USB hubs and chargers: What happens when you pull too much power?

USB power and charging issues are surprisingly complex. It’s natural to assume that hubs “deliver” a certain amount of power to a device. But that’s not really how it works. Devices can pull as much power as they want, but there are consequences. Devices are supposed to follow certain rules, like pulling no more than 100mA unless they configure up to a higher amperage (500mA for USB 2.0 and 900mA for USB 3.0). This is to avoid voltage drops which might knock other devices off the bus. Hubs and chargers are supposed to fail gracefully if a device pulls too much.

And it’s all gotten more confusing as USB has become a primary way of charging phones and tablets. There are many proprietary methods devices use to detect “their charger” and start pulling higher amperages. The USB-IF has a standard for doing this called the Battery Charging class, but the big guys like Apple, Samsung, and others don’t follow it universally.

So what happens when a device pulls more power than a hub or charger expects? What does a graceful or non-graceful failure look like? We wanted to know.

How we tested

To test what happens when a device draws too much power from a port, we needed a USB “device” that let us set the amount of power that it draws.  We came up with a box that uses large resistors to place a load on the USB power lines, simulating a device drawing power.  Instead of using the power to actually do something as a device would, our device simply dissipates it as heat.

Current-Tester

The box itself was designed in SketchUp and printed on a Printrbot 3D printer.

The red and black connectors are connected to the ground and +5V lines of the USB bus, and connected to a meter so that the bus voltage can be monitored.  Each of the switches at the top turns on one bank of resistors below.  Each set of resistors is chosen so that they draw 500 mA, 1 A, 2 A, and 4 A from a 5 volt supply.  By selecting different combinations of resistors, it can draw from 0.5 A all the way to 7.5 A in 500 mA steps.  Remember that the limit for USB 2.0 is only 0.5 amps–so we can pull up to 15 times more current than a host should be able to deliver.  This was on purpose.  We wanted to be able to take a hub and its power supply to the maximum, then a little further. Everyone here was really hoping for a fire (for better or worse, we weren’t able to create that much excitement even at the highest load).

Once connected to the device under test, the power draw was increased from 0 all the way to 7.5 amps, and the voltage recorded at each stop.  While it claims 7.5 amps, on every test we did, the actual current was less than 7.5 amps because the draw had caused the supply voltage to drop, reducing the current.

What We Found

Below are the test results from several of our devices.

UD-3000 USB 3.0 Docking Station

Power Supply Rating: 5V 4A

UD3000

UD-3000 Results

The UD-3000 has a 4A power adapter, and actively tries to prevent attached devices from affecting the core functions of the dock (graphics, network, audio). When the next step after the last one on this chart was turned on with the current tester, the port was disabled, and no longer delivered power until the load was removed.  The UD-3000 properly cut power to the offending port, and as a result, the DisplayLink device and other USB ports would continue to function in this situation.

Each USB port of the UD-3000 is equipped with a device called a polyfuse.  A polyfuse is a type of resettable fuse that automatically disconnects a power supply when too much power is drawn through the fuse.  When the load is removed, the fuse returns to its initial state.

While the polyfuse in the UD-3000 device was the one that cut power to the device, the voltage drop before that happened was due to the voltage regulation in the AC power adapter.  While the voltage had dropped considerably before power was cut, it was not low enough to cause devices to disconnect, and was far more than any device should be able to draw.

USB2-HUB-AG7 7 Port USB 2.0 Hub

Power Supply Rating: 5V 3A

USB2-HUB7-PowerTest

This is an example of a device with USB ports that do not have polyfuses.  There is a direct connection from the AC adapter input, to the USB ports.  This means that devices can draw as much power as they want, without being shut off.  This is an obvious advantage, as it allows for the usage of devices like the Raspberry Pi that perform no power negotiation, and can draw upwards of 1.5A with devices connected to the Raspberry Pi.  You can read more about the USB2-HUB-AG7 with the Raspberry Pi here.

While it looks like the voltage was quite low at the end of the test–and it is–this is because we were drawing nearly double the rated current capacity of the AC adapter.  At its rated current (3A), the voltage was still high enough to prevent USB device disconnections.  Past its rated current, it did continue to function, but the voltage was too low for some devices to function properly, and may reduce the life of the AC adapter.

PS12-USB2 Surge Protector Charging Port

USB Output Rating: 5V 2.1A

PS12-USB2

PS12-USB2 Results

Our surge protector is another device that properly handles an overcurrent situation.  On the surge protector, it states “2.1A Shared” between the two USB ports.  The test data show that when the current draw is increased above ~2.3A, the surge protector cuts voltage in order to reduce the current draw.  The regulator on this device is “smarter” than a simple polyfuse, and tries to reduce voltage so that the device will still receive some power, if at a lower voltage.  The voltage regulator in this device also did the best job of maintaining the supply voltage at 5 volts under greater loads.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to comment below!

10 comments on “USB hubs and chargers: What happens when you pull too much power?”

  1. Ryan Reply

    “While the voltage had dropped considerably before power was cut, it was not low enough to cause devices to disconnect”

    Do you know what the threshold is or the ballpark for voltage where a device would disconnect?

    • Bernie Thompson Bernie Thompson Reply

      USB allows some tolerance around 5V. Voltage can usually drop about .55V before devices will start dropping off the bus. By spec, devices are supposed to have a tolerance of 5.00±0.25 V (pre-3.0); 5.00+0.25-0.55 V (USB 3.0). We don’t have any comprehensive table of per-device behaviors, though. Hope that helps!

  2. Marek Reply

    Very informative art, but lacks one very important detail like what to do when we have a power hungry two-three devices connected to USB hub and how to avoid voltage drop when such hub is powered on.
    Example ? I’m facing a problem with my RaspberryPi when turned on. I’m powering PI and USB hub from 12V/2A AC adaptor through two DCDC 5V converters. Pi boots okay, but USB hub gives only 4,4V to some ports and thus, PI and hub works okay except two devices that were resetted during boot. What helped was to reboot PI again (not hub) and after that, usb devices were properly recognized by PI.
    Question – do you happen to know how to get rid of such voltage drop when powered on ? PI, hub and usb devices take 13W in total from 2xDCDC 5V 3A converters. Add some input capacitor to usb hub ? What do you think ?

  3. Gman Reply

    Thank you for the info. I got a lot out of that, especially about pulling current and amount of voltage drop. My interest was in using a 5VDC, 3A power adapter to replace a failed 5VDC, 4A adapter with a 7 port USB hub. I figure it’s OK if I don’t draw too much current, like just using the hub for thumb drives or loading files to and from my smartphone or tablet. I simply won’t use it to charge any battery in a device. But then maybe I still could do that if all the other ports are free?

    • Bernie Thompson Bernie Thompson Reply

      That’s right – if your attached devices stay under 3A, that can work. A few ports unused will do that. Note that the replacement power supply will also need the same diameter plug and polarity to fit (inside and out). It can be hard finding a match. Thanks for asking!

      • Gman Reply

        Unfortunately the USB hub quickly got very warm, so it must have sustained damage along with the original power adapter. And I only had a thumb drive plugged in. No way could such a device draw so much current. Too bad, for the Plugable hub is very nice… solid. But not to cry as the vendor gladly replaced the hub and power adapter. Are USB 3.0 hubs worth repairing?

  4. Jonathan Reply

    I dont know if this same principle applies but i was wondering what if i am to connect roughly 2-3 usb hubs that connects to power sockets each with 4 or more usb ports, all this hubs will be used to charge mobile phones ranging from ios to android, and will be connected to power strips, is this recommended for a mini charging station?

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