Friday, October 24, 2014

weatherproof rotation switches from recycled thermostats

A good source for rotational switches can be had in old thermostats which contain a mercury switch or two.


An old thermostat contains a mercury switch which you can use to sense mechanical rotational position. This is especially valuable for outdoor projects since the switches are sealed. I am intending to use these for low voltage (about 12 volts) control where the switched current won't be more than an amp.

I am replacing 80s technology with recycled 90's tech. At my house, I have replaced the existing clock motor thermostat (the clock did not work) with a "new" (to me) Honeywell/34 that had been removed from a church. The date on the "new" manual is 1994. According to the manual: this thermostat is actually a small but powerful computer. So far it is working fine. The default temperature of 20C is a bit too warm but nice as I enjoy the heat while it is not too cool outside. The furnace is not working hard yet, the outside temp is about 5C. Replacing a thermostat is best done on a day when you don't actually need the heat.

In this old Honeywell Chronotherm the single mercury switch is to the right on a tilt-able mount which is attached to the set temperature lever. The black thing with two wires hanging out the left side looks and feels like a battery. Is it possible that is a DC operated clock?

A closer view of the mercury switch, the small glass vial up and to the right to the right of the colored plastic post. I would like to remove the vial and it's wires without damage. I'll have to study it a bit and report back.

SAFETY REMINDER: Mercury is toxic and we must take a lot of care NOT TO BREAK THE VIAL and let the mercury escape. It is best to work over a pan so that should the vial be damaged, the mercury will escape into the pan. Keep a pill bottle handy for any escaped mercury metal.

In North America, you are more likely to see round Honeywell thermostats, like the T87 (complete data sheet here). It comes apart easily by undoing the single long screww that holds the adjustment post in place.

Recently, I rescued three T87 from a lighthouse that had new heating installed. Thank you Cabot Head. Three is ideal since if I have trouble with any one I will still have the two I need.

When I removed these from the wall, I did not know that there were three screws to remove the dome from its base so some damage resulted, mostly to a metal wiring terminal post but that won't matter for removal of the mercury switch.

Here is the T87 dis-assembled with the mercury switch on its thermal spring. The wire terminals are clean and undamaged. The drop of mercury is in the glass vial which is not chipped or cracked. With this one, the glass vial can be separated from the mounting clip, it just slides out the fingers, they haven't used any glue. But I think that we can make use of the clip assembly to mount our mercury switch.

Could we use the whole tilt-able mount assembly to have a fine adjustment built in to our own mount? For what I have in mind I don't want temperature to be a factor so I would like to replace all or most of the bi-metal spring which is the sensing element for temperature in this thermostat. Newer ones use a thermistor or a semiconductor sensing element and they don't contain a mercury switch.

One possible use of these type of switches is for limit switches in a solar tracking array or for a float switch.

Mercury switches (in the box at the red arrow) are used to limit the rotation of the array in the pic of a parabolic solar collector.

Two mercury switches cut off motor current when the array tilts over as far as it should go. To go further will cause metal parts to jam together. Stalling the motor uses a lot of power uselessly so it is best to avoid hitting the mechanical limit. The mercury switches help prevent that.

It is not possible to easily buy mercury switches since they have all but been banned for new construction. However by gathering these as they are being removed from service saves them from the landfill and keeps them available for a future use.

Link here goes to the motor drive of the project. The main index is diy solar parabolic trough gen2 intro

George Plhak
Lion's Head, Ontario