June 10, 2010

Electric Utility Energy Audit Program

When we bought our house last spring we talked to the oil company that served the previous owner and found that they had used 1100 gallons of heating oil every year! Given oil prices in recent years that was not something that we looked forward to.

Our state's utilities collect a fee every month to fund conservation programs. One of these programs provides reduced price energy audits for home owners. In our case, for $75 a private energy audit company came out to our house and put our place through the wringer.

The main analysis was via a blower door test. The test involves using a computer controlled fan that is set up in the main doorway. The fan pulls a vacuum on the house and backs out how much air is infiltrating the structure. Air infiltration is the biggest energy waste in most homes. It is also the easiest to correct.

Once the amount of air infiltration is known, it is compared to what is "normal" for a well sealed house of equivalent size. The interesting thing to note with this is that the right value is NOT zero. In fact, the residual value was relatively high, this is to ensure healthy indoor air quality through sufficient air changes.

The air infiltration is then reduced through caulking, weather stripping, and sealing performed right then and there by the audit team. In our case, a couple of door sweeps, sealing off a few access panels and caulking entry/exit points of pipes & cables got us a decent amount of reduction, but we were still a good ways from "world class". On a hunch, the crew installed a removable plastic sheet over the whole house fan vent. That was the key, and dropped the value down to near perfect.

I had hoped the auditors would have addressed the window sealing. I am not convinced they are all that well sealed, but in the end, the overall house infiltration value was about as low as it could go within the recommended levels.

If performed during colder weather, many of the audit companies will also photograph the house through a thermal camera. Our audit was performed in early fall, so the outside temperature did not cooperate.

On top of the sealing and testing, up to 25 CFL light bulbs were offered as replacements in existing internal light fixtures. We were able to take advantage of 22 or 23 of these. The replacements were all 60 watt equivalent, which for single bulb fixtures just isn't enough in my opinion. But they are fine for multi-bulb fixtures.

Lastly, they left us with a Kill-a-Watt device for measuring the power usage of any plug in device. This allows you to determine exactly how much electricity a particular device uses.

I highly recommend to any home owner to investigate the conservation programs offered by their utility companies. There's no downside, but plenty of smaller energy bills to be gained.

August 24, 2009

REVIEW: Asus Eee 1000HA

In 2007 we bought a Compaq Presario 714NR for our first laptop. In May, the power converter on the motherboard was fried when the power cord shorted out.

Although the laptop was useful, it left a few things to be desired. For starters, Vista Premium on a low end processor is not for those who are in a hurry. Even after shutting down all the fancy graphics and extraneous programs to speed it up, the machine was still just tolerable. To make matters worse, the battery barely lasted an hour, making portability very questionable.

As a result, I started looking at netbooks as a potential replacement. To me, the 9" machines didn't make much sense, just too small and too many compromises in the keyboards and readability of the screen. I also wanted to ensure there was plenty of battery life, if it was intended to be portable, then darn it I want to be able to use it away from a wall plug. Asus seems to be the only manufacturer taking battery life seriously (at least with out having to buy an extended battery), so I quickly decided they were the way to go.

After checking several websites I found the 1000HA at ZipZoomFly for $313.99 with a $30 mail in rebate & free shipping. The free shipping was rather slow, but it got here and what do you expect for free?

Setup was a breeze and the WinXP install has very little bloatware slowing it down or filling the hard drive. I'll say I have probably average sized hands and the keyboard is no problem for all but the very seldomly used keys. Enter & backspace fall just in the right locations which really make a big difference for my typing.

The touch pad is adequate, I do wish it was a little larger, but it's not a huge deal. Sensitivity seems fine, more comfortable than our previous laptop. The multi-touch feature works pretty well. Zoom is a bit frustrating to control, but scrolling works pretty well. I recommend using a thumb and pointer finger held together to operate the scroll feature. Using the pointer and middle finger results in lots of unintended zooming.

Battery life has been good. It's not the 7 hours claimed, but maybe 5 with wireless on continuously and not adjusting screen brightness or messing with the other power saving settings too much. I'm sure you could tweak out more if you needed to. The screen is small, but usable. Remember to use F11 to shrink firefox (or IE if you are still a slave to the man) to a streamlined header. It is definitely needed for some web pages to avoid a lot of up/down scrolling.

My only disappointment physically thus far is the quality of the power button. It just doesn't seem as solid as the rest of the machine. Software-wise, I was a bit disappointed that hibernate wasn't activated by default. For a machine focused on power savings, this seemed odd. Maybe the idea is that the quick boot time makes up for it? After using it for awhile hibernate is useful for short term shut down, but over night turning the machine off makes more sense. Windows just doesn't handle memory management well enough.

Performance has been decent, we use it almost entirely on battery so we are in power saver mode all the time. It runs about as good as our old laptop, so if we plugged it in and used performance mode, it would likely be impressive. An upgrade to 2Gig of memory would certainly help as well, and I will probably undertake the effort in due time. Keep in mind though that this is based almost exclusively on surfing the web. If you think you are going to edit pictures or play the latest video games, you will be very disappointed.

All in all, for a checking e-mail/surfing the web/light work sort of machine, I highly recommend the Eee 1000HA. If you plan to use it for more than that, I would recommend looking at a full laptop.

April 27, 2009

REVIEW: Convert AA Batteries to C or D

'D' Size Adapter for Two 'AA' Batteries These days it seems every kids toy available (and plenty of big kid toys) takes batteries of one sort or another. Rechargeable AA's make a great alternative to disposable alkaline batteries, but what do you do about C and D size batteries?

There are NiMH batteries built to the C and D sizes (as well as 9 volt), however they tend to be expensive and require a specialized charger. You need to be careful as well with capacity, the rechargeable C and D sizes are often times the same capacity as a AA battery. Surprisingly, the Energizer system of falls into this unglamorous category.

Instead, I recommend using adapters that allow your AA batteries to fit in the battery compartment of your C or D powered device.
How is this possible?

All three battery sizes produce 1.5 volts in their disposable form (rechargeable batteries come rated at 1.2 volts). The 'AA' size is smaller in both length and diameter, so an adapter just has to fill in the extra space to fit the electrical terminals.

AA's in 'D' Size Adapter
These Soshine C-size and D-size battery adapters from dealextreme.com perform exactly that function, and for a good price.

The D size adapters allows the use of 2 AA batteries at a time. This doubles the available capacity allowing less frequent battery changes.
The negative terminal end is a hinged door with a snap tight latch.
The latch takes a good amount of effort to open. In fact, those with weak fingernails probably need to use a screwdriver to avoid winding up with a broken nail.
The hinge too seems to be quite strong. Sometimes with hinged plastic I fret continually that it will break, not so with these. Overall I've been very happy with the quality of these adapters.

I have been similarly happy with the C size adapters, although I have not used them nearly as much as the D's.
Instead of being hinged at the end like the D's, the C's are hinged along the length of the adapter. This hinge is of similar high quality as the D adapter. The latch is much easier to open, but still does a good job locking the case around the battery.
'C' Size Adapter for one 'AA' Battery
I heartily recommend either battery adapter as a great companion gadget for your rechargeable AA batteries. There are other brands out there and I've tried a few of them, but the combination of features, especially on the D size adapter is unmatched.

April 22, 2009

TIP: Save Some Cash, Save the Earth

Do you have stuff lying around you don't need anymore? Have you kept it around because it wasn't "worth" anything, yet it is too good to throw out? Then you are a perfect candidate to join Freecycle!

Freecycle is

. . . a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving
(& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It's all about reuse and
keeping good stuff out of landfills.

Freecycle uses e-mail groups to notify members in their local area of items available from other members. Those that are interested reply to the poster. Generally, the first person to respond to the post is given first priority to pick up the item. Nothing is bartered or bought, every exchange is completely free with no strings attached.

My wife has been a 'Freecycler' for a couple years now and has not only picked up a number of items for the house and kids, but has also used it to give away a number of items we no longer needed. Among the acquisitions, a printer/copier/scanner that needed ink, a kids art easel, kids clothes and many other items. We have given away a vacuum cleaner, infant formula coupons, and dried flowers among others.

The exchange is generally made with the giver leaving the item on their doorstep for a specific range of time. The receipient is given the address in a private e-mail (and directions if necessary but most people look it up on mapquest or google maps). Unfortunately, there does seem to be a higher than desired no-show rate, so if you decide to get involved, please be considerate and pick up the items you request.

Each freecycle network has it's own flavor. Some are very active, such as those in Connecticut, others are less so. Either way, it is worth checking out

April 10, 2009

INFO: Harbor Freight On-Line Coupon Tracking

Harbor Freight has continual sale and coupon deals going on. Unfortunately, it is hard to know what a 'good' price is on an item. This database tracks the weekly online coupons. Using the search function, a desired product ID code can be checked verses the database to see what the best price is.

April 1, 2009

REPAIR: Kids Electric Toothbrush

They just don't make things like they used to, do they? My daughter received an electric toothbrush for her birthday. In a matter of days, the screw holding the battery cover on had ripped through the thin plastic, leaving the battery unable to maintain contact with the terminals.

I considered pouring an epoxy replacement and re-drilling the hole. But the time involved and low likelihood of success left me wanting an easier solution.

I again made use of plastic package material in the repair. I first cut a small piece of packaging material to fit the bottom of the brush. Drilling a small hole to allow the screw to engage the threads in the toothbrush creates a very simple washer. It is a crude, but effective fix.

The toothbrush doesn't stand flat anymore, and it doesn't look the best, but it works and that's all that matters.

March 22, 2009

TIP: Re-Use Tie Wraps From Kids Toys

Manufacturer's seem to love creating waste when packaging kids toys. I suppose it is all done in the name of marketing, but have you seen the amount of effort put into making the toys visible in the packaging?

Among the methods used to make removing toys from their boxes completely impossible are plastic coated tie wraps. Some of these can be fairly long and are of a pretty decent quality (at least compared to garbage or bread twist ties.

The most obvious use for these twist ties is in holding things together like extra cable and rope. A less obvious use is to use them as a wire jumper on a prototyping breadboard. Not all of these twist ties are of the right gauge wire. The ones that are, however, can be cut to the necessary length and stripped of a quarter inch of plastic at each end to create free jumpers.

I am sure there are plenty of other uses out there waiting to be found. Anywhere you need a flexible, fairly strong wire these can fill the bill.