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Efficient LED Control: A Deep Dive into PWM Dimming

PWM Dimming 1

LED lighting is favored for its efficiency, durability, and longevity. However, adjusting their brightness can be a challenging task. This is where PWM dimming comes into play. It’s a technique to control LED brightness by modulating the pulse width of the electric current. The popularity of PWM dimming as a practical and useful method for managing LED lighting is rising.

What exactly is PWM dimming?

PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) is widely adopted in the contemporary electronics industry due to its versatile control over various devices. It regulates LEDs, motors, and various other electronic equipment. But what is its function?

PWM reduces an electrical signal’s average power, effectively separating the signal into discrete parts. Functionally, it involves rapidly switching the load and source and adjusting the average current and voltage supplied to the load.

PWM enables an extensive brightness range by adjusting the signal’s high (ON) or low (OFF) duration. Unlike analog dimming, which modifies LED brightness by adjusting output power, a PWM signal is either ON or OFF at any moment. This implies that the LEDs either receive the full voltage or no electricity, altering the brightness.

What is Constant Current Reduction (CCR)?

CCR (Constant Current Reduction) is a technique that provides a consistent current flow to the LED. Unlike the PWM method, where the LED state alternates between on and off, the LED remains constantly on in CCR. However, you can still adjust the LED brightness by modifying the current levels.

Advantages of the CCR Dimming Method:

  1. It suits remote applications requiring long wire lengths and stringent EMI specifications.
  2. CCR drivers have higher output voltage limits (60 V) than PWM drivers (24.8 V). This applies to Class 2 drivers, UL-certified for wet and dry environments.

Disadvantages of the CCR Dimming Method:

  1. CCR is less suitable for applications demanding dimming below 10% of maximum brightness due to LEDs’ inconsistent light production at extremely low currents.
  2. Lower driving current can lead to inconsistent color.

PWM as a Signal for Dimming

In expanding our understanding of PWM, it’s crucial to recognize PWM as a signal. PWM signals are sequences of square-wave-shaped pulses with distinct peaks and valleys. The high strength denotes the on-time, whereas the low strength represents the off-time.

Duty Cycle

In dimming, the duty cycle represents the duration the signal can remain high. If the signal is perpetually on, it has a 100% duty cycle. You can adjust the on-time of the PWM signal.


Another vital factor is the PWM signal frequency, which defines how fast the PWM signal completes a period — the time it takes for the signal to switch on and off.

PWM as LED Driver Output

When the PWM signal is converted to a DC voltage and utilized as an LED driver output, we experience pulse width modulation. This circuit swiftly alternates the DC LED currents between the on and off states at a high frequency, making a flicker invisible to the human eye.

Understanding the difference between PWM output and the dimming signal is essential. The dimmable cable features a PWM signal as a digital signal produced by a mechanism, while the driver determines the output current by sensing the PWM duty cycle.

PWM Dimming Drivers in the Market

PWM dimming drivers

PWM dimming drivers are increasingly vital for LED lighting. There are two main ways these drivers are implemented: Fake PWM Dimming and Real PWM Dimming.

Fake PWM Dimming

Fake PWM dimming serves the purpose of transforming PWM inputs into an analogous control signal. The driver houses a resistor-capacitor (RC) filter.

This RC filter is tasked with changing the PWM signal into a DC voltage proportionate to the duty cycle. The notable advantage of Fake PWM dimming is its silent operation, achieved because the LED current remains constant, and thus there is no output noise.

However, the method has its shortcomings. The precision is unsatisfactory when the peak value of the PWM is under 10V. Furthermore, the resistor-capacitor (RC) value restricts the frequency of the PWM signal.

Real PWM Dimming

In real PWM dimming, the currents of LEDs are turned on and off, adhering to the specified frequency and duty cycle. A microcontroller (MCU) present in the driver facilitates the detection of peak voltages in the PWM signal. Real PWM dimming accommodates a wider range of PWM frequencies.

A key characteristic of PWM dimming is its capability to keep the white point of the LED output stable. It also allows for a high reference voltage level to overcome offset errors.

Users need to select the PWM dimming mode in the driver development software.

Adjusting the Duty Cycle (Brightness) with PWM

When using pulse width modulation output, the supply is turned ON and OFF so quickly that the LEDs remain steady and do not flicker. The brightness of PWM is quantified using the term ‘Duty Cycle.’

The duty cycle refers to the fraction of the operating time during which the circuit is ON. It is denoted as a percentage, where 100 percent signifies the brightest possible state (completely ON), and lower percentages lead to diminished LED light output.

A 50% duty cycle for the PWM signal means it’s ON and OFF for equal durations, producing a square wave signal and maintaining average light brightness. If the percentage exceeds 50%, the signal remains more in the ON state, and if less than 50%, it stays more in the OFF state.

Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) vs. Analog Dimming of LEDs

As LED lighting experiences burgeoning demand in the market, there is a parallel increase in the need for highly efficient and well-regulated LED drivers. To maintain the energy-saving approach and flexibility in LED design, applications like “smart” street lights, flashlights, and digital signs require meticulously controlled currents and, often, dimming capabilities.

PWM Dimming Explained

Pulse width modulation (PWM) dimming momentarily switches LED current on and off. To avoid a flickering effect, the frequency of this on/off transition must be faster than what the human eye can discern, typically over 100Hz. There are multiple ways to implement PWM dimming:

  1. Directly modulating voltage with a PWM signal.
  2. Employing an open collector transistor.
  3. Using a microcontroller.

The LED’s average current equals the sum of its total nominal current and dimming duty cycle. However, designers must consider the converter output’s delay in shutdown and startup as it limits the PWM dimming frequency and duty cycle range.

Analog Dimming Defined

Analog dimming involves manipulating the LED current level through an external DC control voltage or resistive dimming. Though analog dimming facilitates level adjustment, it can cause a shift in color temperature. As a result, it is not suitable for applications where color consistency is crucial.

Primary Differences Between PWM and Analog Dimming

PWM Dimming Analog Dimming
Brightness is adjusted by modulating the peak current in the driverBrightness is adjusted by changing the DC going to the LED
No Color ShiftPossible Color Shift as LED current changes
Possible current inrush problemsNo inrush current to the device
Frequency limitations & possible frequency concernsNo frequency concerns
Very linear change in brightnessBrightness linearity is not as good
Lower Optical to electrical efficiencyHigher optical to electrical efficiency(>lumens per watt consumed)

Hardware Considerations for PWM

Certain factors must be considered when creating a system or PC board using PWM dimming. Backlight-type LEDs usually require a driver due to the high current level. Direct drive from a digital output, like a microcontroller, is not feasible.

A simple logic-level Field-Effect Transistor (FET) type transistor is often used as a driver. A resistor is needed on the gate to switch the FET and control the gate current. Another resistor is required if the current limitation is desired. Refer to the LCD datasheet for the appropriate backlight driving voltages and currents.

Switching-type LED drivers can drive the backlight more efficiently and at higher currents. These drivers are more complex and often managed by a specialized IC. Some ICs come with a PWM input explicitly designed for dimming applications.

If a microcontroller is used, ensure it’s connected to an output pin supporting PWM output if PWM is used as a hardware function.

Firmware/Software Considerations for PWM

PWM dimming also requires specific system design considerations. Backlight-type LEDs often need a driver due to the high current. A digital output, like that from a microcontroller, can’t be used for direct driving.

As in hardware considerations, a simple logic-level FET is often used as a driver. Gate current regulation requires a gate resistor, and a current limiting resistor is necessary. Check the LCD datasheet for the correct driving voltages and currents.

Switching-type LED drivers can effectively drive the LED backlight at high currents. They are complex and often managed by a specialist IC. Many ICs are designed with a PWM input specifically for dimming applications.

When using a microcontroller and PWM as a hardware function, ensure it’s connected to a PWM-supporting output pin.


PWM Functionality and Applications

Adjusting the on and off intervals of the switch increases the amount of power delivered to the load. This control type has several benefits.

PWM, combined with maximum power point tracking (MPPT), is a primary way to regulate solar panel output for easier battery usage.

PWM is also suitable for powering inertial devices like motors, as the unique switching doesn’t impact them significantly. It applies to LEDs due to the linear relationship between their function and input voltage.

Additionally, the PWM switching frequency should not affect the load, and the resulting waveform must be smooth enough for the load to interpret.

The power supply’s switching frequency can vary significantly based on the device’s function. Devices like electric stoves, computer power supplies, and audio amplifiers typically require switching speeds in the tens or hundreds of kilohertz range.

One of the main benefits of PWM is the incredibly low power loss in switching devices. When a switch is off, no current flows; when it’s on, the voltage drop across it is minimal.


PWM dimming is a cost-effective method for adjusting LED brightness. Compared to analog dimming, PWM dimming offers better energy efficiency, precise control, and extended lifespan. However, it has its challenges, such as potential EMI and the need for high-frequency switching circuits. Nonetheless, PWM dimming is a critical technique for controlling LEDs, and its prospects are bright.

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