A Peek Inside A Typical British Residential Power Panel

No matter what field you’re in, it’s interesting and instructive to find out how others practice it. That’s especially true with electrical distribution systems, where standards and practices differ from country to country and even between regions. This tour of a typical British residential electrical panel is a great example of the different ways that the same engineering problems can be solved, and the compromises that always attend any design.

We’re used to seeing [Big Clive] tearing interesting devices to bits, but rest assured that this electrical panel remains largely intact as it gives up its secrets. Compared to the distribution panels and circuit breakers common in North American residential construction, the British consumer unit is a marvel of neatness and simplicity. True, the unit on display hasn’t been put into service yet, and things will no doubt change once an electrician is through with it, but the fact that everything is DIN rail mounted is pretty cool. [Clive] explains a few of the quirks of the panel, such as the fact that what looks like a main breaker is in fact just an isolation switch, and that there are a pair of residual current devices (RCDs), which we call ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in North America, that also don’t act as circuit breakers, despite appearances. A stout bus bar is provided to link the RCDs to adjacent circuit breakers, forming two groups that are separately protected from ground faults.

[Clive] notes with dismay that the lugs of the bus bar can actually be inserted behind the rising clamp terminal on the breaker, resulting in poor connections and overheating. Still, we wouldn’t mind some of these concepts brought to panels in North America, which we covered a bit in a discussion on circuit protection a while back.

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VCF East: The Mail Order App Store

Today we take the concept of a centralized software repository for granted. Whether it’s apt or the App Store, pretty much every device we use today has a way to pull applications in without the user manually having to search for them on the wilds of the Internet. Not only is this more convenient for the end user, but at least in theory, more secure since you won’t be pulling binaries off of some random website.

But centralized software distribution doesn’t just benefit the user, it can help developers as well. As platforms like Steam have shown, once you lower the bar to the point that all you need to get your software on the marketplace is a good idea, smaller developers get a chance to shine. You don’t need to find a publisher or pay out of pocket to have a bunch of discs pressed, just put your game or program out there and see what happens. Markus “Notch” Persson saw his hobby project Minecraft turn into one of the biggest entertainment franchises in decades, but one has to wonder if it would have ever gotten released commercially if he first had to convince a publisher that somebody would want to play a game about digging holes.

In the days before digital distribution was practical, things were even worse. If you wanted to sell your game or program, it needed to be advertised somewhere, needed to be put on physical media, and it needed to get shipped out to the customer. All this took capital that would easily be beyond many independent developers, to say nothing of single individuals.

But at the recent Vintage Computer Festival East, [Allan Bushman] showed off relics from a little known chapter of early home computing: the Atari Program Exchange (APX). In a wholly unique approach to software distribution at the time, individuals were given a platform by which their software would be advertised and sold to owners of 8-bit machines such as the Atari 400/800 and later XL series computers. In the early days, when the line between computer user and computer programmer was especially blurry, the APX let anyone with the skill turn their ideas into profit. Continue reading “VCF East: The Mail Order App Store”

Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.

Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.

The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.

While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.