A Peek Inside A Typical British Residential Power Panel

No matter what field you’re in, it’s interesting and instructive to find out how others practice it. That’s especially true with electrical distribution systems, where standards and practices differ from country to country and even between regions. This tour of a typical British residential electrical panel is a great example of the different ways that the same engineering problems can be solved, and the compromises that always attend any design.

We’re used to seeing [Big Clive] tearing interesting devices to bits, but rest assured that this electrical panel remains largely intact as it gives up its secrets. Compared to the distribution panels and circuit breakers common in North American residential construction, the British consumer unit is a marvel of neatness and simplicity. True, the unit on display hasn’t been put into service yet, and things will no doubt change once an electrician is through with it, but the fact that everything is DIN rail mounted is pretty cool. [Clive] explains a few of the quirks of the panel, such as the fact that what looks like a main breaker is in fact just an isolation switch, and that there are a pair of residual current devices (RCDs), which we call ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in North America, that also don’t act as circuit breakers, despite appearances. A stout bus bar is provided to link the RCDs to adjacent circuit breakers, forming two groups that are separately protected from ground faults.

[Clive] notes with dismay that the lugs of the bus bar can actually be inserted behind the rising clamp terminal on the breaker, resulting in poor connections and overheating. Still, we wouldn’t mind some of these concepts brought to panels in North America, which we covered a bit in a discussion on circuit protection a while back.

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Mains Power Supply For ATtiny Project Is Probably A Bad Idea

When designing a mains power supply for a small load DC circuit, there are plenty of considerations. Small size, efficiency, and cost of materials all spring to mind. Potential lethality seems like it would be a bad thing to design in, but that didn’t stop [Great Scott!] from exploring capacitive drop power supplies. You know, for science.

The backstory here is that [Great Scott!] is working on a super-secret ATtiny project that needs to be powered off mains. Switching power supplies are practically de rigueur for such applications, but compared to the intended microcontroller circuit they are actually quite large, and they’ve just been so done before. So in order to learn a thing or two, [Scott!] designed a capacitive dropper supply, where the reactance of the cap acts like a dropping resistor to limit the current. His first try was just a capacitor in series with an LED; this didn’t end well for the LED.

To understand why, he reverse-engineered a few low-current mains devices and found that practical capacitive droppers need a few more components, chiefly a series resistance to prevent inrush current from getting out of hand, but also a bridge rectifier and a zener to clamp things down. Wiring up all that resulted in a working capacitive dropper supply, but a the cost of as much real estate as a small switcher, and with the extra bonus of being potentially lethal if the power supply is plugged in the wrong way. Side note: we thought German line cords were polarized to prevent this, but apparently not? (Ed Note: Nope!)

As always, even when [Great Scott!]’s projects don’t exactly work out, like a suboptimal 3D-printed BLDC or why not to bother building your own DC-AC inverter, we enjoy the learning that results.

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Adventures In Power Outage Hacking

The best type of power outage is no power outage, but they will inevitably happen. When they do, a hacker with a house full of stuff and a head full of ideas is often the person of the hour. Or the day, or perhaps the week, should the outage last long past the fun little adventure phase and become a nuisance or even an outright emergency.

Such was the position that [FFcossag] found himself in at the beginning of January, when a freak storm knocked out power to his community on a remote island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. [FFcossag] documented his attempts to survive the eight-day outage in vlog form, and although each entry is fairly long, there’s a lot to be learned from his ordeal. His main asset was a wood cook stove in the basement of the house, which served as his heat source. He used a car radiator and a small water pump to get some heat upstairs – a battery bank provided the power for that, at least for a while. The system evolved over the outage and became surprisingly good at keeping the upstairs warm.

The power eventually came back on, but to add insult to injury, almost as soon as it did, the ground-source heat pump in the house went on the fritz. A little sleuthing revealed an open power resistor in the heat pump control panel, but without a replacement on hand, [FFcossag] improvised. Parts from a 30-year-old TV transmitter were close at hand, including a nice handful of power resistors. A small parallel network gave the correct value and the heat pump came back online.

All in all, it was a long, cold week for [FFcossag], but he probably fared better than his neighbors. Want to be as prepared for your next outage? Check out [Jenny]’s comprehensive guide.

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Listening To Mains Power, Part 2

The electricity on the power grid wherever you live in the world will now universally come to you as AC. That is to say that it will oscillate between positive and negative polarity many times every second. The frequency of 50 or 60Hz just happens to be within the frequency range for human hearing. There’s a lot more than this fundamental frequency in the spectrum on the power lines though, and to hear those additional frequencies better you’ll have to do a little bit of signal processing.

We first featured this build back when it was still in its prototyping phase, but since then it’s been completed and used successfully to find a number of anomalies on the local power grid. It takes inputs from the line, isolates them, and feeds them into MATLAB via a sound card where they can be analyzed for frequency content. It’s been completed, including a case, and there are now waterfall diagrams of “mystery” switching harmonics found with the device, plus plots of waveform variation over time. There’s also a video below that has these harmonics converted to audio so you can hear the electricity.

Since we featured it last, [David] also took some feedback from the comments on the first article and improved isolation distances on his PCB, as well as making further PCB enhancements before making the final version. If you’ve ever been curious as to what you might find on the power lines, be sure to take a look at the updates on the project’s page.

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A Look At Liquid Dielectrics

One evening quite a few years ago, as I was driving through my hometown I saw the telltale flashing lights of the local volunteer fire department ahead. I passed by a side road where all the activity was: a utility pole on fire. I could see smoke and flames shooting from the transformer and I could hear the loud, angry 60 Hz buzzing that sounded like a million hornet nests. As I passed, the transformer exploded and released a cloud of flaming liquid that rained down on the road and lawns underneath. It seemed like a good time to quit rubbernecking and beat it as fast as I could.

I knew at the time that the flaming liquid was transformer oil, but I never really knew what it was for or why it was in there. Oil is just one of many liquid dielectrics that are found in a lot of power distribution equipment, from those transformers on the pole to the big capacitors and switchgear in the local substation. Liquid dielectrics are interesting materials that are worth taking a look at.

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Electric Shower Head Teardown Makes Us Wince

We have bought some really amazing stuff from the Chinese online shops. We’ve also bought stuff that was… less than satisfactory, let’s say. At the prices you pay, you usually just chalk up the bad stuff as a cost of doing business. But [DiodeGoneWild] has a teardown of something that could be very dangerous if it wasn’t up to snuff: an electrically heated shower head. He says they are common in Latin America and have the nickname “suicide showers.”

We’ve seen the cute showerheads that change color, but those take batteries. What we are talking about here connects to the 220V main and draws 30A to instantly heat your shower water. Environmentally, that’s great since you don’t have a tank of water you keep heating and reheating just in case you need hot water. But you wouldn’t throw an AC radio in the tub, so you have to wonder just how safely this thing’s built. Well, you don’t have to wonder, because the videos below are going to show us.

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Listening To Mains Power

There’s a lot you can tell by looking at the waveform of your mains power. There are harmonics, transient changes, and periodic fluctuations that are correlated to the demand on the grid itself. Frequency shifts will tell you how fast or slow your clocks are running, and someone probably has a poorly isolated power line communication thing somewhere in your neighborhood. There’s a lot you can learn by looking at the waveform coming out of your outlets, but how do you tap into that? [David] is doing it with a PC sound card and some really interesting hardware.

The Grid 2 Audio module is [David]’s entry to this year’s Hackaday Prize, and it consists of three main parts. The first is the mechanical part of the design. This comes in the form of an IEC power socket with a built-in switch, fuse, and illumination. Of course, you could simply buy one of these, but [David] is teaching himself Autodesk Inventor, and you have to start somewhere. The second part of this build is the PCB power supply and mains input. This is basically a pair of transformers, a PCB, and a whole lot of isolation to make this a safe board. The third part is a signal conditioning board that sends the waveform to a 3.5mm jack, for easy processing with any audio capture hardware.

The hardest part of this board is, by far, the PCB design, and for that [David] went all out. There are some big, meaty traces on this thing and real separation between the high voltage and low voltage portions of the board. The end result is something that sends the mains waveform to an audio card for easy processing with MATLAB, and all the goodies that come from that.