Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Posts Tagged ‘Power’

Combined usage patterns

In Software on Feb 25, 2013 at 00:01

It’s going to be an interesting puzzle to try and deduce what all the different consumers are, just by looking at detailed electricity consumption graphs, such as this one:

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 16.03.20

I’ve already determined that the “double dip” patterns, such as the one at 15:41 to 15:52, is the thermostat + boiler “hunting” around to maintain its setpoint temperature.

The trouble of course, is that this whole house measurement approach doesn’t measure invidual appliances, but – as the term says – it can only report the total of all appliance consumption patterns. In this particular graph, you can see a second consumer kicking in around 15:15 and switching off again at 15:56. Fortunately though, this one is very characteristic as well: there’s a motor turning on, causing a brief very sharp blip at the start. It’s the kitchen fridge, in fact – and as the graph shows, it draws about 80 W.

In the general sense, this Knapsack problem is impossible to solve with certainty. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a good insight of what’s going on around the house anyway.

There are several more known sources and consumption patterns around here, and once HouseMon is a bit further along, I hope to be able to identify them all in the collected data to be able to obtain fairly good estimates of the monthly consumption for each one of them. Also, once these patters are sufficiently accurately known, it should be possible to subtract them from the graph so to speak, and get a better view of the rest of the measurements.

Desktop power supply

In Hardware on Jun 25, 2011 at 00:01

Apart from a variable lab suppy (mine does 0..15V @ 0..3A), I’ve often wanted a simpler supply with just a few fixed voltages and say 500 mA. For experimentation, a weak supply which collapses under too much load is in fact better, because it can help avoid damage (which is almost always thermal and due to large currents).

Today, I decided to put something together, using parts which have been lying around here for some time.

It starts with an encapsulated switching AC/DC converter. I used a Traco 04115, i.e. 15V @ 4W. That addresses the AC mains side of things and limits the power involved in the circuit. Then I added 4 adjustable switching power supplies, which I got off eBay last year:

Dsc 2594

They are all running in parallel, using 15V as input. You’re looking at the bottom side of the box, BTW – the bottom plate of this particular box has nice little rubber feet.

The hardest part was deciding how to bring the power out of the box. I didn’t want large jacks – this thing is a dekstop power supply! But leaving wires with various valotages coming out and dangling all over the desk is also not such a good idea.

The solution I chose, was to bring out everything together via a 40 cm piece of 6-core cable:

Dsc 2595

The cable is squeezed behind one of the enclosure’s inner posts for strain relief (the AC mains cable has a knot in it for the same reason).

At the other end sits this thing – ready to take lots of jumper wires:

Dsc 2596

I still need to figure out how to attach labels to it. This is the pinout (with the cable pointing up):

Screen Shot 2011 06 23 at 18.34.21

No idea how yet, but it would be best if this were placed as label on top of the experimenter’s board in the middle, hiding the solder joints and clearly indicating which pin is what.

As it turns out, this power supply is considerably more powerful than I expected. The 15 V AC/DC converter will in fact go up to twice its rated power, i.e. over 500 mA, before the short-circuit protection sets in.

Due to the nature of switching regulators, the other voltages provide even more current: I was able to pull well over 1A continuously from the 3.3V supply. Although at those levels, the voltage did drop to 3.1 V.

Efficiency was not a primary goal, since this desktop supply is relatively low-power anyway, but the entire setup draws 0.7 W unloaded, and about 10 W when pulling 15V @ 500 mA out of it. I don’t expect to be loading this power supply down much, let alone getting into heat problems, even though the box is completely closed.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed – another baby step in dealing with AC mains…

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!

TRIAC trials

In Hardware on Jun 23, 2011 at 00:01

To start some tests with TRIAC control of 220V AC mains devices, I’ve built a trivial setup – based on the S216S02 TRIAC, which goes up to 16A and includes a built-in opto-isolator and zero-crossing detector. That last part makes it unfit for dimming (that requires phase-controlled switching) but it should be fine for turning lights and heaters on and off.

The circuit is very simple, but I really wanted to have something that wouldn’t expose me to 220V no matter how much I start goofing around. Here’s the basic idea:

Dsc 2556

There’s a small heatsink on the TRIAC, since the datasheet says that it’ll only go up to 2A without one.

Now just Splice, Solder, and Seal:

Dsc 2558

And voilá – nothing fancy:

Dsc 2557

Trivial stuff, I added a 220 Ω resistor in series with the LED, making it switch reliably on 3.3V, with under 10 mA current, i.e. fine for an ATmega.

The ends of the power wire are attached to a plug and a receptacle, respectively – making this an extension cord.

Baby steps, as I overcome my fear of the unknown, eh I mean 220V AC mains…

Latching relays

In Hardware on Jun 22, 2011 at 00:01

The traditional relay looks like this (thank you Wikipedia):


A spring pulls on the vertical lever on the right (above its pivot), keeping the contact pushed agains the “NC” contact – hence the name: normally closed.

An electromagnet can pull the (iron) lever towards the left, against the “NO” contact – i.e. normally open, but closed once the electromagnet is powered.

Great invention. Perhaps the first example of electric amplification: using a small amount of electricity to switch a potentially much larger voltage or current.

For ultra-low power devices, ordinary relays have a drawback: you have to keep them energized as long as you want to keep the “NO” contact closed. With the Relay Plug, things are no different – the latest relays used on it have a coil resistance of about 125 Ω, and each of the two requires 40 mA @ 5V to stay “on”:

Dsc 2591

That amount of current consumption is not so convenient with batteries – when turned on, they wouldn’t last more than a day or two on a bunch of AA batteries.

Fortunately there’s an alternative, called a “bi-stable” or latching relay. It uses two coils to move that lever back and forth, with weak magnets in the relay set up in such a way that they’ll stay in place without using a spring as counter-force.

The benefit is that latching relays don’t need any power to stay in their current state (be it open or closed), you only need to give them a pulse to change their state from ON to OFF or from OFF to ON.

There are actually two types of latching relays:

  • dual coil, usually with a common pin which should be tied to ground
  • single coil, where changing the state is done by applying reverse voltages

Most dual coil latching relays can also be used in single-coil mode, by simply leaving that common pin floating.

In principle, the circuitry for a dual-coil latching relay is simple: you just need two relay drivers and then turn one or the other on briefly to make the relay change its state. The point being that you only need to pulse them very briefly, 10..100 msec should be enough.

Unfortunately, the Relay Plug isn’t usable for bi-stable relays, because it assumes a common PWR pin, not GND. It turns out that these relays are polarized. Thinking about this a bit more, this is actually quite logical: the force of the little latching magnet(s) need to be overcome with a magnetic field with a specific opposite orientation.

But there’s a surprising way out…

With single-coil plugs, the trick is to let current flow in different directions to set or reset the relay. IOW, either connect one pin to PWR and the other to GND (briefly), or vice versa. Hm, that sounds awfully like running an electric motor forwards or backward…

Now here’s the trick: instead of a Relay Plug, use the DC Motor Plug!

Dsc 2310 Large

It contains two H-Bridges which are intended to control two small DC motors (or one stepper motor), allowing them to run in either direction.

You even get 4 additional general-purpose I/O pins thrown in…

Now, instead of hooking up a motor, just hook up a relay, and only pulse the power briefly (by making both sides GND or PWR the rest of the time). With as added benefit that the DC Motor Plug will support two latching relays, and being an I2C device, it’ll also allow daisy-chaining with other I2C plugs.

Note that the chips used on the DC Motor Plug require at least 4.5V to operate, according to the data sheet. Maybe a slightly lower voltage will work – I haven’t tried it.

Update – DC Motor Plug is confirmed to work. The 5V relays I was testing this with appear to switch reliably with pulses down to 4 ms, using this test code (modified from the dcmotor_demo.pde) sketch:

Screen Shot 2011 06 22 at 16.33.58

MCP1702 current draw

In Hardware on Jun 21, 2011 at 00:01

The MCP1702 used in JeeNodes and other circuits here at JeeLabs is a nifty little voltage regulator. It’s not particularly good for high voltages (limited to about 13V), but it has a very low idle current. That’s very useful for low-power circuits, especially when trying to get months or even years of service out of one set of batteries.

Let’s find out how it’s performing. I’ve set up this little test circuit:

Screen Shot 2011 06 20 at 00.39.11

Well, it’s not really a test circuit at all – it’s in fact exactly what you need to use one of these things.

Putting 5V on the input (Vin), and leaving it a few minutes to settle, gives me a reading of 2.2 µA. Great, just what the specs say. It doesn’t really go up much with input voltage: 2.8 µA @ 12V. This is at no load.

With a 10 kΩ load, current draw rises to 338.1 µA, i.e. 330 µA for the resistor and about 8.1 µA for the regulator (assuming perfect calibration). That’s only 6 µA more, i.e. about 2% of the load.

Now let’s take the input voltage down, and see how this “low-drop” regulator behaves:

  • 5.0 V -> 2.2 µA
  • 4.0 V -> 2.2 µA
  • 3.5 V -> 2.1 µA
  • 3.3 V -> 2.1 µA
  • 3.2 V -> 90.4 µA
  • 3.1 V -> 84.1 µA
  • 3.0 V -> 78.2 µA

Whoa… it sure doesn’t like being fed less voltage than it needs to supply a regulated output of 3.3V! The change is quite pronounced between 3.30 and 3.28V (I couldn’t get my power supply knob to adjust any more accurately).

For yesterday’s AA power board discussion that’s actually bad news, because it means that when the supply drops a mere 20 mV, it could cause the regulator to start wasting a fair amount of current (relatively speaking).

Let’s try something different: no power on Vin, but power on Vout instead.

This simulates connecting a battery to the +3V pin, and bypassing the MCP1702 voltage regulator altogether. Evidently, it’s not a good idea putting much more than 3.3V on there, since now we’re reverse feeding the regulator, something not all regulators are happy with:

  • 3.40 V -> 1000 µA
  • 3.35 V -> 500 µA
  • 3.30 V -> 90 µA
  • 3.25 V -> 90 µA
  • 3.20 V -> 90 µA
  • 3.10 V -> 84 µA

The conclusion seems to be: when using the AA Power Board in combination with a JeeNode, it might be better in certain cases to omit the regulator altogether if you’re aiming for minimal power consumption!

It’s not enough to short the regulator’s Vin and Vout, it really has to be taken out of the circuit. Fortunately, you don’t have to disconnect all three pins – just disconnect the ground pin (on the JeeNode v4..v6, that’s the one closest to the FTDI connector).

But if all you want to do is power the whole thing from some power source over 3.3V, such as a 3x AA battery pack or a LiPo battery, then all is fine… you’ll see that ultra-low 2.2 µA figure – as intended in this design.

Just beware of low voltages: weird things do happen!

AA boost ripple

In Musings on Jun 20, 2011 at 00:01

The AA Power Board contains a switching boost converter to step the voltage from a single AA battery up to the 3.3V required by a JeeNode.

Nifty stuff. Magic almost… if you take the water analogy, then it’s similar to pushing water up a mountain! Wikipedia has a schematic with the basic idea:

Boost Circuit

Think of the coil as a rubber band (I’ll use a gravitational force analogy here), then closing the switch is like stretching it from the current voltage to ground. Opening the switch is equivalent to letting it go again – causing the rubber band to contract, pulling the end back up and then exceding the original height (voltage) as it overshoots. The diode then sneakily gets hold of the rubber band at its highest point. The analogy works even better if you imagine a cup of water attached to the end. Well, you get the picture…

The trick is to repeat this over and over again, with a very efficient switch and a good rubber band, eh… I mean inductor. The way these boost regulators work, you’ll see that they constantly seek the proper voltage (feeding a storage pool at the end, in the form of a capacitor).

Enough talk. Let’s look at it with a scope:


What you’re seeing is not the output voltage, which is of course 3.3V, but the variation in output voltage, which is measured in millivolts. IOW, 45 times a second, the regulator is overshooting the desired output by about 20 mV, and then it falls back almost 20 mV under 3.3V, at which point the booster kicks in again.

Let’s load the circuit lightly with a 10 kΩ resistance, i.e. 330 µA current draw:


No fundamental change, but the horizontal axis is now greatly enlarged, because the discharge is more substantial, causing the boost frequency to go to 2.2 KHz.

With a 1 kΩ load, i.e. 3.3 mA current draw, you can see the boost working a bit harder to charge up, i.e. the slope towards ≈ 20 mV above 3.3V is more gradual:


Keep in mind that the difference is also due to yet more magnification on the horizontal time axis. The boost converter is cycling at 21.1 KHz now.

With a 330 Ω load, i.e. 10 mA current draw, the wavevorm starts getting a few high-frequency spikes:


The total regulation is still good, though, with about 25 mV peak-to-peak ripple.

Now let’s simulate what happens with the RFM12B transmitter on, using a 100 Ω load, i.e. 33 mA current:


Looks like the regulator needs more time to charge than to discharge, at this power level. Still the characteristic “hunting” towards the proper voltage level.

With a 68 Ω / 50 mA load, the regulator decides to use more force, losing a bit of its fine touch:


The scope’s frequency measurement was off here, it probably got confused by the high frequency components in the signal. Repetion rate appears to be ≈ 65 KHz. But now the total ripple has increased to about 70 mV.

That’s probably about as high as we’re going to need for a JeeNode with some low-power sensors attached. But hey, why stop here, right?

Here’s the output with a 47 Ω load, i.e. about 70 mA:


Whoa… that’s a ± 0.05 V swing, regulation is starting to suffer. I also just found out that the scope software has peak-to-peak measurement logic built in (and more). No need to estimate values from the divisions anymore.

Note that a 70 mA current at the end will translate to some 200 mA current draw on the battery – that’s the flip side of boost regulators: you only get higher voltage by drawing a hefty current from the input source as well.

Until this point, I used a standard 1.5V alkaline battery, but it’s not fresh and showing signs of exhaustion at these power levels (the output was a bit erratic).

To push even further, I switched to a fully charged Eneloop battery, which supplies 1.2 .. 1.3V and has a much lower internal resistance. This translates to being able to supply much larger currents (over 1 A) without the output voltage dropping too much. In this case, the change didn’t have much effect on the measurements, but I was worried that continued testing would soon deplete the alkaline battery and skew the results.

To put it all in perspective, here is the output with the same 47 Ω load, but showing actual DC voltage levels:


So you see, its still a fairly well regulated power supply at 70 mA, though not quite up to 3.3V, as it should be.

One last test, using a 33 Ω resistor, which at 3.3V means we’ll be pulling a serious 100 mA from this circuit:


Measuring these values with a multimeter gives me 3.16 V @ 89 mA, while the resitance reads as 32.7 Ω – there’s some inconsistency here, which might be caused by the high-frequency fluctations in the output, I’m not sure.

But all in all, the AA Power Board seems to be doing what it’s supposed to do, with sufficient oomph to drive the ATmega, the RFM12B in transmit mode, and a bit of extra circuitry. A bit jittery, but no sweat!

Update – With a 10 µF capacitor plus 10 kΩ load the limits don’t change much, just the discharge shape:


The same, at higher horizontal magnification:


Note that AC coupling distorts the vertical position, it’s still ± 18 mV ripple, even if the up peak appears higher.

One last refinement

In Hardware on Jun 14, 2011 at 00:01

With the high-side DC power switch circuit working, there’s room to tweak things just a teeny bit further.

Summary: we’re switching DC power on and off through a MOSFET, and measuring the voltage drop across that same MOSFET with a bit of amplification to get better readout sensitivity.

Let’s add one more feature: the ability to detect whether a disk is connected. But first, the complete schematic:

Screen Shot 2011 06 06 at 19.06.57

The R1 resistor protects the op-amp from negative voltages, which occur when the MOSFET (Q1) is open and a device has been attached.

R2 and R3 put the op-amp in 11x amplification mode, referenced to VCC.

The C1 capacitor was added to smooth out the analog readings a bit (R1 + C1 form a low-pass filter).

The R5 resistor makes it possible to detect whether there is anything connected to OUT or not: when Q1 is open, R5 creates a pull-up, forcing the “+” side of the op-amp to VCC, unless there’s a device attached. At 1 MΩ, the pull-up is so weak that any device will pull it down to ground potential (keep in mind that Q1 is open). When Q1 is closed, then R5 no longer matters since it gets shorted out.

And lastly, R4 was added as pull-up to avoid a startup glitch as the JeeNode is powering up (i.e. while DIO is still floating). Note that Q1 will conduct when DIO is low.

Here are some readings under different conditions. These are referenced to VCC and converted to mV x 11, i.e. 0.3V under VCC on the op-amp “+” pin reads out as 3300. The three values are low, high, and averages, sampled 50 times over a 5 second interval:

  • OFF, no device: 0 / 16 / 6
  • OFF, device switched off: 9 / 48 / 16
  • OFF, device switched on: 3280 / 3287 / 3280
  • ON, no device: 0 / 0 / 0
  • ON, device switched off: 0 / 0 / 0
  • ON, device switched on, start: 1267 / 2761 / 2348
  • ON, device switched on, stable: 925 / 1096 / 983

When OFF, there’s a clear difference between a device waiting to get power and no device at all, or one which has been physically switched off. When ON, the readout becomes proportional to the amount of current drawn.

According to the lab power-supply readout, the startup current goes to about 1A, and then once stable it drops back to about 380 mA. The device is a “Green Power” WD 500 Gb hard disk in a no-brand external USB enclosure.

This concludes the “high-side” experiment (all related posts have been collected on the wiki). For a stand-alone setup, it should work fine, but after all this floating ground trickery I’ve come to the conclusion that a COMMON ground setup will be more useful if this were ever to be turned into a plug…

Better resolution

In Hardware on Jun 13, 2011 at 00:01

Yesterday’s high-side DC power control circuit was not able to measure current in a very exact way. Each ADC step is about 3.3mv, and with a 0.1 Ω sense resistor, that translates to 33 mA steps (a bit less, now that the MOSFET turns out to have a slighty higher “on” resistance).

So let’s add an op-amp, to amplify the voltage:

Screen Shot 2011 06 05 at 18.27.58

That’s a standard way to amplify an input voltage by a factor of 11, so a 0.3V input should generate a 3.3V output voltage, which is nicely full-scale for the ATmega’s analog input when running at 3.3V.

But there’s a little mistake in this setup…

The voltage we’re measuring is not a small voltage above 0V, but a small voltage below 3.3V, so we’re in fact feeding the op-amp a voltage between about 3.0V and 3.3V. Amplified by 11 you get… something the op-amp can’t handle when powered from 3.3V, so it’ll simply return 3.3V all the time. Overflow!

Simple to fix though. Instead of tying that lower resistor to ground, we tie it to 3.3V as reference level. And lo and behold, I’m seeing a roughly 11x larger reading with the same setup as yesterday:

Dsc 2563

Now, the input voltage swings between about 2.4V and 3.3V, which is just fine as analog input.

The one thing to watch out for is that we’re sailing very close to the edge, or in op-amp speak: “close to the rail”. This circuit is working with an input voltage which is very close to the +3.3V power supply “rail”, and the output of the op-amp also needs to be able to swing up to that same +3.3V level. This requires some care in selecting a “RRIO” type op-amp (i.e. Rail-to-Rail Input and Output) – the chip I used here is the TLV2373, a dual op-aamp. It does fairly well, but the output can’t quite totally reach 0V or 3.3V. I suspect that most op-amps will have this problem: a tiny residual voltage on both sides of the output swing. Such is life, no op-amp is perfect.

Here is the test sketch I used for this experiment:

Screen Shot 2011 06 05 at 18.22.28

It’s set up for 4 channels, although this circuit only has one. This could be used as the basis for a 2-channel plug, since both the MOSFET and the op-amp are dual-channel.

The output measurements come in via wireless every 5 seconds, and a simple “1,21s” sent out to it (since this is node 21) will turn on the disk.

But this code doesn’t even come close to what I’d really like to implement: it needs to track power use, only switch off when a device is consistently below a preset level (could be different for each device), implement encryption to prevent unauthorized control, store settings in EEPROM, support configurable behavior after power loss, and power devices up in a staggered mode to reduce the load on the power supply, oh my – not there yet!

DC high-side control

In Hardware on Jun 12, 2011 at 00:01

Good news: the “high-side” DC power switch works!

Dsc 2561

On the bottom, a DC jack getting 12V power, on the right a cable with a DC plug powering an external USB disk.

The little board in the middle is sort of a breakout board for two SMD chips: a dual P-MOSFET and a low-drop -3.3V linear voltage regulator to power the JeeNode. The rest is boilerplate stuff, i.e. the JeeNode Experimenter’s Pack, a couple of resistors, and some electrolytic caps.

I’ve only tested it with a load of about 1A, but it should work up to 3A without any problem. What’s also nice is that as a high-side switch, it doesn’t really care what voltage is being used as power supply – anything between 3.5V and 16V should work just fine. That means this can also be used for 5V devices and even with devices powered off 1..4 LiPo-batteries. This simply fits between a DC power plug and its device – convenient!

The current consumption is 21 mA with the ATmega and receiver permanently on. Could easily be lowered a few mA by putting the ATmega in “idle” mode.

The current sensing capabilities are definitely working, but the resistance of the P-MOSFET is not quite 0.1 Ω: with a 390 mA current, I see about 90 mV across the MOSFET, indicating that its internal resistance when driven from a 3.3V JeeNode is more like 0.23 Ω. That’s on the high side (pardon the pun), because this would mean a 1A load will get about 0.23V less out of the power supply than it would with a direct connection – and 0.7V less when drawing 3A. Oh well, it’ll be ok for most devices, cheap power bricks don’t always supply exactly 12V anyway.

The question of course is how consistent this MOSFET resistance is. I suspect that there will be quite a bit of variation across different units. But that’s not necessarily a problem: we don’t really care about absolute currents, we just need to see how the device’s current consumption is relative to full power and idle modes, basically. And we can always calibrate the value with a multimeter or power resistor.

The other weak spot in all this is that the voltage levels measured with this setup are very low, and only cover a few percent of the ADC range. It would be nice to have a bit more resolution there.

Ok, let’s throw an op-amp into the mix…

Hard disk power – bonus

In Hardware on Jun 2, 2011 at 00:01

Ok, there’s now a design for a high-side power switch which can power disk drives up and down at will.

Wait a minute…

You’re not supposed to power down disk drives just like that! It might be in the middle of a disk write. Even journaled disks are at risk, because journaling usually covers meta data (directories, files sizes, allocation maps, etc) … but not the data itself. So an unfortunate power down could leave the disk in an awful state: sure, the diks will be scanned and fixed on startup, but even then, some of the data blocks might contain inconsistent data. Whoops – bad idea!

One solution would be to add a JeeLink to the computer, and have it send out the power down command only after it finishes flushing and unmounting the disk. It’ll take some scripting, depending on the OS, but it’s all doable. Also, this isn’t really for disks which need to be online most of the time – for that, the normal hard disk spin down and idling modes will be fine.

But I’d like it to be a bit more automatic than that. I don’t want to have to remember to turn off the disks. Nor tie it to a specific time of day, or day-of-the-week. The whole point of these disks, is that I rarely need them. Some disks may stay off for weeks, even months.

Here’s an idea: by adding a current sensor to each disk power supply line, we could monitor disk activity and make sure that power is never shut off while a disk is “doing something”. By adding a bit of extra logic in the sketch, we could implement a timer so that the disk will only be powered down if the disk has been idle for say 15 minutes. Most operating systems have a periodic flush in place, so that changes always get flushed out to disk fairly soon after they have been buffered by the OS. If nothing has happened for a while, then we know there’s no important change pending.

OK, how do you measure the amount of current a circuit draws? Easy: insert a small resistance in series with the load, and measure the voltage drop. For the same reasons as before, we can’t do this “low side”, i.e. in the ground connection. But high-side would be fine:

Screen Shot 2011 05 30 at 02.00.54

With 1A of current, we get (using Ohm’s E=IxR law): E = 1 x 0.1 = 0.1V voltage drop across the resistor. And since the high side of the resistor is tied to “+”, all we need to do is connect the other side to an analog input.

The nice thing about the power control circuit presented yesterday, is that it has a MOSFET between + and the disk drive power pin. And MOSFETs are really very much like a small resistor when turned on. So we can simply use the MOSFET itself as a sense resistor:

Screen Shot 2011 05 30 at 01.54.25

Here are the characteristics of the P-MOSFET I’m going to try this with:

Screen Shot 2011 05 30 at 02.06.51

As you can see, at 3.3V, the MOSFET acts almost exactly like a 0.1Ω resistor: 0.1V drop at 1A – perfect!

There is still one problem though: when the MOSFET is turned off, the voltage on the low side will be at ground level, which is 8.7V below the JeeNode’s “ground”. So we can’t just tie it to an analog input pin, it would fry the ATmega. That’s is why I added a 10 kΩ resistor: it will still be a very “bad” input signal when the MOSFET is off, but the resistor will limit the current to less than 1 mA, and it will flow through the internal ESD protection diode. That amount of current should be harmless.

So now we have a way to sense the current. When the disk draws 1A, the analog input will be at 0.1V below 3.3V, i.e. 3.2V, which can easily be measured. Since the ADC resolution is 3.3 mV, this means that a change in power consumption as small as 33 mA could in principle be detected by this setup. Should be accurate enough to detect a disk spinning up or down and the seek actuator moving.

I’ve ordered a bunch of parts and will report when something useful comes out of these experiments.

Hard disk power #3

In Hardware on Jun 1, 2011 at 00:01

As promised in the previous post, here’s an improved design for controlling hard disk power.

The first conclusion is that we need to switch the positive +12V line, not the ground. Ground is inter-connected between all disks, the server, and this circuit – so we shouldn’t mess with it.

Here’s one way to do a “high-side” switch:

Screen Shot 2011 05 29 at 20.02.56

First problem: we don’t have a voltage higher than 12V available, so the N-MOSFET can’t simply be moved to the upper power line (it needs a few volts above its source to drive it, and when conducting, that source is at 12V). A P-MOSFET solves that, because it needs a few volts below 12V to drive it into conduction.

Second problem: we can’t drive the P-MOSFET high enough (12V) to make it disconnect, when driven from an ATmega output pin (which can’t go higher than 3.3..5V). So we need a resistor to pull the gate up, and a transistor to pull the gate down. And lastly, we need a resistor to limit the current into the transistor.

Quite a few parts, expecially since this circuit needs to be repeated for each hard disk.

For reasons which will become clear tomorrow, I’d like to simplify this circuit a bit further, and get away from handling 12V power levels. This “simplification” needs a bit of explanation, unfortunately:

Screen Shot 2011 05 29 at 21.05.13

To see what’s going on, this trick may help: look at the VOUT pin as being a regulated 8.7V voltage. In other words: the JeeNode “ground” is at +8.7V above ground, in relation to the power supply, hard disks, and server.

This means that the JeeNode is running with a 12 – 8.7 = 3.3V voltage difference between its 3.3V and GND pins, just as it always does. It’s merely floating a bit above ground, but that’s all relative anyway. As far as the JeeNode goes, it’s getting exactly the right power levels.

The result is that the output pins of that JeeNode will be at about 8.7V when “0” and at 12V when “1”. Which is just right to drive the gate of a suitable P-MOSFET (a “1” will turn it off, and a “0” will make it conduct).

So instead of making all the disk ground levels float, this setup places the JeeNode at an unusual 8.7V above ground level, which lets it turn on and off P-MOSFETs by controlling the positive supply line.

Now we need a regulated 8.7V supply. Eh, actually, no… we need a supply which is exactly 3.3V below the +12V line. That way, even if it fluctuates a bit from hard disk load changes, the JeeNode still gets a nice clean 3.3V.

The way to do that is to use a minus 3.3V regulator, such as an LM337. And from the perspective of that regulator, +12V is “ground” and ground is… -12V!

Perfect. You just have to look at voltages upside-down :)

Hard disk power #2

In Hardware on May 31, 2011 at 00:01

Yesterday, I described a design to control the power of hard disks. Now let’s see what happens when two hard disks are hooked up this way:

Screen Shot 2011 05 29 at 19.24.25

I’m including the USB cables to the server now, because that’s what causes a major problem: ground loops!

USB is a 4-wire (+ shield) connection between computer and devices. It is not isolated, i.e. all devices get hooked up galvanically. This in turns means that the ground potential of all inter-connected devices will be the same.

With a disk powered from a 12V power supply, ground is the negative wire. It’s also the ground of the USB connection to the server, so the “–” side of the power supply is connected directly to ground on the USB cable.

When two or more disks are plugged into one computer via USB, all ground pins will be connected together.

So far, no problem. Most devices have their own power supply, and these are all “floating”, i.e. they will adopt any ground voltage potential imposed on them (if any). You can connect any number of power supplies together through their “–” pins, and they’ll happily each feed their own devices and share a common ground.

Yesterday’s design is different – it uses a MOSFET to connect or disconnect the GND level from the disk drive:

Screen Shot 2011 05 29 at 19.36.05

The MOSFETs act as switches, connecting or disconnecting the wires on top to the JeeNode (and power supply) ground. So what one disk sees as “ground” is not the same as what the other sees (unless both are powered up). But… with the USB cables inserted, we’ve in effect created a direct connection between “GND1” and “GND2” through the USB’s common ground wires.

The result will be that no matter which MOSFET turns power on, it will end up powering BOTH disk drives!

And what’s (much) worse: the power supply current for the other drive will go through both USB cables and the server, which isn’t designed to handle the 1..2A peak currents flowing on startup.

Phew! I’m glad I didn’t start building this circuit :)

Tomorrow, I’ll describe a better design.

Hard disk power control

In Hardware on May 30, 2011 at 00:01

There’s a server running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week here at JeeLabs. It has two internal hard drives, one of them used as hourly backup for the system partition on the other disk. It’s running a couple of VM’s with all sorts of services, and it’s been running flawlessly for several months. Draws 10..15W.

Now, I’d like to attach a couple of extra hard disks to this server. A pair of disks for off-site backups (yes, there is a daily cloud backup, but I want a second fall-back system for some files), and a disk with stuff I rarely need, but don’t want to throw away. Disks are cheap – in fact I’ve got enough disks, so disk storage is actually free here. And while I’m at it: maybe add a little NAS for private stuff, since it’s been lying around and collecting dust anyway.

But I don’t want to have everything on-line all the time, for safety reasons and to keep power consumption low.

Why not use a JeeNode to control the power to these devices, which all run off a 12V supply? And why not just use one beefy switching supply, instead of that endless collection of power bricks?

Here’s a first idea:

Screen Shot 2011 05 29 at 18.49.52

Only one of the two channels on the MOSFET Plug is used here. And instead of switching a power LED or LED strip with it, it’s being used to control the power to the external disk drive.

There’s a flaw in this design, though: it’ll only work with ONE hard disk…

Tomorrow I’ll go into this and explain what’s going on, and why it can’t work with multiple disk drives. Hint: this setup only works if the JeeNode is controlled by wireless.