[Sal] sent us his digital electric meter monitor, which immediately made us nostalgic for some of Forrest Mims’ books. Sal’s schematic and circuit description are similar to Forrest’s style, and we mean that as a compliment. Even in today’s world of CAD and EDS packages, sketching out a circuit by hand is sometimes both easier and faster. The schematic isn’t the only classic aspect of [Sal's] design. He’s collecting data using a parallel port on an unused PC: in this case, a Toshiba Libretto running Windows 95. Before cheap flash-based microcontrollers and dev boards were available, the PC parallel port was the go-to hardware hacking interface for many of us. Plenty of the software running those old hacks was written in basic, and [Sal's] meter is no exception. His software runs on Microsoft QBasic, which shipped with Windows 95.
The circuit takes advantage of the digital meter’s output: a 10 ms pulse for every 1 Wh of energy used. An IR photo detector from RadioShack detects the meter pulses, which are amplified by an LM324 Op Amp. An NPN transistor then shifts the output to send it to two 74LS73 JK flip flops. The first flip flop uses a transistor to drive an LED for visual output. The second JK flip flop sends the data to the PC. The flip flop has the effect of dividing the number of meter pulses by two, creating a much longer toggled signal that a PC can better detect.
Although using an AVR or PIC would consume less power, [Sal's] setup has already more than paid for its power usage. By monitoring and adapting his electrical usage, [Sal] is saving $20 a month on his electric bill. We’ve included [Sal's] circuit diagram and source code after the break (apologies to our readers on RSS).