Avoid these 7 most common EMC mistakes in your PCB layout

Prevent costly EMI setbacks and frustration

Printed Circuit Board layout for EMC review service

I caused many EMI problems during my career as electronics designer

Some projects where cancelled, others delayed.

I lacked practical experience, rules of thumb and EMI awareness while designing.

As junior designer, EMI seemed black magic to me at first…

  • The shielding has no effect?!
  • When I hold my finger here it works!
  • Why does twisting the cable not help?

Failing forward increased my awareness and insight which led to:

  • Less surprises
  • Less fire fighting
  • Realistic planning
  • Increased confidence
  • Less design revisions
  • More fun during the design process 😎

Building your EMI competence is easy.

  • Read
  • Experiment
  • Talk to experts
  • Share your learnings

It does take a lot of time though, invest!

Or take a shortcut.

Whatever you do, prevent EMI failure by avoiding the 7 most common PCB layout mistakes listed below.

- Joost Brilman

Joost Brilman EMC consultant

1. Unfavorable PCB layer stack-up

Emission and interference levels of a PCB are proportional to the area of the current loops.

To reduce these negative EMI effects, it is crucial to keep the current loop dimensions small.

Loop routed on a single layer, the large current loop is likely to cause IMI issues

Traces routed on a single layer create a relatively large loop area.

Incorrect PCB layout stack-up, causing IMI issues due to large current loops

A reference plane at the bottom is better, but still has a relatively large loop size.

Correct PCB layout stack-up with reference plane. Improved EMC performance thanks to small current loops

Loop dimensions are best kept small using a reference plane on a layer next to each signal trace.

Typical reference plane nets are 'GND' or '0V', the most common reference net in your design.

Keep the reference plane solid, without any traces or slits.

A reference plane near a signal trace enables high-frequency current to flow back in a small loop.

2. Bypassed Common Mode filter

Common Mode (CM) filters reduce EMI emission and reception via cables connected to the PCB.

A CM filter should act as high impedance barrier, limiting high-frequency current flow.

Bypassed Common Mode filter, the effective impedance is relatively low for high frequencies

Parasitic capacitance between filter traces and other copper acts as bypass for high-frequency current.

Proper use of a Common Mode filter, without bypass it can block high frequencies by adding impedance to the cable.

Remove unused PCB copper on every layer to prevent creating an unintentional bypass.

A low impedance bypass path diminishes the effectiveness of the filter in its intended purpose.

Place the filter at the edge of the board for a natural separation between the board and cable side.

3. Placing the GND Via far from the component pin

This one is often overlooked as placing GND Via's seems easy.

Boom! Just shoot a Via in the reference plane and watch the Rats Nest disappear. Done!

Not so fast.

Incorrect via placement with a large current loop area, causing IMI issues

Failure to place a Via directly at the GND pads increases the current loop area.

Correct via placement with a small current loop area improving EMC performance

Place the Via as close as possible to the component pad to keep the loop area small.

Doing so reduces interference and emission levels.

Additionally, the decreased loop impedance will improve the effectiveness of decoupling capacitors.

4. Too large switching nodes

Switched Mode Power Supplies include a net that rapidly switches between different voltages.

This rapid voltage change (dv/dt) is a primary source of emission and interference.

Parasitic capacitance (c) between the switching net and its environment enables current to be injected into the rest of the system.

This current, determined by i=c*dv/dt, seeks a return path to the supply rails of the switching semiconductor.

Large switch node area causes emission, bad for EMC

Large switching copper areas increase the parasitic capacitance c, leading to larger EMI currents.

Small switch node area reduces capacitive coupling, good for EMC

Route your switching nets copper area as small as possible to keep the capacitive coupling low.

5. Top to Bottom transition

Fast switching (digital) signals hate Vias!

Try to avoid them.

What if a layer transition is unavoidable?

Remember that a reference plane should be present at the layer adjacent to each signal trace.

If a signal switches board side, it's reference plane switches board side as well.

EMI and Signal Integrity risk: return current takes a detour in a large loop area.

Board side transition with a single Via forces a large return current loop through a remote Via.

Correct switch of reference plane nearby the signal via keeps the loops small, reducing EMI interference levels.

Connect the reference planes close to the signal-Via to keep the current loop area small.

The return current will always find a path back to its source. Make sure a small loop path is available to reduce emission and interference levels.

6. Use of power planes

Power planes are efficient in the layout process. Just shoot some Vias. Boom! Connected!

Let's look at it from an EMC perspective.

A power plane next to a reference plane acts like a capacitor with low parasitic inductance.

This is great for decoupling high-frequency currents.

Not so great for keeping the high-frequency current loops small.

High Frequency Power supply decoupling is spread all over the board, bad for EMC.

A plane capacitor disperses the high-frequency decoupling currents throughout the entire board.

Correct local decoupling of power supply, reducing HF currents over the entire PCB

Use traces for DC supply distribution and place decoupling caps near the switching devices.

Minimizing high-frequency current loop area is key to achieve desirable EMC performance.

FPGA like IC's demand high supply current peaks. For those systems a local power plane is often required for proper decoupling. Local, so don't cover your whole board.

7. Reference plane slit due to improper Via placement

Vias placed too close to each other create a significant slit in the reference planes.

Large slit in reference plane due to Via placement, causing return currents to take a large loop.

Return current has to take a detour loop.

Correct via placement avoids a slit in the reference plane, keeps the return current nearby the signal traces, reducing EMI

Increased Via spacing enables return current to flow between them.

Reduction of clearance avoids a slit in the reference plane, keeps the return current nearby the signal traces, improving EMC

Reduced clearance reconnects the plane inbetween the Vias.

A reference plane slit disrupts the flow of return currents, forcing them to travel in a loop around the slit boundary. ❌

Large current loops lead to increased emission and interference levels on the PCB.

Ensure that the return plane is connected between the Vias. ✔️

Keeping the return plane as solid as possible keeps the loop areas small and the emissions low.

Learn and Grow your PCB layout design Skills.

Pragmatic layout tips and examples to avoid EMI issues in your designs.