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Leaky capacitors shorting circuits; problem spreads

Failing capacitors are sending shock waves up the electronics food chain—literally. PCs are crashing and televisions and camcorders are going on the fritz, and the problem is becoming more widespread, according to those who replace those components.

At the heart of this controversy are low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors, all of which were made in Taiwan. According to systems integrators who build custom PCs and those who repair them, the capacitors start leaking electrolytic fluid within days or weeks after the computer is turned on. In most cases, the leaking fluid causes short circuits. Less commonly, they actually explode.

Carey Holzman, a private-label white-box PC builder in Glendale, Ariz., started noticing the problem about 10 months ago and has been contacting motherboard vendors to get them to acknowledge and fix the problem. So far, no one is owning up to it.

"We would get strange errors in Windows and it wouldn't reboot, or the board would lock up and reboot randomly," said Holzman, who has been building PCs for the past 12 years. "The boardmakers were telling me it was either the power supply or heat. But I started noticing leaking capacitors. The more leaks, the more problems they showed. And the longer you wait, the worse the problem gets."

Holzman is far from alone in issuing warnings. In fact, entire news groups have sprung up on the Internet to deal with this matter, and many of them are naming names and posting photographs. The most commonly mentioned are capacitors made by Tayeh and Jackcon Capacitor Electronics Co. Electronic News acquired motherboards with leaky capacitors made by one of those companies and numerous photos taken by integrators around the globe of failed capacitors made by both companies. Jackcon did not comment by press time. Tayeh could not be reached for comment.

Dan Mepham, editor in chief of Hardware Analysis, has been monitoring online news groups for months. He says the problem is steady but so far hasn't reached epidemic proportions.

"Naturally no manufacturer is completely immune to failures," Mepham said. "However, we've observed that Tayeh and Jackcon parts are beginning to surface regularly as culprits leading to premature motherboard failure."

He's not unique in that observation. Integrators have buckets full of the failed components in their shops. Some involve boards that were made a couple years ago, but most of the problems began earlier this year.

Gary Headlee started up a side business repairing motherboards about eight months ago. Like Holzman, he said the word on the street was that faulty power supplies were causing capacitors to blow.

"When you see hundreds of boards fail, you realize what the problem is," Headlee said. "I started fixing boards as a favor to people and I quickly got overwhelmed. I was getting hundreds of them. So I started experimenting with the capacitors. I hooked them up to a 5-volt DC battery, which is a really clean source of power, and the capacitors would fail. They should charge, but they would short out or explode and blow their guts out."

DOWN AND OUT: One week’s haul for a part-time motherboard repair shop.
Headlee has fixed about 1,000 motherboards so far. He has a collection of about 10,000 dead capacitors in a large box as proof—something he needs to keep because he said motherboard and capacitor manufacturers have threatened to sue him. But the problem doesn't stop there. He's also starting to see capacitor problems in name-brand camcorders and televisions. He said most camcorders have 40 to 50 capacitors, making the potential for failure about five times greater than a PC motherboard.

"I'm seeing capacitor failure like never before," he said.

Tom Soderstrom, a Michigan college student, likewise has made a business out of bad capacitors. He discovered that he can make more money selling fixed motherboards with upgraded capacitors on eBay than trying to build new systems.

The boards typically sell for about $50 new. But with questionable capacitors, he finds there's more profit buying up bad boards for $15, fixing them, and then advertising them online where they can fetch as much as $100.

"Some of the capacitors actually blew apart," Soderstrom said. "They exploded."

Nor is the problem confined just to the United States. Capacitor meltdowns are being reported across Europe and Asia, where white-box PCs are a standard fixture. While theories vary as to what actually causes the leaks—everything from watered down electrolyte to static electricity—in many cases customers are demanding the boards be replaced or fixed and are threatening to sue the integrators.

The integrators, in turn, have complained to the board manufacturers and have traded information in online newsgroups. When that happens, they say motherboard and capacitor makers threaten their own round of lawsuits.

Fixing the problem carries its own set of headaches. Most of the shoddy capacitors are 8mm in diameter. Most of the readily available capacitors are 10mm, although some vendors such as Rubycon and Nichicon do offer 8mm capacitors on special order, integrators say.

Good capacitors also cost more than the ones showing up on boards. In quantities of 10,000, board repair houses say the difference is about 5 cents per capacitor, which amounts to about 50 cents per motherboard.

"Companies around the world have to ensure that commodity products obtained at low average selling prices (ASPs) in fact comply with generally accepted quality levels in use around the world," said Glyndwr Smith, senior VP at Vishay Intertechnology.

Gale Morrison and Bernie Levine contributed to this story.

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