Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Shopping for a new 'smart' thermostat?  My review of the Ecobee3 here: Ecobee3 Review.

#green4geeks #Ecobee3

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EM Drive - Hokum, or Holy Crap it Works?

EM Drive - Hokum, or Holy Crap it Works?

There is a certain amount of skepticism that is healthy in the science community. OK, usually there is a whole lot of skepticism, but many would argue it is still healthy. So, when an invention comes along that has claims that seem too good to be true, the skeptics pile on. Cold fusion anyone?  On November 17, 2016, a NASA team has seemingly validated some claims on a revolutionary new concept they call the EM Drive.  Some have been calling it the "Impossible Engine", claiming that for it to actually work, we would have to rewrite the laws of physics as we accept them today.  

The concept of the engine seems remarkably simple - a sort of a bell shaped resonance chamber or cavity reflects microwave energy from an emmiter, and as it resonates throughout this chamber the microwave radiation provides thrust; a very small amount, but thrust nonetheless.  A typical engine uses fuel and the reaction by-products ejected, to produce the thrust.  The EM Drive is known as a reaction-less drive, because no fuel is consumed.  In space, one has to bring along all the fuel one needs, while dealing with all that mass.  Not so, with the EM Drive.  This is just one step of many in testing this concept and completely validating the results, but it appears to show promise.  Keep in mind, there is an energy burden in creating those microwaves, but it sure beats literally hauling tons of fuel into space to be converted into thrust.

For a primer on reaction-less drives, and their history, see this Wikipedia article.  Also, National Geographic has done a great job explaining this concept and the latest independent test.  See their article here.

If this plays out and is validated, it just may pave the way of relatively low cost and higher speed space travel for the longer haul trips.

 

 

Cover Image by David A. Brady, Harold G. White, Paul March, James T. Lawrence, and Frank J. Davies. Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center - 'Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF Test Device Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum' 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference paper, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49595842

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Solar Shingles - Part 2

If only I had a time machine.  I just put a new roof on my house last year.  I had to, the old one was hail damaged and getting a little aged; I didn't think it would get through another set of seasons.  So, what happens less than a year later?  Tesla announces a new solar shingle.  Argh! Tesla Solar

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Amendment 1 in Florida Failed - Now What?

Amendment 1 in Florida did not pass.  Even though there were slightly more than 50% of the votes cast in favor of the the Amendment, it required a 60% majority to be enacted into law.  The power companies in Florida waged an expensive campaign to convince voters that this would be good for them.  As numerous newspaper editors, online posters, and other groups have pointed out, this proposed amendment really wasn't good for the average consumer.  I understand the power companies protecting their fossil fuel interests, and that dealing with the purchase of consumer's excess power could chip away at their profit.  What I have a hard time justifying on their behalf is the monopoly this would have created.  By the amendments passing, it would have meant that if I generate excess power from my house, I would be prevented from selling it to my neighbor.  I believe that we should be able to put energy on a free market, inter-house, inter-neighborhood, inter-state.

So, what happens now that the amendment failed?  Nothing, for now.  However, this could all change at the legislative level.  Don't think for a minute that the power companies will attempt to take a run at this again through the state's legislature.  It is critical that the consumers in the state of Florida keep an eye out toward future bills that may harm them.  Even that is not enough - Florida remains one of the few states where consumers are not allowed to sell their excess power to anyone except for the established power companies.  This has had a stifling effect on the growth of solar expansion in the 'Sunshine State'.  Florida legislators, are you listening?

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Florida's Solar Future: Voter Education is Key

sun checkWhen it comes to voting in Florida, it seems nothing is ever easy.  I've written about the ballot initiative "Floridian's for Solar Choice" here before (Freedom of Choice), and believe it to be a pretty solid idea.  Now it appears Florida voters have another amendment to consider, titled "Consumers for Smart Solar".  So, why two amendments?  With a nod to Isaac Newton's Third Law, in Florida politics there is nearly always an "equal and opposite reaction" to anything that anyone might propose.  Just for fun, I'm going to call it "Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics".  If someone were to come out with an amendment stating that all kittens are adorable, it would not take long for an opposing group to be formed saying they are the spawn of the devil.  Think I'm wrong?  Just Google "Cat's are Jerks" and see how many references you come up with.  Just sayin'.

There has been a lot written about this in the past year, promoting or chipping away at both amendment proposals.  Floridians would do well to educate themselves on what is contained in both proposals, but in the age of the sound-bite and ever shorter attention spans, it seems that it is easier for proponents of both to tear down the other proposal than to support their own.  Both proposals could pass, one might pass without the other, or neither may pass.  All that is assuming that either one or both gather enough signatures to make it to the ballot.  In this case, that is 683,000 signatures for ballot initiatives that most Floridians have never even heard of.  I'm hoping that more editorial boards and local new outlets make this into more of a story.  Some are trying:  

Miami Herald - July 15, 2015 - Group attempts to undercut solar initiative with rival amendment

Sun Sentinel - July 16, 2015 - Second group launches solar energy ballot initiative

Orlando Weekly - September 15, 2015 - Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?

Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2015 - Deception Cast Shadow Over Solar Amendments

 

Overview of Floridians for Solar Choice:

While Floridians for Solar Choice was first, and identifies itself as a grassroots organization, it does have some backing from corporate interests hoping to have greater flexibility in selling solar systems to Florida consumers.  For Florida homeowners, the cost of solar is prohibitive and the return on investment fairly long term.  One has to live in the home for a long while, or risk not getting the return on their investment if they have to sell their home before the system is paid off.  In other states, leasing companies install the solar systems, then "sell" the electricity back to the homeowner, offsetting the leasing expenses.  In Florida, only the big power companies that are highly regulated are allowed to sell power.  This keeps the leasing option off the table for the homeowner.  The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment language allows anyone to sell up to 2 megawatts.of energy to "the grid".  The intent is to cover the low capacity producers, such as homeowners, co-ops, and small businesses by allowing them to resell their unused capacity for use across the grid.  Some argue that this may cause increased maintenance costs on the grid that will be borne by the other consumers not on solar power.

 

Overview of Consumers for Smart Solar:

The second group appears to have made the scene primarily to contest the first group.  Consumers for Smart Solar may be a bit of a misnomer, as a large part of it's funding thus far appears to be coming from big energy companies, not consumers.  This group states that their goal is consumer protection, and that using non regulated utilities (the small home owners using leasing companies) sets up potential for overcharging customers, and straining the grid without paying for maintenance.  They believe this could lead to higher costs for non solar customers.  The creators of the web site are so adamantly opposed to the first proposed amendment that they do not even mention it by name, instead just referring to it only as the "Shady Solar Amendment".  They are concerned that the alternative amendment is "designed to benefit out of state solar companies".  Critics say that this new amendment has been created just to confuse the public, and take away from the 60% voter approval needed to pass.

 

 A Few Thoughts to Ponder

Consumer protection can be a good thing, to a point.  However, the free market does have a way of sorting things out.  Consider the inroads made by the likes of Uber and Lyft.  Both of these companies were, and often still are, working outside of consumer protections of the market segment they are competing in, within their local municipalities.  The consumers are still embracing both Uber and Lyft, and pressure is being applied on both the legacy players and the new ones to find middle ground.  Why can't that happen with solar?  If the maintenance of the grid is increasing because of more producers, and no one knows if that will really be true, then cover the cost through a service fee on purchased energy.  

The argument that the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment is designed to benefit out of state solar companies really doesn't hold water.  Since none of these solar companies can operate in Florida now, it stands to reason that they will all be out of state now.  Why start a company in a state in which you prevented from conducting business in?  Perhaps Florida should have in-state companies doing this business - wouldn't that be a good thing?  Suppressing Floridians options on solar and/or selling energy back to those that can use it is a real innovation killer.  For a state that is drenched in sunshine, Florida could be poised to be a front runner in renewable energy, lessening reliance on fossil fuels and the pollution that they create.

The Consumers for Smart Solar initiative appears to be proving Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics.  Passing that amendment really doesn't do much other than to simply preserve the status quo.  If Floridians for Solar Choice is as horrible as critics say, why not just campaign against it, rather than run with another proposed amendment that pretty much does nothing?  In Florida, nothing is quite that easy.  If you are a Floridian voting in the 2016 elections, take the time to educate yourself on this - it may determine the "Sunshine State's" solar future.

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Is That a Wink or Blink?

wink hub XI don't have a good feeling about this.

I've been monitoring the various Wink forums, contributing my experiences here and there, and have posted a few articles here on the Wink home automation experience.  I really don't like posting negative items regarding commercial products, unless a product is just horrible or a sham.  I usually look for the best, talk about it, and where I think it may help, offer constructive criticism when it falls short of ideal.  I haven't seen much on this in the home automation forums (yet), so I may be among the first to point this out.  I think Wink may be on the ropes.

Allow me to offer my recent experiences with Wink (the company not the product).  As I've posted here previously, I've enjoyed experimenting with the Wink Hub, connected a variety of devices to it, and documented my experiences here, or within comments elsewhere.  As I say, this has been positive for the most part, and I've even gone as far to say that Wink has been gaining maturity in it's offering.  Here is the problem - once you get past the hub, and start with their other offerings, things start to get a little shaky.  First, there was the well documented and unfortunately highly publicized gaffe back in mid-April of this year.  If you missed it, Wink pushed out a firmware update to their Wink Hubs, but bobbled the security certificate.  This had the net result of a whole lot of dead (or at least non-communicative) hubs, where the users only choice was to snail mail the hub back Wink for an update at the factory, or for those brave souls that have some basic skills configuring their home routers, a process that you could do at home in about ten or fifteen minutes,  Until one of these two processes were completed, your home automation system was offline.

Wink, to their credit, offered a $50 voucher, for limited use on their site, to make up for the trouble.  Ordinarily, I would commend them on the gesture, and tell others that this is the way you work customer service and build brand loyalty.  It would be great reading in forums saying that Wink messed up, but they did the right thing, and now have a happy customer singing their praises.  It didn't really work out that way.  First, there was the second or third email from Wink saying that they were sorry, the first coupon code had been rescinded, because it was being abused.  To think that a single coupon code for all users to share would not be ripe for attempted abuse, is a wee bit naive.  The next "private single-use" code did not work, and finally, on the third try, a single-use personalized code was delivered to those affected.  For me, life was good again; I tweaked my router, had my hub updated, and had a $50 voucher burning a hole in my digital wallet.  Yes, life was good.

Not so fast.  In fact, really not fast at all.  I've been wanting to add some remote automation to my garage doors, so I thought I would purchase the Ascend garage door opener.  I did a lot of research before picking the Ascend, which is one of the Quirky Wink partnership products, and only available from the Wink site.  Even thought there are a lot of products available that can interface with my garage door openers, the only ones certified by Wink to work with their system were the Ascend and Chamberlain MyQ products.  As an aside - Wink, please add the Linear controls to your z-wave connected and certified product list.  Please?  Sorry for the digression, back to the two choices.  

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Wink Update Adds Platform Maturity

wink hub 1I've posted my experiences with Wink here and elsewhere for a few months now.  While I've enjoyed tinkering with it, in the back of my mind I had this nagging thought that it might not ever be a robust enough platform for serious dependable use.  That thought diminished considerably with latest upgrade.  To be fair, first let me spell out why I thought it might not be ready for prime time:

  • The Wink Hub firmware upgrade process was really clunky - it worked mostly, but it was way harder than it should be
  • There were really long delays at times between an icon press and the result - mostly due to the round trip to the cloud in order for the action to take place
  • Even the simplest of actions took a minimum of one second
  • When using the Wink app, it did not check the state of your devices first before painting the icons on the screen, which left the user unsure of the true state of the device (really bad if you are away from home)
  • Sometimes, timed events (using the scheduler) worked, and sometimes they didn't

Most of these issues are well documented in the various forums that have popped up around this product.  Even though their customer service is really good (I say this from personal experience), I just got the impression that they weren't taking the cues from the user experience and using them to improve the product.  I think this last update may be a step in the right direction.

 

The Update

The first indication I had that a new product was available was a small message at the bottom of the screen on the Wink Hub page of the app.  It stated that, 'A hub update is required'.  Clicking on the 'Update Hub' button, I was warned that it could take 10 minutes to update, and that normal operations might be offline during that time.  I went ahead with the update.  I immediately got a message on the app that, 'Hub is updating', while a circle spun around the hub icon.  At the same time, the indicator light on the Wink Hub went from solid blue to a flashing yellow-green color.  This went on for about a minute, and then the light started flashing red.  This went on for quite a while, much longer than the advertised 10 minutes.  After a total of 17 minutes, the hub indicator returned to a steady blue, and a Wink notification appeared on the status bar of my android smartphone.  However, the spinning circle around the hub icon and the message stating 'Hub is updating' remained.  I gave it a few minutes before hitting the back button to close the page.  That seemed to clear the 'updating' status.  Checking the version of the hub firmware indicted that I am now on version 0.77.0.  It seems to be an odd version number for a shipping product, but hey, let's see what changed.

 

What has Improved?

The first thing I noticed was that the indicator icons on the app were actually showing the state of the devices as they were at the moment.  I had one light partially dimmed, and another set of lights turned on.  The app indicated this correctly.  Secondly, changing the settings on these devices was nearly immediate.  The delay is now definitely sub-second.  As far as the hub firmware update process went, it was much better than in the past, but still has a little ways to go before it is polished.  For example, when it went from flashing yellow-green to flashing red, makes one think something has gone horribly wrong.  Also the nearly double the predicted time created some unnecessary nervousness.  Telling the user this would happen before hand is better, and telling the user what is happening as it is happening is even better.  Still, this went way better than the first update I had to do when I first purchased it.  A step in the right direction.

Next I tested a few schedules out by making up a few new ones, then closing the app and waiting to see if the events I set up worked.  This worked reliably in my tests, but I did notice that the events kicked off almost a full minute behind the system time.  My guess is that the cloud that Wink uses to manage events is probably a minute off from my local system time.  The best part though, is that when I checked my apps icons, they accurately reflected the state of the events I had scheduled (including such details as the dimmer level).  This is a huge improvement.

Lastly, group events such as turning all lights on with one push works great and the icons reflect the true status of the individual lights.  However, I was able to cause the app to fail by turning on the lights as a group, and then turn them off individually, causing the app to lose track of the state of the light.  Not polished, but better than before.

 

Conclusion

It appears the developers at Wink are listening, and while they may not be as speedy as most would like (that too is all over the forums), they are moving in the right direction.  I'm no longer in the mindset of dropping it for something different, but I would definitely like to see a more robust product.  One thing that I can't shake is the inability to get under the hood.  Not everyone that will buy this product wants that kind of access, but many of us out here like to tinker, and at least have more indication of what is going on the hub and app.  It is kind of like buying a car, and not being able to put custom wheels on it, much less custom engine performance products.  The Wink team needs to put the more technical information out there for those of us that can use it.  It just might boost sales among us DIY'ers.

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The Hidden Cost of Your Water Cooler

A big part of reducing your home's energy footprint, is simply understanding where exactly the energy gets used.  It could be argued that I'm somewhat obsessed with measuring things, and I'm OK with that, so long as there is some meaningful purpose to it.  As previously posted here, I take a critical look at common things many folks have in their homes, and find out what it costing them.  Today's post is about the good old fashioned bottled water cooler.  The model I tested was a Oasis Model BPO1SHS Bottle Cooler.  This model has an Energy Star Rating, has both hot and cold spigots, and a more contemporary appearance.  It is what most water delivery companies offer as an 'upgrade' model, over the typical single spigot, non-cooled models.

I measured the energy usage over a twenty-five day period in order to get a good average usage reading.  To measure, I used a Kill A Watt Model P4400 cumulative energy recording meter.  My blended cost of utility power where I live is $0.10187 per kWh (before taxes).  The test took place in a home with a family of four.  Here are my results:

  • When running, the cooler drew about 81 watts of energy, which is roughly 25% more energy than the most commonly used incandescent 60 watt light bulb
  • Over the 25 day period, the cooler used about 39.56 kWh, or about 1.54 kWh per day
  • Annualized, my cooler will cost about $57.21, which is about $4.77 per month

Of course, there are dozens of coolers available, varied usage of energy depending upon a families consumption of the bottled water, and a variance in electricity cost based on where you live.  However, if my results are any indication of what it costs for you to have the chilled/heated water option to the other costs you incur to have bottled water delivered to your home, add about five bucks to that.

 

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Basic Light Switch Automation

Light OnHow hard is it to automate the most basic of home electrical devices?  Well, it doesn't get any more basic than the lowly light switch.  On, off, and nothing in between.  Home automation tools make that simplest of controls a whole lot more.  Let's suppose the switch were upstairs, and you are downstairs, but forgot to turn off the light the last time you were up there.  One tap on your smartphone would take care of that without the trip upstairs.  Or, maybe you just couldn't remember if you turned it off.  You can check to see if it is on with your smartphone as well.  If you really want to get into automation, making your home a 'smarthome', there are many other options available once you add some smarts to your switch.  For example, automatically turning on the light when you get home, or setting a schedule for the lights.  Or, for the purposes of conservation and energy management, you just want to know when the lights have been turned on.  Depending upon the complexity of your setup, you can do any or all of these things.  But first, you have to start with a switch.  For this post, I'm walking through the selection, installation, and testing of a basic light switch.

 

The Requirements

I was looking for one simple need to be met for this setup.  My home has exterior lighting in the front that consists of two large carriage lights on either side of the garage door, and one downward facing spot over the exterior front door, that illuminates a small covered area.  All three of these light sources are controlled by a single switch that is located just inside the front door.

Intermatic installed

  Several years ago, I replaced the basic on/off switch with an Intermatic timer switch that fit inside the space the original switch took up.  It was called a 'Night Sentry Solid State Timer', model number EJ341, and was designed to have multiple programmable on and off times.

  I was never really very happy with it. The programming wasn't intuitive, and not everyone in the family had the patience to try to figure it out.  Most of the time we left it in the manual position, and mostly turned it on and off with an awkward little slide switch instead of the obvious push-button.  The timer's original purpose was to turn the lights on nightly or just when we were away, so that we could come back to a lighted house.  It would also make it appear that someone was home if we were away for an extended amount of time, like a vacation.  So, in short, the replacement switch needs to be easy to control manually, and should attempt to regain the functionality intended by the old Intermatic switch.  Nice to haves are the ability to control via smartphone, or to be triggered by other events or conditions.

I recently purchased a Wink Hub, and utilize the Wink app on my smartphone.  I also live in a very diverse home, meaning that we have both android and iOS living together.  It isn't always easy, but we somehow make it work.

The lighting fixtures originally held incandescent bulbs.  Over time, I've replaced the bulbs with high efficiency LED bulbs.  The carriage lights each have three candelabra style bulbs, with each socket listed as 40 watts maximum.  The LED bulbs installed are equivalent to 25 watt incandescent in light output, but only draw 3.5 watts each.  The overhead fixture in the vestibule area draws only 15 watts (1200 lumen LED floodlight).  Altogether, these three fixtures that are controlled by this single switch are 36 watts total.  Not bad for power savings, but believe it or not, this could be a potential problem for some electronic switches.  Many LED lights draw so little power that some electronic switches do not 'see them'.  Some actually require that a traditional incandescent bulb has to be in the mix somewhere for the switch to operate properly.  For many of those switches, the rule of thumb is 40 watts or higher load on the switch for LED or CFL type bulbs.  Dimmable switches can pose many other issues, but I'm not worried about that here - just a simple on/off will do fine.  Since this is a permanently wired fixture, I should also pay attention to the maximum load the switch could potentially handle.  The max load that the three fixtures are rated at (this would have to be incandescent bulbs) is 340 watts.  To summarize, the load characteristics of the switch would have to be between about 25 and 400 watts, and have to be able to handle 'electronic' or any other type of load..

The switch needs to fit into a standard box, just like a traditional switch, and fit in with the existing wide paddle style switches used in the rest of the house.

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A Wink and a Nod

house automatedWouldn't it be nice to come home, and have your home react to your arrival by turning on some lights, setting the air temperature to how you like it, and perhaps letting your other family members know you have arrived (even if they are not at home themselves)?  Home automation has been the domain of DIY'ers or expensive commercial contractors for decades.  That era is rapidly drawing to a close.  Today, there are numerous entry level kits that allow just about anyone, whether they have 'techie' skills or not, the ability to jump in.  There are so many options now, that it is often difficult to choose among the various brands.  The big box home improvement stores are dedicating end-caps to their brand or versions that they are backing. 

Among the better known brands:

Lowes Home Improvement stores are putting their weight behind a system called Iris Smart Home Management System.  It can be purchased as a kit, or each part or component can be purchased individually.  Iris is the Lowes brand of home automation, and it can only be purchased through their stores.  Their systems start below $200 for the basics, and can be expanded out to a full blown security system, or as simple as turning lights on and off.  Any Iris labeled product is pretty much assured to work with the system.

Home Depot doesn't have it's own private label, but does represent the Wink and Quirky/GE products.  This system is built around the Wink app for Android or iOS devices, which can interface with many individual products by itself, or with many more if you also purchase the Wink Hub.  This system is less a product line than a series of products that all work together through the apps inter-operability.  As with the other automation solutions, it is scaleable from small to pretty much full scale.  Wink uses a variety of protocols, and there are many products that are labelled "Wink Compatible", even to the level of detail of whether the hub is required or not.

Insteon is not linked to a big box store, but has a very thorough product set that can start as simple as an app and a device, and work up to a complete comprehensive system.  The entry point is a little pricier, but it does have a mature product line that could easily be called complete.

X10 is kind of the grandfather of DIY home automation.  It has been around for longer than most, and has a fairly complete set of products.  One unique difference of the x10 line is the wide variety of off the shelf remote control devices that are X10 compatible, even those that also have universal remote control features for home audio systems.

Vera positions itself in the market as a competitor to the monthly subscription model of home automation offered by cable or alarm companies.  It too, has a robust product set that one would be hard pressed to find incomplete.  It is scaleable, affordable, and has been around long enough to assure stability.

After weighing the pros and cons of these systems, I decided to start experimenting with Wink.  I liked that it was multi-protocol; it works with Z-wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Wifi.  The hub was low cost, available for $50 or less.  To me, the main appeal was that it seemed much more open architecture than the others, and with multiple protocols, it was open to a wider set of options.  I don't mind getting down into the code or into detailed configuration scripts, in fact, I enjoy it; but I also wanted to see how simple this could be, so this was a factor as well.  I purchased my Wink Hub from Amazon, for less than $50, including free second day shipping.

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Freedom of Choice

sun legalOne does not usually hear the words 'Freedom of Choice' and then think electricity, unless you are living in the Sunshine State.  In Florida, there is a state law that only allows electricity sales from investor owned public utilities.  This has put a damper on solar or other alternative energy sources from small startups from even getting out of the gate.  Florida homeowners who want to install solar systems are usually still attached to the grid, and must install a meter to do so.  Most of us have heard of homeowners with large solar arrays who 'make the meter run backwards'.  In other words, they are selling the excess electricity they generate back to the utility.  Still, the utility is in control of the process; the homeowner-producer is breaking the law if they try to sell the excess electricity to their next door neighbor.  The homeowner produced it, so why can't they sell it to whoever they choose?  What if a startup solar farm wants to sell to just one small neighborhood, or the perhaps the neighborhood wants to form a small co-op to create power? As long as they play by the same environmental rules that the big utilities do, why not?

Most alternative energy intiatives have started from some of the larger utilities, but not had a lot of traction.  Since the biggest barrier to solar is the startup cost, why would even a well financed large utility spend a lot on such an initiative when there are plentiful low cost alternatives that are already well embedeed (coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, etc.).  The large utilities in Florida spend a lot on lobbyists to ensure this system stays the way it is, and why wouldn't they?  Imagine that you are a widget maker, and a competitor convinces your state's legislature that you must now start using a different method to construct your widgets, but it causes your production costs to double.  I can't really fault the producers here - the state law now favors their system.  

Instead of railing against the utlities, why not change the law?  There is one group trying to do just that.  Floridians for Solar Choice is attempting to get enough petition signatures to place an amendment on the Florida constitution, that would allow homeowners this freedom of choice.  It should be cautioned that as of this writing, there is no ballot language available yet.  The backers of this initiative believe solar powered generation systems can be installed on a homeowners roof, and the electricity be sold to the homeowner by the insaller.  This would eliminate the startup cost of the system for the homeowner, and therefore allow more widespread adoption.  The site only talks about solar panel installations on homes or businesses, so it isn't clear yet whether this could work for non site generated power in addition.  I just think it is a good chance for Foridians to jumpstart anternative power generation methods.  Another concern might be that upon passing, the utilities would lobby for not being required to puchase excess power from homeowners.  That is a risk I would be willing to take.

There are other political barriers to this initiative.  Many amendments to the state constitutuion fail due to many voters beliving that this is not the sort of thing that constitution amendments should deal with.  Other popular amendments have failed for this reason.  In Florida, amendments to the state's constitution require a 60% majority to win.  That is going to require a lot of well funded public education on the topic, all while well financed public utility companies will likely run ads counter to this initiative.

I'm looking forward to seeing the language of the proposed amendment; it could soon be a sunnier day for solar energy in Florida.

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Turkish Guard Bot

evil botI just have to admire DIY ingenuity when applied to everyday problems.  Take the Turkish farmer in this article over on the Gizmodo site.  This poor guy's everyday problem was bears tearing up his crops.  What to do?  Why, build a scary, noisy, and armed sentry robot of course!  This thing is not really all that high tech - it just stumbles around mostly, but apparently bears don't like it.  It also does not appear to discriminate what it is scaring (or stunning with electricity), so you may want to keep your distance.  At least one problem is solved.  Enjoy the video!

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Solar Shingles

sun dollarThis article, which was published last week in the Tampa Tribune, really caught my eye.  I have been monitoring the prices, specs, and lease options on rooftop solar for a while.  I haven't pulled the trigger on an install yet for several reasons, but highest among them is that next year I need to replace my roof.  There is no point to installing panels over a roof that will soon be replaced.  I would prefer something like the shingles described in this article over traditional panels, but there are several factors I would like answers to first.. That said, here are my issues:

  • Not to sound negative towards an obviously happy customer, but I'm not sure the woman written about researched this as thoroughly as she could have before making a "$30,000 to $40,000" investment.  There are several manufacturers (or at least experienced installers) of this type of solar shingle in Florida, and they have been doing it for some time now.
  • The cost is still pretty high, and in my opinion, is teetering on the edge of reasonable payback.  Let's go with the $30K price tag to be fair.  For a twenty year lease, that is $125 a month before fees (the leasing company needs to make some money off of this too).  I am assuming (based on the attached photos of the control system) that there is no storage system for dark or cloudy periods, which means she will only be getting the benefit of the peak sunny times times on cloudless days - or about eight hours a day of usage.  In Florida, the average electric bill is generally above $300 per month.  Her savings therefore, would come much closer to 33% rather than the 60% she is hoping for.  Also, keep in mind that solar panels efficiency tends to degrade over time, further depressing the formula.
  • If she paid out of pocket for this system, her payback will be closer to the industry claimed 16-20 years.  It is also reasonable to assume the panels and associated electronics will require maintenance over the payback period, making it stretch out a little more.
  • If she leased the system, it can be written into the lease that all maintenance costs would be borne by the leasing company,  This seems like a good way to go for most homeowners.

Don't get me wrong; I sincerely hope that this happy homeowner gets everything out of the system that she anticipates, but I remain skeptical.  When I make the move, I prefer it to be a sure bet.

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Affordable Solar?

sunProbably the biggest barrier to more widespread use of residential solar panels is the tremendous outlay it take to get started.  For the past eight or ten years, the conventional wisdom has been that it takes about twenty years to achieve payback from your solar investment, making it hard to justify.  Sure, you will have lower electric bills, but you will also have that loan payment you took out to finance it, or for some, the out of pocket expense you are trying to recoup.  Now, there may be hope for those that are heliotrope inclined.  According to an article in Investors Business Daily, the affordability of a solar installation may be within the reach of many of us.  According to the studies written about in this piece, the payback may be as little as ten years now.  This is largely due to the dropping price of the panels, government subsidy programs, and rising electricity prices.

All that is great, but the 2013 price for a 600 square foot panel array, with inverter, electric company tie-in, and installation is still about $55,000.  The option that makes this affordable for many now is, the availability of a 20 year lease of the system.  If you can install the system, and not have to worry about maintenance or additional costs, why not go solar?  Initial studies are showing that the homeowner will benefit from the net-even lease versus electric bill ratio due to the projected rising costs of purchased energy in the future.  Watch for the next two or three years to make this even more affordable or even lucrative, as the price of the system components drop.

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LED Closet Light

The light in one of the closets in my house went out recently.  Usually, this isn't a big deal, I just go to my local home improvement store,buy a new one, and all is good.  My house is about 16 years old now, and the last closet light that went out ended up having a bad ballast in the fixture itself, so the new fluorescent tube was did no good at all.  That time, I ended up having to replace the fixture itself.  I chose to replace the aging 24 inch fluorescent fixture with a modern Light Emitting Diode (LED) fixture.  Why?  Even though it was more expensive than a new fluorescent fixture, and a new fluorescent tube, the payoff came in two ways.  First, the old fixture drew 17 watts of energy, which was not much, but I knew I could do better.  Second, over the last sixteen years, I've had to replace the tube at least three times, at about 7 or 8 dollars a pop.  The new LED fixture draws about 7 watts, and I will probably never have to replace it in my lifetime.

So, the new closet light was in a larger closet.  This fixture was 48 inches long.  Before replaing the bulb, I took a look at the ballast.  It was swollen and had leaked some tar-like substance.  I figured it had to go, with the assumption that it would not last more than a year or so, if that..  A new replaceent LED fixture was a little pricey; $60-70 depending on wattage/brightness.  I decided to try something different.  Using parts on hand from other projects, I reworked the existing fixture into an LED model.  My estimated cost was about $15-20.  Read on to see how I did it.

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The Ultimate Wireless Energy: Lightning

LightningI've always heard that West Central Florida was the lightning capital of the world.  Living in the region, one could easily be convinced that is true.  On a warm summer evening, using unassisted, ground based observation only, you would be hard pressed to keep count of the flashes in just a single hour, let alone an entire evening.  Just how much lightning does strike in a region?  Can you determine when it is going to strike in your area?  The answers to these questions are not as easy to come by as you might think.  Both the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have strike maps, data, and even some real time detection networks.  They have funded studies at a number of universities and even some commercial contracts to get the answers to these questions, but it is very difficult to find any real time data for "where I am right now", that is easy to use.  There are plenty of commercial sites if you look long enough, such as local TV stations, and even a handful of regional government funded sites for certain city/county/regions, but nothing on the scale of the commonly available temperature or weather maps that we are accustomed to.   Read on through to the end to find one solution that may trump them all.

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The Secret Life of Your Cable Box

cableTVI have become my dad.  I can recall countless times during my youth, that I heard my father say, "Turn off that light, no one has been in that room for half an hour!"  Or, close that door, I'm not air conditioning Overland Park!"  He had many other sayings related to the same subject, which was the conservation of our energy use.  My kids are now the recipients of this banter, and I imagine that the reaction I often receive is similar to those of myself and my siblings.  These days, it is not so simple as turning off a light in an unoccupied room or closing a door.  We have so many gadgets plugged in now that most of us would be hard pressed to put a number to them without walking throughout our homes.  More often than not, I'm now asking that they unplug unused power supplies, or to turn off the game console.

I've read a lot lately about various devices around our homes and the amount of power they use, even when they are not in use or turned off.  There have been many terms coined to describe this usage, such as "energy vampires".  This refers to devices that continue to draw power even when the device is turned off, or the device being charged is no longer connected.  The examples most cited are mobile phone or tablet chargers, or cable set top boxes.  I started wondering just how much energy does go to waste for devices not in use.  Since our televisions in my home all have working "on" switches, but apparently have defective "off" switches, I thought I would start with the humble cable Set Top Box (STB).  For some reason, the TV gets left on and the cable box gets turned off or eventually times out due to inactivity, and goes into "standby mode.  My initial intent was to determine how much one could save by making sure the cable box was turned off when not in use.  I was also curious to see how much power the set top box used while 'powered down'.  

 

What was tested

I'm a Verizon FIOS customer, and have been for a number of years.  My original setup was one HD DVR STB, and one non-HD STB for an older TV.  Since my original install, my original DVR died, and I now have a newer model with greater capacity.  I've also upgraded my TVs to newer HD models and gained one additional TV, for a total of three.  This required the addition of one new HD STB.  Verizon offers multi-room DVR access, so there is no need to have a second or third one for the additional TVs.  What this leaves for me to test is a newer model HD DVR STB, an older HD STB, and one newer HD STB.  Here is the line-up:  

 

 QIP7100 1 HD

This is a basic High Definition Set Top Box, the original older model I started with.  It is a larger form factor, and has a LED clock display on the front, which is always on, even when the set top box is powered off.

QIP7100

 

 QIP7100 2 HD

This is the newest HD Set Top Box Model model availble at the time of this writing.  It is not a DVR model, and just acts as a standard cable box.  It is advertised as a low energy model, It has a relatively small form factor, has only a small white LED on the front to indicate it is powered up.

QIP7100 2

 QIP7232 2

This is the replacement DVR, the newest available at the time of this writing.  While the fom factor is slightly smaller than the model it replaced, it is still a near full sized Set Top Box.  It has a white LED clock display that remains on regardless of the power status of the box.

QIP7232 2

 QIP7200

This is the original HD DVR Set Top Box (HD) that I started with.  I'm including it for comparative purposes only; since I traded it in for a newer model, I no longer have it available for test.  It is similar to the 7100 model in form factor, and has an amber LED clock display that stays on all the time.

QIP7200

 

 

How the testing took place.

For measurement purposes, I used a P3 Kill A Watt model P4400 Electricity Usage Monitor.  I have other test gear that works great for instantaneous readings, but I always find myself going back to the Kill A Watt for one reason; it monitors that actual usage over an extended time period.  It is easy to use, and it gives your various readings as of the moment as well.  The way it works is you just plug it in, then plug in the device you want to measure into the Kill A Watt meter,  Leave the device under test plugged in for about a day, then come back and read the hours and minutes under test, and the kWh used during that time period.

For each STB tested, I ran it for about a day in each mode (both powered up and in standby/off mode).  I then calculated the devices kWh per hour.  Once I had that, I determined how much that cost at my electric companies rates to get an hourly cost for the device.  My electricity provider charges one rate for the first 1000 kWh, and a second, higher rate for usage above 1000 kWh.  For this test, I averaged the two rates.

 

Results.

 For the results, I expected a little more data than this.  The reason there is only one line of data per model is that each of these STB's use the exact same amount of power whether they are powered up or "turned off".  See the chart for the power usage by model, and the annualized cost for my electric company whose blended rate is $0.10187 per kWh.

 

Model

Power Req.

Hrs

Kwh

Usage rate/hour

Cost/hour

Cost/year

QIP7100 1

21W

21.15

0.46

.021647

.0022051

$19.32

QIP7100 2

16W

23.766

0.38

.0159892

.0016288

$14.27

QIP7200

30W

       

$25.40*

QIP7232 2

24W

39.083

0.89

.022772

.0023197

$20.32

*The QIP7200 results were estimated based upon a comparison of the listed power rating to the other STBs tested.

All of the boxes tested have a time-out feature that either blanks the screen or displays a bouncing logo.  This may save some power on some televisions depending upon the technology used to light pixels, but it does not save even the tiniest amount of power used by the STB.  Some televisions have the ability to detect the lack of a video signal, and go into sleep mode, which uses less power. A little research turns up the purpose behind keeping the box completely active and powered up despite the outward appearance.  Keeping the box up and running allows cable companies to perform updates and other maintenance at any time.  Also, if the STP is a DVR model, and it is accepting and acting on program recording instructions, it must stay active to do so.  If it is set up to act as a multi-room DVR, it also must act on other remote instructions.  Despite all this, for some reason I still have to wait for the STB to update itself if I turn it on after it has been unused for a few days.

These result are based only on these particular STB models as configured by my cable provider.  Other providers and equipment are likely to have different results. 

 

Conclusions.

Although I did not get some of the results I thought I might, there are still some take-aways to consider:

  • Getting the latest model of cable box can save you about $5 a year in electricity, but unless you are already heading to the cable company's store, you would be lucky to recover your gas money.  If you have three, like I do, it might be worth it to save the $15 a year.
  • If the television attached to the STB is an old CRT based model, or a plasma based display, configure the time-out feature to blank the screen instead of using the bouncing logo.  These type of TVs actually use less power if the screen is black, or blank.  LCD TVs use the same amount of power regardless of what is displayed.  Also, setting it to blank the dislay may actually trigger the TV's sleep mode.
  • Some STB's have a power plug feature that allows the user to plug the TV directly into the STB, which will cut power to the TV when the STB is powered down, or goes into sleep mode.  This can save some power.
  • It is unlikely that cutting power by unplugging or by a power strip to the STB box would be a tremendous benefit. Even with the highest usage STB, the DVR model, the annual cost is only about $20.  All three of mine together come to about $61.

Lastly, if none of the above points apply to your particular use, don't worry about occasionally leaving your STB on, it certainly doesn't cost you any more.

 

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Go Transit Yourself!

Tampa TransitI have always been interested in studying the efficiency of any system, regardless of the scale of the system.  I have played numerous "sim" games over the years, including ones that built railroads or even entire municipalities.  I've always really liked the ones built on railroads, like the old "railroad Tycoon" games.  One of the challenging aspects of these games was that you have to find the right balance to be successful.  If you overdevelop your infrastructure, you can't afford to finish it, but if you don't put in enough, you don't get the return revenue to support it.  You get the picture.  Wouldn't it be great if you could put together your ideal map based upon the community in which you live?  Maybe now you can...

Recently, I came across a site that I couldn't wait to share.The site is called Tansitmix.  I live in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, and this community has struggled with transit issues for some time.  I've seen various maps drawn up, published in the media, and debated time and again.  I usually look at the maps and say to myself, "What are they thinking?  I could do better than that!"  Now I can put it to the test!  Click here to see a quick map I created on the site.  It plots bus routes for whatever city you choose, and allows you draw your own transit system.  This was one of my first attempts, and I'm including it here for demonstration purposes.  I have since played around with some other areas and have really had a lot of fun with it.  So far, I have not hit any limits on routes.

Using it is pretty simple.  Once you have selected your city, you start adding routes.  It builds out a beautiful color coded map that includes all of your routes, how many buses it would take to support your route, the number of miles and the cost per year.  I like that you can go in, remove routes, edit them, and play around with your design.  If you like, you can even design an express route that goes right from your house to where you work.  It doesn't list ridership data, population of areas served or any of the other hard stuff that city planners actually have to do, but hey, it's good to be the king!  Perhaps you want to sketch out a design to send to your local transportation officials as a proposal.  Once you have completed it, simply click on the share link, and you have a ready made map to send right to whomever you want.

 I sketched out a small, four route system, that probably wouldn't win any community achievement awards, but I just wanted to get an idea of how it would look.  Here is the result:

G4G transit

As far as efficiency and public good is concerned, I quickly realized the implications of even a subtle route change.  I gained a new understanding and appreciation of how difficult it must be to decide where to put the long haul routes, the express serviceroutes, and transfer stations.  Even though there is no game element such as reaching certain achievements, I did enjoy trying to make it run more efficiently, or at least at a lower cost.

I don't know if there are plans to add rail, or other transportation options, but I sincerely hope so.

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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.

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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.

 

Conclusion

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.

 

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