Scope Noob: Probing Alternating Current

I finally did it. After years of wanting one (and pushing off projects because I didn’t have one) I finally bought an oscilloscope. Over the years I read and watched a ton of content about how to use a scope, you’d think I would know what I’m doing. Turns out that, like anything, hands-on time with an oscilloscope quickly highlighted the gaping holes in my knowledge. And so we begin this recurring column called Scope Noob. Each installment will focus on a different oscilloscope-related topic. This week it’s measuring a test signal and probing Alternating Current.

Measuring a Signal

test-signal

Hey, measuring signals is what oscilloscopes are all about, right? My very first measurement was, of course, the calibration signal built into the scope. As [Chris Meyer] at Sector67 hackerspace here in Madison put it, you want to make sure you can probe a known signal before venturing into the unknown.

In this case I’m using channel 2. Everything on this scope is color-coded, so the CH2 probe has blue rings on it, the probe jack has a blue channel label, and the trace drawn on the screen is seen in blue. I’m off to a fantastic start!

This scope, a Rigol 1054z, comes with an “auto” button which will detect the signal and adjust the divisions so that the waveform is centered on the display. To me this feels like a shortcut so I made sure to do all of this manually. I started with the “trigger” which is a voltage threshold at which the signal will be displayed on the screen. The menu button brings up options that will let you choose which channel to use as trigger. From there it was just a matter of adjusting the horizontal and vertical resolution and position before using the “cursor” function to measure the wave’s voltage and time.

I played around with the scope a bit more, measuring some PWM signals from a microcontroller. But you want to branch out. Because I don’t have a proper signal generator, the next logical thing to measure is alternating current in my home’s electrical system. I suppose you could call it a built-in sine wave source.

Probing Alternating Current

acac-wall-wart

I sometimes take criticism for never throwing things away. Seven years ago we had a cat water fountain whose motor seized. It was powered by a 12V AC to AC converter seen here. Yep, I kept it and was somehow able to find it again for this project.

Of course at the time I thought I would build a clock that measures mains frequency to keep accurate time. This would have done the trick had I followed through. But for now I’m using it to protect me (and my fancy new scope) from accidental shock. I’ll still get the sine wave I’m looking for but with a source that is only 12V at 200 milliamps.

Don’t measure mains directly unless you have a good reason to do so.

Continuing on my adventure I plugged in the wall wart and connected the probe to one of the two wires coming out of it. But wait, what do I do with the probe’s reference clip? I know enough about home electrical to know that one prong of the plug is hot, the other is neutral. The clip itself is basically connected directly to mains ground. Bringing the two together sounds like a really bad idea.

This turns out to be a special case for oscilloscopes, and one that prompted me to think about writing this column. Had this been a 3-prong wall wart, connecting the probe’s reference clip to one of the wires would have been a very bad thing. Many 3-prong wall warts reference the mains earth ground on one of the outputs. If that were the case you could simply leave the clip unconnected as the chassis ground of your scope is already connected to mains ground via its own 3-prong power cord and the reference clip is a dead short to that. If you did need to probe AC using the reference clip you need an isolation transformer for your scope. There are bigger implications when probing a board powered from mains which [Dave Jones] does an excellent job of explaining. Make sure you check out his aptly named video: How NOT to blow up your oscilloscope.

As I understand it, and I hope you’ll weigh in with a comment below, since the wall wart I’m using has a transformer and no ground plug I’m fine using the ground clip of the probe in this case. Even though I’m clipping it to an AC line, the transformer prevents any kind of short between hot/neutral mains and earth ground (via the probe’s ground clip). What I don’t understand is why it’s okay to connect the transformed side of the 12V AC to mains ground?

At any rate, the screenshots above show my progress through this measurement. I first connected the probe without the ground clip and got the sad-looking trace seen on the left. After conferring with both [Adam Fabio] and [Bil Herd] (who had differing opinions on whether or not I should “float the scope”) I connected the ground clip and was greeted with a beautifully formed sine wave. I’m calling this a success and putting a notch in the old bench to remember it by.

What’s Next?

bridge-recctifier-teaserI don’t want to get too crazy with the first installment of Scope Noob so I’ll be ending here for now. I need your guidance for future installments. What interesting quirks of an oscilloscope should a noob like me explore? What are your own questions about scope use? Leave those below and we’ll try to add them to the lineup in the coming weeks.

Homework

For next week I’m working my way through the adventure of rectifying this 12V AC signal into a smoothed DC source. Here you see a teaser of those experiments. I’ve built a full-wave rectifier using just four diodes (1N4001) and will plunk in a hugely-over-spec’d electrolytic capacitor to do the smoothing. If you want to follow along on the adventure you should dig around your parts drawers for these components and give it a try yourself this week. We’ll compare notes in the next post!

Zero-Dollar AC System Looks Funny But Works Well

Summer is here and with summer comes hot days. You probably know that us humans get uncomfortable if the temperature rises too much. Sure, we could turn on the loud and inefficient window AC unit and try to stay mildly comfortable while the electric company pick-pockets pennies from our change purse, but what is the fun in that? [Fran] had a better idea.

He noticed that his basement was always in the upper 50°F range regardless of how hot it was outside. He wanted the cool basement air to reside upstairs in the living area. After thinking long and hard about it he decided that a box fan and two long, skinny cardboard boxes assembled together would be enough to move the required amount of air. Both the fan and boxes were kicking around the house so was no cost and no risk to try this out. Continue reading “Zero-Dollar AC System Looks Funny But Works Well”

A Low Cost, Solar-Powered Swamp Cooler

A looming, torturous summer is preparing to bear down on many of us, making this dirt-cheap swamp cooler build an attractive hack to fend off the heat.

Though this is a pretty standard evaporative cooler, the design comes together in a tidy and transportable finished product. The base is a ~$3, 5-gallon bucket from a local hardware store with its accompanying Styrofoam liner. Three 2 1/8″ holes carved into the side of both the bucket and liner will snugly fit some inch-and-a-half PVC pipe with no need for glue.

One last cut into the lid to seat a small desk fan rounds off this build—or you can chop into the styrofoam liner’s lid if you prefer. The video demonstrates using a 15W solar panel to run the fan, and we have to admit that the cooler seems to be an excellent low-cost build. It does, however, require a frozen gallon jug inside to pump out the chilled air for around 5-6 hours per jug. Maybe one of our frugal and mathematically-inclined readers can throw out some guesstimations for the cost of stocking the bucket with a jug of frozen water a couple times a day? Video after the jump.

Continue reading “A Low Cost, Solar-Powered Swamp Cooler”

Fail of the Week: Inaugural Edition

We’re sure you’ve all been waiting on the edge of your seats to see whose project makes it as the first Hackaday Fail of the Week. Wait no longer, it’s [Mobile Will] with his woeful tale about monitoring AC current usage.

He had been working on a microcontroller actuated mains outlet project and wanted an accurate way to measure the AC current being used by the device connected to it. The ADE7753 energy metering IC was perfect for this so he designed the board above and ordered it up from OSH Park. After populating the components he hooked it up to his Arduino for a test run, and poof! Magic blue smoke arose from the board. As you’ve probably guessed — this also fried the Arduino, actually melting the plastic housing of the jumper wire that carried the rampant current. Thanks to the designers of the USB portion of his motherboard he didn’t lose the computer to as the current protection kicked in, requiring a reboot to reset it.

We can’t wait to hear the conversation in the comments. But as this is our first FotW post we’d like to remind you: [Mobile Will] already knows he screwed up, so no ripping on his skills or other non-productive dibble. Let’s keep this conversation productive, like what caused this? He still isn’t completely sure and that would be useful information for designing future iterations. Update: here’s the schematic and board artwork.

We’ve got a bit more to share in this post so keep reading after the break.

Continue reading “Fail of the Week: Inaugural Edition”

Simple power adapter thumbs its nose at proprietary connectors

[Mike Worth] wanted to use his camera for some time-lapse photography. Since it’s used to take many pictures over a long period of time, he doesn’t want to deal with batteries running low. But there’s no standard power jack on the side; instead the official charger consists of an adapter that is inserted in place of the batteries. Rather than break the bank with the special cable, [Mike] made his own battery compartment A/C adapter.

You can see that it is made up of two parts. The first is a standard wall wart that outputs the correct voltage and has an acceptable current rating. The other part is the adapter cable that connects to the camera on one end, and has a barrel jack on the other. [Mike] rolled some paperboard around a pencil until it matched the diameter of a AA battery. Once of the cylinders has a thumb tack for the negative lead, and the other uses a screw and washer for the positive side. He soldered some wire to these and he’s in business.

He must be snapping photos frequently enough to avoid the auto-shutoff feature. That or he’s disabled it with the use of some custom firmware.

Rebuilding a fried fan motor

The fan motor on [Pete’s] oscillating tower fan conked out on him. It’s a shame to throw away the whole thing, but it’s near impossible to source parts for a small appliance like this one. So he set out to rebuilt the motor and get the thing working like new.

The motor in question is of the brushless AC variety. [Pete’s] gut told him that the failure was due to bad lubrication of the bearings at the factory. It stopped working because the commutator could no longer rotate freely. A check of the continuity of each of the coils led him to this thermal fuse. When the motor seized the AC current built up a lot of heat. This fuse is made to burn out before a fire can start but now it needs to be replaced. With a new one in place he reassembled the motor, making sure to pack the bearings with some quality lubricant. Now he’s once again ready for a long hot summer.

Wireless iPod charger built from scratch

Despite the obvious use of a lot of wire, this project is actually a wireless charging system. [Jared] built it as a way to explore the concepts behind transferring power inductively. Alternating current on one of the white coils induces current on the other. This is then rectified, and regulated for use as a 5V charger. In this case it powers his iPod, but any USB device should work with the setup.

The transmitter uses the power supply from an old laptop as a source. Some filtering and a couple of MOSFETS are responsible for generating the AC current on the transmitting coil. The receiving coil feeds the bridge rectifier. In the writeup that voltage is fed to a 7805 regulator to provide a stable 5V output. However, in the video demo after the break [Jared] shows off the boost converter that he uses on his improved circuit. This way if the voltage drops due to poor alignment of the coils it will still be able to provide a steady output.

We’ve seen the same coil concept used to add wireless charging to cellphones too.

Continue reading “Wireless iPod charger built from scratch”