Time for another installment of the Easy Electrons series. This one is about the why’s and how’s of pull-up and pull-down resistors.
There are many ways to generate digital output signals. They almost always work with “high” and “low” voltages – for suitable definitions of high and low. As it turns out, there are lots of tricks you can play with this.
The high-end solution is to use a “push-pull” driver with two transistors. Similar to the H-bridge circuit described in an earlier post. By switching either one of the transistors on, you get an output which can carry current in either high or low states (“sourced” to ground, or “drained” from the supply rail, respectively):
The CTRL A & B pins are set up in such a way that one transistor conducts, and the other blocks. When a PNP/NPN pair is used, tying them both together turns out to work exactly as needed. This is what an Atmega pin does in OUTPUT mode, essentially.
But you don’t really need such a setup in many cases. That upper transistor can also be replaced by a resistor:
Resistors are cheaper, but more importantly, resistors offer more flexibility. The effect is that when the only remaining lower transistor is conducting, then it draws the signal to ground, and when it is not, then the resistor pulls the now-floating signal to a high level. This works as long as you don’t draw too much current. A common value for such a “pull-up” resistor will be between 1 kΩ and 100 kΩ. In that last case, you can’t put a load of more than a few microamps on the circuit, but again: for signaling purposes that is often just fine.
Why is this useful?
Well, for one, the voltage levels can be different. It’s possible to control a 0..12V digital signal using just one transistor and a pull-up to… 12V. This is also perfect for 3.3V -> 5V conversion, for example, and it even works when the output voltage is lower than the signal input (which goes through a current-limiting resistor anyway).
Another nice property is that you can tie several such outputs together. The output signal will drop to 0 whenever any output is low, and stay at 1 when all the outputs are high. i.e. it acts as an implicit AND-gate. This makes such a circuit suitable for “bussing”, i.e. putting multiple devices on a single signal line. You still need to collaborate between the devices to make sure only one of them talks at any given time, but electrically they can all be tied together with no extra circuitry. An output which is high is in effect not participating in the state of the bus signal.
Third, the single-transistor can still drive larger currents, but only in the “0” state. So you can still use this to turn on a LED (+ resistor), as long as you tie the LED/resistor combo between output pin and the supply voltage, not between output pin and ground.
And fourth, perhaps not as important as the rest: shorting such an output to ground when it only has an active-low transistor cannot harm the circuit (unlike shorting it to the positive supply rail). All that happens is that the pull-up will be supplying a little bit of current as it ends up getting the full supply voltage.
Note that putting a positive voltage on the transistor base willl cause it to conduct, and than tying something between the output pin and the supply voltage will cause it to get power when the transistor is conducting current from the output pin to ground. So loosely speaking, a “high” input voltage leads to an energized output state, even though the effect is to pull the collector low.
A slight variation is to use one transistor and leave the resitor off altogether. This is called an “open-collector” (OC) output, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, that extra resistor is not needed, i.e. when all you care about is energizing a lamp / motor / LED, or not. Sometimes a pull-up is still required, but then a single one will be sufficient, even with multiple OC outputs tied together. This is a way to reduce the total component count a bit further.
The I2C bus is an example which uses the open-collector output plus pull-up resistor approach, to implement a bus with multiple devices, exchanging information between them in any direction.
On an ATmega, you can enable a pull-up resistor on any pin by setting the pin up as an input pin, while writing a “1” as if it were still an output pin. The result will activate a weak pull-up resistor of 20..50 kΩ. One side-effect is that the input pin will read as a clear “1” when nothing else is connected. A pull-up resistor is a bit like slanting the table, i.e. the signal tends to stay in the high state unless a certain amount of current pulls it low.
What about pull-downs?
Technically, all this pull-up trickery can also be done with pull-down resistors and transistors tied between supply and output pin, but it is less comoon to do so. Due to the way transistors work, such a “high-side” switch is easiest to implement with a PNP transistor – and these used to be less common and more expensive. Furthermore, a “high” input signal would now cause no output current to flow. So the sense of operations is inverted. Are these essential reasons to avoid such an approach? No. But the NPN low-side switch approach has become prevalent. It has become second nature to use NPN transistors, and to tie small loads directly between the output pin and the positive supply voltage.
The ATmega has no built-in pull-down mechanism.