The following problems are arranged in order from most likely to least likely, top to bottom. This order has been determined largely from personal experience troubleshooting electrical and electronic problems in automotive, industry, and home applications. This order also assumes a circuit or system that has been proven to function as designed and has failed after substantial operation time. Problems experienced in newly assembled circuits and systems do not necessarily exhibit the same probabilities of occurrence.
A frequent cause of system failure is error on the part of those human beings operating it. This cause of trouble is placed at the top of the list, but of course the actual likelihood depends largely on the particular individuals responsible for operation. When operator error is the cause of a failure, it is unlikely that it will be admitted prior to investigation. I do not mean to suggest that operators are incompetent and irresponsible -- quite the contrary: these people are often your best teachers for learning system function and obtaining a history of failure -- but the reality of human error cannot be overlooked. A positive attitude coupled with good interpersonal skills on the part of the troubleshooter goes a long way in troubleshooting when human error is the root cause of failure.
Bad wire connections
As incredible as this may sound to the new student of electronics, a high percentage of electrical and electronic system problems are caused by a very simple source of trouble: poor (i.e. open or shorted) wire connections. This is especially true when the environment is hostile, including such factors as high vibration and/or a corrosive atmosphere. Connection points found in any variety of plug-and-socket connector, terminal strip, or splice are at the greatest risk for failure. The category of "connections" also includes mechanical switch contacts, which can be thought of as a high-cycle connector. Improper wire termination lugs (such as a compression-style connector crimped on the end of a solid wire -- a definite faux pas) can cause high-resistance connections after a period of trouble-free service.
It should be noted that connections in low-voltage systems tend to be far more troublesome than connections in high-voltage systems. The main reason for this is the effect of arcing across a discontinuity (circuit break) in higher-voltage systems tends to blast away insulating layers of dirt and corrosion, and may even weld the two ends together if sustained long enough. Low-voltage systems tend not to generate such vigorous arcing across the gap of a circuit break, and also tend to be more sensitive to additional resistance in the circuit. Mechanical switch contacts used in low-voltage systems benefit from having the recommended minimum wetting current conducted through them to promote a healthy amount of arcing upon opening, even if this level of current is not necessary for the operation of other circuit components.
Although open failures tend to more common than shorted failures, "shorts" still constitute a substantial percentage of wiring failure modes. Many shorts are caused by degradation of wire insulation. This, again, is especially true when the environment is hostile, including such factors as high vibration, high heat, high humidity, or high voltage. It is rare to find a mechanical switch contact that is failed shorted, except in the case of high-current contacts where contact "welding" may occur in overcurrent conditions. Shorts may also be caused by conductive buildup across terminal strip sections or the backs of printed circuit boards.
A common case of shorted wiring is the ground fault, where a conductor accidently makes contact with either earth or chassis ground. This may change the voltage(s) present between other conductors in the circuit and ground, thereby causing bizarre system malfunctions and/or personnel hazard.
Power supply problems
These generally consist of tripped overcurrent protection devices or damage due to overheating. Although power supply circuitry is usually less complex than the circuitry being powered, and therefore should figure to be less prone to failure on that basis alone, it generally handles more power than any other portion of the system and therefore must deal with greater voltages and/or currents. Also, because of its relative design simplicity, a system's power supply may not receive the engineering attention it deserves, most of the engineering focus devoted to more glamorous parts of the system.
Active components (amplification devices) tend to fail with greater regularity than passive (non-amplifying) devices, due to their greater complexity and tendency to amplify overvoltage/overcurrent conditions. Semiconductor devices are notoriously prone to failure due to electrical transient (voltage/current surge) overloading and thermal (heat) overloading. Electron tube devices are far more resistant to both of these failure modes, but are generally more prone to mechanical failures due to their fragile construction.
Non-amplifying components are the most rugged of all, their relative simplicity granting them a statistical advantage over active devices. The following list gives an approximate relation of failure probabilities (again, top being the most likely and bottom being the least likely):
- Capacitors (shorted), especially electrolytic capacitors. The paste electrolyte tends to lose moisture with age, leading to failure. Thin dielectric layers may be punctured by overvoltage transients.
- Diodes open (rectifying diodes) or shorted (Zener diodes).
- Inductor and transformer windings open or shorted to conductive core. Failures related to overheating (insulation breakdown) are easily detected by smell.
- Resistors open, almost never shorted. Usually this is due to overcurrent heating, although it is less frequently caused by overvoltage transient (arc-over) or physical damage (vibration or impact). Resistors may also change resistance value if overheated!