Green4Geeks Blog

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Give it away now!

tesla flagFor some odd reason, the lyrics of that Red Hot Chile Peppers song kept dancing through my head, "Give it away, give it away, give it away now!"  Why?  Because of the actions of uber geek Elon Musk today.  Today, Tesla Motors decided to release the patents associated with their Tesla roadster, and the Supercharger charging stations.  That's right, they are giving them away.  For free.  He goes into the reasons on their press release, and I believe it is shrewd and even edges into altruism.  The bottom line is it will be good for his business, and great for the industry.  If we get more zero emission cars on the road, we all benefit.  If many or most of them utilize lithium batteries, and Tesla designed charging systems, it is all good for Tesla's proposed giga-factory, where the batteries will be made.  Yes, Tesla does stand to profit mightily from that, but the short term benefit desired, is a jump starting of the all electric vehicle movement.

And for what it is worth, the "all your patent are belong to you" reference is priceless.  It is kind of a geek thing.


How Much Energy Do You Use?

TED 5000cI don't know anyone who doesn't wish their power bill was a little less.  I often hear people talking about high their power bill is, but they don't really know how to reduce it unless it is making sure lights aren't left on all night.  Some will say that they adjust their thermostat by one degree or more to conserve energy.  These approaches are reasonable, but the problem is, the result can only be seen thirty days down the road, when the power bill arrives.  Even then, one has to think back and wonder, "Did I really save that month, or was the weather just a little milder than usual?"  


Where Does the Power Go?

I live in Florida, where I worry much more about the magnitude of my cooling bill in the summer than I do about the heating bill in the winter.  Typically, my monthly energy costs are about two and a half times higher in the summer than spring and fall.  Only during January and February do my winter energy costs creep up a little, and it is usually by a much smaller amount.  Since my heat comes from natural gas, and it is a less expensive source of energy where I live, the dollar amount is negligible.  This pattern makes it relatively simple to see where most of my energy spend goes - cooling my house.  This works just the opposite for my friends up North - heating their houses in the winter time.  This makes sense when you stop to think of the devices that use the most power - motors and devices designed to produce heat.  Heat pumps and air conditioners use at least three motors each to pump heat into or away from living spaces.  For houses heated by electricity alone, add in the heating elements, and you are looking at a whopper of an electric bill.

Removing heating and cooling from the equation, what else uses the most electricity?  Again, look to the motors and things with heating elements.  An electric clothes dryer employs both a motor and a heating element.  Electric water heaters are constantly cycling to keep the water a constant hot temperature.  Modern dishwashers save water and electrically heated water overall (over hand washing and rinsing), but still pull down a lot of juice.  Electric coffee pots, ovens, cook-tops, and toasters all use a lot of power for the short time they are on.  Even electric hair dryers are big users of electricity; again, they use both a motor and a heating element.  Surprisingly, lighting takes significantly less power than heating and cooling.  There are a few caveats however.  For example, if you do leave a lot of lights on, and they are of the older incandescent variety, they are less energy efficient and add to the heat load of a space you might be trying to cool.  Older appliances like old style washing machines and refrigerators can also draw a lot of power.


Stop Guessing!

The only way for certain, to know where your energy is going, is to actually measure it.  You could go outside to your power meter and take a reading, then go back an hour later to see the amount of energy you have consumed.   You could even count how many rotations that little disk has made in a minute.  All you really know though is, the faster that disk spins, the more electricity you are burning. Believe it or not, it is much easier to measure it than you might think.  One way to measure your usage is to install a whole house energy monitor.  There are a number of them on the market, and they vary greatly in cost, complexity, and features.  Some are so simple to install, that they literally are a ring you slip over the outside of the power meter on the outside of your house.  Some are wired directly into your power panel and may require an electrician to install.  Regardless of the type you choose, what you will accomplish is a real time read of how much power you are using right now.  Why is this important?  For one, you no longer have to wait until the power bill comes to see if you have saved any money.  Second, you can start turning things in your house on and off to see what is really eating up the juice, and see the results immediately.  Below is a listing of some of the more popular models:

Efergy Elite Whole House Energy Monitoring System

Blue Line Innovations

Simple Energy Works

The Energy Detective

The prices range from around $60 all the way up to hundreds, depending upon options, display devices, and accuracy.


How it Works

I chose the TED 5000c from The Energy Detective to try out.  It was about $200, and came with the monitoring sensor, a wireless gateway device, and a wireless portable monitor.  It was relatively easy to install, and I was up and running within about an hour.  This particular model has a couple of current sensing loops that clamp around the two phase power leads that come into most homes.  It can be done without an electrician, but if you aren't comfortable around electrical circuitry, it would take less than ten minutes for a qualified electrician to install it.  It should only be installed with the main power turned off, and if you have any doubts, just hire a pro.  It is a small job.

5000Cimage 2

Once you have followed the installation instructions for the other unit, which plugs into a normal outlet elsewhere in the house, you can configure it for publishing to the internet, or just to a local browser in your house.  I chose to include the display unit with my purchase, and am glad I did.  I placed it on the kitchen counter where it is seen many times during the day.  This alone has caused much of our savings as a family.  Just seeing the current spend actually makes us think more about our energy usage, and reminds us to turn off non-essential items.  

Our findings:

  • We had seven recessed can lights in our kitchen, each of which had a traditional 65 watt floodlight installed.  Even though the lights were on a dimmer, people entering the room would just turn them up all the way.  Seeing the spike in the energy usage encouraged everyone to pick a lower setting.  I have since replaced some of the bulbs with LED models, and replaced the dimmer with a digital one, for further savings.  As far as lights go, these were among our heaviest hitters.
  • Outdoor lights, on either side of our garage were often being left on.  So were the interior garage lights.  The problem is, both sets of lights are not visible from within the house, so it was not apparent when they were being left on.  The energy monitor read a little higher, showing that something was left on.
  • A glance at the power monitor before leaving the house pointed out other things that were being left on - curling irons, fans, and other items.
  • We had a lot of so-called "wall warts"  Those little plug in power bricks that power laptops, mobile phones, tablets, and all kinds of other gadgets use for recharging.  They don't draw a lot of juice individually, but all of them together over a course of a month can be costing $5 to $10 or more a month.  They are easy to forget that they are plugged in, and use electricity whether their device is attached or not.
  • The included web interface showed us trends for the day,month, billing cycle, or even just for the past few minutes.  This helped with the decision to raise or lower the thermostat.
  • Turning various lights and appliances on and off gave us a sense of how much they draw.  We found that our refrigerator was actually not the energy hog we thought it was.
  • Turning breakers on and off led us to the discovery that one of our light switches to a stairway light, was leaking energy constantly, whether it was on or off.  Replacing it saved us about four dollars a month - the price of the switch.



All told, just those items have saved us from $45 to $100 a month in electricity savings.  This easily justified the cost of the monitoring gear, and even the cost of an electrician had I used one for the install.  I'll do a product review of the TED 5000 another time, but for now just wanted to point out the benefits of any whole house monitoring system in general.  Measurement is the first step.  If you can't measure your results, how do you know if you have made any progress?  Could you benefit from one of the smaller single circuit anergy monitors that you just plug in?  I'm sure you could, but your view would be limited to one device at a time.  To get the maximum benefit, my recommendation is to measure the whole house.



Death Star Lamp

DeathStarLamp smNot too many science fiction movie images last longer than that of the Death Star in the original Star Wars movie.  While walking through my local IKEA recently, I came across a lamp that reminded me of that very thing.  As I stood there admiring it, I realized it was not just me that made the association.  I heard at leat a half a dozen people exclaim, "Look, it's the Death Star!"  It gets better.  I noticed two small cards hanging down from the bottom, and at the end of each one was a small version of the larger lamp above etched into the plastic surface.  Pulling on one of the cords makes the lamp expand, or explode.  The other cord colapses it back into a sphere.  See a video of it in action here.

I had my family with me, and we were actually looking for some hanging lamps at the time, but not exactly this style.  We needed downlights for over our bar.  Did we go home with a Death Star?  Yes we did.  This lamp comes in two colors - a kind of a lime green, and an electric orange.  The color is on the inside, as you can see from the video.  The outside of both lamps is a kind of matte, eggshell white.  I installed this over our breakfast table, and no one has been able to keep their hands off of it yet.  We did get separate lights for the bar - another story for another day.

That is the fun part, but the geekiness does not end there.  IKEA has been on a push lately to convert all their lighting products over to LED lighting.  While this lamp will take a standard incandescent 40 watt bulb, it does far, far better with a 60 watt equivelant LED bulb installed.  Even though LED bulbs (especially the clear ones) are high on the glare factor, this lamp does a superior job in blocking the glare, and providing remarkably even diffused light outward, and a little bit brighter up and downward.  So, here is a stylish, if not iconic lamp, that puts out as much light as a standard pendant lamp, but it only uses 9 watts of power.  Thats barely more than the old C7 style incandescent Christmas bulbs (each).  The lamp comes with a standard sized mounting plate that wires into a standard sized hanging light electrical box.  This is a huge improvement for IKEA lamps, as most of their hanging lamps do not have standard mounting packages.  Many come with just a regular plug, as if we have all our recepticles mounted in the ceiling.  I have a digital dimmer on mine, which allows me to dial down the brightness if I so choose, but the lamp could just be opened and closed to increase/decrease the illumination from it.

I have to admit, there is a part of me that wants to paint the outside of it black, and stencil on a circle for the dish that destroys planets.  Who wouldn't love to have their own personal Death Star?  In their kitchen!

The lamp is about 14 inches in diameter, and has a ceiling mount with about a five foot cord.  Once I converted my existing can light to a standard electrical box, it took me about 20 minutes to hang it, and assembly of the globe itself only took about ten minutes.  It comes in only two interior colors, green and orange.  I paid $69.99 for it.  Part number is 602.511.23 and it is part of the IKEA PS 2014 collection.


A Tale of Two Libraries

When was the last time you visited your local library?  For me, it had been a while, perhaps two years or more.  That is not to say that I have not used my libraries services in that time; I have done that frequently.  I download books for my ereader, and upon occasion, electronically look up, transfer, and hold a book at a nearby branch, which my wife picks up for me.  This is usually a book that is not available in electronic format yet.  My wife is frequent visitor to the library, and often checks out multiple books on a huge variety of topics, so she just picks up my materials while she is there.  

Recently, I was at a Maker Con event in Tampa, where among the showcases was a booth for the Tampa/Hillsborough County library.  The booth was staffed by two library employees, who were promoting a new development at the main library branch in downtown Tampa (John F. Germany Public Library).  What they were promoting was the conversion of one floor of the library into a maker area.  There are to be meeting spaces, tools (including a 3D printer), a robotics lab, and other small work areas for single or group projects.  There are also some smaller rooms with tools like sewing machines for use be library patrons.  I asked how one would reserve the use of these resources, and was told that it had not been worked out just yet.  It is being targeted for opening around June/July 2014.  For more information on the new facility, click here.  A proposed layout of the new space can be found below:


So, last week I thought I would stop by to see if I could see what was going on.  I couldn't get access to the area, but a very friendly and helpful employee did confirm what I learned about the area being created.  She really didn't seem to know much more about it than I already did, stating that it was whole separate area of the library, and spoke of the the staff associated with it almost as if they were part a completely different organization or agency.  I recall thinking at the time that it was kind of odd, especially since it was just another floor in the same branch.  

While I was there, I looked for a book on a technical topic I was researching, and was happy to find a recently published copy on the topic.  I flipped through it to make sure it covered what I was looking for, and was satisfied it would fulfill my need.  I walked over to the checkout counter to check it out, and found that I could not check it out unless I had my physical library card with me.  No card, no checkout.  I had my card number with me (in my smartphone), but that wouldn't do, not even with a photo ID.  How archaic - the same facility that will soon let me build and test robots, will only accept an old fashioned physical library card.  Perhaps some of that innovation on the new floor could be put to use bringing the checkout up to the times.

I'm ecstatic the library is embracing the new user of libraries, and that soon there will be a whole new level of education available there.  What a fantastic way to maintain relevance, and the potential to bridge old learning methods with new.  Just don't make me bring my library card...


The Engineer's View on Ecology

One of the primary reasons I chose to start this site, and to promote the idea of engineering for the sake of efficiency just because it was a smart thing to do, was because of the ideas expressed in this piece recently published by the Wall Street Journal:  The Scarcity Fallacy, WSJ, 26APR2014

I believe most critical thinkers, when observing the dialogue presented by most in the mainstream press, have to question some of the absolutes presented, that we as readers are to take for granted.  Among these are the obvious low hanging fruit of celebrities who espouse ecology friendly viewpoints of reducing our carbon footprint, while travelling in their private jets to "green" events to relay those opinions to their public.  I would like to take it a step higher than those well meaning, but perhaps not critically thinking celebs, to those that dwell in the area of research or scientific analysis.  For years we have heard that one day we will run out of fossil fuels, water, or the ability to feed the human population of this planet.  Based on the technology and utilization of the most inexpensive process of the day, that may have been true at the time.  If one were to take that snapshot in time, and extend those processes and assumptions based upon them to 20, 30, or 50 years ahead, it would yield a dismal future indeed.  My question is, why do we have to fix these predictions in our collective mindset as the way things will really be?

Politics aside, we are above that as educated, rational thinkers.  If we look back to the mid to late seventies, the popular press published plenty of articles on the concerns of the global cooling, and how we may not have the temperate zones necessary to support the growing of the needed food supply of a burgeoning human population.  Now one hears the same concerns about global warming, which is now morphing into the much more vague "climate change".  Regardless of a warming or cooling climate, we are much more capable of adapting to whatever may come.  This article spells out exactly how that adaptation has taken place, and how it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.  Portending doom sells the news, be it pulp, talking heads, or tweets.  Rational minds tend to think beyond that.  A highly recommended, and thought provoking read.


Gulf Coast MakerCon

Recently, I attended the Third Annual Gulf Coast Maker Con at the Florida State Fairgrounds.  I've always enjoyed reading about the various Maker events around the country, and have lamented that they never seem to make it to a place near me.  It is either that, or I'm never near a Maker event in my travels.  I'm glad I finally made it to one of these events.  There was a little bit of everything there; form a really nice couple that made well engineered bait buckets, to tiny inexpensive test instruments There was nearly everything in between including movie props, battling robots, 3-D printers, and much much more.  What I really loved more than anything was the excitement of the exhibitors sharing whatever they were into.  Many of the booths were just for informational purposes, promoting other workshops, events, and gatherings for others that share their DIY passion.

I keep hearing about how community leaders want to promote and cultivate a high tech corridor along I-4 between Tampa and Orlando.  In my humble opinion, it would pay huge dividends forward to support and promote events like this one.  It is necessary to have great colleges and universities within reach, but you just can't beat the passion that these folks have for their crafts.  The web site for the promoters of this event is 




It was about time for a retooling...

What is Green4Geeks?

Green4Geeks was concept site I started putting together several years ago, where I thought I might do a little blogging, publish some technology articles I had written, and in general be a holding place for whatever items I found interesting.  Now, I've decided to dust it off, and give it another run.  What I've found is, that I write a lot of commentary on various sites, and have felt a little confined in the formats or even the purpose of the sites I post on.  Posting here instead allows me to say everything that I want to, without limits, and then if it is appropriate, link to it from elsewhere.

Why Green4Geeks?

Green4Geeks is the concept that there are a lot of engineers, makers, tinkerers and the like, who love efficiency and "being green".  Sure, there are always the outlandish displays of pure power and excess; I fondly recall the muscle cars I've owned and raced in the past.  This is something a little different.  Now, I want to find out how low I can get my electric bill while maintaining my current lifestyle.  It has to be green, but that doesn't mean you have to give up everything.  How can I still drive a high performance vehicle without spending a fortune on energy to get that performance?  You get the idea.

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