Monday, January 30, 2012

Watts and volt-amperes ratings – what’s the difference and how do I choose an inverter based on them?

At the end of September, I posted about hurricane Irene and inverters. In that post (click here to read), I talked about the power ratings for inverters and just skimmed the surface about the differences between ratings in watts (W) and volt-amperes (VA). In this post, I want to go further into detail about these differences. Both watts and VA are units of measure for power (in this case, electrical). Watts refer to “real power” while VA refer to “apparent power”.

Inverters take DC power in (like from a car battery) and convert it to AC power out (like from your wall sockets) so you can power your electrical devices that run off of AC (like refrigerators, TVs, hair dryers, light bulbs, etc.) from a DC source during a blackout or when away from home (like when you are camping). Note that this power discussion is centered on AC electrical power and is a relatively short discussion about W, VA, and inverters. Look for a future post with more details about the differences between W and VA.

Watts: real power (W)
Watts do work (like run a motor) or generate heat or light. The watt ratings of inverters and of the electronic devices you want to power from your inverter will help you choose a properly sized inverter. Watt ratings are also useful for you to know if you have to get rid of the heat that is generated by your device that is consuming the watts or if you want to know how much you will pay your utility company to use your device when it is plugged in a wall socket since you pay for kilowatt-hours (power used for a period of time).

The circuitry inside all electronic devices (TVs, laptops, cell phones, light bulbs, etc.) consumes real power in watts and typically dissipates it as heat. To properly power these devices from an inverter, you must know the amount of power (number of watts, abbreviated W) each device will consume. Each device should show a power rating in W on it somewhere (390 W in the picture below) and you can just add the W ratings of each device together to get the total expected power that will be consumed. Most inverters are rated to provide a maximum amount of power also shown in watts (W) – they can provide any number of watts less than or equal to the rating. So, choose an inverter that has a W rating that is larger than the total number of watts expected to be consumed by all of your devices that will be powered by the inverter.

Volt-Amperes: apparent power (VA)
VA ratings are useful to get the amount of current that your device will draw. Knowing the current helps you properly size wires and circuit breakers or fuses that supply electricity to your device. A VA rating can also be used to infer information about a W rating if the W rating is not shown on a device, which can help size an inverter. Volt-amperes (abbreviated VA) are calculated simply by multiplying the AC voltage by the AC current (technically, the rms voltage and rms current). Since VA = Vac x Aac, you can divide the VA rating by your AC voltage (usually a known, fixed number, like 120 Vac in the United States, or 230 Vac in Europe) to get the AC current the device will draw. To combine the apparent power (or current) of multiple devices, there is no straightforward way to get an exact total because the currents for each device are not necessarily in phase with each other, so they don’t add linearly. But if you do simply add the individual VA ratings (or currents) together, the total will be a conservative estimate to use since this VA (or current) total will be greater than or equal to the actual total.

What if your device does not show a W rating?
Some electrical devices will show a VA rating and not a W rating. The number of watts (W) that a device will consume is always less than or equal to the number of volt-amperes (VA) it will consume. So if you need to size an inverter based on a VA rating when no W rating is shown, you will always be safe if you assume the W rating is equal to the VA rating. For example, assume 300 W for the 300 VA device shown in the picture above. This assumption may cause you to choose an oversized inverter, but it is better to have an inverter will too much capacity than one with too little capacity. An inverter with too little capacity will make it necessary for you to unplug some of your devices; otherwise, the inverter will simply turn itself off to protect its own circuitry each time you try to start it up, so it won’t work at all if you try to pull too many watts from it.

Some electrical devices will show a current rating (shown in amps, or A) and not a VA rating or W rating. Usually, this current rating is a maximum expected current. Maximum current usually occurs at the lowest input voltage, so calculate the VA by multiplying the current rating (A) times the lowest voltage shown on the device. Then, assume the device consumes an equal number of W as mentioned in the previous paragraph. For example, the picture below shows an input voltage range of 100 to 240 V and 2 A (all are AC). The VA would be the current, 2 A, times the lowest voltage, 100, which yields 200 VA. You could then assume this device consumes 200 W.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Six of seven new Agilent power supplies are autorangers, but what is an autoranger, anyway?

In this blog, I avoid writing posts that are heavily product focused since my intention is generally to provide education and interesting information about power products instead of simply promoting our products. However, when we (Agilent) come out with new power products, I think it is appropriate for me to announce them here. So I will tell you about the latest products announced last week, but I also can’t resist writing about some technical aspect related to these products, so I chose to write about autorangers. But first…..a word from our sponsor….

From last week’s press release, Agilent Technologies “introduced seven high-power modules for its popular N6700 modular power system. The new modules expand the ability of test-system integrators and R&D engineers to deliver multiple channels of high power (up to 500 watts) to devices under test.” Here is a link to the entire press release:

I honestly think these new power modules are really great additions to the family of N6700 power products we continue to build upon. We have several mainframes in which these power modules can be installed and now offer 34 different power modules that address applications in R&D and in integrated test systems. Oooooppps, I slipped into product promotion mode there for just a short time, but it was because I really believe in this family of products….I hope you will forgive me!

OK, now on to the more fun stuff! Since six of these seven new power modules are autorangers, let’s explore what an autoranger is. Agilent has been designing and selling autorangers since the 1970s (we were Hewlett-Packard back then) starting with the HP 6002A. To understand what an autoranger is, it will be useful to start with an understanding of what a power supply output characteristic is.

Power supply output characteristic
A power supply output characteristic shows the borders of an area containing all valid voltage and current combinations for that particular output. Any voltage-current combination that is inside the output characteristic is a valid operating point for that power supply.

There are three main types of power supply output characteristics: rectangular, multiple-range, and autoranging. The rectangular output characteristic is the most common.

Rectangular output characteristic
When shown on a voltage-current graph, it should be no surprise that a rectangular output characteristic is shaped like a rectangle. See Figure 1. Maximum power is produced at a single point coincident with the maximum voltage and maximum current values. For example, a 20 V, 5 A, 100 W power supply has a rectangular output characteristic. The voltage can be set to any value from 0 to 20 V, and the current can be set to any value from 0 to 5 A. Since 20 V x 5 A = 100 W, there is a singular maximum power point that occurs at the maximum voltage and current settings.

Multiple-range output characteristic
When shown on a voltage-current graph, a multiple-range output characteristic looks like several overlapping rectangular output characteristics. Consequently, its maximum power point occurs at multiple voltage-current combinations. Figure 2 shows an example of a multiple-range output characteristic with two ranges also known as a dual-range output characteristic. A power supply with this type of output characteristic has extended output range capabilities when compared to a power supply with a rectangular output characteristic; it can cover more voltage-current combinations without the additional expense, size, and weight of a power supply of higher power. So, even though you can set voltages up to Vmax and currents up to Imax, the combination Vmax/Imax is not a valid operating point. That point is beyond the power capability of the power supply and it is outside the operating characteristic.

Autoranging output characteristic
When shown on a voltage-current graph, an autoranging output characteristic looks like an infinite number of overlapping rectangular output characteristics. A constant power curve (V = P / I = K / I, a hyperbola) connects Pmax occurring at (I1, Vmax) with Pmax occurring at (Imax, V1). See Figure 3.

An autoranger is a power supply that has an autoranging output characteristic. While an autoranger can produce voltage Vmax and current Imax, it cannot produce them at the same time. For example, one of the new power supplies just released by Agilent is the N6755A with maximum ratings of 20 V, 50 A, 500 W. You can tell it does not have a rectangular output characteristic since Vmax x Imax (= 1000 W) is not equal to Pmax (500 W). So you can’t get 20 V and 50 A out at the same time. You can’t tell just from the ratings if the output characteristic is multiple-range or autoranging, but a quick look at the documentation reveals that the N6755A is an autoranger. Figure 4 shows its output characteristic.

Autoranger application advantages
For applications that require a large range of output voltages and currents without a corresponding increase in power, an autoranger is a great choice. Here are some example applications where using an autorangers provides an advantage:
• The device under test (DUT) requires a wide range of input voltages and currents, all at roughly the same power level. For example, at maximum power out, a DC/DC converter with a nominal input voltage of 24 V consumes a relatively constant power even though its input voltage can vary from 14 V to 40 V. During testing, this wide range of input voltages creates a correspondingly wide range of input currents even though the power is not changing much.
• There are a variety of different DUTs of similar power consumption, but different voltage and current requirements. Again, different DC/DC converters in the same power family can have nominal input voltages of 12 V, 24 V, or 48 V, resulting in input voltages as low as 9 V (requires a large current), and as high as 72 V (requires a small current). The large voltage and current are both needed, but not at the same time.
• A known change is coming for the DC input requirements without a corresponding change in input power. For example, the input voltage on automotive accessories could be changing from 12 V nominal to 42 V nominal, but the input power requirements will not necessarily change.
• Extra margin on input voltage and current is needed, especially if future test changes are anticipated, but the details are not presently known.

Monday, January 9, 2012

When powering multiple DUTs, should I use multiple small power supplies or one big power supply?

If you have to provide DC power to multiple devices under test (DUTs) at the same time, you will have to choose between using multiple smaller power supplies to provide power to each individual DUT (Figure 1) or one big power supply to power all of the DUTs at once (Figure 2). As will most choices, each has advantages and disadvantages. However, in this case, the advantages of choosing multiple smaller power supplies seem to outnumber those for the single bigger supply.

One of my colleagues, Bob Zollo, wrote an article on this topic that appeared in Electronic Design on October 12, 2011. Here is a link to the article:

Below is my summary of the contents:

Advantages of choosing multiple smaller power supplies
• Enables individual DUT current measurements without additional hardware
• Enables individual DUT voltage control
• Enables individual DUT shutdown upon DUT failure
• Enables individual DUT galvanic disconnect with relays inside power supply
• Prevents one DUT inrush current from disturbing other DUT’s voltage
• Prevents one DUT failure from affecting other DUT testing
• Isolates power supply failure to one DUT instead of affecting all DUTs

Advantages of choosing one big power supply
• Power supply hardware is less expensive
• Less power supply hardware to calibrate

The disadvantages of the smaller power supply choice are that the total power supply hardware is more expensive and is a larger quantity of hardware to calibrate. The disadvantages of the one big power supply are that it does not provide any of the advantages listed for the smaller supplies.

So you can see that the multiple smaller power supply choice has more advantages over the one big power supply choice. For the one big power supply choice, current monitoring and relays can be added in series with each DUT; however, this will contribute significantly to the cost of the system. If your application does not require you to monitor or control the power to each of your DUTs individually, you may be able to use the less capable one big power supply approach. Otherwise, use multiple smaller power supplies to get all of the performance, measurement, and control you need to test your DUTs.