Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Alternating current

In Hardware on Jun 24, 2011 at 00:01

I’m not only interested in high-power AC mains switching, but also in the low-voltage / low-power side of things. So here’s another little step towards experimenting with that:

Dsc 2592

A simple 6V @ 58 mA transformer, soldered onto experimenter’s board and wrapped in a couple of heat-shrink layers. What comes out is a safe 6V @ 50 Hz signal.



Make that over 15 VAC (half the peak-to-peak value) and nowhere near a clean sinewave!

I suspect that this is what you’ll often get with low-grade / low-cost transformers. Even without any load, the transformer draws about 1.1 W and heats up to around 50°C, yuck!

Actually, the shape isn’t as bad as it looks. If you look carefully, you can see that it’s more or less one harmonic superimposed on the main sine wave. I won’t go into details (and risk exposing my ignorance), but that’s where Fourier transforms come in. The idea is that any repetitive waveform can be constructed from a set of sinewaves at a multiple of the original frequency (these are the harmonics, same as in music). By calculating the Fourier transform, you can decompose any repetitive waveform back into a sum of those basic waves.

Cool, now I have an excuse to try out the FFT feature on my oscilloscope!


The purple line shows a graph of the intensities of the different harmonics. It’s not really a continuous graph, since FFT is a discrete algorithm, but what it does show is that there are harmonics. If the input were a pure sine wave, there would only be a single peak, at the frequency of the sine wave itself. But in this example there’s a very strong second peak. Which produces this severely distorted waveform.

Here’s a better transformer for comparison (rated at 17 VAC):


You can see that the harmonics are much weaker. Which translates to a much cleaner sine wave. Well, up to a point, anyway.

One reason why these voltages are much higher than the ratings, is that AC is specified as average – after all, the voltage is changing all the time, so it really is a matter of definition how you measure these values. For a sine wave, the average (or RMS in techno-speak) is about 0.7 times the peak value, or equivalently: the peak value is about 1.4 times the rated voltage.

For 6V, we should get 6 x 1.4 x 2 = 16.8 Vpp (a far cry from the above measurement!), and for 17V, the peak voltage should be 17 x 1.4 x 2 = 47.6 Vpp.

In both cases, the measured value is higher, perhaps because this is measured at no load. Although that first transformer really is way off.

Welcome to the world of alternating current, analog effects, distortions, and conversion losses!

  1. Re the current draw and heat for the unloaded transformer, isn’t this normal? IIRC the secondary load is required to increase the inductance, drop the primary current and therefore the waste heating.

    • Thx – that first is a bit large, that second one might be interesting though.

  2. The original mains is not a clean sinusoid either so a little distortion is expected. No as much as from the first transformer thou.

    The overvoltage is an unfortunate but normal thing with transformers (both AC and SMPS). It will drop with load but not as much as you would expect.

    Regarding the overheating: the shrink-wrap may be adding to the problem. We prefer to mount the thing on a PCB and only cover the copper tracks with hot-glue to shield ourselves from mains.

    I do not think that there will be any relief from the magnetizing current with increased load current. The current through the primary will only increase after the load is connected with the apparent primary inductance dropping to let more current through.

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