tl;dr - Is driving brushless DC fans using PWM unhealthy for the fan compared to variable but steady DC voltage? If yes, why and how?

The super simple input [PWM] -> MOSFET driver [PWM] -> DC Fan to adjust the speed of DC fans is well known. The DC fan receives a PWM of the same frequency as the input, with sufficient juice from the MOSFET at higher voltage. Ignoring everything else, assume the fan gets a high-current PWM signal swinging between 0-12V at some duty cycle to vary the fan speed, and that the 0-12V levels are clean (no spikes etc).

Say I have a bunch of 0.5A, 12V brushless DC fans. These are not PWM fans (i.e. they only have 2 wires). I now drive them using the above PWM circuit to vary their speed. Assume the PWM frequency is around 25 kHz, and that the MOSFET can easily switch at that frequency.

I've read that adjusting the speed of DC fans using a variable DC level voltage is "more healthy" for the fan than using PWM like above, but didn't give details.

For the experts out there:

Are there dangers to driving DC fans like the above using PWM (pulsed) instead of steady voltage levels? If yes, what are they, exactly, how do they manifest? How important is the PWM frequency for the fan (assuming the MOSFET is fast)?

p.s. I can build a PWM-to-DC circuit (e.g. source follower, etc) but here I'm interested to understand the dangers of driving DC fans with PWM.

p.p.s. My personal experience (edit: excellent explanation for this by Tony EE below)

I'm pretty sure PWM may affect them (though here I'm asking a general question). I've heard clicks coming from all my DC fans when driving them with PWM, particularly at low-duty cycles. More importantly, after a little less than 1 year under continuous operation at various duty cycles (50% being the most prevalent), some of the fans no longer respond to low duty-cycle PWM. Specifically, they still spin at 100% speed when the duty-cycle is 100% (practically 12V steady) but any lower duty cycle results in the fan spinning at a very slow speed, regardless of the actual duty cycle value -- as if the fan had 2 speeds only: full and very-low. All these fans responded well to PWM before. They still spin freely when pushed by hand, I feel no extra resistance compared to the other fans (so it's not the rotor).

  • \$\begingroup\$ My question was not about debugging my problem, but about whether or not PWM driving is bad for DC fans (I was afraid someone would pick on the former, so I'll remove that piece of text). \$\endgroup\$ – Normadize Oct 6 '18 at 16:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ The coils of the fan are inductors. What do inductors do to pulsing current? They make smooth(er) current. So, at most you will cause a little extra heating in the coils. \$\endgroup\$ – JRE Oct 6 '18 at 16:07

All DC motors are actually AC motors with some sort of commutation from DC with some DC coil resistance, DCR.

The BLDC draws excitation current from the coil resistance. (I=V+/DCR). As average voltage increases and it overcomes stiction, it starts spinning and the commutated coil impedance now is added to the DCR.

HOWEVER, an internal filter capacitor is needed by the fan to reduce incoming and outgoing voltage ripple, caused by current commutation in the poles.

  • If you pulse that capacitor, with a non-PWM controlled fan, you may be pulsing that capacitor with more ripple current than the fan, and it may fail prematurely according to Irms and its rating, or cause weird aliasing noises.
  • Nevertheless, you are imposing a new spectrum of current interference to the commutation for the motor and thermal feedback to regulate fans may have audible aliasing winding noise, from these ideal quiet fans.

Conclusion: Use the right fan or design a DC-DC regulator to control it, that guarantees no stalling from low start voltage by setting thresholds for voltage and temperature control range.

Anecdotal experience from early 1980s to now

  • Fans generate acoustic eddy currents from the blade turbulence near a fixed grill. The solution to this is make the fan inline to a plenum. The design trick is to make this as short as possible to remove all the heat outside and not add much noise.
  • For SMPS forced air cooling, it is this same eddy current turbulent velocity that reduces the thermal resistance of air cooling ferrite transformers and power transistors.

    • So maximize air velocity over the hot spots, with a plenum or folded cover rather than simple panel-mounted fan that pushes or pulls a certain volume of air.
    • The secret is that the air just blows over the top of the hot spots thus ineffective or weak thermal coupling, instead of turbulent air over the part at 1 to 3 m/s. In my case design it reduced full load hotspots in a restricted space from 70 °C to 10 °C temperature rise. I verified my design with cigarette smoke, thermocouples and mylar folded plenums. (This also helped me survive UL's safety "coke-spill and sledge-hammer tests" to my 19" 1U rack design.)
    • The motor senses rotation position by a precision Hall effect pole sensors which commutates the FET bridge.
    • All electrolytic components (batteries included) have a capacitance that degrades due to a chemical reaction accelerated by current and heat that affects the ageing rate.
    • This is defined by Arrhenius' law, which is approximately -50% MTBF for every 10 °C rise above ambient.
  • The coil impedance rises above stall speed so the current now increases much slower due to wind loading.

  • The stall speed might be around 25% starting and 15% stopping so that if stalled with no cooling the coil heats up the magnet and that could degrade the magnet over time if above its rating.
  • Back in the 1980s Toshiba, Fujitsu using some higher power muffin fans would have a thermistor with self heating by applied power and self-cooling by the fan's air velocity to detect a fan fail and create a halt alert.

  • The fan not only cools the host, but the internal parts as well, except when it is stalled. For small fans well designed, no problem, but if the coils heat up the rare earth magnets unusual failures can occur (dead-spots in starting fan, etc.). This usually only happens on one of four resting positions.

  • For this reason for the last 35 years, any high volume production of systems I have been involved with, an automated start-stop incoming test was performed, testing for this fault. The design/process is a critical tradeoff between efficiency near magnetic neutral and offset so the circuit knows which direction to start commutating. This slim margin exists in every PM BLDC motor. Where the fan is not dead, it's just dithering back and forth, or motionless until you nudge it.
    • Even the famous Nidec Japanese brand fans occasionally had 1% of 100 fans with dead spots, so corrective feedback to OEM eliminated their problem by forcing them to fix it.
  • I also gave our distributor my design for a simple test jig design that did this, Start <= 0.1 s stop <1 s repeat for 100 cycles, 100 fans in parallel.
    • Then we had perfect yields - no failures, three shipments in a row, so then I halted those incoming tests. Problem solved.
  • Often these problems occur when the factory moves or some other minor process change.

p.p.s. reply

You probably blew the internal electrolytic cap from external PWM resulting in an abrupt change in source impedance with PWM now going open/close in parallel with fan's load including a capacitor with ESR, to give a low source impedance to the bridge. I suspected the capacitor ESR should be worn out with much higher ESR and lower C, so the fan has a load high regulation error due to a much higher source impedance. This explains your dramatic losses below 100% PWM from full speed to slow speed.

The capacitor ESR must be << 10% of the coil DCR for good voltage control RPM regulation or better, so use the proper fan or a linear design. A cheap fix may be to add a series R to transfer capacitor losses to series or RL to improve maximum speed with low Q for a field fix. Or do get it right the first time and listen to the wisdom of experience.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic answer. Loved the backstory too. My fans are by Sunon with their MagLev technology - inexpensive for the quality, but I need to vary their speed. I'll cease driving them with PWM. I'm testing two designs. A source follower driver (advantage=full duty-cycle range is usable, disadvantage=I'm losing Vth so max speed is lower) or an NMOS low-side or PMOS high-side driver (advantage=full fan speed as Vds drop is minimal, disadvantage=very limited range of usable duty-cycle as the MOSFETS I found with low Rds(on) and low Vgs have narrow linear region). I'm not an expert, sadly. \$\endgroup\$ – Normadize Oct 6 '18 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ With a low side NPN or high side PNP rated for 1/2 fan power at 6V with max 30’C rise <10’C/W max and high hFE >>200 and low Rce = Vce(sat)/0.5A << 1 Ohm , then with 5% to 10% Ic or 25 to 50mA you can drive with a comparator or some ( and suitable filter) or Op Amp. \$\endgroup\$ – Sunnyskyguy EE75 Oct 6 '18 at 19:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Clearly you are an expert, I'm a beginner wrt opamps. I'd be grateful if you could point me to some opamp+bjt or opamp+mosfet driving circuits that allow adjusting the output voltage given a variable 0-5v input. I want to learn, but haven't found a good tutorial on opamps with transistors in the feedback path to explain how and why it works. Here's my attempt using a comparator/non-inverting amplifier: circuitlab.com/editor/#?id=u8zk6b3m5xza ... I'm not 100% sure I understand why it works. Ditto with the 2nd circuit posted here electronics.stackexchange.com/a/349568/200460 \$\endgroup\$ – Normadize Oct 7 '18 at 2:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not good enough but getting there. But I’m not a fan of cctlab , pun intended \$\endgroup\$ – Sunnyskyguy EE75 Oct 7 '18 at 3:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I dislike it too but saw everyone in here using it to post circuits. If you can provide more details, what am I doing wrong and what can I improve? (also, which software do you recommend?) \$\endgroup\$ – Normadize Oct 7 '18 at 3:36

DC computer type fans ARE NOT DC motor driven fans, they are BLDC motors, and universally contain either an MCU or logic controller to start and run the fan. Running these fans on a PWM supply is not recommended, and it might well damage the components in some controllers over time.
This question covered the types of controller and may help your understanding.

The click you occasionally hear from your fan is in all probability the controller trying to do the start logic (in other words it thought the power had been cycled). These computer type fans are two phase and the controller has to ensure they will start in only one direction so have stall/kickoff logic. With a 2 wire fan it is close to impossible to sense if the fan has stalled, so their use is very problematic.

Depending on how advanced the controller is, it's quite possible you could damage one of the capacitors in the circuit supply over time and this might be what you are seeing occur.

Most motherboards (and I understand you might not be using the fans in a computer) that PWM the fans (typically 3 wire) are semi intelligent too, they start by applying 12V and then back off to a lower voltage to slow the fan. Since they are getting a rotation signal (3 wire) they can sense when the fan slows and increase the voltage. This was common driving methodology on older Server computers, but fan failure was quite common.

Since the cost differential is low, it is worth going to 4 wire fans where the PWM signal is actually going to an MCU, and it is responsible for controlling the fan speed. The controllers for 4 wire fans are very commonly available.

If you MUST control the DC voltage, then I'd suggest you do not use PWM, and be aware that the range of control is non-linear, and restricted. Most fans show DC control limited to about 5V DC on a 12V fan. You might also read this question which covered PWM of a fan for non-computer use.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Many thanks, this explained more than I could figure out or find online myself. In conclusion, if I don't know exactly which kind of controller the fans have and don't want to take risks then I'm better off trying to give them clean DC. I'm aware it'll be nonlinear and also capped lower than 12V depending on the circuit I implement - currently designed a mosfet source follower driven by a bjt and now looking for a mosfet choice with low Vth. \$\endgroup\$ – Normadize Oct 6 '18 at 16:33

One of the issues which makes me roll my eyes is the high PWM frequencies mentioned above. Yesterday and today I experimented with PWMing a couple of small 2 wire 12V BLDC fans. I am using 10 Hz (My ear does not hear much effect on fan noise of frequencies around this). At lower frequencies the speeding/slowing of the fan becomes more obvious. At 1 KHz for example you can hear the frequency from the fan. The fan definitely does not seem to respond well to frequencies > 10KHz or so and I see no point to such. I have a diode antiparallel with the fan. Right now I have a voltage slew rate limited to about 200 uSec for the 0 to 12V pulse leading edge. Using an Nch MOSFET with grounded source (through a 1 ohm current sense resistor for test purposes) & the fan connected between MOSFET drain and +12. Driving the MOSFET gate with a function generator through a 1K resistor. I connected (100nF capacitor in series with 33 ohms) from gate-drain on the MOSFET. Together with 1K ohm gate resistor, the 100 nF makes the FET work like an integrator to control the slew rate. The 33 ohms eliminated some high frequency oscillation which I had without it.

Replicating this operation with an op amp or comparator should be straightforward, and the controlled slew rate should limit peak current and pretty much avoid damage to anything.....


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