The power rating of a resistor defines the maximum energy a resistor can safely dissipate. As stated by Joule’s first law, the generated electrical power is the product of the voltage (V) across the resistor and the current (I) flowing through the resistor:
$$ P = V · I $$
When the electrical power equals the dissipated heat (by radiation, convection and conduction), the temperature of the resistor will stabilize. The temperature is not equal across the resistor. The resistor body is slightly hotter than the terminals, with the highest temperature at the center of the body. The higher the rate of heat dissipation to the environment, the lower the temperature rise will be. Larger resistors with a bigger surface area can generally dissipate heat at a higher rate. If the (average) power dissipation is larger than the power rating, the resistor may be damaged. This can have several consequences. The resistance value can shift permanently, the lifetime can significantly be reduced, or the component can be completely damaged resulting in an open circuit. In extreme cases, the excessive power can even cause a fire. Special flameproof resistors are available. These create a break in the circuit before the temperature reaches a dangerous state.
The power rating of a resistor defines the maximum energy a resistor can safely dissipate.
The nominal power rating is defined for a certain ambient temperature in free air. Note that the amount of energy that a resistor in practice can dissipate without causing damage is strongly dependent on the operating conditions and, therefore, not equal to the nominal power rating. For example, a higher ambient temperature can significantly reduce the power rating. This effect is referred to as derating. It should be taking into account by the designer. Often, to provide a safety margin, the resistor power rating is chosen above the electric power expected for the application. Typically resistors are rated for a temperature of 70 °C, above this resistor starts to derate. This means that above this temperature the resistor can only safely operate at a reduced power level. This is illustrated by a derating curve.
Resistor Derating Chart - The vertical axis represents the percentage of nominal rating for a given ambient temperature. The horizontal axis is the ambient temperature. In this case, the resistor's full power rating is available up to 70 °C.
Next to the influence of the ambient temperature, there are several other factors that impact the derating. The most important factors are detailed below.
For most electronic circuits the power rating is not a key parameter, since those resistors dissipate low amounts of energy of one watt or less. In power electronics however, the power rating is an important characteristic. Generally speaking, a power resistor is referred to when the power ratings are one watt or higher. Typical applications include power supplies, dynamic brakes, power conversion circuits, power amplifiers, and heaters.