Monitoring Power By Counting Blinks

What do you do when you want to add a new feature to some electronics but you can’t or don’t want to tear into the guts? You look for something external with which you can interface. We like these hacks because they take some thinking outside the box, literally and figuratively, and often involve an Aha! moment.

[Simon Aubury’s] big household load was electric heating and his ancient heaters didn’t provide any way to monitor their usage. His power meters weren’t smart meters and he didn’t want to open them up. But the power meters did have an external LED which blinked each time 1 Wh was consumed. Aha! He could monitor the blinks.

Home power usage graph
Maximum is white, average is orange, and minimum is blue.

Doing so was simple enough. Just point photoresistors at the two meter’s LEDs and connect them and capacitors to a Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins. Every time a pulse is detected, his Python code increments the LED’s counter and every fifteen minutes he writes the counters to an SQL database. Analysing his data he saw that nothing much happens before 5 AM and that the lowest daytime usage is around noon. The maximum recorded value was due to a heater accidentally being left on and the minimum is due to a mini holiday. Pretty good info given that all he had to go on was a blinking light.

Where else are there LED indicators which you can tap into? Here’s an only slightly more invasive usage where a washing machine’s “end of cycle” LED  was removed and the power going to it was rerouted to an Arduino for remote monitoring.

Smart AC Monitoring: Without The $500 Price Tag

[Tisham Dhar] has been interested in monitoring AC power and previously built a breakout board for the ADE7763. He wanted to find something cheaper and more modern. The ATM90E26 fit the bill. It can communicate via a UART or SPI, and has multiple metering modes. The problem? The evaluation module from Atmel costs about $500 (and for [Dhar] $800 Australian), although the part itself can be had for under a buck in bulk. (Atmel even sent him three samples for free.)

[Dhar] put the low voltage components from the reference design on a PCB and pocketed the difference in cost. So far, he’s tested the setup with a Teensy and low voltage measurements only. He plans to do a full test soon.

The test setup uses SPI mode 3 to talk to the processor. You can find the relevant code on GitHub.

We see a lot of energy monitoring projects go by. Of course, working on household wiring current can be dangerous, so be careful out there.