LED in small Raspberry Pi circuit glows when it is meant to be off

ledraspberry pi

I am try to make an LED circuit that can be controlled with pything using a Pi Zero.

The problem is when I try to turn the LED off, it retains a faint glow (image).


  • Pi Zero W
  • RGB LED with common anode
  • 220 Ohm resistors

I believe the circuit is wired correctly because to turn the LED "off" the output has to be set to 5V.

Circuit image

Best Answer

tl; dr: the LED has a leak path between 3.3V and 5V. Either don't use 5V for the LED, or add a transistor, MOSFET or true open-collector gate to isolate the GPIO and drive the LED.

What’s going on?

If you use a 3.3V GPIO pin to drive a 5V-tied LED, when the GPIO is high it will not be fully 'off': there will still be leakage current between the pin's IO protection and the LED.

Here's what that looks like, and how to fix it:


simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

You’d think that because 5V-3.3V = 1.7V is lower than the LED forward voltage, or Vf, that the LED would not conduct and thus not light up. This is not the case: there will still be some small leakage current that will result in a faint glow. This leakage has a name: subthreshold conduction, and is present in practically all semiconductor devices, including LEDs. Just tens of microamps can make it light.

A note:

  • LED forward voltage is usually stated at the LED's rated current (e.g., 20mA). So a '2.0V' red LED like this one will still be conducting at lower voltages, including 1.7V, and even well below that.
  • Higher-Vf LEDs (blue, violet, white) will still have some leakage, but less than low-Vf LEDs (red, orange, green)

How do I fix It?

The solution options depend on the LED's forward voltage:

  • Low-Vf LED (red, orange, green): use 3.3V supply and drive cathode
  • Low-Vf LED (red, orange, green): use GND and drive anode
  • High-Vf LED (blue, violet, white) or any other LED: use 5V supply and transistor, MOSFET, or true open-collector gate buffer

All these solutions eliminate the leakage path.

Why use 5V at all?

Using 3.3V for a 3V-ish Vf LED (e.g., white, blue) isn't a good idea as it's very hard to get the current-limiting resistor right: with only 300mV or less IR drop in the resistor, a very small R value must be used, and so the LED current is very sensitive to forward voltage variation.

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