Design Con 2015

'Power' tools and why I love them

-January 04, 2013

Who doesn't love their power tools? Whether you're a craftsman, handyman, contractor, whatever, power tools in many forms are usually a key part of the job (unless you prefer hand tools only; see the excellent series "The Woodwright's Shop").

But there is also another class of power tools: those which are specifically designed for the engineering, test, and analysis of power circuits and systems. Besides the basic ones such as multimeters for measuring voltage, current, and resistance, there are sophisticated impedance testers, hi-pot testers, non-contact current probes, power- connector crimpers, super-insulated buckets so you can work on 100-kV lines bare-handed ... the list goes on and on.

Like many of you, I suppose, I've always been fascinated by the innovative, highly specialized tools that every technical niche develops to work with its products and systems. These are usually the result of either "we had no choice but to develop this tool" or "we saw a problem and a better way to deal with it." Just when you think you've seen it all, another one of these unique solutions pops up.

That's what happened when I was reading through a recent issue of Popular Mechanics (a great way to keep an eye on cleverness and tangible end-product progress in electronics and mechanical areas, as well as their overlap). First, there was an ad for a ratcheting adjustable wrench from Crescent (but it's not on their web site - go figure!). I'll have it check it out to see if it provides the best of both worlds - ratchet and adjustable functions - or is a compromise design that lacks the key virtues of either.

In the "power" arena, the publication had a brief discussion of a tool specifically designed to diagnose and repair Christmas tree light strings - admittedly not a critical problem but still an interesting one, because of its apparent and perhaps deceptive simplicity and common occurrence.

The Lightkeeper Pro tool not only finds the problem in the series string, but helps fix the fault of a burned-out filament in an individual bulb (the most common failure) which obviously ruins the entire string. How does it do this?

It's not well known, but the bulbs of these series-wired light strings contain a bypass (shunt) which is supposed to activate automatically if a filament opens. This shunt comes into the circuit replacing the former current path through the filament, and allows current to flow through the bulb (although there will be no light, of course). Sometimes, though, the bypass shunt malfunctions and does not activate, so you have a string of lights which is dead, but still may be salvageable.

Yes, this is a merely small power-related problem in the bigger scheme of things. But it is illustrative of how even such modest and humble irritations have not escaped attention of vendors who see an on-going issue and want to resolve it for users.

Are there any interesting, specialized power-related tools and products which you have seen and used, from small to large? What problem did they address? Did they really make things simpler for you, or solve the problem - or were they bigger on promise than actual delivery?

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