A Look Inside An Old-School Synchroscope

There’s nothing quite like old-school electrical gear, especially the stuff associated with power distribution. There’s something about the chunky, heavy construction, the thick bakelite cases, and the dials you can read from across the room. Double points for something that started life behind the Iron Curtain, as this delightful synchroscope appears to have.

So what exactly is a synchroscope, you ask? As [DiodeGoneWild] explains (in the best accent a human being has ever had), synchroscopes are used to indicate when two AC power sources are in phase with each other. This is important in power generation and distribution, where it just wouldn’t be a good idea to just connect a freshly started generator to a stable power grid. This synchroscope has a wonderfully robust mechanism inside, with four drive coils located 90° apart on a circular stator. Inside that is a moving coil attached to the meter’s needle, which makes this an induction motor that stops turning when the two input currents are in phase with each other.

The meter is chock full of engineering goodies, like the magnetic brake that damps the needle, and the neat inductive coupling method used to provide current to the moving coil. [DiodeGoneWild] does a great job explaining how the meter works, and does a few basic tests that show us the 60-odd years since this thing was made haven’t caused any major damage. We’re eager to see it put to the full test soon.

This is just the latest in a series of cool teardowns by [DiodeGoneWild]. He recently treated us to a glimpse inside an old-ish wattmeter, and took a look at friggin’ laser-powered headlights, too.

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Hackaday Links: May 8, 2022

Russia’s loose cannon of a space boss is sending mixed messages about the future of the International Space Station. Among the conflicting statements from Director-General Dmitry Rogozin, the Roscosmos version of Eric Cartman, is that “the decision has been made” to pull out of the ISS over international sanctions on Russia thanks to its war on Ukraine. But exactly when would this happen? Good question. Rogozin said the agency would honor its commitment to give a year’s notice before pulling out, which based on the current 2024 end-of-mission projections, means we might hear something definitive sometime next year. Then again, Rogozin also said last week that Roscosmos would be testing a one-orbit rendezvous technique with the ISS in 2023 or 2024; it currently takes a Soyuz about four orbits to catch up to the ISS. So which is it? Your guess is as good as anyones at this point.

At what point does falsifying test data on your products stop being a “pattern of malfeasance” and become just the company culture? Apparently, something other than the 40 years that Mitsubishi Electric has allegedly been doctoring test results on some of their transformers. The company has confessed to the testing issue, and also to “improper design” of the transformers, going back to the 1980s and covering about 40% of the roughly 8,400 transformers it made and shipped worldwide. The tests that were falsified were to see if the transformers could hold up thermally and withstand overvoltage conditions. The good news is, unless you’re a power systems engineer, these aren’t transformers you’d use in any of your designs — they’re multi-ton, multi-story beasts that run the grid. The bad news is, they’re the kind of transformers used to run the grid, so nobody’s stuff will work if one of these fails. There’s no indication whether any of the sketchy units have failed, but the company is “considering” contacting owners and making any repairs that are necessary.

For your viewing pleasure, you might want to catch the upcoming documentary series called “A League of Extraordinary Makers.” The five-part series seeks to explain the maker movement to the world, and features quite a few of the luminaries of our culture, including Anouk Wipprecht, Bunnie Huang, Jimmy DiResta, and the gang at Makers Asylum in Mumbai, which we assume would include Anool Mahidharia. It looks like the series will focus on the real-world impact of hacking, like the oxygen concentrators hacked up by Makers Asylum for COVID-19 response, and the influence the movement has had on the wider culture. Judging by the trailer below, it looks pretty interesting. Seems like it’ll be released on YouTube as well as other channels this weekend, so check it out.

But, if you’re looking for something to watch that doesn’t require as much commitment, you might want to check out this look at the crawler-transporter that NASA uses to move rockets to the launch pad. We’ve all probably seen these massive beasts before, moving at a snail’s pace along a gravel path with a couple of billion dollars worth of rocket stacked up and teetering precariously on top. What’s really cool is that these things are about as old as the Space Race itself, and still going strong. We suppose it’s easier to make a vehicle last almost 60 years when you only ever drive it at half a normal walking speed.

And finally, if you’re wondering what your outdoor cat gets up to when you’re not around — actually, strike that; it’s usually pretty obvious what they’ve been up to by the “presents” they bring home to you. But if you’re curious about the impact your murder floof is having on the local ecosystem, this Norwegian study of the “catscape” should be right up your alley. They GPS-tagged 92 outdoor cats — which they dryly but hilariously describe as “non-feral and food-subsidized” — and created maps of both the ranges of individual animals, plus a “population-level utilization distribution,” which we think is a euphemism for “kill zone.” Surprisingly, the population studied spent almost 80% of their time within 50 meters of home, which makes sense — after all, they know where those food subsidies are coming from.

Cascade Failures, Computer Problems, And Ohms Law: Understanding The Northeast Blackout Of 2003

We’ve all experienced power outages of some kind, be it a breaker tripping at an inconvenient time to a storm causing a lack of separation between a tree and a power line. The impact is generally localized and rarely is there a loss of life, though it can happen. But in the video below the break, [Grady] of Practical Engineering breaks down the Northeast Blackout of 2003, the largest power failure ever experienced in North America. Power was out for days in some cases, and almost 100 deaths were attributed to the loss of electricity.

[Grady] goes into a good amount of detail regarding the monitoring systems, software simulation, and contingency planning that goes into operating a large scale power grid. The video explains how inductive loads cause reactance and how the effect exacerbated an already complex problem. Don’t know what inductive loads and reactance are? That’s okay, the video explains it quite well, and it gives an excellent basis for understanding AC electronics and even RF electronic theories surrounding inductance, capacitance, and reactance.

So, what caused the actual outage? The complex cascade failure is explained step by step, and the video is certainly worth the watch, even if you’re already familiar with the event.

It would be irresponsible to bring up the 2003 outage without talking about the Texas ERCOT outages just one year ago– an article whose comments section nearly caused a blackout at the Hackaday Data Center!

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Live Energy Monitor Helps Plan Power-Hungry Appliance Use

There are a lot of good reasons to have a better understanding of one’s household power use, and that is especially true for those that do their own solar power collection. For example, [Frederick] determined that it would be more efficient to use large appliances (like a dishwasher or washing machine) when there was excess solar power available, but the challenge was in accessing the right data in a convenient way. His Raspberry Pi-based live energy monitor was the solution, because it uses an LED matrix to display live energy data that can be consulted at a glance.

Interestingly, this project isn’t about hacking the power meter. What this project is really about is conveniently accessing that data when and where it is best needed. [Frederick] has a digital power and gas meter with the ability to accept a small wireless dongle. That dongle allows a mobile phone app to monitor power usage, including whether power is being taken from or exported to the grid.

Since [Frederick] didn’t want to have to constantly consult his mobile phone, a Raspberry Pi using a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT HD acts as a glanceable display. His Python script polls the power meter directly over WiFi, then creates a live display of power usage: one LED for every 250 W of power, with the top half of the display being power used, and the bottom half representing power exported to the grid. Now the decision of when to turn on which appliances for maximum efficiency is much easier, not by automating the appliances themselves, but simply by displaying data where it needs to be seen. (This kind of thing, incidentally, is exactly the idea behind the Rethink Displays challenge of the 2021 Hackaday Prize.)

As for those of us without a digital power meter that makes it easy for residents to access power data? It turns out there is no reason a power meter’s wireless service interface can’t be sniffed with RTL-SDR.

Black Starts: How The Grid Gets Restarted

Gripped as we are at the time of this writing by a historic heatwave, it’s hard for those of us in the western United States to picture a time when cold and ice reigned across the land. But really, it was only about four months back that another bit of freakish weather was visited across most of the country, including places ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. The now-fabled “February Freeze” left millions, mostly in Texas, scrabbling about in the dark and cold as a series of cascading engineering failures took apart their electrical grid, piece by piece, county by county.

The event has been much discussed and dissected, as an event with such far-reaching impact should be. Like much discussion these days, precious little of it is either informed or civil, and that’s not good news for those seeking to understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again, or at least to mitigate the effects somewhat. Part of that is understandable, given the life-disrupting and often life-threatening situations the disaster forced people to suddenly face. It’s also difficult for people to discuss an event so widespread in its scope and impact — there’s just too much for anyone to wrap their head around.

To make the present discussion a little easier, we’ll be focusing on one aspect of the February grid crash that’s often bandied about but rarely explained: that the Texas grid was mere minutes away from collapsing completely, and that it would have taken weeks or months to restore had it been able to slip away. Is that really possible? Can the power grid just “go away” completely and suddenly? The answer, sadly, is yes, but thankfully a lot of thought has been put into not only preventing it from happening but also how to restart everything if it does happen, by performing what’s known as a “Black Start.”

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South Australia Vs. Too Much Home Solar

Once upon a time, the consensus was that renewable energy was too expensive and in too sparse supply to be a viable power source to run our proud, electrified societies on. Since then, prices of solar panels have tanked, becoming more efficient along the way, and homeowners have been installing them on their rooftops in droves.

Where once it was thought we’d never have enough solar energy, in some cities, it’s becoming all too much. In South Australia, where solar output can be huge on a sunny day, electricity authorities are facing problems with grid stability, and are taking measures to limit solar output to the grid.

Isn’t More Usually Better?

The problem faced by South Australian utilities is one of how to properly control an electrical grid with many thousands of distributed power sources. Typically, in conventional modern power grids, voltage and frequency is controlled within set limits by carefully matching the supply from major power plants with the demand from users. Fast-response plants can be brought online to meet shortfalls, and switched off when demand drops, and everything hums along nicely.

Unfortunately, solar power isn’t so easy to throttle, and even less so when it’s coming from thousands of separate households each with their own rooftop install and an inverter to feed back into the grid. This has led to authorities contemplating measures such as charging homeowners to export energy to the grid in peak periods in an effort to slow the huge uptake of home solar systems. Export limits have also been proposed for suburbs with the highest concentration of home solar, as substations in certain residential areas struggle to cope under the huge inflows of energy. Continue reading “South Australia Vs. Too Much Home Solar”

Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 14 at noon Pacific for the Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat with [Hash]!

That electrical meter on the side of your house might not look like it, but it’s pretty packed with technology. What was once a simple electromechanical device that a human would have to read in person is now a node on a far-flung network. Not only does your meter total up the amount of electricity you use, but it also talks to other meters in the neighborhood, sending data skipping across town to routers that you might never have noticed as it makes its way back to the utility. And the smartest of smart meters not only know how much electricity you’re using, but they can also tease information about which appliances are being used simply by monitoring patterns of usage.

While all this sounds great for utility companies, what does it mean for the customers? What are the implications of having a network of smart meters all talking to each other wirelessly? Are these devices vulnerable to attack? Have they been engineered to be as difficult to exploit as something should be when it’s designed to be in service for 15 years or more?

These questions and more burn within [Hash], a hardware hacker and security researcher who runs the RECESSIM reverse-engineering wiki. He’s been inside a smart meter or two and has shared a lot of what he has learned on the wiki and with some in-depth YouTube videos. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat to discuss what he’s learned about the internals of smart meters, how they work, and where they may be vulnerable to attack.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 14 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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