A Division In Voltage Standards

During my recent trip to Europe, I found out that converters were not as commonly sold as adapters, and for a good reason. The majority of the world receives 220-240 V single phase voltage at 50-60 Hz with the surprisingly small number of exceptions being Canada, Colombia, Japan, Taiwan, the United States, Venezuela, and several other nations in the Caribbean and Central America.

While the majority of countries have one defined plug type, several countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia use a collection of incompatible plugs for different wall outlets, which requires a number of adapters depending on the region traveled.

Although there is a fair degree of standardization among most countries with regards to the voltage used for domestic appliances, what has caused the rift between the 220-240 V standard and the 100-127 V standards used in the remaining nations?

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Texas Tesla Tower Titillates

One of the nice things about a road trip is you often get to see something that really surprises you. A recent trip through Texas may have resulted in my second most surprising sighting. There’s a strange tower that looks oddly like a Tesla tower in the middle of rural Texas, right off the main interstate. What is it? Although Google did answer the question — sort of — I’m still not sure how legitimate its stated purpose is.

First Sighting

I was driving between Wimberly and Frisco — two towns that aren’t exactly household names outside of Texas. Near Milford, there’s a very tall structure that looks like a giant mechanical mushroom on top of a grain silo. If the mushroom were inverted or pointing towards the horizon, it would be easy to imagine it was some very odd antenna. This dish, however, is pointed right down its own odd-shaped mast. The top of the thing sure looks like the top of a Van de Graf generator.

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RISC-V: Why The ISA Battles Aren’t Over Yet

A computer processor uses a so-called Instruction Set Architecture to talk with the world outside of its own circuitry. This ISA consists of a number of instructions, which essentially define the functionality of that processor, which explains why so many ISAs still exist today. It’s hard to find that one ISA that works for as many distinct use cases as possible, after all.

A fairly new ISA is RISC-V, the first version of which was created back in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley. Intended to be a fully open ISA, targeting both students (as a learning tool) and industrial users, it is claimed to incorporate a number of design choices that should make it more attractive for a number of applications.

In this article I’ll take a look behind the marketing to take stock of how exactly RISC-V differs from other open ISAs, including Power, SPARC and MIPS.

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How Power Over Ethernet (PoE) Works

A remote Ethernet device needs two things: power and Ethernet. You might think that this also means two cables, a beefy one to carry the current needed to run the thing, and thin little twisted pairs for the data. But no!

Power over Ethernet (PoE) allows you to transmit power and data over to network devices. It does this through a twisted pair Ethernet cabling, which allows a single cable to drive the two connections. The main advantage of using PoE as opposed to having separate lines for power and data is to simplify the process of installation – there’s fewer cables to keep track of and purchase. For smaller offices, the hassle of having to wire new circuits or a transformer for converted AC to DC can be annoying.

PoE can also be an advantage in cases where power is not easily accessible or where additional wiring simply is not an option. Ethernet cables are often run in the ceiling, while power runs near the floor. Furthermore, PoE is protected from overload, short circuiting, and delivers power safely. No additional power supplies are necessary since the power is supplied centrally, and scaling the power delivery becomes a lot easier.

Devices Using PoE

[via PowerOverEthernet.com]
VoIP phones are becoming increasingly prevalent as offices are opting to provide power for phones from a central supply rather than hosting smaller power supplies to supply separate phones. Smart cameras – or IP cameras – already use Ethernet to deliver video data, so using PoE simplifies the installation process. Wireless access points can be easily connected to Ethernet through a main router, which is more convenient than seeking out separate power supplies.

 

Other devices that use PoE include RFID readers, IPTV decoders, access control systems, and occasionally even wall clocks. If it already uses Ethernet, and it doesn’t draw too much power, it’s a good candidate for PoE.

On the supply side, given that the majority of devices that use PoE are in some form networking devices, it makes sense that the main device to provide power to a PoE system would be the Ethernet switch. Another option is to use a PoE injector, which works with non-PoE switches to ensure that the device is able to receive power from another source than the switch.

How it Works

Historically, PoE was implemented by simply hooking extra lines up to a DC power supply. Early power injectors did not provide any intelligent protocol, simply injecting power into a system. The most common method was to power a pair of wires not utilized by 100Base-TX Ethernet. This could easily destroy devices not designed to accept power, however. The IEEE 802.3 working group started their first official PoE project in 1999, titled the IEE 802.3af.

[via Fiber Optic Communication]
This standard delivered up to 13 W to a powered device, utilizing two of the four twisted pairs in Ethernet cabling. This was adequate power for VoIP phones, IP cameras, door access control units, and other devices. In 2009, the IEEE 802.3 working group released the second PoE standard, IEEE 802.3at. This added a power class that could deliver up to 25.5 W, allowing for pan and tilt cameras to use the technology.

 

While further standards haven’t been released, proprietary technologies have used the PoE term to describe their methods of power delivery. A new project from the IEEE 802.3 working group was the 2018 released IEEE 802.3bt standard that utilizes all four twisted pairs to deliver up to 71 W to a powered device.

But this power comes at a cost: Ethernet cables simply don’t have the conductive cross-section that power cables do, and resistive losses are higher. Because power loss in a cable is proportional to the squared current, PoE systems minimize the current by using higher voltages, from 40 V to 60 V, which is then converted down in the receiving device. Even so, PoE specs allow for 15% power loss in the cable itself. For instance, your 12 W remote device might draw 14 W at the wall, with the remaining 2 W heating up your crawlspace. The proposed 70 W IEEE 802.3bt standard can put as much as 30 W of heat into the wires.

The bigger problem is typically insufficient power. The 802.4af PoE standard maximum power output is below 15.4 W (13 W delivered), which is enough to provide power for most networking devices. For higher power consumption devices, such as network PTZ cameras, this isn’t the case.

Although maximum power supply is specified in the standards, having a supply that supplied more power is necessary will not affect the performance of the device. The device will draw as much current as necessary to operate, so there is no risk of overload, just hot wires.

So PoE isn’t without its tradeoffs. Nevertheless, there’s certainly a lot of advantages to accepting PoE for devices, and of course we welcome a world with fewer wires. It’s fantastic for routers, phones, and their friends. But when your power-hungry devices are keeping you warm at night, it’s probably time to plug them into the wall.

 

Anatomy Of A Power Outage: Explaining The August Outage Affecting 5% Of Britain

Without warning on an early August evening a significant proportion of the electricity grid in the UK went dark. It was still daylight so the disruption caused was not as large as it might have been, but it does highlight how we take a stable power grid for granted.

The story is a fascinating one of a 76-second chain of unexpected shutdown events in which individual systems reacted according to their programming, resulted in a partial grid load shedding — what we might refer to as a shutdown. [Mitch O’Neill] has provided an analysis of the official report which translates the timeline into easily accessible text.

It started with a lightning strike on a segment of the high-voltage National Grid, which triggered a transient surge and a consequent disconnect of about 500MW of small-scale generation such as solar farms. This in turn led to a large offshore wind farm deloading itself, and then a steam turbine at Little Barford power station. The grid responded by bringing emergency capacity online, presumably including the Dinorwig pumped-storage plant we visited back in 2017.

Perhaps the most interesting part followed is that the steam turbine was part of a combined cycle plant, processing the heat from a pair of gas turbine generators. As it came offline it caused the two gas turbines feeding it to experience high steam pressure, meaning that they too had to come offline. The grid had no further spare capacity at this point, and as its frequency dropped below a trigger point of 48.8 Hz an automatic deloading began, in effect a controlled shutdown of part of the grid to reduce load.

This is a hidden world that few outside the high-power generation and transmission industries will ever see, so it’s very much worth a read. It’s something we’ve touched on before with the South American grid shutdown back in June, and for entirely different reasons in 2018 when an international disagreement caused the entire European grid to slow down.

Header image: Little Barford combined-cycle power station against the sunset. Tony Foster, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Spin Me Right Round, Baby: Generator Building Experiments For Mere Mortals

How many of you plan to build a wind-powered generator in the next year? Okay, both of you can put your hands down. Even if you don’t want to wind your coils manually, learning about the principles in an electric generator might spark your interest. There is a lot of math to engineering a commercial model, but if we approach a simple version by looking at the components one at a time, it’s much easier to understand.

For this adventure, [K&J Magnetics] start by dissect a commercial generator. They picked a simple version that might serve a campsite well, so there is no transmission or blade angle apparatus to complicate things. It’s the parts you’d expect, a rotor and a stator, one with permanent magnets and the other with coils of wire.

The fun of this project is copying the components found in the commercial hardware and varying the windings and coil count to see how it affects performance. If you have ever wound magnet wire around a nail to make an electromagnet, you know it is tedious work so check out their 3D printed coil holder with an embedded magnet to trigger a winding count and a socket to fit on a sewing machine bobbin winder. If you are going to make a bunch of coils, this is going to save headaches and wrist tendons.

They use an iterative process to demonstrate the effect of multiple coils on a generator. The first test run uses just three coils but doesn’t generate much power at all, even when spun by an electric drill. Six windings do better, but a dozen finally does the trick, even when turning the generator by hand. We don’t know about their use of cheap silicone diodes though, that seems like unintentional hobbling, but we digress.

Making turbine blades doesn’t have to be a sore chore either, and PVC may be the ticket there, you may also consider the vertical axis wind turbine which is safer at patio level. Now, you folks building generators, remember to tip us off!

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Pop-Up Outlet Helps Make The Most Of A Tiny Shop

You’ve got to admire the steps some people take to squeeze a shop into a small space. Finding ways to pack in ever more tools and to work on bigger and bigger projects become ends to themselves for some, and the neat little tricks they find to do so can be really instructive.

Take this workbench pop-up outlet strip for example. The shop that [Woodshop Junkies] occupies appears to be a single-car garage, on the smallish size in the first place, that is almost entirely filled with a multipurpose workbench. It provides tons of storage underneath and a massive work surface on top, but working with small power tools means stretching extension cords across the already limited floor space and creating a tripping hazard. So he claimed a little space on the benchtop for a clever trap door concealing a small tray holding an outlet strip.

The tray rides on short drawer glides and, thanks to a small pneumatic spring, pops up when the door is unlatched. There was a little trouble with some slop in the glides causing the tray to jam, but that was taken care of with a simple roller bearing. The video below shows its construction and how it stays entirely out of the way until needed.

As cool as this build is, it’s just icing on the small shop cake when compared to the workbench. [Woodshop Junkies] has a complete playlist covering the build which is worth watching. And you might want to refer to our tiny shop roundup for more tips on getting a lot done in a little space.

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