Electronics Trouble-Shooting Secret Weapon

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The other day I was working on a particularly difficult electronics problem with an ion gun controller and to help figure it out, I needed to dust off my trusty Huntron Tracker. I don’t need to use it very often, but when needed, there is nothing better for troubleshooting electronics problems.

Huntron Tracker
Huntron Tracker

First introduced in 1979, the Huntron Tracker displays an analog signature, which is a combination of resistive, capacitive, inductive, and semi-conductive characteristics. This visual display is very helpful for comparing electronics components on a defective board. The Tracker is particularly useful for comparing components on a known defective electronics board with a known good one. The Tracker applies a tiny AC voltage to the probes so you can test components with no power applied to the board that you are testing.

Compare known good board components to defective board components
Compare known good board to defective board

You can usually find defective electronics components with a DVM (digital volt meter) by testing diodes and capacitors, then measuring resistance values. But there are times when all of the individual components check out as OK with a DVM, but you know that there must be at least one defective component because the board does not work properly. For those times, the Huntron Tracker works like a champ every time. By finding some components that read differently with the Tracker, you can get a clue and ultimately, find the problem. 

The early model Huntron Trackers had a little CRT display and three power level settings. Those models are still available on EBay for about $300.00. The Tracker that I use is one of these early ones and it still works well.

Over the years Huntron Trackers have evolved and today’s models include more power settings, automated testing, and software. For more info visit Huntron at –


If a new Huntron Tracker is out of your price range or you can’t find an older one, there are also inexpensive curve tracer kits available on eBay that provide Tracker functionality using an oscilloscope. To find those, go to eBay and search for Curve Tracer kit.

Curve tracer board

Troubleshooting electronics resources

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1-30-20   I updated this blog post to include a video on how to isolate a thermally unstable electronic component using a heat gun and cool spray.

When a problem develops with your XPS or AES spectrometer and you contact RBD Instruments for assistance, we frequently hear the same question – “What could be the source of the problem?”. The troubleshooting electronics tips below may help to find out.

Most problems on XPS and AES spectrometers can be broken into two broad categories – Optics problems and electronics problems. Optics (electron optics) are parts of the system that are installed on the vacuum chamber and include things like spherical capacitive analyzers, cylindrical mirror analyzers, sputter ion guns, x-ray sources, neutralizers and so on. Electronics include units such as power supplies and controllers.

Optics can generally (but not always) easily be tested by simply measuring the resistances on the electrical feedthroughs as specified in the optic’s manual. For example, a 04-303 ion gun should have contact between pins 1 and 2 (the filament) only. All other pins should be open to each other and to ground. By open, we mean that the electrical resistance is infinite. If pin 3 were shorted to ground, we would know that the objective lens inside the ion gun has a flake that is shorting it out, and the ion gun needs to be taken apart and rebuilt. But an optic component can have correct resistances and still have a problem (such as an open contact). Sometimes a short in an optic can also cause a failure in an electronic unit.

Electronic units are the source of problems with XPS and AES spectrometers more often than optics. Most of the students who use XPS and AES spectrometers in a university environment do not have enough training or experience with electronics to really dig into the electronic circuitry, but there are still a number of simple steps that can be taken that may result in a successful repair.

First of all, make sure that all power is off to any electronic unit that you work with. Measurements of voltages should always be performed by personal who have been training to work with electronic components and (often) high voltage. Potentially lethal voltages are present in these types of systems. If you are not properly trained, do not attempt to measure voltages in electronic units.

But, as long as the power is off and the unit is unplugged, you can safely visually inspect the unit and the boards inside of the unit for obvious signs of damage. For the most part, these are indicated by discoloration of the circuit boards, melted traces, melted transistors, dried up capacitors, and burnt resistors. If you find some components that are visibly damaged, then replacing them may solve the problem. Or, there may also be additional problems and the damaged components are just a symptom.

Some things to look for include:

Heat damage to a circuit board: Discoloration of the board which indicates that a component has been running very hot.

Melted components: Transistors (the plastic type) can actually melt when overheated. This is easy to spot.

Cracked capacitors: When capacitors dry out (after say 20 years or more) they can fail. See the links below for detailed instructions on how to test a capacitor. Be careful with larger value capacitors as they can hold a charge for a long time. Just to be safe, discharge capacitors before you measure them by clipping a resistor (a few hundred to a few thousand ohms is typical) across the contacts. This is not necessary for small value low voltage capacitors.

Burnt resistors: Resistors that burn up can turn to carbon and be difficult to identify without a schematic and board layout. Measure the resistance of suspect resistors with an ohmmeter. Sometimes you need to lift one end of the resistor (desolder one end of the resistor from the board) when measuring resistors in circuit as other components that may be in parallel with the resistor can affect the reading.

Shorted diodes and transistors: You can use a DVM in the diode check mode to test diodes and transistors for shorts. See the links below for detailed instructions on how to do that.

Dullness on transistor housing: If a metal housing (cover) transistor overheats often the finish on the transistor housing may be dull as a result of overheating. You can compare the finish to other similar transistors and then use a DVM in the diode check mode to test the suspected transistor. Plastic housing transistors that have melted are readily apparent.

Below I have listed some links to troubleshooting electronics resources. If you can’t fix the problem on your older Physical electronics (PHI) electronic unit yourself after following the steps in this post, we can provide you with technical support, repair services, loaners or exchange units. Contact us for more info at https://www.rbdinstruments.com/technical-support.html

 Troubleshooting Electronics resources;

How to isolate a thermal problem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lpil4WdQLo

Video on how to test a diode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSDRsz5-t7I

Article on how to test a diode; http://www.allaboutcircuits.com/vol_3/chpt_3/2.html

Video on how to test a transistor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3G8t-cV1d8

Article on how to test a transistor: http://www.tpub.com/neets/book7/25h.htm

Video on how to test a capacitor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFa6JfVu3B4

Article on how to measure a capacitor: http://www.wikihow.com/Measure-Capacitance

 General troubleshooting information:




Using RBD’s Portal

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Why should I register on the Portal instead of just sending an email with my question/request?

Many people would rather just send an email than register or create an account in a system. We understand this, so we’ll talk about the issue with emails a little later. For now, though, here are a few of the benefits of using the Portal:

  • When you register on the Portal, you have access to all of your tickets. This includes open and closed (resolved) tickets, as well as sales and service tickets. (Closing tickets is discussed later).
  • You have access to our Knowledgebase, which is discussed in more detail later.
  • You can search though your tickets, using any of the topic-specific words you have used in the ticket, to help find the relevant ticket more quickly. (Try doing this quickly when  you have many emails – maybe even thousands of emails – to go through! But again, more on emails later). It may be a little while between when you post and the search finds the ticket because there’s some data base indexing going on behind the scenes.

Do I need to register to use the Portal?

If you are asking for support assistance, yes, you need to register to use the Portal. If you have a sales-related question, no, you don’t need to register on the Portal. But, we encourage you to register for the reasons given elsewhere.

Why should I register on the Portal if I have only a sales-related question?

We have discovered that tickets that begin as sales questions frequently include technical discussions that contain information that is useful later, even if a purchase isn’t made right then. So, when you register, you have access to these discussions when you need them. And you can avoid the dreaded search through emails to find that wonderful technical tidbit you need.

Registering on the Portal also gives you access to our Knowledgebase (KB). Our KB contains articles that address many commonly asked questions about Physical Electronics products that we work on, trouble-shooting tips, and information about RBD Instruments products and services. Many of our customers have found it helpful to use our KB to determine which version of our products (like our 9103 or water vapor desorption products) will best meet their needs.

How do I do register?

Go to rbdinstruments.com and click on the Portal Register button as shown here:

Accessing the portal

Accessing the portal from RBD’s website

On the Registration screen, we ask you to enter the following information.

  • A Username. It can be anything that you want. Many people just use their first and last name, which makes it easy to remember.
  • A Password with at least 6 characters; it can’t match your username. You can even have the Portal remember you on your computer.
  • Your email address.
  • Your full name.
  • Your phone number.
  • Your time zone.

Then, just click “I’m not a robot” then click “Complete Registration” and you’re done!

What’s the issue with using emails?

Many of you have gotten comfortable sending emails to a specific staff member at RBD Instruments. But when that person is out of the office and is unable to check emails during the work day or maybe for a couple of days, your email could get stuck in their email list and it may be awhile before they get back to you. Enter the Portal.

When you create a ticket in the Portal, it goes into a General Queue, which is something that everyone at RBD Instruments is able to view. We can then, depending on what you’ve asked, help you quickly or assign your ticket to the appropriate expert. Now that you have created a ticket, all communications about your question are in one, easy-to-access spot. Continuity is maintained!

Please note that you should always create a new ticket to address a new topic or request. This keeps communications nice and clean. Have you ever written an email that has asked about a few different things but not all of them are answered in a single reply? And then you end up with multiple emails that are kind of about the same things but not completely? Using tickets in our Portal takes care of this: one ticket that contains a discrete, entire discussion.

Can I still send an email with my question?

The Portal is actually an email-based system. So, when you send an email to our sales or support department, your email is automatically sent to the Portal and a ticket is created there. We will be able to tell if it was a sales-related or a service-related question based on the email address you sent it to, and route it to the appropriate person in the applicable department.

When we reply, you get an email with a ticket number added to the subject of your email. If the subject of your email was “Question about your microCMA,” the subject of the reply will look something like “[123-1234DEV-456] Question about your microCMA”. The stuff in the brackets ([]) is your ticket number, which you need to keep. The ticket number is what our system uses to identify your ticket. When you reply to the email, keep the ticket number in the email’s subject to maintain continuity. If you change or delete the ticket number, the continuity and history of your discussion will be interrupted, which will make it more difficult to ensure that you get the answers you need. So, please don’t change or delete the ticket number.

How do I reply to a ticket?

Because the system is email-based, you can reply to the email you received or you can reply in the Portal itself.

When you reply to the email itself (and as mentioned above, please don’t change or delete the ticket number) this will ensure that everything already discussed in the ticket will stay in the ticket. If you change or delete the ticket number, it can get confusing and discussions will be interrupted. Yes, we’re saying this a lot, but it is really important!

You can avoid concerns about losing continuity by logging into the Portal and replying to a ticket in the Portal itself:

  1. Log into the portal.
  2. If you don’t see “My Tickets”, click the Tickets button.
  3. Find the ticket you want to reply to. You can enter the ticket number if you know it, or some text that you know was included in the ticket.
  4. When you are in your ticket and want to reply, scroll to the bottom of the screen. You should see something that looks like this:

    Portal Reply to Ticket

    Replying to a ticket and adding files on the portal

  5. Type your reply in the big text box.
  6. To attach a file, click the Choose File button to open the document storage location on your computer. Navigate to the file you want to attach and double-click it (or however you normally select a document). You can attach multiple documents.

How do I download documents that someone at RBD Instruments has attached to a ticket?

When you view RBD’s reply in the Portal, the ticket may look something like this:

Portal reply files

Accessing files attached to a reply on the portal

See the “Attachments” line at the bottom of this post? The light blue text to the right of the word Attachments is the name of the file (or files) that an RBD staff member has attached to the reply. Click on the file name to open the file.

How do I close a ticket? And, is a closed ticket permanently closed?

When the question that you asked has been resolved to your satisfaction, your ticket can be closed.

A ticket can be closed in a couple of ways:

  • As you can see in the graphic above, there is a check box that says “This ticket can be closed”. Simply click that box. We will receive a notification of your request and close the ticket.


  • You can reply to the ticket and ask us to close the ticket for you.

Let’s say that you later determine that you have more questions about the same issue. You don’t want to create a new ticket because you would lose the continuity of the earlier discussion. Instead, you can simply go back to the ticket in the Portal (which you can do if you have registered on the Portal) and reply to it again. The ticket is automatically reopened.


We are excited about how our new Portal helps us to help you! We encourage you to register if you have not already done so.