such as in dimmer switches for lighting systems, motor speed controls, and temperature regulation in heaters.

Potentiometers: the voltage dividers

Potentiometers, also known as pots or variable resistors, are three-terminal devices widely used for voltage division and variable voltage control. They consist of a resistive element with a wiper that can be adjusted to tap different points along the resistance track.

Unlike rheostats, potentiometers are often used to set a specific voltage rather than controlling current. They find applications in volume controls for audio systems, tuning circuits in radios, and as control knobs in electronic instruments.

Differences in construction

One of the key differences between rheostats and potentiometers lies in their construction. Rheostats typically have a single resistive element with a sliding contact (wiper) that moves along its length. This design allows for variable resistance between one fixed terminal and the wiper. In contrast, potentiometers consist of a resistive element with a wiper that can make contact with any point along the resistor track, dividing the voltage across the entire length of the resistor.

Another notable difference is the number of terminals. Rheostats have two terminals, while potentiometers have three: one for the input voltage, one for the output voltage, and one for the wiper.

Advantages and disadvantages

Both rheostats and potentiometers have their advantages and disadvantages. Rheostats offer precise current control with a simple two-terminal design, making them suitable for applications where current regulation is critical. However, they are less versatile than potentiometers in terms of voltage control.

Potentiometers, on the other hand, provide variable voltage output and are commonly used for audio and signal processing applications. Their three-terminal design allows for voltage division, making them ideal for controlling voltage levels in circuits. However, potentiometers may introduce noise and have a limited power handling capability compared to rheostats.


The choice between a rheostat and a potentiometer depends on the specific requirements of the application. Rheostats are preferred in applications where precise current control is essential, such as in motor speed regulation, temperature control, and lighting dimmers. Potentiometers are more suitable for applications requiring variable voltage control, such as audio volume controls, tuning circuits, and sensor calibration.

In summary, while rheostats and potentiometers are both variable resistors used for controlling electrical parameters, they differ in construction, functionality, and applications. Understanding the differences between these devices is crucial for selecting the appropriate component for a given circuit design.

Whether it’s regulating current or adjusting voltage levels, choosing the right variable resistor ensures optimal performance and functionality in electronic circuits.