Re: Long serial cable issue

Mark Griffith

Good old time research data.  Thanks for posting.

Also, people today tend to forget that most communications now is serial.  The SATA drive on your computer, serial, your WiFi connection, serial, USB 3.0, serial, etc, etc.  Just much faster than the old 9600 baud serial line to a mainframe computer.

I remember when the old IBM-PC and the early personal computers struggled to download data at speeds of 9600 baud because the CPU was just not fast enough. We have come a long way with serial data.


On Tuesday, January 26, 2021, 5:09:57 PM CST, ve3smf via <ve3smf@...> wrote:

RS232 physical properties

The RS232 standard describes a communication method capable of communicating in different environments. This has had its impact on the maximum allowable voltages etc. on the pins. In the original definition, the technical possibilities of that time were taken into account. The maximum baud rate defined for example is 20 kbps. With current devices like the 16550A UART, maximum speeds of 1.5 Mbps are allowed.


The signal level of the RS232 pins can have two states. A high bit, or mark state is identified by a negative voltage and a low bit or space state uses a positive value. This might be a bit confusing, because in normal circumstances, high logical values are defined by high voltages also. The voltage limits are shown below.



RS232 voltage values
Level Transmitter
capable (V)
capable (V)
Space state (0) +5 … +15 +3 … +25
Mark state (1) -5 … -15 -3 … -25
Undefined -3 … +3



More information about the voltage levels of RS232 and other serial interfaces can be found in the interface comparison table.

The maximum voltage swing the computer can generate on its port can have influence on the maximum cable length and communication speed that is allowed. Also, if the voltage difference is small, data distortion will occur sooner. For example, my Toshiba laptop mark’s voltage is -9.3 V, compared to -11.5 V on my desktop computer. The laptop has difficulties to communicate with Mitsubishi PLCs in industrial environments with high noise levels where the desktop computer has no data errors at all using the same cable. Thus, even far beyond the minimum voltage levels, 2 volts extra can make a huge difference in communication quality.

Despite the high voltages present, it is not possible to destroy the serial port by short-circuiting. Only applying external voltages with high currents may eventually burn out the driver chips. Still then, the UART won’t be damaged in most cases.

Maximum cable lengths

Cable length is one of the most discussed items in RS232 world. The standard has a clear answer, the maximum cable length is 50 feet, or the cable length equal to a capacitance of 2500 pF. The latter rule is often forgotten. This means that using a cable with low capacitance allows you to span longer distances without going beyond the limitations of the standard. If for example UTP CAT-5 cable is used with a typical capacitance of 17 pF/ft, the maximum allowed cable length is 147 feet.

The cable length mentioned in the standard allows maximum communication speed to occur. If speed is reduced by a factor 2 or 4, the maximum length increases dramatically. Texas Instruments has done some practical experiments years ago at different baud rates to test the maximum allowed cable lengths. Keep in mind, that the RS232 standard was originally developed for 20 kbps. By halving the maximum communication speed, the allowed cable length increases a factor ten!



RS232 cable length according to Texas Instruments
Baud rate Maximum cable length (ft)
19200 50
9600 500
4800 1000
2400 3000

Ref: RS232 Specifications and standard - Lammert Bies

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