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.

Tricking A Vintage Clock Chip Into Working On 50-Hz Power

Thanks to microcontrollers, RTC modules, and a plethora of cheap and interesting display options, digital clock projects have become pretty easy. Choose to base a clock build around a chip sporting a date code from the late 70s, though, and your build is bound to be more than run-of-the-mill.

This is the boat that [Fran Blanche] finds herself in with one of her ongoing projects. The chip in question is a Mostek MK50250 digital alarm clock chip, and her first hurdle was find a way to run the clock on 50 Hertz with North American 60-Hertz power. The reason for this is a lesson in the compromises engineers sometimes have to make during the design process, and how that sometimes leads to false assumptions. It seems that the Mostek designers assumed that a 24-hour display would only ever be needed in locales where the line frequency is 50 Hz. [Fran], however, wants military time at 60 Hz, so she came up with a circuit to fool the chip. It uses a 4017 decade counter to divide the 60-Hz signal by 10, and uses the 6-Hz output to turn on a transistor that pulls the 60-Hz output low for one pulse. The result is one dropped pulse out of every six, which gives the Mostek the 50-Hz signal it needs. Sure, the pulse chain is asymmetric, but the chip won’t care, and [Fran] gets the clock she wants. Pretty clever.

[Fran] has been teasing this clock build for a while, and we’re keen to see what it looks like. We hope she’ll be using these outsized not-quite-a-light-pipe LED displays or something similar.

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The Electrical Outlet and How It Got That Way

Right now, if you happen to be in Noth America, chances are pretty good that there’s at least one little face staring at you. Look around and you’ll spy it, probably about 15 inches up from the floor on a nearby wall. It’s the ubiquitous wall outlet, with three holes arranged in a way that can’t help but stimulate the facial recognition firmware of our mammalian brain.

No matter where you go you’ll find those outlets and similar ones, all engineered for specific tasks. But why do they look the way they do? And what’s going on electrically and mechanically behind that familiar plastic face? It’s a topic we’ve touched on before with Jenny List’s take on international mains standards. Now it’s time to take a look inside the common North American wall socket, and how it got that way.

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Mains Clocking A Microcontroller

[Lujji] is playing around with the STM8 microcontroller. In reviewing the official documentation for this chip, he read the external clock can be a sine wave, a triangle wave, or a square wave with a 50% duty cycle. The minimum CPU frequency is 0 Hz. [Lujji] doesn’t have a signal generator, and presumably, he’s all out of crystals. He does have mains AC, though, so why not clock a microcontroller with wall power?

Using mains power as a frequency standard is a concept a hundred years old. Synchronous motors turn at a rate proportional to the mains frequency, and this has been used in clocks for decades. If you’re really clever, you can clock digital circuits with mains AC, but we’ve never seen someone replace a tiny crystal in a microcontroller circuit with mains power.

After an experiment to prove the concept, [Lujji] went on to construct a circuit that wasn’t as dumb as connecting the microcontroller directly to a wall socket. The direct approach didn’t work that well anyway — the STM8 didn’t like low frequency clocks with slow edges. [Lujji] needed a clock with cleaner edges, and a 555 configured as a comparator fit the bill.

The completed circuit sends mains power through an optocoupler to drive a 555 configured as a comparator. The output is a clean 50Hz clock that is connected to the OSCIN pin on an STM8. This is now a chip running at 50Hz, and yes, it works. [Lujji] set up a circuit to write ‘Hello World’ on an old Nokia LCD. That took about three minutes. It works, though, even though it’s completely useless. Maybe this can be applied to some novel timekeeping similar to that one-instruction-per-day clock we looked earlier in the year.