Sunday, March 11, 2012

PC power supplies for Amateur Radio equipment?

I've noticed a few spirited discussions regarding modifying computer power supplies for use with Amateur Radio equipment. On the surface it seems as though they supply the perfect solution: Inexpensive, high current, regulated 12V DC supplies for a fraction of the cost of specialized amateur equipment. Is it really is as straight forward as lopping off a molex connector and replacing it with an Anderson Powerpole?

By design PC power supplies are designed to output a fairly well regulated 3.3V & 5V to the PC motherboard and 12V to the motherboard, fans and hard-drive motors. Modern units are typically rated anywhere from 75W to 1200W which should be a measurement of the output power available from all the 3.3, 5 and 12 volts. Since this isn't a lab grade power supply you can expect marketing hyperbole has perhaps inflated the power output figures.

Back when my job was to build PCs I had an issue with a server not being able to start its complete complement of disk drives. When I opened the case I found a 300W desktop supply board had been used in place of the 800W board ... sometimes you don't even get what you pay for!

Before you convert your first PC power supply there are two issues that may, or may not, cause a problem depending on your unit.

The first is load regulation or the ability of the power supply to maintain its rated voltage under load. If the output voltage drops too far your rig will shutdown, distort or fail to provide its rated output power.

The second issue is due to the high frequency switching circuits used in switch mode supplies. Depending on the individual power supply there can be adequate to no filtering to prevent radio frequency interference being broadcast to your receiver. Toroids on the input and output lines can help to reduce interference.

Because of construction differences between models and even between batch numbers for the same model you can never be certain how the power supply you purchase, or recycle, will perform. For the most part people's experiences have been positive but I have heard of power supplies that were unusable because of RF interference or such poor load regulation that the 12V rail dropped to 11V under load.

Without a motherboard presenting a load and supplying the power-on signal there are a few changes that need to be made to the power supply. Modern power supplies will not enable the 12V output unless the power-on wire is grounded and a load should be placed on the 5V line to help with regulation. Additionally there is usually an adjustment that can be used to raise the voltage above 12V

The following links detail the steps required to convert a PC supply for use with amateur radio equipment. Whether this represents a good investment of your time will depend on your desire to do-it-yourself and the quality of the power supply you begin with. I've heard strong opinions either way but I'll just say that, if luck favors you, you'll save some money and learn a few new skills in this exercise.

Computer Power Supply Converted for Ham Use


Converting Computer Power Supplies to stabilized 13.8 V DC 20 A