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Zero Crossing Detectors and Comparators

Zero Crossing Detectors and Comparators

Zero crossing detectors as a group are not a well-understood application, although they are essential elements in a wide range of products. It has probably escaped the notice of readers who have looked at the lighting controller and the Linkwitz Cosine Burst Generator, but both of these rely on a zero crossing detector for their operation.
Figure shows the zero crossing detector as used for the dimmer ramp generator in Project 62. This circuit has been around (almost) forever, and it does work reasonably well. Although it has almost zero phase inaccuracy, that is largely because the pulse is so broad that any inaccuracy is completely swamped. The comparator function is handled by transistor Q1 – very basic, but adequate for the job.

The circuit is also sensitive to level, and for acceptable performance the AC waveform needs to be of reasonably high amplitude. 12-15V AC is typical. If the voltage is too low, the pulse width will increase. The arrangement shown actually gives better performance than the version shown in Project 62 and elsewhere on the Net. In case you were wondering, R1 is there to ensure that the voltage falls to zero – stray capacitance is sufficient to stop the circuit from working without it.


The pulse width of this circuit (at 50Hz) is typically around 600us (0.6ms) which sounds fast enough. The problem is that at 50Hz each half cycle takes only 10ms (8.33ms at 60Hz), so the pulse width is over 5% of the total period. This is why most dimmers can only claim a range of 10%-90% – the zero crossing pulse lasts too long to allow more range.

While this is not a problem with the average dimmer, it is not acceptable for precision applications. For a tone burst generator (either the cosine burst or a ‘conventional’ tone burst generator), any inaccuracy will cause the switched waveform to contain glitches. The seriousness of this depends on the application.

Precision zero crossing detectors come in a fairly wide range of topologies, some interesting, others not. One of the most common is shown in Project 58, and is commonly used for this application. The exclusive OR (or XOR) gate makes an excellent edge detector.

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