Scott Swaaley On High Voltage

If you were to invent a time machine and transport a typical hardware hacker of the 1970s into 2018 and sit them at a bench alongside their modern counterpart, you’d expect them to be faced with a pile of new things, novel experiences, and exciting possibilities. The Internet for all, desktop computing fulfilling its potential, cheap single-board computers, even ubiquitous surface-mount components.

What you might not expect though is that the 2018 hacker might discover a whole field of equivalent unfamiliarity while being very relevant from their grizzled guest. It’s something Scott Swaaley touches upon in his Superconference talk:  “Lessons Learned in Designing High Power Line Voltage Circuits” in which he describes his quest for an electronic motor brake, and how his experiences had left him with a gap in his knowledge when it came to working with AC mains voltage.

When Did You Last Handle AC Line voltages?

If you think about it, the AC supply has become something we rarely encounter for several reasons. Our 1970s hacker would have been used to wiring in mains transformers, to repairing tube-driven equipment or CRT televisions with live chassis’,  and to working with lighting that was almost exclusively provided by mains-driven incandescent bulbs. A common project of the day would have been a lighting dimmer with a triac, by contrast we work in a world of microcontroller-PWM-driven LEDs and off-the-shelf switch-mode power supplies in which we have no need to see the high voltages. It may be no bad thing that we are rarely exposed to high-voltage risk, but along the way we may have lost a part of our collective skillset.

Scott’s path to gaining his mains voltage experience started in a school workshop, with a bandsaw. Inertia in the saw kept the blade moving after the power had been withdrawn, and while that might be something many of us are used to it was inappropriate in that setting as kids are better remaining attached to their fingers. He looked at brakes and electrical loads as the solution to stopping the motor, but finally settled on something far simpler. An induction motor can be stopped very quickly indeed by applying a DC voltage to it, and his quest to achieve this led along the path of working with the AC supply. Eventually he had a working prototype, which he further developed to become the MakeSafe power tool brake.

Get Your AC Switching Right First Time

The full talk is embedded below the break, and gives a very good introduction to the topic of switching AC power. If you’ve never encountered a thryristor, a triac, or even a diac, these once-ubiquitous components make an entrance. We learn about relays and contactors, and how back EMF can destroy them, and about the different strategies to protect them. Our 1970s hacker would recognise some of these, but even here there are components that have reached the market since their time that they would probably give anything to have. We see the genesis of the MakeSafe brake as a panel with a bunch of relays and an electronic fan controller with a rectifier to produce the DC, and we hear about adequate safety precautions. This is music to our ears, as it’s a subject we’ve touched on before both in terms of handling mains on your bench and inside live equipment.

So if you’ve never dealt with AC line voltages, give this talk a look. The days of wiring up transformers to power projects might be largely behind us, but the skills and principles contained within it are still valid.

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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!]