Tech In Plain Sight: Field Guide To Power Plugs

It is the bane of worldwide travel: there isn’t just one way to get AC power from the wall. The exact connector — and what you can expect when you plug in — differs from country to country. Even if you stay home, you must account for this if your designs go places and expect to plug into the wall. If you’ve ever looked at a universal adapter, it is full of prongs and pins like a metallic porcupine. Where do all those pins go?

Of course, there are some easy ways to sidestep the whole issue if you don’t need AC power. Much low-power gear now just provides a USB or barrel connector. Then you can use an area-appropriate adapter or charger to power your device. Batteries work, too. But if you need to plug in, you will run into other kinds of plugs.

Switching power supplies have helped. In the old days, many things expected either 125V or 250V and didn’t work with the opposite voltage. Switching power supplies often allow a wide input range or have a switch to select one range or the other. These two voltages will cover almost any situation. If you have something that must have one voltage or the other, you’ll need a transformer — also called a converter — to step the voltage up or down. But most often, these days, you just need an adapter. There are slight variations. For example, some countries supply 100V or 110V, but that usually doesn’t make much difference. You also need to understand if your equipment cares if the AC is 50 Hz or 60 Hz.

Most of the power sockets you’ll find around the world will fall into one of several categories. The categories range from A to N. Even among these, however, there are variations.

Type A

For example, the common type A plug and socket are what Americans call “two prong.” If you live in the US, you’ve probably noticed that the plug is polarized. That is, one pin is slightly wider than the other so the plug can only go in one way. The wide pin is connected to the circuit neutral. The maximum load for this connector is 15A. It is difficult to find type A sockets anymore, other than on cheap extension cords or things like lamps that pass through their electrical connections to a second socket. Type B is far more common and type A plug will fit in a type B socket.

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Hackaday Podcast 002: Curious Gadgets And The FPGA Brain Trust

In this week’s podcast, editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys look back on favorite hacks and articles from the week. Highlights include a deep dive in barn-door telescope trackers, listening in on mains power, the backstory of a supercomputer inventor, and crazy test practices with new jet engine designs. We discuss some of our favorite circuit sculptures, and look at a new textile-based computer and an old server-based one.

This week, a round table of who’s-who in the Open Source FPGA movement discusses what’s next in 2019. David Shah, Clifford Wolf, Piotr Esden-Tempski, and Tim Ansell spoke with Elliot at 35C3.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (60 MB or so.)

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The Aluminum Wiring Fiasco

Someone who decides to build a house faces a daunting task. It’s hard enough to act as the general contractor for someone else, but when you decide to build your own house, as my parents did in the early 1970s, it’s even tougher. There are a million decisions to make in an information-poor and rapidly changing environment, and one wrong step can literally cast in stone something you’ll have to live with forever. Add in the shoestring budget that my folks had to work with, and it’s a wonder they were able to succeed as well as they did.

It was a close call in a few spots, though. I can recall my dad agonizing over the wiring for the house. It would have been far cheaper to go with aluminum wiring, with the price of copper wire having recently skyrocketed. He bit the bullet and had the electrician install copper instead, which ended up being a wise choice, as houses that had succumbed to the siren call of cheaper wiring would start burning down all over the United States soon thereafter.

What happened in the late 60s and early 70s in the residential and commercial electrical trades was an expensive and in some cases tragic lesson in failure engineering. Let’s take a look at how it all happened.

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Stun Gun Vs 220v Mains Electricity

Those fearless Ukrainians are at it again! This time around they’re giving wall outlets some high voltage stun gun shocks and observing the results, as [Kreosan] decided to see what would happen when you use a stun gun on mains electrical sockets. Surprisingly, they are still alive and well, and creating more videos. .

Shocking a light switch blew up some light bulbs, while shocking an extension cord with a TV plugged in blew the TV up. It seems these guys never run out of appliances to fry, or totally insane experiments to try out that no one else would really have the stomach for.

Although their experiments are on the extreme side of things they do know what they are doing, as they are electrical professionals, So maybe sit this one out unless you too really know what you are doing and understand the risks. The video is below the break for your enjoyment.

We have featured some of their equally scary hacks in the past, like mains voltage EL wire and wirelessly charging your phone from high voltage overhead power lines.

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Put A Reverse Engineered Power Meter In Your Toolkit

It seems that one can buy cheap power meters online and, well, that’s it. They work just fine, but to use them for anything else (like datalogging or control or…) they need a bit more work. The good news is that [Thomas Scherrer], alias [OZ2CPU], just did that reverse engineering work for us.

Inside these budget power meters, you’ll find an LCD driver, a power-monitoring chip, and an STM32F030, which is a low-cost ARM Cortex M0 chip that’s fun to play with on its own. [Thomas] traced out the SPI lines that the power-monitoring chip uses to talk to the microcontroller and broke in to snoop on the signals. Once he got an understanding of all the data, tossing an ATmega88 chip on the SPI line lets him exfiltrate it over a convenient asynchronous serial interface.

If you’re going to do this hack yourself, you should note that the internals of the power meter run at line voltage — the 3.3 V that powers the microcontroller floats on top of the 230 V coming out of [Thomas]’s wall plug. He took the necessary precautions with an isolation transformer while testing the device, and didn’t get shocked. That means that to get the serial data out, you’ll need to use optoisolation (or radio!) on the serial lines.

Now that we know how this thing works on the inside, it’s open-season for power-management hacks. Toss a mains socket and an ESP8266 in a box and you’ve got a WiFi-logging power meter that you can use anywhere, all for under $20. Sweet.

Hackaday’s Fun With International Mains Plugs And Sockets

When we recently covered the topic of high voltage safety with respect to mains powered equipment, we attracted a huge number of your comments but left out a key piece of the puzzle. We take our mains plugs and sockets for granted as part of the everyday background of our lives, but have we ever considered them in detail? Their various features, and their astonishing and sometimes baffling diversity across the world.

When you announce that you are going to talk in detail about global mains connectors, it is difficult not to have an air of Sheldon Cooper’s Fun With Flags about you. But jokes and the lack of a co-starring Mayim Bialik aside, there is a tale to be told about their history and diversity, and there are also lessons to be taken on board about their safety. Continue reading “Hackaday’s Fun With International Mains Plugs And Sockets”