Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
College Physics

21.3 Kirchhoff’s Rules

College Physics21.3 Kirchhoff’s Rules
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
    1. Introduction to Science and the Realm of Physics, Physical Quantities, and Units
    2. 1.1 Physics: An Introduction
    3. 1.2 Physical Quantities and Units
    4. 1.3 Accuracy, Precision, and Significant Figures
    5. 1.4 Approximation
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  3. 2 Kinematics
    1. Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
    2. 2.1 Displacement
    3. 2.2 Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
    4. 2.3 Time, Velocity, and Speed
    5. 2.4 Acceleration
    6. 2.5 Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
    7. 2.6 Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
    8. 2.7 Falling Objects
    9. 2.8 Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  4. 3 Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    1. Introduction to Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    2. 3.1 Kinematics in Two Dimensions: An Introduction
    3. 3.2 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Graphical Methods
    4. 3.3 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Analytical Methods
    5. 3.4 Projectile Motion
    6. 3.5 Addition of Velocities
    7. Glossary
    8. Section Summary
    9. Conceptual Questions
    10. Problems & Exercises
  5. 4 Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
    1. Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
    2. 4.1 Development of Force Concept
    3. 4.2 Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
    4. 4.3 Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
    5. 4.4 Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
    6. 4.5 Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
    7. 4.6 Problem-Solving Strategies
    8. 4.7 Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
    9. 4.8 Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  6. 5 Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
    1. Introduction: Further Applications of Newton’s Laws
    2. 5.1 Friction
    3. 5.2 Drag Forces
    4. 5.3 Elasticity: Stress and Strain
    5. Glossary
    6. Section Summary
    7. Conceptual Questions
    8. Problems & Exercises
  7. 6 Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
    1. Introduction to Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
    2. 6.1 Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity
    3. 6.2 Centripetal Acceleration
    4. 6.3 Centripetal Force
    5. 6.4 Fictitious Forces and Non-inertial Frames: The Coriolis Force
    6. 6.5 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    7. 6.6 Satellites and Kepler’s Laws: An Argument for Simplicity
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  8. 7 Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    1. Introduction to Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    2. 7.1 Work: The Scientific Definition
    3. 7.2 Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem
    4. 7.3 Gravitational Potential Energy
    5. 7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
    6. 7.5 Nonconservative Forces
    7. 7.6 Conservation of Energy
    8. 7.7 Power
    9. 7.8 Work, Energy, and Power in Humans
    10. 7.9 World Energy Use
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  9. 8 Linear Momentum and Collisions
    1. Introduction to Linear Momentum and Collisions
    2. 8.1 Linear Momentum and Force
    3. 8.2 Impulse
    4. 8.3 Conservation of Momentum
    5. 8.4 Elastic Collisions in One Dimension
    6. 8.5 Inelastic Collisions in One Dimension
    7. 8.6 Collisions of Point Masses in Two Dimensions
    8. 8.7 Introduction to Rocket Propulsion
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  10. 9 Statics and Torque
    1. Introduction to Statics and Torque
    2. 9.1 The First Condition for Equilibrium
    3. 9.2 The Second Condition for Equilibrium
    4. 9.3 Stability
    5. 9.4 Applications of Statics, Including Problem-Solving Strategies
    6. 9.5 Simple Machines
    7. 9.6 Forces and Torques in Muscles and Joints
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  11. 10 Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    1. Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    2. 10.1 Angular Acceleration
    3. 10.2 Kinematics of Rotational Motion
    4. 10.3 Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
    5. 10.4 Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
    6. 10.5 Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
    7. 10.6 Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
    8. 10.7 Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  12. 11 Fluid Statics
    1. Introduction to Fluid Statics
    2. 11.1 What Is a Fluid?
    3. 11.2 Density
    4. 11.3 Pressure
    5. 11.4 Variation of Pressure with Depth in a Fluid
    6. 11.5 Pascal’s Principle
    7. 11.6 Gauge Pressure, Absolute Pressure, and Pressure Measurement
    8. 11.7 Archimedes’ Principle
    9. 11.8 Cohesion and Adhesion in Liquids: Surface Tension and Capillary Action
    10. 11.9 Pressures in the Body
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  13. 12 Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    1. Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    2. 12.1 Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
    3. 12.2 Bernoulli’s Equation
    4. 12.3 The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
    5. 12.4 Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
    6. 12.5 The Onset of Turbulence
    7. 12.6 Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
    8. 12.7 Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  14. 13 Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    1. Introduction to Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    2. 13.1 Temperature
    3. 13.2 Thermal Expansion of Solids and Liquids
    4. 13.3 The Ideal Gas Law
    5. 13.4 Kinetic Theory: Atomic and Molecular Explanation of Pressure and Temperature
    6. 13.5 Phase Changes
    7. 13.6 Humidity, Evaporation, and Boiling
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  15. 14 Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    1. Introduction to Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    2. 14.1 Heat
    3. 14.2 Temperature Change and Heat Capacity
    4. 14.3 Phase Change and Latent Heat
    5. 14.4 Heat Transfer Methods
    6. 14.5 Conduction
    7. 14.6 Convection
    8. 14.7 Radiation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  16. 15 Thermodynamics
    1. Introduction to Thermodynamics
    2. 15.1 The First Law of Thermodynamics
    3. 15.2 The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
    4. 15.3 Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
    5. 15.4 Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
    6. 15.5 Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
    7. 15.6 Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
    8. 15.7 Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  17. 16 Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    1. Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    2. 16.1 Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
    3. 16.2 Period and Frequency in Oscillations
    4. 16.3 Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
    5. 16.4 The Simple Pendulum
    6. 16.5 Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
    7. 16.6 Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
    8. 16.7 Damped Harmonic Motion
    9. 16.8 Forced Oscillations and Resonance
    10. 16.9 Waves
    11. 16.10 Superposition and Interference
    12. 16.11 Energy in Waves: Intensity
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
  18. 17 Physics of Hearing
    1. Introduction to the Physics of Hearing
    2. 17.1 Sound
    3. 17.2 Speed of Sound, Frequency, and Wavelength
    4. 17.3 Sound Intensity and Sound Level
    5. 17.4 Doppler Effect and Sonic Booms
    6. 17.5 Sound Interference and Resonance: Standing Waves in Air Columns
    7. 17.6 Hearing
    8. 17.7 Ultrasound
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  19. 18 Electric Charge and Electric Field
    1. Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
    2. 18.1 Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
    3. 18.2 Conductors and Insulators
    4. 18.3 Coulomb’s Law
    5. 18.4 Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
    6. 18.5 Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
    7. 18.6 Electric Forces in Biology
    8. 18.7 Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
    9. 18.8 Applications of Electrostatics
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  20. 19 Electric Potential and Electric Field
    1. Introduction to Electric Potential and Electric Energy
    2. 19.1 Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
    3. 19.2 Electric Potential in a Uniform Electric Field
    4. 19.3 Electrical Potential Due to a Point Charge
    5. 19.4 Equipotential Lines
    6. 19.5 Capacitors and Dielectrics
    7. 19.6 Capacitors in Series and Parallel
    8. 19.7 Energy Stored in Capacitors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  21. 20 Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    1. Introduction to Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    2. 20.1 Current
    3. 20.2 Ohm’s Law: Resistance and Simple Circuits
    4. 20.3 Resistance and Resistivity
    5. 20.4 Electric Power and Energy
    6. 20.5 Alternating Current versus Direct Current
    7. 20.6 Electric Hazards and the Human Body
    8. 20.7 Nerve Conduction–Electrocardiograms
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  22. 21 Circuits and DC Instruments
    1. Introduction to Circuits and DC Instruments
    2. 21.1 Resistors in Series and Parallel
    3. 21.2 Electromotive Force: Terminal Voltage
    4. 21.3 Kirchhoff’s Rules
    5. 21.4 DC Voltmeters and Ammeters
    6. 21.5 Null Measurements
    7. 21.6 DC Circuits Containing Resistors and Capacitors
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  23. 22 Magnetism
    1. Introduction to Magnetism
    2. 22.1 Magnets
    3. 22.2 Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
    4. 22.3 Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
    5. 22.4 Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
    6. 22.5 Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
    7. 22.6 The Hall Effect
    8. 22.7 Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
    9. 22.8 Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
    10. 22.9 Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
    11. 22.10 Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
    12. 22.11 More Applications of Magnetism
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
  24. 23 Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
    1. Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
    2. 23.1 Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
    3. 23.2 Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
    4. 23.3 Motional Emf
    5. 23.4 Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
    6. 23.5 Electric Generators
    7. 23.6 Back Emf
    8. 23.7 Transformers
    9. 23.8 Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
    10. 23.9 Inductance
    11. 23.10 RL Circuits
    12. 23.11 Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
    13. 23.12 RLC Series AC Circuits
    14. Glossary
    15. Section Summary
    16. Conceptual Questions
    17. Problems & Exercises
  25. 24 Electromagnetic Waves
    1. Introduction to Electromagnetic Waves
    2. 24.1 Maxwell’s Equations: Electromagnetic Waves Predicted and Observed
    3. 24.2 Production of Electromagnetic Waves
    4. 24.3 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 24.4 Energy in Electromagnetic Waves
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  26. 25 Geometric Optics
    1. Introduction to Geometric Optics
    2. 25.1 The Ray Aspect of Light
    3. 25.2 The Law of Reflection
    4. 25.3 The Law of Refraction
    5. 25.4 Total Internal Reflection
    6. 25.5 Dispersion: The Rainbow and Prisms
    7. 25.6 Image Formation by Lenses
    8. 25.7 Image Formation by Mirrors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  27. 26 Vision and Optical Instruments
    1. Introduction to Vision and Optical Instruments
    2. 26.1 Physics of the Eye
    3. 26.2 Vision Correction
    4. 26.3 Color and Color Vision
    5. 26.4 Microscopes
    6. 26.5 Telescopes
    7. 26.6 Aberrations
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  28. 27 Wave Optics
    1. Introduction to Wave Optics
    2. 27.1 The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
    3. 27.2 Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
    4. 27.3 Young’s Double Slit Experiment
    5. 27.4 Multiple Slit Diffraction
    6. 27.5 Single Slit Diffraction
    7. 27.6 Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
    8. 27.7 Thin Film Interference
    9. 27.8 Polarization
    10. 27.9 *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  29. 28 Special Relativity
    1. Introduction to Special Relativity
    2. 28.1 Einstein’s Postulates
    3. 28.2 Simultaneity And Time Dilation
    4. 28.3 Length Contraction
    5. 28.4 Relativistic Addition of Velocities
    6. 28.5 Relativistic Momentum
    7. 28.6 Relativistic Energy
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  30. 29 Introduction to Quantum Physics
    1. Introduction to Quantum Physics
    2. 29.1 Quantization of Energy
    3. 29.2 The Photoelectric Effect
    4. 29.3 Photon Energies and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 29.4 Photon Momentum
    6. 29.5 The Particle-Wave Duality
    7. 29.6 The Wave Nature of Matter
    8. 29.7 Probability: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
    9. 29.8 The Particle-Wave Duality Reviewed
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  31. 30 Atomic Physics
    1. Introduction to Atomic Physics
    2. 30.1 Discovery of the Atom
    3. 30.2 Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
    4. 30.3 Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
    5. 30.4 X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
    6. 30.5 Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
    7. 30.6 The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
    8. 30.7 Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
    9. 30.8 Quantum Numbers and Rules
    10. 30.9 The Pauli Exclusion Principle
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  32. 31 Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    1. Introduction to Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    2. 31.1 Nuclear Radioactivity
    3. 31.2 Radiation Detection and Detectors
    4. 31.3 Substructure of the Nucleus
    5. 31.4 Nuclear Decay and Conservation Laws
    6. 31.5 Half-Life and Activity
    7. 31.6 Binding Energy
    8. 31.7 Tunneling
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  33. 32 Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
    1. Introduction to Applications of Nuclear Physics
    2. 32.1 Medical Imaging and Diagnostics
    3. 32.2 Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation
    4. 32.3 Therapeutic Uses of Ionizing Radiation
    5. 32.4 Food Irradiation
    6. 32.5 Fusion
    7. 32.6 Fission
    8. 32.7 Nuclear Weapons
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  34. 33 Particle Physics
    1. Introduction to Particle Physics
    2. 33.1 The Yukawa Particle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Revisited
    3. 33.2 The Four Basic Forces
    4. 33.3 Accelerators Create Matter from Energy
    5. 33.4 Particles, Patterns, and Conservation Laws
    6. 33.5 Quarks: Is That All There Is?
    7. 33.6 GUTs: The Unification of Forces
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  35. 34 Frontiers of Physics
    1. Introduction to Frontiers of Physics
    2. 34.1 Cosmology and Particle Physics
    3. 34.2 General Relativity and Quantum Gravity
    4. 34.3 Superstrings
    5. 34.4 Dark Matter and Closure
    6. 34.5 Complexity and Chaos
    7. 34.6 High-temperature Superconductors
    8. 34.7 Some Questions We Know to Ask
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  36. A | Atomic Masses
  37. B | Selected Radioactive Isotopes
  38. C | Useful Information
  39. D | Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation
  40. Index

Many complex circuits, such as the one in Figure 21.21, cannot be analyzed with the series-parallel techniques developed in Resistors in Series and Parallel and Electromotive Force: Terminal Voltage. There are, however, two circuit analysis rules that can be used to analyze any circuit, simple or complex. These rules are special cases of the laws of conservation of charge and conservation of energy. The rules are known as Kirchhoff’s rules, after their inventor Gustav Kirchhoff (1824–1887).

A complicated circuit diagram shows multiple resistances and voltage sources wired in series and in parallel. The circuit has three arms. The first has a cell of e m f script E sub one and internal resistance r sub one in series with a resistor R sub two. The second has a cell of e m f script E sub two and internal resistance r sub two in series with resistor R sub three. The third arm has a resistor R sub one. The three arms are connected in parallel.
Figure 21.21 This circuit cannot be reduced to a combination of series and parallel connections. Kirchhoff’s rules, special applications of the laws of conservation of charge and energy, can be used to analyze it. (Note: The script E in the figure represents electromotive force, emf.)

Kirchhoff’s Rules

  • Kirchhoff’s first rule—the junction rule. The sum of all currents entering a junction must equal the sum of all currents leaving the junction.
  • Kirchhoff’s second rule—the loop rule. The algebraic sum of changes in potential around any closed circuit path (loop) must be zero.

Explanations of the two rules will now be given, followed by problem-solving hints for applying Kirchhoff’s rules, and a worked example that uses them.

Kirchhoff’s First Rule

Kirchhoff’s first rule (the junction rule) is an application of the conservation of charge to a junction; it is illustrated in Figure 21.22. Current is the flow of charge, and charge is conserved; thus, whatever charge flows into the junction must flow out. Kirchhoff’s first rule requires that I1=I2+I3I1=I2+I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } =I rSub { size 8{2} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } } {} (see figure). Equations like this can and will be used to analyze circuits and to solve circuit problems.

Making Connections: Conservation Laws

Kirchhoff’s rules for circuit analysis are applications of conservation laws to circuits. The first rule is the application of conservation of charge, while the second rule is the application of conservation of energy. Conservation laws, even used in a specific application, such as circuit analysis, are so basic as to form the foundation of that application.

This schematic drawing shows a T-junction, with one current I sub one flowing into the T and two currents I sub two and I sub three flowing out of the T junction.
Figure 21.22 The junction rule. The diagram shows an example of Kirchhoff’s first rule where the sum of the currents into a junction equals the sum of the currents out of a junction. In this case, the current going into the junction splits and comes out as two currents, so that I1=I2+I3I1=I2+I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } =I rSub { size 8{2} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } } {}. Here I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {} must be 11 A, since I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {} is 7 A and I3I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } } {} is 4 A.

Kirchhoff’s Second Rule

Kirchhoff’s second rule (the loop rule) is an application of conservation of energy. The loop rule is stated in terms of potential, VV size 12{V} {}, rather than potential energy, but the two are related since PEelec=qVPEelec=qV size 12{ ital "PE" rSub { size 8{"elec"} } = ital "qV"} {}. Recall that emf is the potential difference of a source when no current is flowing. In a closed loop, whatever energy is supplied by emf must be transferred into other forms by devices in the loop, since there are no other ways in which energy can be transferred into or out of the circuit. Figure 21.23 illustrates the changes in potential in a simple series circuit loop.

Kirchhoff’s second rule requires emfIrIR1IR2=0emfIrIR1IR2=0 size 12{"emf" - ital "Ir" - ital "IR" rSub { size 8{1} } - ital "IR" rSub { size 8{2} } =0} {}. Rearranged, this is emf=Ir+IR1+IR2emf=Ir+IR1+IR2 size 12{"emf"= ital "Ir"+ ital "IR" rSub { size 8{1} } + ital "IR" rSub { size 8{2} } } {}, which means the emf equals the sum of the IRIR size 12{ ital "IR"} {} (voltage) drops in the loop.

Part a shows a schematic of a simple circuit that has a voltage source in series with two load resistors. The voltage source has an e m f, labeled script E, of eighteen volts. The voltage drops are one volt across the internal resistance and twelve volts and five volts across the two load resistances. Part b is a perspective drawing corresponding to the circuit in part a. The charge is raised in potential by the e m f and lowered by the resistances.
Figure 21.23 The loop rule. An example of Kirchhoff’s second rule where the sum of the changes in potential around a closed loop must be zero. (a) In this standard schematic of a simple series circuit, the emf supplies 18 V, which is reduced to zero by the resistances, with 1 V across the internal resistance, and 12 V and 5 V across the two load resistances, for a total of 18 V. (b) This perspective view represents the potential as something like a roller coaster, where charge is raised in potential by the emf and lowered by the resistances. (Note that the script E stands for emf.)

Applying Kirchhoff’s Rules

By applying Kirchhoff’s rules, we generate equations that allow us to find the unknowns in circuits. The unknowns may be currents, emfs, or resistances. Each time a rule is applied, an equation is produced. If there are as many independent equations as unknowns, then the problem can be solved. There are two decisions you must make when applying Kirchhoff’s rules. These decisions determine the signs of various quantities in the equations you obtain from applying the rules.

  1. When applying Kirchhoff’s first rule, the junction rule, you must label the current in each branch and decide in what direction it is going. For example, in Figure 21.21, Figure 21.22, and Figure 21.23, currents are labeled I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {}, I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {}, I3I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } } {}, and II size 12{I} {}, and arrows indicate their directions. There is no risk here, for if you choose the wrong direction, the current will be of the correct magnitude but negative.
  2. When applying Kirchhoff’s second rule, the loop rule, you must identify a closed loop and decide in which direction to go around it, clockwise or counterclockwise. For example, in Figure 21.23 the loop was traversed in the same direction as the current (clockwise). Again, there is no risk; going around the circuit in the opposite direction reverses the sign of every term in the equation, which is like multiplying both sides of the equation by –1.–1.

Figure 21.24 and the following points will help you get the plus or minus signs right when applying the loop rule. Note that the resistors and emfs are traversed by going from a to b. In many circuits, it will be necessary to construct more than one loop. In traversing each loop, one needs to be consistent for the sign of the change in potential. (See Example 21.5.)

This figure shows four situations where current flows through either a resistor or a source, and the calculation of the potential change across each. The first two diagrams show the potential drop across a resistor, with the current flowing from left to right or right to left. The other two diagrams show a potential drop across a voltage source, when the terminals are in one orientation and then another.
Figure 21.24 Each of these resistors and voltage sources is traversed from a to b. The potential changes are shown beneath each element and are explained in the text. (Note that the script E stands for emf.)
  • When a resistor is traversed in the same direction as the current, the change in potential is IRIR size 12{- ital "IR"} {}. (See Figure 21.24.)
  • When a resistor is traversed in the direction opposite to the current, the change in potential is +IR+IR size 12{+ ital "IR"} {}. (See Figure 21.24.)
  • When an emf is traversed from to + (the same direction it moves positive charge), the change in potential is +emf. (See Figure 21.24.)
  • When an emf is traversed from + to (opposite to the direction it moves positive charge), the change in potential is size 12{ - {}} {} emf. (See Figure 21.24.)

Example 21.5 Calculating Current: Using Kirchhoff’s Rules

Find the currents flowing in the circuit in Figure 21.25.

The diagram shows a complex circuit with two voltage sources E sub one and E sub two and several resistive loads, wired in two loops and two junctions. Several points on the diagram are marked with letters a through h. The current in each branch is labeled separately.
Figure 21.25 This circuit is similar to that in Figure 21.21, but the resistances and emfs are specified. (Each emf is denoted by script E.) The currents in each branch are labeled and assumed to move in the directions shown. This example uses Kirchhoff’s rules to find the currents.

Strategy

This circuit is sufficiently complex that the currents cannot be found using Ohm’s law and the series-parallel techniques—it is necessary to use Kirchhoff’s rules. Currents have been labeled I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {}, I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {}, and I3I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } } {} in the figure and assumptions have been made about their directions. Locations on the diagram have been labeled with letters a through h. In the solution we will apply the junction and loop rules, seeking three independent equations to allow us to solve for the three unknown currents.

Solution

We begin by applying Kirchhoff’s first or junction rule at point a. This gives

I1=I2+I3,I1=I2+I3, size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } =I rSub { size 8{2} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } } {}
21.54

since I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {} flows into the junction, while I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {} and I3I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } } {} flow out. Applying the junction rule at e produces exactly the same equation, so that no new information is obtained. This is a single equation with three unknowns—three independent equations are needed, and so the loop rule must be applied.

Now we consider the loop abcdea. Going from a to b, we traverse R2R2 size 12{R rSub { size 8{2} } } {} in the same (assumed) direction of the current I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {}, and so the change in potential is I2R2I2R2 size 12{ - I rSub { size 8{2} } R rSub { size 8{2} } } {}. Then going from b to c, we go from to +, so that the change in potential is +emf1+emf1 size 12{+"emf" rSub { size 8{1} } } {}. Traversing the internal resistance r1r1 size 12{r rSub { size 8{1} } } {} from c to d gives I2r1I2r1 size 12{ - I rSub { size 8{2} } r rSub { size 8{1} } } {}. Completing the loop by going from d to a again traverses a resistor in the same direction as its current, giving a change in potential of I1R1I1R1 size 12{ - I rSub { size 8{1} } R rSub { size 8{1} } } {}.

The loop rule states that the changes in potential sum to zero. Thus,

I2R2+emf1I2r1I1R1=I2(R2+r1)+emf1I1R1=0.I2R2+emf1I2r1I1R1=I2(R2+r1)+emf1I1R1=0. size 12{ - I rSub { size 8{2} } R rSub { size 8{2} } +"emf" rSub { size 8{1} } - I rSub { size 8{2} } r rSub { size 8{1} } - I rSub { size 8{1} } R rSub { size 8{1} } = - I rSub { size 8{2} } \( R rSub { size 8{2} } +r rSub { size 8{1} } \) +"emf" rSub { size 8{1} } - I rSub { size 8{1} } R rSub { size 8{1} } =0} {}
21.55

Substituting values from the circuit diagram for the resistances and emf, and canceling the ampere unit gives

3I2+186I1=0.3I2+186I1=0. size 12{ - 3I rSub { size 8{2} } +"18" - 6I rSub { size 8{1} } =0} {}
21.56

Now applying the loop rule to aefgha (we could have chosen abcdefgha as well) similarly gives

+I1R1+I3R3+I3r2emf2= +I1R1+I3R3+r2emf2=0.+I1R1+I3R3+I3r2emf2= +I1R1+I3R3+r2emf2=0. size 12{+I rSub { size 8{1} } R rSub { size 8{1} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } R rSub { size 8{3} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } r rSub { size 8{2} } - "emf" rSub { size 8{2} } "=+"I rSub { size 8{1} } R rSub { size 8{1} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } left (R rSub { size 8{3} } +r rSub { size 8{2} } right ) - "emf" rSub { size 8{2} } =0} {}
21.57

Note that the signs are reversed compared with the other loop, because elements are traversed in the opposite direction. With values entered, this becomes

+6I1+2I345=0.+6I1+2I345=0. size 12{+6I rSub { size 8{1} } +2I rSub { size 8{3} } - "45"=0} {}
21.58

These three equations are sufficient to solve for the three unknown currents. First, solve the second equation for I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {}:

I2=62I1.I2=62I1. size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } =6 - 2I rSub { size 8{1} } } {}
21.59

Now solve the third equation for I3I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } } {}:

I3=22.53I1.I3=22.53I1. size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } ="22" "." 5 - 3I rSub { size 8{1} } } {}
21.60

Substituting these two new equations into the first one allows us to find a value for I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {}:

I1=I2+I3=(62I1)+(22.5 3I1)=28.5 5I1.I1=I2+I3=(62I1)+(22.5 3I1)=28.5 5I1. size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } =I rSub { size 8{2} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } = \( 6 - 2I rSub { size 8{1} } \) + \( "22" "." 5 - 3I rSub { size 8{1} } \) ="28" "." 5 - 5I rSub { size 8{1} } } {}
21.61

Combining terms gives

6I1=28.5, and6I1=28.5, and size 12{6I rSub { size 8{1} } ="28" "." 5} {}
21.62
I1=4.75 A.I1=4.75 A. size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } =4 "." "75"" A"} {}
21.63

Substituting this value for I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {} back into the fourth equation gives

I 2 = 6 2I 1 = 6 9.50 I 2 = 6 2I 1 = 6 9.50 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } =6 - 2I rSub { size 8{1} } =6 - 9 "." "50"} {}
21.64
I2=3.50 A.I2=3.50 A. size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } = - 3 "." "50"" A"} {}
21.65

The minus sign means I2I2 size 12{I rSub { size 8{2} } } {} flows in the direction opposite to that assumed in Figure 21.25.

Finally, substituting the value for I1I1 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } } {} into the fifth equation gives

I 3 = 22.5 3I 1 = 22.5 14 . 25 I 3 = 22.5 3I 1 = 22.5 14 . 25 size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } ="22" "." 5 - 3I rSub { size 8{1} } ="22" "." 5 - "14" "." "25"} {}
21.66
I3=8.25 A.I3=8.25 A. size 12{I rSub { size 8{3} } =8 "." "25"" A"} {}
21.67

Discussion

Just as a check, we note that indeed I1=I2+I3I1=I2+I3 size 12{I rSub { size 8{1} } =I rSub { size 8{2} } +I rSub { size 8{3} } } {}. The results could also have been checked by entering all of the values into the equation for the abcdefgha loop.

Problem-Solving Strategies for Kirchhoff’s Rules

  1. Make certain there is a clear circuit diagram on which you can label all known and unknown resistances, emfs, and currents. If a current is unknown, you must assign it a direction. This is necessary for determining the signs of potential changes. If you assign the direction incorrectly, the current will be found to have a negative value—no harm done.
  2. Apply the junction rule to any junction in the circuit. Each time the junction rule is applied, you should get an equation with a current that does not appear in a previous application—if not, then the equation is redundant.
  3. Apply the loop rule to as many loops as needed to solve for the unknowns in the problem. (There must be as many independent equations as unknowns.) To apply the loop rule, you must choose a direction to go around the loop. Then carefully and consistently determine the signs of the potential changes for each element using the four bulleted points discussed above in conjunction with Figure 21.24.
  4. Solve the simultaneous equations for the unknowns. This may involve many algebraic steps, requiring careful checking and rechecking.
  5. Check to see whether the answers are reasonable and consistent. The numbers should be of the correct order of magnitude, neither exceedingly large nor vanishingly small. The signs should be reasonable—for example, no resistance should be negative. Check to see that the values obtained satisfy the various equations obtained from applying the rules. The currents should satisfy the junction rule, for example.

The material in this section is correct in theory. We should be able to verify it by making measurements of current and voltage. In fact, some of the devices used to make such measurements are straightforward applications of the principles covered so far and are explored in the next modules. As we shall see, a very basic, even profound, fact results—making a measurement alters the quantity being measured.

Check Your Understanding

Can Kirchhoff’s rules be applied to simple series and parallel circuits or are they restricted for use in more complicated circuits that are not combinations of series and parallel?

Solution

Kirchhoff's rules can be applied to any circuit since they are applications to circuits of two conservation laws. Conservation laws are the most broadly applicable principles in physics. It is usually mathematically simpler to use the rules for series and parallel in simpler circuits so we emphasize Kirchhoff’s rules for use in more complicated situations. But the rules for series and parallel can be derived from Kirchhoff’s rules. Moreover, Kirchhoff’s rules can be expanded to devices other than resistors and emfs, such as capacitors, and are one of the basic analysis devices in circuit analysis.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information Citation information

© Jun 21, 2012 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.