Investigating the Tiny Salvaged UPS from a Lightbulb

Recently I had the opportunity to do a teardown of a battery-backed LED bulb, and found some interesting details on how the device operated. Essentially, the bulb contained a low voltage DC uninterruptible power supply that would automatically switch between AC power and internal battery as needed. The implications of this seemed pretty exciting. For around $12 at big box retailers, this little bulb could be a cheap and convenient solution for providing fault tolerant power to microcontrollers and other low-power devices.

The teardown was a runaway success, with quite a bit of discussion of the UPS idea specifically. Some people hated it, others loved it. But as we’ve come to expect from Hackaday readers, the comments from both sides of the aisle contained keen observations and invaluable real-world experience. From the safety of the device to the accuracy of the manufacturer’s claims, it seems like every element of the product was addressed.

I had ended the teardown with a promise that I’d continue experimenting with the tiny salvaged UPS, but even if I hadn’t, with so much feedback it seemed revisiting the subject was all but a necessity. It this little UPS really viable? Is it too dangerous to safely implement in your project? Will the thing just blow up?

So with your comments as a guide, and free of the somewhat restrictive teardown format, I set out to conduct a more thorough investigation of this little circuit that caused so much debate last month. It’s not all good news, but it’s not in the trash either. Not yet, anyway.

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Teardown: LED Bulb Yields Tiny UPS

Occasionally you run across a product that you just know is simply too good to be true. You might not know why, but you’ve got a hunch that what the bombastic phrasing on the package is telling you just doesn’t quite align with reality. That’s the feeling I got recently when I spotted the “LED intellibulb Battery Backup” bulb by Feit Electric. For around $12 USD at Home Depot, the box promises the purchaser will “Never be in the dark again”, and that the bulb will continue to work normally for up to 3.5 hours when the power is out. If I could repurpose that to make a tiny UPS for a microcontroller project of my own, it could be even more useful.

Now an LED light bulb with a battery in the base isn’t exactly rocket science, we can understand the product conceptually at a glance. But as they say, the devil is in the details. The box claims the bulb consumes 8.5 watts, but a battery with enough capacity to run such a load for 3.5 hours would be far too large to fit inside of a light bulb. Obviously there’s more to the story.

On the side of the box, in the smallest font used on the whole package, we get our clue. The bulb drops down to 200 lumens when in battery backup mode, or roughly as bright as a cheap LED flashlight. Now things are starting to come together. Without even opening the device, we can be fairly sure it will contain two separate arrays of LEDs: one low set for battery, and a brighter set to run when the bulb has AC power.

Still, I tend to be of the opinion that anything less than $20 or so is worth cracking open to see what makes it tick. Even if the product itself is underwhelming, there’s a chance the internal components could be useful or interesting. With that in mind, let’s see what’s inside a battery backup light bulb, and what we might be able to do with it.

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Battery Backup For The Raspberry Pi

You can go to any dollar store, gas station, big box store, or your favorite Internet retailer and get a USB power bank. It’s a lithium battery mashed into a plastic enclosure with a USB port, probably poorly engineered, but it does serve as a great power supply for the Raspberry Pi. For the Raspberry Pi Zero contest we’re running over on, [Patrick] built a lithium phosphate battery pack that’s much better engineered and has some features a simple USB power bank will never have.

Battery[Patrick]’s Raspberry Pi UPS isn’t just a battery and charge controller attached to the power rails; this board has a microcontroller that has full control over when the Pi wakes up, when the Pi goes to sleep, and can put the Pi into a clean shutdown, even in headless mode. SD cards around the world rejoiced.

The electronics for this project are just a low-power MSP430 microcontroller and a boost regulator. The battery pack/power manager attaches to the Pi through the first few GPIO pins on the Pi’s 40-pin header. That’s enough to tap into the 3.3 and 5V supplies, along with the serial console so power events can be scripted on the Pi.

So far, [Patrick] has made a few time-lapse movies with his lithium battery backup, a Pi Model A+, and a Raspberry Pi camera. He managed to take 99 pictures over the course of about 24 hours, powered only by a single lithium-ion cell. You can check that video out below.

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Ultimate Battery Backup Mod

Unless your main workstation is a laptop, you’ve probably got a APC or similar battery backup kicking around. But have you ever thought of modifying it to make it a bit more useful? After all, it can be used as a useful DC power supply…

[The 8-Bit Guy] shows us how he modified his APC to include a voltage readout, and direct DC output jacks. As it turns out you can get a lot more battery life if you’re not using the built-in pesky AC/DC power inverter! Stick around after the break for a very informative video on how he did it.
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Transparent Alarm Clock Runs Linux

[Benoit] was using an extremely old alarm clock which normally ran on mains power, and he plugged it in to his computer’s UPS to keep it operational during power outages. He noticed that when the UPS switched on that the clock would run fast, though, and apparently it was keeping time by watching the power system frequency. To solve this problem he created his own feature-dense clock which runs Linux.

This alarm clock has everything: seven-segment displays housed in clear epoxy, a touch interface, battery backup, the ability to retrieve the time from an NTP server, and a web interface to change the clock’s settings over the network. That was a large part of [Benoit]’s decision to have the clock run Linux; the network capabilities add a lot of functionality to the clock like the ability to send commands to other devices at particular times. The clock runs on an Aria G25 SOM and has a custom case that looks very professional.

We’re suckers for a high-quality clock builds here, and [Benoit]’s most recent project hits all of our buttons. Even though it doesn’t currently drive people insane or tell confusing time, the Linux and networking capabilities could certainly open up options!

Arduino-Based Power Failure Alert System


When the power went out at his parents’ shop and ruined the contents of their fridge, [Lauters Mehdi] got to work building a custom power failure alert system to prevent future disasters. Although some commercial products address this problem, [Lauters] decided that he could build his own for the same cost while integrating a specific alert feature: one that fires off an SMS to predefined contacts upon mains power failure.

The first step was to enable communication between an Arduino Micro and a Nokia cell phone. His Nokia 3310 uses FBus protocol, but [Lauters] couldn’t find an Arduino library to make the job easier. Instead, he prototyped basic communication by running an Arduino Uno as a simple serial repeater to issue commands from the computer directly to the phone, and eventually worked out how to send an SMS from the ‘duino. [Lauters] then took the phone apart and tapped into the power button to control on/off states. He also disconnected the phone’s battery and plugged it into an attached PCB. The system operates off mains power but swaps to a 1000mAH 9V backup battery during a power outage, logging the time and sending out the SMS alerts. A second message informs the contacts when power has been restored.

Head over to [Lauters’s] project blog for schematics and photos, then see his GitHub for the source code. If you want to see other SMS hacking projects, check out the similar build that keeps a remote-location cabin warm, or the portable power strip activated by SMS.

Bicycle Generator for Emergency Electricity


[Hackett’s] back at it, this time with some practical advice for the next power outage to hit your city: why not prepare for the worst by building your own bike generator? You’ll no doubt recall that hurricane Sandy devastated New York City’s grid, even flooding substations and causing massive explosions. [Hackett] experienced the Sandy outages first-hand, and knows the value of having this simple build ready to roll.

The project uses a permanent magnet DC motor (around 250 watts), which you can find in electric wheelchairs or other mobility scooters. His setup’s gear reduction spins the motor 50 times for each revolution of the bike wheel. The apparatus [Hackett] built to press-fit the wheel to the motor’s spindle is particularly clever: a threaded rod adjusts the position of the motor, which is bolted onto a hinged platform, with the other part of the hinge welded to a larger frame that supports the bike wheel.

The motor is connected to a home-built charge controller based on Mike Davis’s design, which monitors the deep-cycle batteries and both kills the charge when it’s full as well as turns charging back on after it’s reached a set level of discharge. The rest is gravy: with the deep cycle battery connected to a power inverter, [Hackett] can plug in and keep phones charged, music playing, and even (some of) the lights on. If you’re a fan of [Hackett’s] straightforward, practical presentation style, check out his tripod build and his demonstration of stripping pipes of their galvanization.

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