Me Versus Technology

12 volt auto plug
Car lighter socket plug thing

The last day or two has been all about the fixing. I’ve repaired a phone line, made a computer stop crashing, mended a fuse in a car that wouldn’t start and – for a bit of whimsy – set up video calling on a TV.

If that sounds like an unbroken string of victories, that’s because I’m making it sound like an unbroken string of victories. The fun is in the stuff I’d sooner draw a veil over. For a start, the reason that car wouldn’t start wasn’t the fuse.

I had this useful thing… At least, one of those theoretically useful things that you actually hardly ever use but keep because it obviously has a million uses. An amazing little “inverter” for the car that changes the 12 volts DC from the little cigarette lighter socket into the 230 volts AC you need to run a big domestic appliance. Sounds like it shouldn’t even work, right? Well it doesn’t work.

To short a long story, I’d thought it was the lighter socket plug that was at fault because that showed every sign of being burned out. It took me a while, but I found a replacement that looked sufficiently heavy-duty, got it all wired up and plugged it in.

Pof. Oh right, the little fuse in the lighter plug is not up to 13 amp appliances. Replace that with a bigger one.

Pof. The car fuse for the lighter socket blows. And now it occurs to me that if this inverter is blowing fuses without there even being an appliance plugged into it, there is something a little bit wrong maybe. A process of elimination and repetition establishes beyond doubt that my theoretically useful piece of equipment just blows fuses up. I open it, but there’s no obvious burn marks or smell of something shorting out. I can only guess that some component has failed. And as the thing basically consists of a great number of components hammered into a small box I know there’s no hope of my replacing it, even if I knew how to find which one was at fault. I take great pride in my ability to fix all sorts of crap, but I’m cutting my losses on this one. Besides, it’s getting late and I’m tired after all the repairs of the day. Finally I repair to bed.

So what was the reason the car wouldn’t start? Simple. I left the interior light on.


More Fun With High Voltages

That can't be good

Or maybe the day after that. I’m sorry. I have so much to catch up on after Christmas, which basically punched a gaping hole in my time. People are clamouring for cartoons to be drawn and computers to be fixed. Some of them may even pay me. Various parts of my mother’s house have to be mended. Bills need to be ignored. The calendar therefore can wait. It’s what it’s good at.

For now, just a brief anecdote: I had to replace a venerable fluorescent light fitting in the kitchen which had taken to sticking at the flickering-to-come-on stage. Pretty sure it’s been in the family since the 70s, maybe longer. While I had little hope of being able to repair the thing – I barely understand how they work – it was easy to open it up in situ so I thought I’d have a look first.

Naturally I isolated it at the circuit breaker. To do that though, I had to establish which circuit it was on. As you may have seen in the photograph I took when our main breaker melted down the other week, almost none of them are marked. And as this place is an old cottage that my father spent decades gradually restoring, I could not depend on there being any rigorous scheme. It was time for adventures in ad-hoc wiring. Off goes every electrical device in the whole house.

The kitchen lights, it turns out, are on the same circuit as the immersion heater. Weird, if not quite as strange as the oven being wired to the outside light. And one breaker controlled… Nothing at all, apparently. Which is a little creepy. That one can stay switched off.

But having isolated the light (and the water heater) I undid the nuts and lowered its works down on the integral chains. Cool. Immediately I found that the ‘choke’, or ballast, was surprisingly hot. Have a look at the picture – that’s the mains wiring, which was run next to the ballast. It has very rubbery insulation which seems to have perished where it was exposed to extreme heat. It crumbled away as soon as I moved the wire. So, pretty lucky I disconnected the power before I went poking then.

It seems likely therefore that the ballast was not designed to get so hot, and that it was failing. It plays a vital – and slightly scary – role in a fluorescent. As you may be aware, these things work by applying a big voltage to a tiny amount of mercury vapour, which then glows not unlike the wire filament in an ordinary bulb. One thing that makes a vapour different though is that as soon as it starts glowing, it actually offers less resistance to the flow of current. Left to itself, it would keep getting brighter and brighter until something went horribly wrong.

Well this is AC electricity, so current flow is being reversed fifty times a second. That prevents a runaway situation occurring, Nevertheless the choke is necessary to prevent damage being done even in that brief time. Its role is to be a sort of anti-tube; the more current flows through it, the more it resists. If it’s not doing its job properly then the tube is probably getting too much juice and overheating – fifty times every second. Which would explain why two tubes had failed in fairly quick succession.

(This is at least my understanding of the situation. Perhaps Droog will be along later to tell me why I’m wrong.)

As the huge magnetic ballast was something out of electricity’s iron age, the whole device would need to be replaced. Not such bad news – fluorescent fittings are cheap enough now. I would hang the fitting back up and go to town for one.

And then I remembered the other main component of a fluorescent lamp – the capacitor. Which must be this thing about the size of an old milk bottle. Its function is to store electric charge. It was all very well turning off the power – this still probably held enough to kick me through the kitchen window.

Gingerly, I withdrew my screwdriver and backed away.

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