Difference Between Potentiometer & Rheostat


To control any electric or electronic device you vary voltage using a variable resistor. The two classes of variable resistors are rheostats and potentiometers and have distinct differences and applications.


  • All variable resistors have a resistance track made of carbon, cermat (a mixture of metal and ceramic) or a coil of wire for lower resistances or precision. The wiper slides along the track to pick off a selected voltage.

Rheostat Connections

  • A rheostat has two connections. One goes to one end of the track and the other goes directly to the wiper to vary the level of the source.

Potientiometer Connections

  • A potentiometer has three connections. The two ends of the track are wired across a voltage source and the third connection goes to the wiper to select a specific voltage from that source.

Rheostat Uses

  • Rheostats connect in series with a voltage source to vary that source. Examples are light dimmer switches, heater controls and motor speed controls.

Potentiometer Uses

  • The track of a potentiometer wires across a fixed or variable voltage circuit and the wiper slides across it to pick off a controlling voltage. The best example of a potentiometer is a radio volume control knob.

Current Flow

  • A rheostat shuts off the current flow when adjusted to the off position. A potentiometer will always have current running through the track whenever the equipment has voltage applied.


  • Photo Credit wmitrmatr/iStock/Getty Images
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