Custom Isolated Variac Is Truly One Of A Kind

It’s no surprise that many hardware hackers avoid working with AC, and frankly, we can’t blame them. The potential consequences of making a mistake when working with mains voltages are far greater than anything that can happen when you’re fiddling with a 3.3 V circuit. But if you do ever find yourself leaning towards the sparky side, you’d be wise to outfit your bench with the appropriate equipment.

Take for example this absolutely gorgeous variable isolation transformer built by [Lajt]. It might look like a  high-end piece of professional test equipment, but as the extensive write-up and build photographs can attest, this is a completely custom job. The downside is that this particular machine will probably never be duplicated, especially given the fact its isolation transformer was built on commission by a local company, but at least we can look at it and dream.

This device combines two functions which are particularly useful when repairing or testing AC hardware. As a variable transformer, often referred to as a variac, it lets [Lajt] select how much voltage is passed through to the output side. There’s a school of thought that says slowly ramping up the voltage when testing an older or potentially damaged device is better than simply plugging it into the wall and hoping for the best. Or if you’re like Eddie Van Halen, you can use it to control the volume of your over-sized Marshall amplifiers when playing in bars.

Image of the device's internal components.Secondly, the unit isolates the output side. That way if you manage to cross the wrong wire, you’re not going to pop a breaker and plunge your workshop into darkness. It also prevents you from accidentally blowing up any AC powered test equipment you might employ while poking around, such as that expensive oscilloscope, since the devices won’t share a common ground.

Additional safety features have been implemented using an Arduino Uno R3 clone, a current sensor, and several relays. The system will automatically cut off power to the device under test should the current hit a predetermined threshold, and will refuse to re-enable the main relay until the issue has been resolved. The code has been written in such a way that whenever the user makes a configuration change, power will be cut and must be reestablished manually; giving the user ample time to decide if its really what they want to do.

[Lajt] makes it clear that the write-up isn’t meant as a tutorial for building your own, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading through it and getting some ideas. Whether you’re in the market for custom variac tips or just want to get inspired by an impeccably well engineered piece of equipment, this project is a high-water mark for sure.

The Shocking Truth About Transformerless Power Supplies

Transformerless power supplies are showing up a lot here on Hackaday, especially in inexpensive products where the cost of a transformer would add significantly to the BOM. But transformerless power supplies are a double-edged sword. That title? Not clickbait. Poking around in a transformerless-powered device can turn your oscilloscope into a smoking pile or get you electrocuted if you don’t understand them and take proper safety precautions.

But this isn’t a scare piece. Transformerless designs are great in their proper place, and you’re probably going to encounter one someday because they’re in everything from LED lightbulbs to IoT WiFi switches. We’re going to look at how they work, and how to design and work on them safely, because you never know when you might want to hack on one.

Here’s the punchline: transformerless power supplies are safely useable only in situations where the entire device can be enclosed and nobody can accidentally come in contact with any part of it. That means no physical electrical connections in or out — RF and IR are fair game. And when you work with one, you have to know that any part of the circuit can be at mains voltage. Now read on to see why!

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Upcycle An Isolation Transformer

There are several reasons you should have an isolation transformer. They can prevent ground loops and also prevent a device under test from having a DC path to ground (or isolate an oscilloscope from DC ground, which can be dangerous in its own right, but that’s another discussion). [Tanner_tech] noticed that finding ballast transformers for sodium vapor street lights is getting easier as more street lights move to LED technology. What to do with these transformers? Build an isolation transformer, of course.

Of course, your dumpster transformer might be a little different than the one shown in the post (and the video, below). [Tanner] shows how to work out the leads you need. A little wood work and a PC power supply case finished the project.

Judging from the comments, some people take [Tanner’s] talk about safety as an implication that a transformer makes working on mains safe. It doesn’t. It makes it safer if you know what you are doing. Working with high voltage isn’t a place to learn by doing.

If you want some practical advice, [Jenny List] has a good read for you. You probably also ought to invest an hour in watching this video that has a lot of practical advice.

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Isolation Transformer 101

[Todd Harrison] has released a ~50 minute video covering everything you want to know about Isolation Transformers for protecting yourself and your costly equipment. Admittedly I have not given the subject much thought, but if you need to measure high voltages you should probably watch this video.

[Todd] Explains the differences between different types of transformers, including cost, why you would want one, safety and plenty of theory. Whiteboard in hand, all the details are clearly explained. If that’s not enough to convince you, there are some fun “don’t try this at home” experiments that hit the point home.

He has a pretty beefy 8 amp 40 lb monster that cost a fairly large amount, though its worth it to be safe. Unless you think you’re going to need that type of amperage, you wold probably be fine with a smaller model. The product shown in the video is a hospital grade, and requires a mod to make it safe for your bench. [Todd] explains that mod as well. Even if your not planning to do this, its still cool to see a transformer bigger than your hand. Plus it makes a pretty cool sound.

Join us after the break for the video.

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