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This may sound like a strange question, but its bothered me for a while:

I assume electric stoves (the ones with the coils that get red hot) work just by having a resistor that gets hot. If it's getting hot, then it must be using a lot of power so it would be pretty low resistance, but the heating element would still be higher resistance than the wires so the heating element is what gets hot. But to change the heat if the stove there must be a variable resistor, why does the variable resistor not get really hot when you lower the heat?

Am I really off about how all this works?

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The hob power is typically controlled using a thermo-mechanical duty-cycle controller.

enter image description here

Figure 1. Part of a hob power regulator.

There are three parts to the control.

  1. A small heater element that turns on with the hob.
  2. A switch contact containing a bi-metallic strip. This is designed to suddenly toggle over at a certain temperature to give a fast contact closure or opening to avoid sparking.
  3. An adjustment mechanism driven by the knob. This modifies the temperature at which the switch will toggle.

Normal operation:

  • At switch-on the hob is cold and so is the bimetallic strip. The contact is closed. Power flows to the hob and to the heater.
  • After maybe 20 s or so the heater has warmed up the contact enough to toggle the switch. It opens, power is removed from the hob and the contact heater. They both cool down.
  • After another delay the bimetallic strip will toggle the contact closed again and cycle will repeat.

This type of control is on-off control with adjustable duty-cycle (the percentage of time the power is on). It works well for a cooker as the thermal mass of the hob, pots and pans is generally high enough that a 10 s blast of heat won't cause too rapid a fluctuation in temperature.

Note that this type of control has no idea of what's actually on the hob or even if the hob is connected! It does not control the pot temperature - only the power fed to the hob - and really it's only an adjustable duty-cycle timer. So, for a given setting a small pot will get much hotter than a wide frying pan that can radiate the heat. Power setting is determined by the cook using his/her experience.

But to change the heat if the stove there must be a variable resistor, why does the variable resistor not get really hot when you lower the heat?

You are right that a variable resistor would get very hot. At half-power it would be dissipating as much power as the hob itself. The on-off control is much more efficient and uses hardly any power.

Note that this pulse technique can be used at very high frequency to dim lights or speed control a motor. In such applications we refer to it as pulse-width modulation. The frequency of the pulses is chosen, for example, so that in the case of lighting there is no visible flicker or, in the case of a motor, that it doesn't cause vibration.

enter image description here

Figure 2. A PWM signal giving 80% power, 20%, 80% and zero power.


Bimetallic strip

enter image description here

Figure 3. A bimetallic strip consists of two dissimilar metals of different coefficient of expansion bonded together. As temperature rises the strip will turn convex on the side with the metal of higher expansion rate.


Oven thermostats

enter image description here

Figure 4. The oven thermostat has a fluid-filled remote bulb and capillary tube. Expansion of the fluid in the bulb drives fluid up to the thermostat where a bellows actuates the contact. Rotating the knob adjusts the distance of the contact from the actuator and thus the temperature at which it opens.


Simple stepped power settings

schematic

simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

Figure 5. By using elements with power ratios of approximately 1:2:4 a multi-pole switch can be used to create a binary pattern to generate seven power settings (and off).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So basically it works like a not very precise thermostat? I know that in the oven it turns on and off because I can hear it click off when its done heating up and on and off periodically. So for the stove it turns on and off but just faster and the power going through the heating element is either zero or a lot? \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Aug 14 '16 at 22:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ (1) It's like a thermostat in that some use a bimetallic strip but it's behaviour is more like a timer. (2) Yes, the click is the contact toggling over. You might be able to hear it on the hob controller too. (3) Yes, power to the heating element is either zero or full. \$\endgroup\$ – Transistor Aug 14 '16 at 23:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ethan, The switches used for the stovetop and the oven are quite different. The stovetop switch, as described by Transistor, regulates what percentage of time the heating element is on (see above description). It does not sense the temperature. It is not like a thermostat (except that both do switch power on and off). The switch for the oven does sense the temperature of the oven. The oven switch is a thermostat. The oven heating element is turned on when the temperature gets too low and off when it gets too hot. \$\endgroup\$ – Makyen Aug 15 '16 at 0:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ To indicate why this isn't like a thermostat: car indicators (used to) use the same system to control the flashing. That's got everything to do with timing, and nothing to do with temperature. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris H Aug 15 '16 at 8:02
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Adding to the excellent answer by Transistor: there are also heaters made of a selection of resistors of different power that are switched-in using a rotary switch. In this case the knob position cannot vary continuously, but it can be switched only in discrete steps. Of course this is a much simpler concept and setup than the continuous control system using an adjustable thermostat implemented as Transistor already described.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thats what I thought at first but I thought that would still require resistors that would get hot \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Aug 14 '16 at 22:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ethan in the rotary switch setup the only resistors are the heaters, which (as you already inferred) have a much higher resistance than both the connecting wires and the rotary switch contacts. Of course this is a much cruder way of achieving variable heating power. \$\endgroup\$ – Lorenzo Donati Aug 14 '16 at 22:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lorenzo_Donati So if that were true, would the heating element need to have multiple resistors that can be switched on and off, kind of like a three setting light bulb? \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Aug 14 '16 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ethan What is a "three setting light bulb"? \$\endgroup\$ – Lorenzo Donati Aug 14 '16 at 23:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LorenzoDonati More commonly known as a three-way bulb, it has two filaments, either or both of which can be on. Same idea as what you're describing, I think. \$\endgroup\$ – zwol Aug 15 '16 at 0:22
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It probably uses a bi-metallic element. The knob is making an adjustment of that.

Essentially there is 2 different metallic elements that expand and contract differently from each other with changing temperature so in this case when heated they either make or break at a certain temperature.

Might be a rheostat as well or a triac but seems to be the older way of doing things.

Edit: There are also other ways.

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Most electric stoves that I've used use a set of heating elements for three of the four heating plates.

The principle is most easily explained by a set of two resistors at 1Ω each. Put them in series, you get 2Ω. Use only one, you get 1Ω. Put them in parallel, you get 0.5Ω.

In practice, more heating elements are used per plate - usually enough to give you at least 6 different settings.

A common configuration for electric stoves is three constant power plates like described above, and one thermostat-regulated plate.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your use of the word "resistors" in the first paragraph may cause some confusion as the OP was asking about using series resistance in the controller to control the power. "Elements", as used later in your post, would be better. \$\endgroup\$ – Transistor Aug 15 '16 at 14:29

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