Ask Hackaday: How Do You Prepare?

Last month, large parts of the southern United States experienced their coldest temperatures since the 1899 Blizzard. Some of us set new all-time lows, and I was right in the middle of the middle of it here in Southwestern Oklahoma. Since many houses in Texas and Oklahoma are heated with electricity, the power grids struggled to keep up with the demand. Cities in Oklahoma experienced some short-term rolling blackouts and large patches of the Texas grid were without power for several days. No juice, no heat.

In places where the power was out for an extended period of time, the water supply was potentially contaminated, and a boil order was in effect. Of course, this only works when the gas and power are on. In some places, the store shelves were empty, a result of panic buying combined with perishables spoiling without the power to keep them cold. For some, food and drinkable water was temporarily hard to come by.

There have been other problems, too. Houses in the south aren’t built for the extreme cold, and many have experienced frozen pipes, temporarily shutting off their water supply. In some cases, those frozen pipes break open, flooding the house once the water starts flowing again. For instance, here’s an eye-witness account of the carnage from The 8-bit Guy, who lives at ground zero in the DFW area.
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Machining Without Machines

It’s a luxury to be able to access a modern machine shop, complete with its array of lathes, mills, and presses. These tools are expensive though, and take up a lot of space, so if you want to be able to machine hard or thick metals without an incredible amount of overhead you’ll need a different solution. Luckily you can bypass the machines in some situations and use electricity to do the machining directly.

This project makes use of a process known as electrochemical machining and works on the principle that electricity passed through an electrolyte solution will erode the metal that it comes in contact with. With a well-designed setup, this can be used to precisely machine metal in various ways. For [bob]’s use this was pretty straightforward, since he needed to enlarge an existing hole in a piece of plate steel, so he forced electrolyte through this hole while applying around half an amp of current in order to make this precise “cut” in the metal, avoiding the use of an expensive drill press.

There are some downsides to the use of this process as [bob] notes in his build, namely that any piece of the working material that comes in contact with the electrolyte will be eroded to some extent. This can be mitigated with good design but can easily become impractical. It’s still a good way to avoid the expense of some expensive machining equipment, though, and similar processes can be used for other types of machine work as well.

A Clock From An Electricity Meter

Electric utilities across the world have been transitioning their meters from the induction analog style with a distinctive spinning disc to digital “smart” meters which aren’t as aesthetically pleasing but do have a lot of benefits for utilities and customers alike. For one, meter readers don’t need to visit each meter every month because they are all networked together and can download usage data remotely. For another, it means a lot of analog meters are now available for projects such as this clock from [Monta].

The analog meters worked by passing any electricity used through a small induction motor which spun at a rate proportional to the amount of energy passing through it. This small motor spun a set of dials via gearing in order to keep track of the energy usage in the home or business. To run the clock, [Monta] connected a stepper motor with a custom transmission to those dials for the clock face because it wasn’t possible to spin the induction motor fast enough to drive the dials. An Arduino controls that stepper motor, but can’t simply drive the system in a linear fashion because it needs to skip a large portion of the “minutes” dials every hour. A similar problem arises for the “hours” dials, but a little bit of extra code solves this problem as well.

Once the actual clock is finished, [Monta] put some finishing touches on it such as backlighting in the glass cover and a second motor to spin the induction motor wheel to make the meter look like it’s running. It’s a well-polished build that makes excellent use of some antique hardware, much like one of his other builds we’ve seen which draws its power from a Stirling engine.

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Adding Luxury Charging Features To An Entry-Level EV

The Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric car of all time so far, thanks largely to it being one of the first mass produced all-electric EVs. While getting into the market early was great for Nissan, they haven’t made a lot of upgrades that other EV manufacturers have made and are starting to lose customers as a result. One of those upgrades is charge limiting, which allows different charging rates to be set from within the car. With some CAN bus tinkering, though, this feature can be added to the Leaf.

Limiting the charging rate is useful when charging at unfamiliar or old power outlets which might not handle the default charge rate. In Europe, which has a 240V electrical distribution system, Leafs will draw around 3 kW from a wall outlet which is quite a bit of power. If the outlet looks like it won’t support that much power flow, it’s handy (and more safe) to be able to reduce that charge rate even if it might take longer to fully charge the vehicle. [Daniel ร–ster]’s modification requires the user to set the charge rate by manipulating the climate control, since the Leaf doesn’t have a comprehensive user interface.

The core of this project is performed over the CAN bus, which is a common communications scheme that is often used in vehicles and is well-documented and easy to take advantage of. Luckily, [Daniel] has made the code available on his GitHub page, so if you’re thinking about trading in a Leaf for something else because of its lack of features it may be time to reconsider.

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Home Monitoring, Without All The Sensors

Smart homes come with a lot of perks, not least among which is the ability to monitor the goings-on in your home, track them, and make trends. Each piece of monitoring equipment, such as sensors or cameras, is another set of wires that needs to be run and another “thing” that needs to be maintained on your system. There are sometimes clever ways of avoiding sensors, though, while still retaining the usefulness of having them.

In this build, [squix] uses existing sensors for electricity metering that he already had in order to alert him when his oven is pre-heated. The sensor is a Shelly 3EM, and the way that it interfaces with his home automation is by realizing that his electric oven will stop delivering electricity to the heating elements once it has reached the desired temperature. He is able to monitor the sudden dramatic decrease in electricity demand at his house with the home controller, and use that decrease to alert him to the fact that his oven is ready without having to install something extra like a temperature sensor.

While this particular sensor may only be available in some parts of Europe, we presume the idea would hold out across many different sensors and even other devices. Even a small machine learning device should be able to tell what loads are coming on at what times, and then be programmed to perform functions based on that data.

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Solving The Mysteries Of Grounding While Improving A Power Supply

Grounding problems and unwanted noise in electrical systems can often lead to insanity. It can seem like there’s no method to the madness when an electrical “gremlin” caused by one of these things pops its head out. When looking more closely, however, these issues have a way of becoming more obvious. In a recent video, [Fesz Electronics] shows us how to investigate some of these problems by looking at a small desktop power supply, modelling it in LTSpice, and reducing the noise on the power supply’s output.

While everything in this setup is properly grounded, including the power supply and oscilloscope, the way the grounding systems interact can contribute to the high amount of noise. This was discovered by isolating the power supply from earth ground using electrical tape (not recommended as a long-term solution) and seeing that the noise was reduced. However, the ripple increased substantially, so a more permanent fix was needed. For that, the power supply was modelled in LTSpice. This is where a key discovery was made: since all the parts of the power supply aren’t ideal, noise can be introduced from the actual real-life electrical behavior of some of the parts. In this case, it was non-ideal capacitance in the transformer.

According to the model, this power supply could be improved by adding a larger capacitor across the output leads, and also by increasing their inductance. A large capacitor was soldered in the power supply and an iron ferrule was added, which decreased the noise level from 100 mV to around 20. Still not perfect, but a much needed improvement to the simple power supply. If, on the other hand, you want to make sure you eliminate that transformer’s capacitance completely, you can always go with a transformerless power supply. That carries other risks, though.

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The Hornsdale Power Reserve And What It Means For Grid Battery Storage

Renewable energy has long been touted as a major requirement in the fight to stave off the world’s growing climate emergency. Governments have been slow to act, but prices continue to come down and the case for renewables grows stronger by the day.

However, renewables have always struggled around the issue of availability. Solar power only works when the sun is shining, and wind generators only when the wind is blowing. The obvious solution is to create some kind of large, grid-connected battery to store excess energy in off-peak periods, and use it to prop up the grid when renewable outputs are low. These days, that’s actually a viable idea, as South Australia proved in 2017.

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