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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Why Won’t This Darn Thing Charge?

What is more fun than plugging in your phone and coming back to find your battery on empty? Stepping on a LEGO block with bare feet or arriving hungry at a restaurant after closing probably qualify. [Alex Sidorenko] won’t clean your floors or order you a pizza, but he can help you understand why cheap chargers won’t always power expensive devices. He also shows how to build an adapter to make them work despite themselves.

The cheapest smart device chargers take electricity from your home or car and convert it to five volts of direct current. That voltage sits on the power rails of a USB socket until you plug in a cable. If you’re fortunate, you might get a measly fuse.

Smart device manufacturers don’t make money when you buy an off-brand charger, and they can’t speak to the current protection of them, so they started to add features on their own chargers to protect their components and profit margins. In the case of dedicated chargers, a simple resistor across the data lines tells your phone it is acceptable power. Other devices are more finicky, but [Alex Sidorenko] shows how they work and provides Eagle files to build whatever flavor you want. Just be positive that your power supply is worthy of the reliability these boards promise to the device.

Now you know why connecting a homemade benchtop power supply to a USB cable seems good on paper but doesn’t always get the job done. Always be safe when you make your own power supplies.

Push Big Red Button, Receive Power.

As with the age-old panic after realizing you have left an oven on, a candle lit, and so on, a soldering tool left on is a potentially serious hazard. Hackaday.io user [Nick Sayer] had gotten used to his Hakko soldering iron’s auto shut-off and missed that feature on his de-soldering gun of the same make. So, what was he to do but nip that problem in the bud?

Instead of modding the tool itself, he built an AC plug that will shut itself off after a half hour. Inside a metal project box — grounded, of course — an ATtiny85 is connected to a button, an opto-isolated TRIAC AC power switch, and a ‘pilot’ light indicating power. After a half hour, the ATtiny triggers the opto-isolator and turns off the outlet, so [Sayer] must push the button if he wants to keep working. He notes you can quickly double-tap the button for a simple timer reset.

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Careful Testing Reveals USB Cable Duds

What’s worse than powering up your latest build for the first time only to have absolutely nothing happen? OK, maybe it’s not as bad as releasing the Magic Smoke, but it’s still pretty bewildering to have none of your blinky¬†lights blink like they’re supposed to.

What you do at that point is largely a matter of your troubleshooting style, and when [Scott M. Baker]’s Raspberry Pi jukebox build failed to chooch, he returned to first principles and checked the power cable. That turned out to be the culprit, but instead of giving up there, he did a thorough series of load tests on multiple USB cables to see which ones were suspect, with interesting results.

[Scott] originally used a cable with a USB-A on one end and a 3.5-mm barrel plug on the other with a switch in between, under the assumption that the plug on the Pi end would be more robust, as well as to have a power switch for the jukebox. Testing that cable using an adjustable DC load would prove that the cable was unfit for Pi duty, dropping the voltage to under 2 volts at a measly 500-mA load. Other cables proved much better under load, even those with USB mini jacks and even one with a 5.5-mm barrel. But the larger barrel-plug cable also proved to be a stinker when it was paired with an inline switch. In the video below, [Scott] walks through not only the testing process, but also gives a quick tour of his homebrew DC load.

The lesson is clear: not all USB cables are created equal, so caveat hacker. And if you’ve got a yen to check the cables in your junk bin like [Scott] did, this full-featured smart DC load might be just the thing.

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Finding ESP8266 Inside Big-Box Store IoT Plugs

When we buy new shiny toys, we usually open them up to at least have a look. [Scott Gibson] does the same, apparently. He found an ESP8266 module inside the EcoPlug brand WiFi-controlled wall switches.

The original device was intended to be controlled by a (crappy) app. He sniffed the UDP packets enough to send the on-off signals to an unmodified device, but where’s the fun in that? [Scott] gave it an upgrade by replacing the ESP8266’s firmware with his own¬†and now he’s got a much more capable remote switch, one that speaks MQTT like the rest of his home automation system.

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Hacking a $20 WiFi Smart Plug

The Kankun smart plug is an inexpensive device that lets you switch an outlet on and off over wifi. The smart plug only works with an Android or IOS app that ships with the device, which limits its usefulness to turning things on and off from your phone.

In an attempt to make this device more useful, [LinuxGeek] probed the device with nmap and discovered that it runs OpenWRT. After trying various common default passwords he discovered the login was root/admin. While [LinuxGeek] hasn’t sniffed the protocol yet, others have hacked it a bit further. The plug apparently uses UDP packets to communicate with the Android app, but the packets are unfortunately encrypted.

Rather than hack at the protocol, they wrote code that toggles the GPIO pin from a CGI script and developed a small Windows application that hits the CGI script for simple control from a computer. There’s also a Google+ group where more information and a couple other hacks for these plugs are posted. For $20 (from AliExpress) and with a bit of hacking, this smart plug could be a great way to add wireless control to a home automation system.

Thermostat Controlled Plug Box

[Eric] has a problem with his new house, there was no heat in the attic space that had been converted into a loft. Facing no way to tap into the ductwork and wanting to use the space as a bedroom he did what most of us would, and just got a little space heater. Anyone who has lived with a space heater knows you have to be around to turn them on, and they usually dont have decent temperature control. These problems were quickly fixed by making a thermostat controlled plug box.

A quick trip to the hardware store resulted in a 2 gang metal junction box, faceplate with GFCI cutout, receptacle and a Honeywell baseboard heater thermostat. The thermostat is then wired to mains and its output connects to the receptacle.

He gives instructions on wiring which focuses on his parts, but you should follow the instructions to your specific thermostat, and error on the side of caution if working with mains current. The end story is a bedroom with a more constant temperature and doesn’t need a 3 hour burn to get there.