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Basic Electric

Series, Parallel, & Combination Circuits

Benjamin Root

The best way to get a grip on what is actually happening in any electrical circuit is to understand the relationships between Volts, Amps, and Ohms in Ohm’s law. Let’s explore how these relationships change depending on the layout of the circuit and its components.


A circuit is considered to be “in

series” when all components are

connected in such a way that there

is only one possible path for current

to flow. This means that each

voltage source, switch, load, or

other component is in succession

with the other components of the circuit. Electrons flowing through such a circuit flow through every component in turn. Figure #1 shows a pictorial representation of a simple series circuit with a battery voltage source and two light bulbs as loads. Figure #2 shows a schematic representation of the same circuit. If you trace the path of an electron as it flows from the negative terminal of the battery through the circuit to the positive terminal you will notice that it passes through one lightbulb (R1) before it passes through the other lightbulb (R2). There is no way for an electron to pass through bulb 2 (R2) first, nor is there any way for an electron to pass through one bulb but not the other. The electron flow (current) follows the one and only path through the circuit.

You may remember Christmas tree lights of the past. When one bulb burned out (creating an open circuit) all of the bulbs would turn off. This is because the burned out bulb had interrupted the current flow in the only current path. With no current in the circuit no bulbs will light.

Current in a Series Circuit

In 1847 a German physicist named Gustav Kirchhoff made a statement about the behavior of electrons in a circuit. “Kirchhoff’s law” says that for every electron that enters a circuit another electron leaves the circuit. We can model this concept if we

imagine a pipe with a diameter just big enough to accept a golf ball (see figure #3). If we fill this pipe with golf balls we have a model of a copper wire where golf balls represent electrons of copper atoms. If we push a new golf ball into one end of the pipe a golf ball will fall out of the other end of the pipe. If we push ten golf balls

into the pipe in out of the other hole anywhere in the pipe, just big enough to peek in, we would count ten golf balls going by that point in one minute. Ten golf balls a minute is a rate in the same way that 6.28 X 1018 electrons in a second (one amp of current) is a rate.

In a series

circuit, just like

in the pipe,

current flow is

matter how many loads, in any order, current will be consistent everywhere. Knowing the amperage of a series circuit makes it easier to use Ohm’s law to analyse that circuit.

one minute, then ten golf balls will fall end in that minute. If we drilled a little

Fig. #3

10 balls in

Pipe is full of balls

10 balls past any point

10 balls out

IConstant = 2.4

Voltage Source

(in this case a battery)

Fig. #2


(in this case a light bulb)

R1 = 2Ω ER1 = 4.8Volts

R2 = 3Ω ER2 = 7.2 Volts


ETotal = 12 Volts

RTotal = 5Ω

the same throughout the circuit. No


Home Power #53 • June / July 1996

Fig. #1



12 Volt

Image | Series, Parallel, & Combination Circuits

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