Down the DIY Rabbit Hole with a Shop AC Installation

There’s a fine line between a successful DIY project and one that ends in heartbreak. It’s subjective too; aside from projects that end up with fire trucks or ambulances in the driveway, what one DIYer would consider a disaster might be considered a great learning opportunity to someone else.

We’re pretty sure [Cressel] looks at his recent DIY mini-split AC installation for his shop as a series of teachable moments. Most folks leave HVAC work to the pros, but when you run a popular YouTube channel where you make your own lathe from scratch, you might be persuaded to give anything a go. [Cressel] did everything possible to do this job like a pro, going so far as to get training in the safe handling of refrigerants and an EPA certification so he knew how to charge the system correctly. He also sunk quite a bit of money into tools; between the manifold gauge set, vacuum pump, and various plumbing bits, that was a hefty $300 bite alone.

The install went well until he started charging the refrigerant, when a mistake with a fitting caused him to contaminate his nice, new batch of R-410A. Rather than back out and call a pro to finish up, [Cressel] stuck with it, to the tune of $900 in extra tools and materials needed to recover the old refrigerant safely and replace it with virgin R-410A. The video below has a condensed version of the whole tale.

It all worked out in the end, but at a cost that probably meets or exceeds what an HVAC contractor would have charged. [Cressel] seems like a glass-half-full kind of guy, though, so we expect he’s happy to have learned something new, and to have a bunch of neat new tools to boot.

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A Dramatic Demo of AC Versus DC Switching

Switches seem to be the simplest of electrical components – just two pieces of metal that can be positioned to either touch each other or not. As such it would seem that it shouldn’t matter whether a switch is used for AC or DC. While that’s an easy and understandable assumption, it can also be a dangerous one, as this demo of AC and DC switching dramatically reveals.

Using a very simple test setup, consisting of an electric heater for a load, a variac to control the voltage, and a homemade switch, [John Ward] walks us through the details of what happens when those contacts get together. With low-voltage AC, the switch contacts exhibit very little arcing, and even with the voltage cranked up all the way, little more than a brief spark can be seen on either make or break. Then [John] built a simple DC supply with a big rectifier and a couple of capacitors to smooth things out and went through the same tests. Even at a low DC voltage, the arc across the switch contacts was dramatic, particularly upon break. With the voltage cranked up to the full 240-volts of the UK mains, [John]’s switch was essentially a miniature arc welder, with predictable results as the plastic holding the contacts melted. Don your welding helmet and check out the video below.

As dramatic as the demo is, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever be seeing DC in the home. It just means that a little extra engineering is needed to make sure that all the components are up to snuff.

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Scrapped Motors Don’t Care About Direction

Spinners built into games of chance like roulette or tabletop board games stop on a random number after being given a good spin. There is no trick, but they eventually rest because of friction, no matter how hard your siblings wind up for a game-winning turn. What if the spinning continued forever and there was no programming because there was no controller? [Ludic Science] shows us his method of making a perpetual spinner with nothing fancier than a scrapped hard disk drive motor and a transformer. His video can also be seen below the break.

Fair warning: this involves mains power. The brushless motor inside a hard disk drive relies on three-phase current of varying frequencies, but the power coming off a single transformer is going to be single-phase AC at fifty or sixty Hz. This simplifies things considerably, but we lose the self-starting ability of the motor and direction control, but we call those features in our perpetual spinner. With two missing phases, our brushless motor limps along in whatever direction we initiate, but the circuit couldn’t be much more straightforward.

This is just the latest skill on a scrapped HDD motor’s résumé (CV). They will run with a 9V battery, or work backwards and become an encoder. If you want to use it more like the manufacturer’s intent, consider this controller.

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Push Big Red Button, Receive Power.

As with the age-old panic after realizing you have left an oven on, a candle lit, and so on, a soldering tool left on is a potentially serious hazard. Hackaday.io user [Nick Sayer] had gotten used to his Hakko soldering iron’s auto shut-off and missed that feature on his de-soldering gun of the same make. So, what was he to do but nip that problem in the bud?

Instead of modding the tool itself, he built an AC plug that will shut itself off after a half hour. Inside a metal project box — grounded, of course — an ATtiny85 is connected to a button, an opto-isolated TRIAC AC power switch, and a ‘pilot’ light indicating power. After a half hour, the ATtiny triggers the opto-isolator and turns off the outlet, so [Sayer] must push the button if he wants to keep working. He notes you can quickly double-tap the button for a simple timer reset.

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Cryptanalyse Your Air Con

Infrared remote controls are simple and ubiquitous. Emulating them with the aid of a microcontroller is a common project that hackers use to control equipment as diverse as televisions, cable boxes, and home stereos. Some air conditioners can be a little more complicated, however, but [Ken]’s here to help.

The root of the problem is that the air conditioner remote was using a non-obvious checksum to verify if commands received were valid. To determine the function generating the checksum, [Ken] decided to bust out the tools of differential cryptanalysis. This involves carefully varying the input to a cryptographic function and comparing it to the differences in the output.

With 35 signals collected from the remote, a program was written to find input data that varied by just one bit. The checksum outputs were then compared to eventually put together the checksum function.

[Ken] notes that the function may not be 100% accurate, as they’re only using a limited sample of data in which not all the bytes change significantly. However, it shows that a methodical approach is valuable when approaching such projects.

Thirsty for more checksum-busting action? Check out this hacked weather station.

Snitch On Your AC Devices With Stolen Power

Low power devices are always intriguing, as they open up possibilities for applications with the need to operate remotely, or for very long periods without attention. There are all manner of techniques for powering such devices, too, such as using solar panels, super capacitors, or other fancy devices. The Micro Power Snitch is one such device, which can report wirelessly on your AC-powered appliances.

The device is built around a tiny ARM microcontroller and an RFM69 radio module. The entire circuit is run by leeching power from an AC current transformer, wrapped around one of the power lines of an AC appliance. When an appliance draws over the minimum threshold current (500W on 230VAC, 250W on 115VAC), the device sends a packet out, which can be received and logged at the other end.

The best part of this project, however, is the writeup. The project is split into an 8-part series, breaking down the minutiae of the concepts at work to make this possible. It’s a great primer if you’re interested in designing low-power devices.

We’ve seen some of [jcw]’s power research before – such as this guide to the effects of code on power consumption.

[Thanks to Ronald for the tip!]

Skin (Effect) in the Game

We love to pretend like our components are perfect. Resistors don’t have capacitance or inductance. Wires conduct electricity perfectly. The reality, though, is far from this. It is easy to realize that wire will have some small resistance. For the kind of wire lengths you usually encounter, ignoring it is acceptable. If you start running lots of wire or you are carrying a lot of current, you might need to worry about it. Really long wires also take some time to get a signal from one end to the other, but you have to have a very long wire to really worry about that. However, all wires behave strangely as frequency goes up.

Of course there’s the issue of the wire becoming a significant part of the signal’s wavelength and there’s always parasitic capacitance and inductance. But the odd effect I’m thinking of is the so-called skin effect, first described by [Horace Lamb] in 1883. [Lamb] was working with spherical conductors, but [Oliver Heaviside] generalized it in 1885.

Put simply, when a wire is carrying AC, the current will tend to avoid traveling in the center of the wire. At low frequencies, the effect is minimal, but as the frequency rises, the area in the center that isn’t carrying current gets larger. At 60 Hz, for example, the skin depth for copper wire — the depth where the current falls below 1/e of the value near the surface — is about 0.33 inches. Wire you are likely to use at that frequency has a diameter less than that, so the effect is minimal.

However, consider a 20 kHz signal — a little high for audio unless you are a kid with good ears. The depth becomes about 0.018 inches. So wire bigger than 0.036 inches in diameter will start losing effective wire size. For a 12-gauge wire with a diameter of 0.093 inches, that means about 25% of the current-handling capacity is lost. When you get to RF and microwave frequencies, only the thinnest skin is carrying significant current. At 6 MHz, for example, copper wire has a skin depth of about 0.001 inches. At 1 GHz, you are down to about 0.000081 inches. You can see this (not to scale) in the accompanying image. At DC, all three zones of the wire carry current. At a higher frequency, only the outer two zones carry significant current. At higher frequencies, only the outer zone is really carrying electrons.

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