Searching for USB Power Supplies that Won’t Explode

USB power supplies are super cheap and omnipresent. They are the Tribble of my household. But they’re not all created equal, and some of them may even be dangerous. I had to source USB power supplies for a product, and it wasn’t easy. But the upside is that I got to tear them all apart and check out their designs.

In order to be legitimate, it’s nice (but not legally required) for a power supply to have UL approval. Some retailers and offices and building managers require it, and some insurance companies may not pay claims if it turns out the damage was caused by a non-UL-approved device.  UL approval is not an easy process, though, and it is time consuming and expensive. The good news is that if you are developing a low voltage DC product, you can pair it with a UL approved power supply and you’re good to go without any further testing necessary.

power_supply_1_overviewIf you are going for FCC approval and are having unintentional emissions testing done (which is more likely than UL as it’s a legal requirement for products that meet certain qualifications), the testing has to be done on the whole solution, so the power supply must be included in the testing, too.

Sourcing cheap electronics in large quantities usually ends up in China, and specifically Alibaba. First, we started with a how-low-can-you-go solution. This wasn’t even a power adapter; it was a power “adapteP”, and the whole batch was mis-printed. Quality control could not be a high priority. After cutting it open, it wasn’t terrible, and it had all the necessary parts. It was surprising how much of it was through-hole, which indicates that the assembly was done mostly by people. That happens when factories are cheaper, hire inexpensive labor, don’t invest in technology, and don’t care as much about quality.

There are certain things you should look for in a power supply to determine the level of risk:

  • Isolation Distance – This is how much space there is between the primary (AC) and secondary (DC 5V) sides. UL requires a few millimeters, and often you’ll see two separate PCBs. On many single-PCB solutions you’ll see a white line meander across the board to distinguish between the two. The smaller this separation, the closer your USB power is to AC line voltage, and if the gap is bridged somehow, you’re in for a world of hurt.
  • Fuse – if there is a short, a lot of current starts flowing, components heat up, and things get dangerous. A thermal cut-off (TCO) fuse (also known as a resettable fuse or a PTC) is a component that breaks the circuit when it gets too hot, like a circuit chaperon. When it cools off, the TCO resets and you can plug the device back in with no harm done. Without the fuse, the supply heats up and current keeps flowing until a component fries, sometimes explosively.
  • Connectors – You don’t want bare leads hanging out in space where they could move and touch something. You don’t want the USB port to be soldered only by its four pins. You don’t want the power pins to be loose.
  • Decent Label – “Adaptep”? Yes, to someone who uses a different alphabet the “P” and R are very similar characters. But still. Also, fake certifications abound. Look for the difference between the CE (China Export) and the CE (Conformité Européenne) labels. And the UL Logo should have a number. So should an FCC label.

So this first adapter? Isolation distance was fine because it was two separate boards, but there was no fuse and no protective tape between components. The connectors were all secure, but the label didn’t make any promises. As for performance, output at 5.34V under my product’s load meant it was a little outside of USB spec (5.25V limit), but not dangerous. On the scope it was ringing with a peak at 5.5 V at 4 kHz.

Of course, sourcing this supply for a second batch proved tricky, and we wanted the USB plug to come out the side instead of the front so it would have a thinner profile against a wall. Additionally, we needed UL approval for a client. Our second attempt was surprisingly successful. This adapter had UL certification, with a number to look up. Note that just having a number isn’t enough; many companies will just put someone else’s number on their product and assume nobody will bother to check. So when you do look it up, and find a different manufacturer, a different enclosure, and it looks more like a refrigerator than a USB power supply, don’t be too surprised. But no, this particular one was great! The label had a company name on it, model number and specs, and certifications that could be verified. Let’s tear it open!

power_supply_2_overviewSweet sweet silicon meat inside an ABS shell! Components wrapped in protective tape, two PCBs for isolation, and even a special injection-molded plastic piece to add additional protection. Components are labeled, and what’s this, an IC to control the oscillation instead of a feedback winding on the transformer? Fancy! It’s pretty clear that this power supply is good, and I’d trust this one.

Comparing this one to the others, there were so many noticeable little details that are important and clearly thought-out. Take, for example, the connection between the prongs and the PCB. On the previous board, it was made with wires soldered by hand. Solid, but time consuming and prone to failure or quality issues. This adapter has metal contacts that snap into the case very solidly so that the prongs cannot get loose. The connection to the PCB is via the springiness of the metal, but notice that the PCB has pads specifically designed to maximize the surface area of that connection. On the next PCB you’ll see no such effort.

Some components were covered in shrink tube, tape, or non-conductive grey adhesive. The assembly was tight with no room for components to shake loose or accidentally touch. And the output was perfect. 4.9 Volts with nary a ripple.

But this is China, and component sourcing problems are a thing, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when these supplies were no longer available. In retrospect, maybe these were unsold overstock, or possibly QC rejects. That would explain why they were only slightly more expensive than the others. And so we moved on to another supplier; one that could pad-print our logo on top.

power_supply_differencesAt first glance these power supplies appeared identical. But close inspection reveals slight differences in the style around the USB and the raised ridges on the underside. The label was completely different, and gone was the number next to the UL logo. There was no company name on the supply either, and the company we purchased from turned out to be a reseller and not the OEM. Also, why was the output 4.7-5V, and why did my scope say 5.5V (but surprisingly stable)?

Inside was a completely different beast. Using a single PCB, the creep distance was about a millimeter. You can see the white line meandering through the bottom of the PCB that shows the high and low sides. The USB port wasn’t soldered to the PCB except by the four signal/power pins (see the bottom side lower left and the hanging USB connection pins), and there was a capacitor with really long uncovered leads and the positive side dangerously close to the USB shell. There was almost no protective tape, no shrink tube on the leads, and no protection in case of a short.


In the end, I wouldn’t trust the two non-UL supplies with anything worth more than a few bucks, and certainly not my cell phone. I’d have really big reservations about reselling them to customers who don’t know the difference. The UL-approved one was great, but the other two are only good for powering low-current-draw devices that are not sensitive to voltage. Also, finding a reliable supplier in China is HARD.

Check out a much more thorough analysis of this and pretty much every USB power supply cube by [Ken Shirriff]. It’s surprising how little has changed in four years with these supplies, and his analysis goes into how the circuits behind these supplies work, identifying each component and its purpose.

We also covered a Sparkfun teardown of some power supplies with similar conclusions, and a Fail of the Week in which a faulty USB power adapter was the likely cause of a fire.

USB Soldering Iron is Surprisingly Capable

We know what you’re thinking. There’s no way an 8 watt USB-powered soldering iron could be worth the $5 it commands on eBay. That’s what [BigClive] thought too, so he bought one, put the iron through a test and teardown, and changed his mind. Can he convince you too?

Right up front, [BigClive] finds that the iron is probably not suitable for some jobs. Aside its obvious unsuitability for connections that take a lot of heat, there’s the problem of leakage current when used with a wall-wart USB power supply. The business end of the iron ends up getting enough AC leak through the capacitors of the power supply to potentially damage MOSFETs and the like. Then again, if you’re handy to an AC outlet, wouldn’t you just use a Hakko? Seems like the iron is best powered by a USB battery pack, and [BigClive] was able to solder some surprisingly beefy connections that way. The teardown and analysis reveal a circuit that looks like it came right out of a [Forrest M. Mims III] book. We won’t spoil the surprise for you – just watch the video below.

While not truly cordless like this USB-rechargeable iron, we’d say that for the price, this is a pretty capable iron for certain use cases. Has anyone else tried one of these? Chime in on the comments and let us know what you think.

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Hackaday Dictionary: USB Type C

USB cables? What a pain. You can never find the right type of connector when you need one, or you can’t figure out which way is up when you plug the cable in. These problems could be a thing of the past, though, with the latest version of the venerable USB connection: USB Type C. This new standard uses a single style of plug for both ends, so you can use cables either way around. The plugs also work both ways up, so you can plug it in with your eyes closed. Let’s take a look at what the USB type C connector means.

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USB-less WiFi For The Pi Zero

Since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi Zero, the hacker, maker, and hobbyist electronics world has been thrown into turmoil. ‘The Raspberry Pi Foundation is corrupt,’ the detractors said, ‘and the Pi Zero is just a marketing ploy to get their name out.’ Others chimed in that the Raspberry Pi Zero doesn’t even exist. Despite what a million monkeys on a million keyboards say, the Raspberry Pi Zero does exist and is very cool, despite how limited it is. There’s only one USB port, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have WiFi. [ajlitt] came up with a WiFi hat for the Pi Zero that goes right through the GPIO pins, and shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars to implement on any Raspberry Pi.

There is no Ethernet port on the Pi, and apart from a single USB OTG port, no apparent high-speed interfaces to the outside world. On the other hand, there’s a few things hidden deep down in the SoC on the Pi including two MMC controllers. One of these controllers is used for the SD card, but the second can be broken out on a few GPIO pins. By tapping into those pins and configuring the kernel just right, SDIO is available on the GPIO pins, giving the Pi WiFi through a cheap ESP8266 module.

We’ve seen [ajlitt]’s work on SDIO devices on the Pi before, but he’s slowly been reworking this build with the Pi Zero in mind. It didn’t begin as a project for the Hackaday Prize, but already it’s one of the more popular entries so far. Of course there are thousands of projects on that aren’t entered into the Hackaday Prize this year, and if you’re behind one of those, this is your call to step up.

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Dirt-Cheap USB Arduino Hack From the Past

Mass production is a wonderful thing. Prices fall, and hobby hackers get cheap gear. The mind then wanders towards what can be done with it. So it’s little wonder that someone like [Aaron Christophel] would try to repurpose those sub-$3 AVR programmers that are all over eBay (translated poorly out of German here, but demonstrated in the video embedded below).

[Aaron] didn’t have to do much, really. The only trick is that you’ll first need to re-flash the existing ISP firmware with one that lets you upload code to the device itself over USB. If you don’t have an Arduino on hand to re-flash, buy at least two of the cheap programmers — one to program the other ones. Once you’ve done that, you have essentially an Arduino with limited pinout and two onboard LEDs, but in a nice small form-factor and with built-in USB. [Aaron] even provides an Arduino boards.txt file to make it all work smoothly within the IDE.

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Converting A GameCube Controller To USB

The GameCube controller is a favorite among the console enthusiasts new and old, and with Nintendo’s recent release of the Smash Bros. edition of this controller, this is a controller that has been in production for a very, very long time. [Garrett] likes using the GameCube controller on his PC, but this requires either a bulky USB adapter, or an off-brand GameCube ‘style’ controller that leaves something to be desired. Instead of compromising, [Garrett] turned his GameCube controller into a native USB device with a custom PCB and a bit of programming.

First, the hardware. [Garrett] turned to the ATtiny84. This chip is the big brother of the ubiquitous 8-pin ATtiny85. The design of the circuit board is just under a square inch and includes connections for the USB differential pairs, 5V, signal, and ground coming from the controller board.

The software stack includes the micronucleus bootloader for USB firmware updates and V-USB to handle the USB protocol. There are even a few additions inspired by [Garrett]’s earlier shinewave controller mod. This controller mod turns the GameCube controller into a glowing hot mess certain to distract your competitors while playing Super Smash Bros. It’s a great mod, and since [Garrett] kept the board easily solderable, it’s something that can be easily retrofitted into any GameCube controller.

Microchip Publishes USB Mass Storage Loader

Microchip just published their USB-MSD Programmer firmware. This open source project allows a board to enumerate as a USB Mass Storage device. Programming is as simple as copying a .hex file to the “drive”.

This code is what’s running on the $10 Xpress board that they released last month which includes a PIC18F25K50 to serve as a PICkit On Board (PKOB) programmer for the actual target micro; a PIC16F18855. In its stock version, the XPRESS-Loader firmware programs any PIC16F188xx chips that have a row size of 32 words. But it should be possible to tweak this package to program any chips that use the 8-bit LVP-ICSP protocol.

Now, this may seem like small potatoes at first look: it requires two microcontrollers on your board and is capable of programming just a small subset of the vast PIC inventory. But in our minds it’s the USB-MSD that is killer since it doesn’t require any software or drivers on the computer side of things. That’s a big invitation for all kinds of hacks. But there should be even more on the way from the Xpress team before too long.

It turns out the microcontroller [Voja Antonic] chose to use on the Hackaday | Belgrade badge is the 25k50. Since hearing about the Xpress board we’ve been talking to some of the PIC engineers and they are exploring a loader that will program onto the same chip. This means device upgrades without special hardware or drivers – perfect for badge hacking at a conference. This can be done with a precompiled hex, one created on MPLAB X, MPLAB Xpress, or others. We’ll keep you updated if we hear more on that part of the project.