Posted on Leave a comment

Test Equipment Upcycling – Variable Attenuator Module

A while back I found myself in the need of an adjustable RF attenuator capable of high-GHz operation. As luck would have it I had an old Spectrum analyser on the shelf at work, which we had retired quite some time ago.

Spectrum analysers being quite capable test instruments, I knew that the input attenuation would be done with a standalone module that we could recover for reuse without too much trouble.

The attenuator module

Here’s the module itself, with the factory drive PCB removed from the bottom, showing the solenoids that operate the RF switches. There are test wires attached to them here to work out which solenoid switches which attenuation stage. In the case of this module, there are switches for the following:

  • Input select switch
  • AC/DC coupling
  • -5dB
  • -10dB
  • -20dB
  • -40dB

For me this means I have up to -75dB attenuation in 5dB steps, with optional switchable A-B input & either AC or DC coupling.

Drive is easy, requiring a pulse on the solenoid coil to switch over, the polarity depending on which way the switch is going.

Building a Control Board

Now I’ve identified that the module was reusable, it was time to spin up a board to integrate all the features we needed:

  • Onboard battery power
  • Pushbutton operation
  • Indication of current attenuation level

The partially populated board is shown at right, with an Arduino microcontroller for main control, 18650 battery socket on the right, and control buttons in the centre. The OLED display module for showing the current attenuation level & battery voltage level is missing at the moment, but it’s clear where this goes.

As there weren’t enough GPIO pins for everything on the Arduino, a Microchip MC23017 16-Bit I/O expander, which is controlled via an I²C bus. This is convenient since I’m already using I²C for the onboard display.

Driving the Solenoids

A closer view of the board shows the trip of dual H-Bridge drivers on the board, which will soon be hidden underneath the attenuator block. These are LB1836M parts from ON Semiconductor. Each chip drives a pair of solenoids.

Power Supplies

The bottom of the board has all the power control circuitry, which are modularised for ease of production. There’s a Lithium charge & protection module for the 18650 onboard cell, along with a boost converter to give the ~9v rail required to operate the attenuator solenoids. While they would switch at 5v, the results were not reliable.

Finishing off

A bit more time later, some suitable firmware has been written for the Arduino, and the attenuator block is fitted onto the PCB. The onboard OLED nicely shows the current attenuation level, battery level & which input is selected.

Posted on Leave a comment

Hydraulic Generators, Missing Valves & Liars

While sourcing the main propulsion hydraulic system for nb Tanya Louise in the summer, we thought that it would be convenient to have an on board generator that didn’t require dragging off the boat & highly explosive petrol to operate.

As the hydraulics were already being fitted, we decided to add a hydraulically driven generator to solve this issue.

And this is where the problems began…


We were referred to Mike Webb of to supply the equipment required for this part of the project, this was to include the alternator itself, hydraulic motor to drive the alternator, the required adaptor plates to mate the motor to the generator head & a control valve block to regulate the oil flow & pressure to the motor.
After a phone call to Mike on 16-07-2013 to discuss our requirements, we settled on a system. I received the following E-Mail the next day from Mike:

Good morning, reference our conversation, Martin from BSP has given me details as to what he will be supplying, on that basis and in light of the special price I have offered, this is what I propose to supply,


1 off New 8kVa – 7kW Hydraulic driven generator 220v single phase 50hz c/w flow control valve, pressure relief valve and on/off solenoid valve,  Martin did say that the engine idle is between 1000 and 1200 rpm and  max speed is 3600 rpm, valves will be rated accordingly. I have the alternator and parts available now, in order for me to be able to offer this at a significantly discounted price of £ 1.200.00 nett, I will need to utilise the components I have in stock now, so I will need payment asap, delivery will be approx. 7 days, primarily due to the fact that the coupling is fabricated to suit, I can either deliver the unit to you when ready or BSP or hold onto it until everything else is in place.  The alternator is a Meccalte S20W that I bought for another customer a few weeks ago, but he cancelled and I don’t have, at this time, anyone else interested in it, so either I do a deal with you at the above price or wait until someone else comes along and wants the unit.


With regards to installation, let me know if you need any help, but it would be best to install when the engine is being installed and the rest of the system hosed up, I assume BSP will be sorting this, in which case I’ll liase with Martin.


I trust that this meets with your approval and look forward to hearing from you.

At this point an order was placed with Mike, & the money transferred so he could begin building the unit for us. As can be seen from the E-Mail, a lead time of 7 days was stated.

After a few phone calls over the following month, firstly being told that the custom parts to mate the generator to the motor had not come back from the engineers, I sent another E-Mail to Mike on 10-09-2013, and got no reply.
Following another phone call, I was told that the generator had been shipped, however Mike would not give me any tracking details for the shipment, and would not initially tell me who it was shipped with.

Again the generator didn’t turn up.

More phone calls ensued & I was told at this point that the shipping company had been confused by the address given, shipped back to Mike. At this point I was informed that the shipping company had actually LOST  it. Several more phone calls later I was promised that a replacement generator would now ship no later than 08-10-2013. A follow up E-Mail two days later also generated no reply.

At this point I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see the goods we had paid for, but finally a shipment arrived from Mike
~15-10-2013, over TWO MONTHS after our promised delivery date. However, even having been delivered, all was not well with the goods.

Generator Pallet
Generator Pallet

Above is the generator supplied. No mounting bracket, no integrated valve block, in short, nothing like what was described in Mike’s documentation & website. The original documentation is available here for reference: [download id=”5564″]

The valve block supplied was this:

Valve Block
Valve Block
Missing Solenoid Valve
Missing Solenoid Valve

Flow control: check.
Pressure relief: check.
Control solenoid valve: Gaping hole….

As can be seen, there is an open port on the side of the valve block. This is where the ON/OFF control solenoid valve is supposed to be located.
After several more unanswered E-Mails & phone calls, I had to get somewhat more forceful in my messages, as now Mike had begun outright lying about what was specified in the original order. In which that there was no solenoid valve required. So the following E-Mail was sent 21-10-2013:


Having had a conversation with Martin, about him attempting to contact you regarding what you have supplied to us, I need this resolving ASAP now, as I am being held up by the fact that there is an open port on your valve block where the solenoid control valve is supposed to be located.

As it stands the valve block & therefore the generator you have supplied to us is useless for it’s intended purpose & I will be seeking legal advice on this matter if a resolution cannot be made this week, considering you have not replied to any E-Mail I have sent since the unit’s massively delayed arrived.

In your original correspondence it is certainly indicated that this valve was to be fitted, which was also Martin’s instruction to you.  

I await your expedient response.

This threat of legal action actually spurred a response from Mike, who finally replied with the following on 25-10-2013:



Sorry about all this, I have been away and down with a bug for the last week, I will sort this today and will have the required parts shipped to you on Monday for Tuesday delivery.




Another promise of a delivery date, so I waited a little longer, until the Friday of that week. Still no delivery. No surprise there then.
(I didn’t believe the story about illness either).

At this point I again attempted contact, but got nowhere, even with legal threats. So I’ve given up completely on this & been forced to source the parts elsewhere at extra cost.

This company is not the one to go to if you require a hydraulic generator unit for any application, as you’d be lucky to get any part of what you order on time, if at all.
Operations are run by an all out liar who seems to be happy to accept money but not ship the goods that had been paid for.

Mike having explained to me that the shipping company had lost a generator, and he would have to build me another one to replace it also does not make sense, as in the initial phone call & mail he stated that the Meccalte generator that we eventually received was a single unit that was specially ordered for another client, and the factory build date on the unit certainly gave away the fact that the generator head had been sat around for some considerable time before I came along & made a purchase.

Hopefully this post will get a high Google ranking, to ensure that anyone else who happens to be looking for a similar piece of equipment does not have the misfortune to trust this man.
We were referred to him on good faith & unfortunately in this case it did not go well.

Posted on Leave a comment

nb Tanya Louise Hydraulic Generator Update

Finally, after months of messing about with the original seller of the generator unit, (Mike Webb from, more to come about the nightmare I had dealing with this man), we have had to purchase a new hydraulic control valve for the genset, as the original unit supplied was missing parts.

Thanks to Martin Bullock from BSP Hydraulics for supplying this at short notice!

Flow Control Module
Flow Control Module
Solenoid Spool Valve
Solenoid Spool Valve
Control Valve Block
Control Valve Block

This unit contains a pressure relief valve, to set system operating pressure, a throttle/flow control valve to set generator motor speed & a solenoid controlled spool valve to control general oil flow to the generator. This last section effectively operates as an ON/OFF control.
System pressure will be ~175 Bar at 21 litres/minute.

More to come soon with the final assembly, hosing up  & system commissioning.