Rheostat vs potentiometer

The potentiometer and rheostat are two components that are used in electronics. These two components are used for both laboratory and industrial purposes. In this article, we are going to discuss their differences.

Differences between rheostat and potentiometer

The differences between rheostat and potentiometer are the following:


The potentiometer is a three-terminal device used for voltage control, while the rheostat is a two-terminal device used for current control. The potentiometer name comes from the concept of varying potential differences. The rheostat is nothing but a variable resistor. The rheostat is derived from the Greek words ‘rheos’ and ‘statis’ means the current controlling device.

Operating principle and construction

The rheostat has mainly two parts one is resistive material or you can say resistor and another is a movable wiper. The rheostat has two terminals. One terminal is connected to one end of the resistor and another is connected to the wiper. By moving the wiper, we can vary the resistance across the two terminals.

The construction of a potentiometer is shown in simplified form in the figure. A resistive strip is bent into a nearly complete circle, and terminals are connected to either end. This forms a fixed resistance. To obtain the variable resistance, a sliding contact is attached to a rotatable shaft and bearing and is connected to a third terminal. The resistance between this middle terminal, and either of the end terminals, can vary from zero up to the resistance of the whole strip.

Number of terminals

A potentiometer is a resistor with three terminals and sliding contact with an adjustable voltage divider while a rheostat is a variable resistor with two terminals.

Connection type

The potentiometer is connected parallel with the source but the rheostat is connected series with load and source.

Main function

The basic function of a potentiometer is voltage dividing. While the usual function of a rheostat is to determine the flow of current.

Application areas

A potentiometer has low power and is used for audio devices, television control, and as a transducer while a rheostat is used for control of appliances like fans, mixers, and the motors of large industrial machines.

Potentiometers are used for low power applications (less than about one watt), but rheostats are used for high power applications (more than about one watt).


A rheostat cannot be used as a potentiometer. A potentiometer can be used as a rheostat. A potentiometer may be used as a rheostat by simply using the wiper terminal and one of the other terminals, the third terminal is left unconnected and unused. Another method is to wire the unused terminal to the center terminal.


The potentiometer has linear, rotary, and digital types. Rheostat has linear, rotary, and preset types.


A potentiometer is made with resistive elements such as graphite, resistance wire, carbon particles, and cermet while a rheostat is made of several different materials such as metal ribbons, fluids, and carbon disks.


A rheostat is not continuously adjustable, as a potentiometer is. This is because the movable contact slides along from turn to turn of the wire coil. The smallest possible increment is the resistance in one turn of the coil. The rheostat resistance, therefore, adjusts in a series of little jumps.


The price of a potentiometer is higher than rheostat. Potentiometers provide a cost-effective solution in trimming applications and the ever-present necessity of control for the man-machine interface.


The physical size of a rheostat is bigger than a potentiometer.