I bought one on ebay for about 75 bucks, as I remember there were a few out there. There's not much to them, buy one that works, from a reputable seller, and you'll probably have no problems.
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Variac is a variable autotransformer; you can step AC voltage down to near zero, & some can even step up above input line voltage ~10% or so. Unlike a balanced transformer, it does not provide line isloation. You'll need one with reasonable current capacity; several amps seems typical (500 watts or more). Ebay seems like a good place to find one at reasonable cost.
I assume you want to bring up the input voltage slowly in order to re-form the power supply electrolytic capacitors without risking a short. Tubes should be installed. Speakers should not be connected. Signal input (drive) should not be connected, so if this is a receiver, do not set the input to 'tuner'. Starting from zero volts, raise very slowly to around 5V for several (10) minutes at least, then step up ~5 volts at a time. The whole process can take quite some time of course. Do not ever exceed 120VAC max.
I have never actually done this; perhaps someone who has will chime in later. A knowledgable member who has experience with this actually recommended taking several days to raise voltage VERY slowly, only a few volts per step & leaving it there for many hours at a time. Not sure if it's necessary to go that slowly, but you get the idea. That post might yet be in the forum archives; was posted by Sean many years ago. Try a forum search on "Variac" if desired.
A unit like this(10A) would suit your purpose nicely: (http://cgi.ebay.com/PowerStat-3PN116B-Variac-Variable-Transformer_W0QQitemZ220451775080QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item3353f32268&_trksid=p3286.c0.m14&_trkparms=65%3A12%7C66%3A2%7C39%3A1%7C72%3A1205%7C293%3A1%7C294%3A50) I've always powered equipment up, and monitored power supply voltages without the tubes in the circuits(whether new construction or old gear), to be certain everything was working as intended. If a cap is ready to blow at operational voltage; it will(whether you take three days to bring it up, or three minutes).
It may be overkill for your purposes, especially at $539, but I use an earlier version of this B&K Precision variable ac power supply.
Note though that its output current capability is 3A continuous, 4A intermittent, which makes it unsuitable for some power amps.
I like the fact that it provides metering for current as well as voltage, and it also provides isolation, which is important for safety if you are doing troubleshooting while the equipment is powered up.
I disagree with the suggestion to run without a speaker connected. With many tube designs that can raise internal voltages to greater than normal values, possibly overstressing capacitors and other components. I use a $10 Radio Shack speaker driver as a load when I'm checking out or bringing up the ac voltage on equipment that is in unknown condition.
Re powering up without tubes inserted, that is a good idea to do initially on new construction or old gear in unknown condition, but keep in mind that if the design utilizes a tube rectifier you won't be reforming the electrolytics (or verifying a lot of other things) until the rectifier tube is installed.
thanks for your observations Al I wouldn't want to post bad info. of course. Not sure why a transformer coupled device would behave that way though?
I suppose a better choice of words would be "do not connect any speakers that you care about being blown up" because that certainly could happen if something goes wrong. A cheap pair of car speakers, yes.
FYI: I once energized a tube receiver without one of the tubes inserted & an electrolytic blew it's top. It was working decently up until that point but had a hum I was attempting to diagnose. Bad day.
There is a pretty good explanation of why it is dangerous to operate a tube amplifier unloaded in item 15 of this faq, and I've quoted the relevant paragraphs below:
The crux of the problem lies in the inductive nature of the output tranny. Inductive loads are pretty special things, since they STORE energy in a magnetic field. A property of this effect, as has been pointed out, is that the voltage can soar to levels above the supply voltage in the amplifier-- sometimes WAY above. You can't do that with any other kind of load other than inductive.
Obviously the risk is greatly lessened if there is no signal going through the amp, but even with no input connected any number of things can be envisioned that could cause transient "signals" to be processed through the amp, including emi from nearby fluorescent light fixtures being turned on; sudden changes in leakage currents through capacitors, as the voltage applied to them is increased when the variac setting is raised; or perhaps even just a sudden increase in the ac voltage itself, as the variac setting is raised.
Re your experience with the electrolytic, now that I think of it, it probably is not a good idea to run an amp with the rectifier tube in place but other tube(s) not in place (especially the power tubes), because of the increase in B+ that would likely result.
Some additional explanation which I think is lacking in the writeup I quoted above:
The voltage across an inductance, and the current flowing through it, are related by the equation
V = L x (dI/dt)
where V is voltage, L is inductance, I is current, t is time, and (dI/dt) represents change (delta) in current per unit time, in other words the rate of change of current.
So if a steady-state current flowing through the transformer primary (which is essentially acting as an inductor when the secondary is unconnected) is abruptly reduced (due to an abrupt transient being applied to the grids of the power tubes), the resulting dI/dt can produce enormous values of V. That is sometimes referred to as "inductive kickback".
I guess I've been extremely lucky all these years. The First Tube amp I built was a Dynakit ST-70. Their instructions(upon assembly completion)were to first test the voltages out of the power transformer, then insert the rectifier and test the voltages at the multi-section cap. Insert the tubes, connect input and output and play the sucker. I've followed those directions ever since(with variations according to circuit design), when assembling amps or upgrading their power supplies(quite a number). The most recent being the addition of 4 strings of IXYS FREDs in my Cary monoblocks, a few months back. Never have had a voltage issue of any kind. Maybe I AM living right after all?(NAH- That CAN'T be it) =8^)
Hi Rodman -- Those sound to me like good instructions for a new build, using new parts. And I note that you listed "connect ... output" prior to "play the sucker," which avoids the possibility of inductive kickback problems in the output xfmr, which as described above can potentially cause much more serious problems than the other issue which was discussed (operating without all of the tubes present).
As far as that second issue is concerned (B+ elevation due to some tubes not being present), I would think that generally would be fine with new electrolytics, assuming their voltage rating is conservatively specified in the design, but with old ones that may be partially dried out and/or need reforming, it would be more risky.
You're right, and I've always considered the caps that were manufactured long enough ago to present a problem, inferior to current ones(whatever the year I was working on unit). I always replaced/upgraded the capacitance when doing a PS, or recommended doing so(if an older unit was opened for any reason). It was nice when the large Rubycon Black Gate electrolytics were readily available, and at reasonable prices(fond memories). I wish Sanyo would offer their OS-CONs in higher voltages and capacitances.
In case you plan to buy a Variac to reform caps on old valve equipment, an alternate can be had for almost nothing....
A series lamp with the mains input.
Depending on the product and the anticipated load, ( eg Pre & Power amps will draw Hugely different Mains current.. ) start with a Low wattage bulb (incandescent lamp).
Could be a 25 Watt bulb / lamp for a power amp. On switch on, the lamp will take most of the voltage across it. In case of a short circuit ibn the amp, the Lamp will limit the current in the circuit automatically.
Leave the 25 Watt lamp in place for as long as you want to form the caps at a low voltage and then move to a 50 Watt lamp, and later a 100 Watt ( or even multiple 100 Watters in parallel).
As the capacitors form, the lamp will glow Less bright ( could take overnight or longer. ) This is a good visual indicator too.
I live in a country with 240 VAC Mains.
I have also found the series lamp excellent as a Short Circuit Protection... current fold-back, while experimenting.
NOTE: This will work only with an Incandescent lamp and not with CFLs. I am told that incandescents are banned in Australia...