Ten Buck Lab-Grade Variable Power Supply

(Republished from another web site by permission of the author - me)

A variable voltage power supply is an asset to any bench.  Even if a commercial lab supply is available, another power supply is always useful to operate those things that require an odd voltage or to check performance under different voltages.  When combined with the Power Monitor, this ten buck power supply will keep up with most lab-type power supplies.



The major component of a power supply is just that - the line-powered AC to low voltage DC power supply.  We won't waste our time designing this part.  The local Goodwill Store or Value Village should have any number of nicely designed, regulated switching power supplies.  What we want is a supply that provides a couple more volts output than we need at an amp or more.  The supply I found for this project is an HP printer supply rated at 18 volts, 1.1 amps.  It set me back $1.99 at the local Value Village.  A regulated switching power supply rather than an unregulated, transformer-based supply is desirable for this application.  Sparkfun has a tutorial about power supplies that is useful.

The other major component to make this variable regulated supply is a voltage regulator.  This is a case where the tried and true is still the best, the LM317.  It's been around for over thirty years and is still going strong.  This chip offers tight regulation over a 1.25 - 37 volt range with short circuit and overheating protection.  It's made by a number of manufacturers and will cost between 42 and 74 cents at Mousers.  While I have to acknowledge that Radio Shack is almost never the right answer, they even carry this
(Catalog #: 276-1778), although at 3x - 5x Mouser's price ($2.29).  National Semiconductor has a nice application note for this great device.

A capacitor, a fixed resistor and a pot (variable resistor) complete the parts list. Here's the schematic (and a link for the schematic & parts list).


The final item necessary to contain all this magic is an enclosure.  Radio Shack (still not the right answer) has a bunch of different project boxes but they all share a certain cheap feeling producing a "home brew" result.  In pursuit of a more substantial, nicer looking enclosure, I again turned to the folks at Goodwill for help.  I found an computer keyboard/monitor switch in a metal enclosure.  You may have one of these laying around for serial or printer connections.  I had many of them until a couple years ago when I donated them to Goodwill, but I look at it this way.  The $3 I paid for it was pretty cheap storage!

I removed the switch and connectors from the enclosure and drilled the front panel to accept two binding posts on 3/4" centers.  A happy discovery was that rubbing alcohol took the light blue ink labeling of the original switch right off, leaving a nice looking front panel.  The pot installs in the hole formerly occupied by the switch.

The rear panel of the enclosure isn't so pretty with all the holes.  A happy coincidence was the the connectors for the keyboards were on 3/4" centers that fit the binding posts with just a little Dremel tool work.  I also mounted a panel-mount coaxial DC power connector in one of  the reaming holes.  I can plug the switching power supply in directly without modifications.  I didn't worry about the other holes in the back panel - they'll be out of sight when it's being used.


Construction is a piece of cake.  The LM317 should be mounted to the enclosure using an insulated mounting kit.  It will get warm to touch depending on the supply voltage and load, so the enclosure acts as a heat sink.  The tab of the LM317 is connected to the output terminal, so it needs to be electrically isolated from the enclosure.  The rest of the components can be connected using the binding posts, pot lugs and LM317 legs as "tie points."

When all the connections are made, connect the power supply (check polarity twice before making the connection!) and check the output voltage with a DVM.  When the knob is fully CCW, the voltage should be 1.25 volts.  With the knob fully clockwise, the voltage will be a volt or so less than your power supply output.  Setting the knob between those extremes should produce any desired voltage which won't vary much with load.

Making the Front Panel Label

I put a sheet of paper on the front panel under the knob. It had centerlines marked for the pot shaft and a circle slightly bigger than the knob. I used a voltmeter to determine the knob position at each voltage increment and marked it on the paper.

I carefully removed the paper and taped it to my computer screen where I had drawn out the panel and a number of lines starting from the center point of the pot at various angles. I adjusted the angle of each line in the drafting software to align with the marks on the paper taped to the screen. The lines in the drafting program could be seen through the paper taped to the screen. Note that the size on the screen wasn't exactly close to 1:1 - all that mattered was the angles, and they stay the same regardless of scaling.

When all the lines were in the correct positions, I printed the page on MacTac, cut the hole for the pot (the label doesn't go all the way to the binding posts, so I didn't have to cut any holes for them), and carefully applied the label to the enclosure being sure to keep the centerlines lined up with the pot.

I was actually amazed at the accuracy of this method. In the photo, the voltmeter reads 11.57 volts, but the slot in the knob is slightly counter(anti-)clockwise from the line for 12 volts. When it's centered on any of the marks, the voltage is accurate to better than 5%.

Posted: 8 years 8 months ago by Jon Chandler #5480
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One note to add here. I'm using an 18V "wall wart" power supply for this, which is why the output only goes up to 17 volts. The LM317 can handle > 30 volts, so a higher-voltage supply could be used to expand the range.

The minimum voltage is limited to 1.5 volts by the LM317. There are methods to use a negative 1.5v bias so that it can adjust to 0 volts output but this isn't a big limitation for my applications.
Posted: 8 years 8 months ago by andyo #5481
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Nice re-purposing of the case. I'm not familiar with MacTac - is it self-adhesive? If not, what did you use to stick it to the front panel?
Posted: 8 years 8 months ago by Jon Chandler #5482
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Thanks Andy.

MACtac is one brand of drafting applique film. It's laser-printable, self adhesive polyester, designed to be used on vellum drawings. The stuff I have has permanent adhesive and a matte surface. The stuff is really thin and just disappears when applied to a surface.

I got the stuff I use surplus. I'm kind of shocked at the list price!: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss? ... &x=11&y=18

MACtac has all kinds of pressure sensitive films. Their website]mactac.com/index.php?id=72[/url] is definitely worth a look.
Posted: 8 years 5 months ago by Jon G #7004
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Water slide decal paper might work well too, though to get real durability from it you'd probably need to clear coat it or bake it on.

The price isn't wonderful either, best I've seen is about $14 for 10 8.5" x 11" sheets.

Anyhow, either method seems like a great and easy way to get graphics, etc. onto projects
Posted: 8 years 5 months ago by Jon Chandler #6988
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A method I recently saw is to print in reverse on transparency film, then using an adhesive sheet install the transparency with the non-printed side facing out. That seems like a slick way to do it. I haven't tracked down any adhesive sheets yet but I know 3M makes a number of variations.

This would protect the printing from getting scratched. The label should probably have some kind of background to prevent the adhesive from showing through.
Posted: 8 years 5 months ago by Jon G #6990
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I think most of the self adhesive stuff doesn't end up being truly clear like your vellum sheet... that's what made me think of the water slide stuff. Testers makes a version that you can get at hobby shops. Its $7 for 10 5x8 sheets I believe. I don't know which side it prints on though...
Posted: 8 years 5 months ago by MrDEB #7000
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My recent PCBoard silk screen (white w/ red components) was done with a clear label sheet (Avery 8665 25 sheets for about $10 if I recall.8.5 x 11
Have done numerous labels like this with no problems.
Just apply a spray adhesive (they are self stick but I was applying to wood) smooth out then apply a coat of clear acrylic spray. Lacquer works good to.
Work great and durable. Have numerous SPUD FUDGE display boxes around town for several years with no signs of wear.
I recall they make one for Laser printers as well?
Posted: 8 years 4 months ago by hop #7563
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This is AWESOME! I can't tell you how badly I needed something like this on my bench! Another fantastic contribution by Jon Chandler. THANK YOU!

Posted: 7 years 8 months ago by Miroslav #9895
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Great article Jon!

Have one or two notes that I hope will make it even better

In the schematic you have a typo in the formula for output voltage, it should say Vo = 1.25V * (1 + R2/R1)

Also you might want to adjust the value of R1 to provide control over the full range of the potentiometer. Given the input voltage (Vi=18V), and maximum dropout voltage on LM317 stated as Vdr = V2.5V, you will get

Vomax = Vi - Vdr = 15.5V

(or let's say 16V as Vdr is lower if you don't go over 1A

then based on Vomax = 1.25V * (1 + R2max/R1)

you get R1 = R2max/(Vomax/1.25 - 1) = 5k /(16/1.25 -1) = 423 ohm

If you round it to the first lower standard value, you'll get 390ohm.

Just as a double check, 1.25V*(1 + 5k/390) = 17.3V
Posted: 7 years 8 months ago by Miroslav #9897
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Just another quick note. As your design provides fairly wide swing in the output voltage (1.25V to 16V), given output current of 1.1A (limit imposed by the power brick supplying it), LM317 might end up dissipating up to (18-1.25)V * 1.1A = 25W of heat. This is HUGE and will for sure trigger internal thermal protection (shut it off).

If someone really needs high current at low output voltage, there are ways to parallel LM317 without overly complicating design, but still, 25W will get the enclosure quite hot

Also worth mentioning, LM317 comes in different packages, TO-3 being the largest handles dissipation the best.

It's usually forgotten - power supply dissipates the most when output voltage is low, and dissipates the least when output voltage is high. That's because heath dissipation is product of the current through it and the voltage drop on the regulator (Vinput - Voutput).

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