A Dramatic Demo of AC Versus DC Switching

Switches seem to be the simplest of electrical components – just two pieces of metal that can be positioned to either touch each other or not. As such it would seem that it shouldn’t matter whether a switch is used for AC or DC. While that’s an easy and understandable assumption, it can also be a dangerous one, as this demo of AC and DC switching dramatically reveals.

Using a very simple test setup, consisting of an electric heater for a load, a variac to control the voltage, and a homemade switch, [John Ward] walks us through the details of what happens when those contacts get together. With low-voltage AC, the switch contacts exhibit very little arcing, and even with the voltage cranked up all the way, little more than a brief spark can be seen on either make or break. Then [John] built a simple DC supply with a big rectifier and a couple of capacitors to smooth things out and went through the same tests. Even at a low DC voltage, the arc across the switch contacts was dramatic, particularly upon break. With the voltage cranked up to the full 240-volts of the UK mains, [John]’s switch was essentially a miniature arc welder, with predictable results as the plastic holding the contacts melted. Don your welding helmet and check out the video below.

As dramatic as the demo is, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever be seeing DC in the home. It just means that a little extra engineering is needed to make sure that all the components are up to snuff.

Continue reading “A Dramatic Demo of AC Versus DC Switching”

DIY Variacs get ESP8266 Upgrades

If you’be been hacking and making long enough, you’ve probably run into a situation where you realize that a previous project could be improved with the addition of technology that simply wasn’t available when you built it. Sometimes it means starting over from scratch, but occasionally you luck out and can shoehorn in some new gear without having to go back to the drawing board.

The two isolated variacs that [nop head] built were already impressive, but with the addition of the ESP8266 he was able to add some very slick additional features which really took them to the next level. He’s done an exceptional job detailing the new modifications, including providing all the source for anyone who might be walking down a similar path.

His variacs have digital energy meters right in the front panel which give voltage, amps, and a real-time calculation of watts. After reading an article by [Thomas Scherrer] about sniffing the SPI data out of one of these meters with an Arduino, [nop head] reasoned he could do the same thing with an ESP8266. The advantage being that he could then pull that data out over the network to graph or analyze however he wishes.

For his older variac, he decided to automate the device by adding a stepper and belt to turn the knob. The stepper is controlled by a Pololu stepper driver, which in turn get’s its marching orders from another ESP8266. He even came up with a simple web interface which allows you to monitor and control the variac from your smart device.

We don’t often see many variacs around these parts, and even fewer attempts at building custom ones. It’s one of those pieces of equipment you either can’t live without, or have never even heard of.

Things Learned From Hot Wire Cutting a Droid’s Body

One of [Bithead]’s passions is making Star Wars droids, and in the process of building the outer shell for one of them he decided to use hot wire foam cutting and make his own tools. Having the necessary parts on hand and having seen some YouTube videos demonstrating the technique, [Bithead] dove right in. Things didn’t go exactly to plan but happily he decided to share what did and didn’t work, and in the end the results were serviceable.

[Bithead] built two hot wire cutters with nichrome wire. The first was small, but the second was larger and incorporated some design refinements. He also got an important safety reminder when he first powered on with his power supply turned up too high; the wire instantly turned red and snapped with an audible bang. He belatedly realized he was foolishly wearing neither gloves nor eye protection.

When it came to use his self-made tools, one of the biggest discoveries was that not all foam is equal in the eyes of a hot wire cutter. This is one of those things that’s common knowledge to experienced people, but isn’t necessarily obvious to a newcomer. A hot wire cutter that made clean and effortless cuts in styrofoam did no such thing with the foam he was using to cast his droid’s outer shell. Still, he powered through it and got serviceable results. [Bithead]’s blog post may not have anything new to people who have worked with foam and hot wire cutters before, but if you’re new to such things you can use it to learn from his experiences. And speaking of improving experiences, [Bithead] most recently snazzed up the presentation of his R2-D2 build by getting tricky with how he hides his remote control.

Taming A Variac With A Thermistor

The folks at TOG, Dublin Hackerspace, have a large variac. A variac is a useful device for testing some fault conditions with AC mains powered equipment, it allows an operator to dial in any AC output voltage between zero, and in the case of TOG’s variac, 250V.

Their problem was with such a magnificent device capable of handling nearly 3KW, it presented an inductive load with a huge inrush current at power-on that would always take out the circuit breakers. Breakers come with different surge current handling capabilities, evidently their building is fitted with the domestic rather than the industrial variants.

Their solution was a simple one, they fitted an NTC surge limiter in series with the variac input. This is a thermistor whose resistance falls with temperature. Thus on start-up it presented an extra 12 ohm load which was enough to keep the breaker happy, but soon dropped to a resistance which left the variac with enough juice.

This is a simple fix to a problem that has faced more than one hackerspace whose imperfect lodgings are wired to domestic-grade spec. In a way it ties in neatly with our recent feature on mains safety; making the transformer no longer a pain to use means that it is more likely to be used when it is needed.

Via: TOG, Dublin Hackerspace.

Retrotechtacular: Step Up and Get Your Transformer Training

Whether you’re just getting into electronics or could use a refresher on some component or phenomenon, it’s hard to beat the training films made by the U.S. military. This 1965 overview of transformers and their operations is another great example of clear and concise instruction, this time by the Air Force.

It opens to a sweeping orchestral piece reminiscent of the I Love Lucy theme. A lone instructor introduces the idea of transformers, their principles, and their applications in what seems to be a single take. We learn that transformers can increase or reduce voltage, stepping it up or down through electromagnetic induction. He moves on to describe transformer action, whereby voltages are increased or decreased depending on the ratio of turns in the primary winding to that of the secondary winding.

He explains that transformer action does not change the energy involved. Whether the turns ratio is 1:2 or 1:10, power remains the same from the primary to the secondary winding. After touching briefly on the coefficient of coupling, he discusses four types of transformers: power, audio, RF, and autotransformers.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Step Up and Get Your Transformer Training”