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What is a Parallel Circuit?

Nicole Conaway, Elizabeth Friedl
  • Author
    Nicole Conaway

    Nicole Conaway has taught Secondary Math and Science [subjects] for over 20 years. They have a Master's Degree in Environmental Science from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor's degree in Biology form Wayne State University. They also have a Professional Teaching Certificate from the State of Michigan.

  • Instructor
    Elizabeth Friedl

    Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Understand what is a parallel circuit and what does a simple parallel circuit look like. Learn about the properties of the parallel circuit & its illustration. Updated: 11/10/2021

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Series Circuit and Parallel Circuit

Electrical circuits may be arranged in two basic configurations called series circuits and parallel circuits. The main difference between the two is that in parallel circuits connect devices or components in branched pathways while while series circuits connect devices in a row one after another.

Series Circuit

In a series circuit, the components are connected to each other in consecutive way one after another in one big loop. In a series circuit, there is only one path through which the electricity is able to flow.

Figure 1: Illustration of an electrical circuit with three components are connected in series.

Simple Series circuit illustration

Parallel Circuit

What is a parallel circuit exactly? Electricians and physicists define a parallel circuit as one in which each component is connected in its own branch or loop directly to the source of electricity. When the circuit is closed (with no breaks) this provides multiple different paths through which the electricity is able to flow at the same time. In an open parallel circuit, there is a break somewhere in the pathway, but since each branch is its own independent path, a break in one branch does not effect the devices in another branch. This is shown in Figure 2, which shows a simple parallel circuit.

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Figure 2: An electrical circuit with three components connected in parallel

Parallel Circuit

What Does a Parallel Circuit Look Like?

Just what does a parallel circuit look like? The parallel circuit illustration in Figure 3 shows that each component of the electrical circuit is connected from both ends of the component directly to the source of electricity, creating its own loop or branch. Each place where a loop branches off is called a node. The current flows from the electrical or voltage source (V), usually a battery, through the nodes to each component (labeled R for resistor in the diagram) and then back to the source. So some of the current is flowing through all the components at the same time. Because each branch is independent of the others, if there is a break in one of the branches it will not effect the other components of the circuit.

Figure 3: In a parallel circuit, each component of the circuit is connected to the source of electricity independent of other components.

Parallel Circuit Diagram

Properties of Parallel Circuits

There are three important properties of parallel circuits: current, voltage, and resistance.

  • In a parallel circuit, the voltage across each component is the same.
  • Unlike voltage however, the amount of current that flows through each branch of a parallel circuit is not the same. Current is a measure of the amount of electrons flowing in a circuit. Because each component is in its own loop, when the flow of electricity branches off into different directions at the nodes, the amount of current is divided. After passing through the components, the separated currents rejoin so that the total current is equal to the sum of the current flowing through each branch through each of the components in the parallel circuit.
  • Resistance is a property of the components that oppose the flow of electricity. The total resistance in a parallel circuit is actually less than the resistance of the individual components of the circuit. Each additional component diminishes the total resistance of the circuit. This may sound counterintuitive, but it will become more clear later in the lesson.

Voltage in Parallel Circuits

Voltage is the result of differences in electrical potential energy. This provides the force that causes electricity to move or flow through a circuit. The more electrons there are the greater the electrical potential energy. In a parallel circuit, each component is directly connected to the power sources so the voltage at each component is the same as the source voltage.

Figure 4: The voltage of the battery and each resistor is 8 volts because in parallel circuits the voltage at each component is equal to the source voltage.

Illustration of voltage in a parallel circuit

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if a circuit is parallel or series?

You can determine if a circuit is a parallel or series circuit by looking at connections and components. If both ends of each component are connected directly to the battery or source of electricity with no other component in between, then it is a parallel circuit.

What is the difference between series and parallel circuits?

In a series circuit, each component of the circuit does not connect directly to the batter. In a parallel circuit, each component of the circuit is connected directly to the battery or power source.

What is the current in a parallel circuit?

The current in an electrical circuit is the flow of electricity. In a parallel circuit the total current is the sum of each branch or loop of the circuit.

What is a parallel circuit and how does it work?

A parallel circuit is one in which both ends of each component are connected directly to the battery or source of electricity with no other component in between. Electricity flows from the source directly to each component. If the portion of the circuit to one component is broken, the other components still have complete circuits and can still operate.

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