Voltage indicator

This post is an experiment for me.
I don’t usually describe how I do my design work.
The objects, generally speaking, are not that photogenic, and electronics is a bit of a dry subject. But some people just aren’t familiar with it, and they should be. This is the age of electronics on earth.

most of my patch bay

My patch bay – right side.

Design opportunity and goal

While some electronics designers work within the framework of marketable consumer or industrial products, I don’t. It’s strictly “for fun” you might say. But any designer requires opportunities to do his or her work. After all, you can always buy OTS (off the shelf) if the item you want has already been designed.

I had made a “patch bay” – a kind of interconnection panel where lots of signal connections come together at the same place – for signals used to control my displays. I had purchased a blank piece of aluminum from a local welding shop, cut a slot down the middle (don’t ask me how) and drilled a bunch of holes in it for switches and connectors, then started loading it up with circuit boards.

But on the far left end I had four holes where nothing really seemed to fit: A design opportunity! I decided I wanted a voltage indicator that used four LEDs that got brighter as the monitored voltage got closer to each one’s center setting. The usual bar graph, of which I had made many using a commonly available part, uses ten LEDs that just go on when the input voltage goes above their set point, and off when it goes below. There is also a “dot mode,” which I like to use because it uses less power, where the LED whose set point is closest to the input voltage is the only one that goes on.

I didn’t want to use ten LEDs in the usual way. I wanted to use only four and have them get brighter and dimmer, the way my light panels are designed to do. I wanted each one a different color, but I only had three colors on hand, so the middle two are green, the top is white and the bottom is red. The red LEDs I have are a good deal less bright than the other colors, so I had to try to compensate for that, too.

patch bay left side

My patch bay, left side.

Dot display IC (integrated circuit)

I decided to use the dot display IC as the central component in this project. The two bottom outputs would go to the red LED. The next three to the lower green. The next three to the upper green, and the top two outputs to the white LED. You can set up the IC for so much current per output. Old LEDs required 20mA (milliamperes) to be bright. But modern LEDs only need 2. I tried limiting the current through the LEDs using series resistors. The brightest LED (white) would get a big series resistor (7K – kilohms) the green ones would get smaller ones (I think I used 1.5K) and the red would get the smallest series resistor, something like 100 ohms. These values were arrived at experimentally, and weren’t perfect, but good enough for this project.

How do you get an LED to get brighter and dimmer? You can simply drive it with more or less current. But almost exactly the same effect can be achieved by turning it on and off rapidly using a technique called “pulse width modulation” (PWM). This works because the body only takes a picture of its environment about 100 times a second. So any light flashing at about that rate or faster will appear constantly on. In technology, this is most commonly experienced when watching video monitors (or films). The picture on them only changes 30 to 70 times a second, but the motion appears continuous.

To do this with my dot display IC, I would have to make the input move back and forth through the set points of each of the dot outputs. I decided to use a “triangle wave” for this, and here it is:

triangle wave

This image is from my USB oscilloscope. There is a grid with the vertical and horizontal scales shown by the knobs. The period of this waveform is about 10mSec (milliseconds) and the amplitude is about 800mV (millivolts) peak-to-peak. So it’s oscillating at about 100 Hz (Hertz, cycles per second) and it’s about a volt high. The entire scale of my meter is 2.5 volts, so this signal should activate about 4 outputs at one time, with the one at the center of the oscillation the brightest.

I coupled this signal to an amplifier through a capacitor, then made the DC (direct current – not oscillating, or changing very slowly) level of the amplifier equal to half the input signal (0 to 5 volts). This created an input signal to the dot display IC of a triangle waveform going up or down depending on the slowly-changing DC level being measured, centered at zero to 2.5 volts, the input range of the dot display IC.

Does it work?

With the input set lower (see knob) the red LED is brighter than the lower green (by a little).

low input display

With the input set higher, the white LED is brighter than the top green.

high input display

The effect is quite noticeable, particularly to the eye (less to a camera). I was pretty happy with the outcome.

Limitations of measuring instruments

The range of voltages I use for my analog projects is zero to five volts, so that’s the only range my indicator needed to have. Since the electronics run on +7V and -5V, they can’t put out much more than 5 volts anyway.

But I noticed a funny thing happening with my USB oscilloscope when I didn’t connect it to my signal through a capacitor (to block the DC component of the signal).

clipped triangle wave

It was “clipping” off the top of the waveform! My cheap little USB oscilloscope only has a display range of plus and minus 5 volts! (at least at the settings I was using). This is a very small DC range for a professional oscilloscope, where more like plus and minus 50 volts is what is expected. This little scope had no DC offset built into the front end (all good scopes do) so if the signal goes beyond certain limits, it just disappears.

Here is a trace of the 12volt square wave that creates the triangle wave. Notice that it stops at a little under 5 volts. This means I will have to build a more compliant front end onto my scope if I want to see the entire waveforms in my 8-12volt projects.

clipped square wave


I hope this post gives some small insight into the electronic design process. I kept it conceptual. The hardware details are VERY dry. You just look up the data sheets of the parts you decide to use and figure out how to connect the correct pins together. There are certain real-world considerations to take into account, such as using bypass capacitors on the supply pins so signals don’t get into the circuit in unexpected ways. And you have to know how to solder if you want to make a permanent circuit board. Solder is hot metal and it has stuff inside that smells pretty bad when it burns, so a lot of people don’t like it and I don’t blame them. It’s a great technology for military equipment, but hobbyists could probably get by with conductive glue.

Anyway, I rarely get real comments on this blog and would appreciate some. They don’t appear immediately; I have to go through them and approve or disapprove them.

Bye for now.


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