Project Review – Silicon Chip Capacitance Substitution Box

Introduction

Every month Australian electronics magazine Silicon Chip publishes a variety of projects, and in some cases various (well … one of two) electronics retailers will pick up the project and offer it as a kit. However for an increasing number of new projects they don’t, which leaves the interested reader with one option – build the entire project from scratch.

But thankfully this is no longer the case – as the team from Silicon Chip now offer a range of project PCBs and matching front panels for sale directly from their website. Although buying these parts is not the cheapest option, it gives the busy person who likes making things a quick start – or the inexperienced more opportunities to complete a successful project.

So as a test of this new service, I bought the PCB and front panel for the Capacitance Substitution Box project described by Nicholas Vinen in the Juily 2012 issue of SC:

capacitance_article

This is something I’ve meant to make for a while – but didn’t really have the inclination to make one from scratch, so it was neat to see a version published in the magazine. I believe the subjects in the magazine article are oftern prototypes, which explains the difference in colour for the front panel.

The parts arrived in a week after placing the order, and are of a high quality:

capacitance box panel

capacitance pcb front

capacitance pcb rear

When complete, the capacitance substitution box PCB and panel will fit nicely into an Altronics H0151 enclosure, so you don’t need to do any drilling or filing. The next task was to organise the required parts. The rotary switches, terminal posts and the usual odds and ends can be found at Altronics, Jaycar or other suppliers. However the main components – the capacitors – offered two options.

The first option is to simply use capacitors from personal stock or the stores. However the tolerance of these parts can vary wildly, with up to twenty percent either way. This is ok for simple uses, however when values are combined – the tolerance of larger values can negate the lower values completely. So instead I’ve chosen the second option – which involves using brand-name low-tolerance capacitors.

Thus I turned to element14 who stock not only a huge range of not only regular but also the low-tolerance capacitors, and can also have them on my desk usually by the next working day. Finally, it’s nice to have all the parts arrive in little bags… neatly organised ready to go:

capacitors

It’s easy to search for low-tolerance parts with element14, as the automatic filtering has tolerance as a parameter:

element14 capacitors

Furthermore you can also ensure you have the voltage rating of at least 50V DC as well. So after half an hour the capacitor order was completed and arrived when expected – using parts from Panasonic, Vishay, and Wima. The tolerances of our capacitors used varied between one and ten percent, which will help improve the accuracy of the substitution box.

Assembly

The PCB has the capacitor values labelled neatly on the silk-screen, so soldering in all the capacitors was a relatively simple but long operation. Having them arrive in separate packets made life a lot easier. During the soldering process it’s a good idea to have a  break or two, which helps you avoid fatigue and making any mistakes.

capacitance substitution box half finished

There may be a few capacitors that are a little too wide to fit with the others, so they can be mounted on the other side of the PCB:

capacitance substitution box wide capacitor

However they all end up fitting well:

capacitance substitution box half finished

The next step was to configure the first rotary switch for six position use, then cut the plastic stopped from the side of each rotary switch. In the following image you have a before and after example:

capacitance substitution box rotary switches

Now the rotary switches can have their shafts trimmed and then be soldered onto the PCB:

capacitance substitution box switches trimmed

However ensure you have the first rotary switch in the right way – that is the selections are selected across the top half, not the bottom. Remove the nuts from the rotary switches, and double-check all the capacitors are fitted, as once the next step is completed … going back will be difficult to say the least.

At this point the banana sockets can be fitted to the panel, and then soldered into place, and then you’re finished. Just place the panel/PCB combination inside the box and screw it down:

capacitance substitution box complete

Using the Capacitance Substitution Box

Does it work? Yes – however you don’t get exact values, there will always be a tolerance due to the original tolerance of the capacitors used and the stray capacitance of the wires between the box and the circuit (or capacitance meter). Nevertheless our example was quite successful. You can see the box in action with our Altronics LC meter kit in this video.

Again, using the best tolerance capacitors you can afford will increase the accuracy of this project.

Conclusion

Over time this would be a useful piece of equipment to have – so if your experiments or projects require varying capacitor value, this project will serve the purpose nicely. Plus it helps with mental arithmetic and measures of capacitance! Please do not ask me for copies of the entire Silicon Chip article, refusal may offend. Instead – visit their website for a reprint or digital access.

And if you enjoyed this article, or want to introduce someone else to the interesting world of Arduino – check out my book (now in a third printing!) “Arduino Workshop”.

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John Boxall

Founder, owner and managing editor of tronixstuff.com.

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