Ask Hackaday: Is Your Clock Tied to Mains Frequency?

Earlier in March we heard about a quirk of the interconnected continental European electricity grid which caused clocks to lose about six minutes so far this year. This was due to a slight dip in the mains frequency. That dip didn’t put anything out of commission, but clocks that are designed to accumulate the total zero-crossings of the power grid frequency of 50 Hz don’t keep accurate time when that frequency is, say 49.985 Hz for an extended period of time.

An interesting set of conversations popped up from that topic. There were several claims that modern alarm clocks, and most devices connected to mains, no longer get their clock timing from mains frequency. I’ve looked into this a bit which I’ll go into below. But what we really want to know is: are your alarm clocks and other devices keeping time with the grid or with something else?

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Decabit: Or The Conspiracy Theory That Wasn’t

[LDX] first noticed the odd sounds coming out of his ceiling fan, regularly, on the hour and half-hour. Then he noticed that the lights were flickering as well. Figuring something was up, he built a logging power-line monitor to see if he could decode the shadowy signals and figure out what cryptic messages were being transmitted over the power lines. Naturally, he suspected the Illuminati were behind it.

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Mains Frequency Display

[James] lives in the UK where the frequency of electricity is suppose to be 50Hz, but it tends to fluctuate based on supply and demand. He decided he wanted a display to track this.

Now, the National Grid Website shows a real-time graph of the last 60 minutes. But that’s way too easy. Time to bust out the soldering iron!

Armed with pencil and paper [James] scribbled down some ideas on how to count the frequency — he settled on counting 200 cycles, which means that at 50.000Hz, it would take exactly 4 seconds. The next problem was getting a timing source that was accurate enough for the job. An ATtiny84 wouldn’t do the trick (too inaccurate), nor would an external crystal (too expensive) — But a real-time clock? That’s the ticket! He’s using a DS3231 RTC chip, which at +/- 2ppm 32.768kHz is more than precise enough.

Some math, programming, and soldering later and the display is complete! He’s even added an up/down arrow to show the most recent trend of the electricity.

Nice one [James]! Last year [Ch00f] did a similar project, where he tore down a 194 discrete transistor clock kit to see how it worked — as an aside, he needed to know how accurate the 60Hz coming out of his wall was!