Going green(er)

I’ve always thought that I am pretty good about doing things in a decently Earth-friendly way. I keep my AC and heat at barely tolerable levels, I recycle, I turn off the lights when I’m not in the room, I turn off the water when I’m brushing my teeth, and I carpool when it makes sense. But I recently read the book //Hot, Flat, and Crowded// by Thomas Friedman, and while it’s a very good book, it scared me pretty good. So I’ve resolved to do even more to reduce my energy usage, carbon footprint, and resource usage. I’ve been doing some experiments around the apartment, and I’ve tried a few things out, and I think I’ve come up with some more reasonable things I can do to save. Plus, I’m saving money this way, which is a bonus.

* Unplugged lights. People have said before that my place is pretty dark. Now it’s even more true. My bedroom is lit with a single 23 watt compact fluorescent bulb, and I’ve unscrewed half the lights in my dining room and bathroom. It’s enough to see clearly, and it’s not as dark as having candles. Plus, even though I was already turning off the lights when I left the room, having only half of them on when I’m in the room means a reduction of energy by 50%!
* Unplugged peripherals. A huge drain on the power grid is devices that are in standby. So I unplug my microwave except when I’m using it, and I use my cell phone as my alarm clock and no longer use a standalone alarm clock.
* Turned down the heat even more. For a couple days I turned it off entirely. However, when my fingers got too cold to let me type, and I started to get sick, I decided that going without heat entirely wasn’t an acceptable option. I did turn it down a couple degrees, though, to 62. Cold enough that I can’t lounge around in shorts and a t-shirt, but not so bad that I can’t type.
* Turning my desktop computer off or putting it in standby. For years I’ve run my desktop computer 24/7 because it acts as a server. I’m now trying to move those services off my computer and onto hosted servers or finding alternatives. Now I can have my computer off or in standby most of the time.

These simple things should reduce my electricity consumption even more. I’ve saved my utility bills every month, and created a graph that shows my power usage each month:

There are some obvious things to note about this graph. It looks like most months I hover just under 400 KWH. Looking at the trendline, there’s an obvious spike in the winter months, with a tiny spike one month in summer when it’s unbearable without some AC. My hope this year is to reduce everything by 25%. I think it’s entirely doable, and using less light, less heat, and having my computer off more will go a long way towards that.

I’ve also been dabbling in energy generation. I built a stand for my bike so I can ride it indoors. Then I took a motor and attached it to the outer rim of the bike so that the spinning wheel would turn the motor and it would generate a current. I put a voltage regulator on it so that it would keep the voltage at +5 so that I wouldn’t blow out my cell phone, then hooked the wires up to a USB port so that it could charge my phone.

Surprisingly, this actually worked. Well, it was easy enough to generate electricity, and getting up to 5 volts was no problem at all, but my phone didn’t appear to be charging. So I sped up. And up. And up. I was cranking it as hard as I could in top gear before the charging light came on. I was also smelling ozone from the motor, so I decided to end the experiment. It was clearly not a sustainable solution, even though it did work for a few seconds.

So I thought the next approach would be to gear down so that I would have more resistance on the bike and it would spin the motor faster. The only set of gears I could find in my apartment were from an old CD player. I tried those and while I was still testing to see what kind of a current I could get I managed to put so much energy into the gears that they quickly melted and then broke. So that wasn’t going to work. Now I’m looking into buying used car alternators, which is probably the way I should have been going from the beginning. Still, it’s good to know that in a pinch I have the knowledge to generate electricity to power a small device.

Finally, I’m working on reducing my consumption in other areas. I’ll be even more vigilant about recycling everything, I’ll reuse things as I can, and I’m going to monitor how much trash I take out. I think that before I was taking out a single plastic grocery bag a week (I don’t buy garbage bags), which is pretty good, and I want to keep track of that to see how that continues. I’m also going to figure out a timer for my showers, and I’ll flush less frequently. That’s actually pretty hard because I’m so accustomed to lifting the seat, putting it down, and flushing that I often don’t realize until I’m washing my hands that I flushed when I shouldn’t have.

It is my hope that watching my consumption and taking small steps to reduce it will have a better effect on the environment and my pocketbook, without reducing my quality of life.

My Latest Mad Scientist Device

My friend Carolyn is getting an advanced degree through W.S.U Tri-Cities. One of the things she’s currently working on is a project that involves the use of an electric field to speed up bone regeneration. In the future, they hope to have biodegradable implants that could be placed at the site of a bone break that would create an electric current and help the bone grow faster. Right now they’re testing whether the current does have an effect on bone growth. Because of my ability with electronics, and my inability to say no to anything that sounds remotely cool, I ended up building the prototype testing device. I worked a lot with Carolyn to figure out what exactly she needed, and she was kind enough to order most of the parts and take care of getting me the materials I asked for. The electronics was up to me, though, and putting it together was my bag.

Essentially, the prototype has 12 ‘wells’ that will contain mouse bone cells immersed in a solution. They will be subjected to different currents for different durations. So I had to build something that would allow us to turn on and off the current to each well, and adjust the amount of electricity flowing through each well. The circuit is actually really simple, and the parts came from a variety of places. We’re even using straightened paper clips to dip into the solution.

It took me a lot of time to put it together. Well, one evening and one full day. But it looks great, and I’ve done a little bit of testing on it to make sure it’ll work. There are a couple extra features that will really help; the LEDs show which wells are turned on, and some pins on the side of the contraption will allow us to measure the voltage across the solution and the resistance of the solution.

I’m really excited about it, and pleased with my handiwork. It looks really slick from the top, and looking at it underneath makes a lot of sense and is pretty slick. Pretty much everything just seemed to work how I envisioned it. I did run into a couple snags along the way, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

I hope it will work for Carolyn. It’d be a shame to see it not used. Here are some pics of the device.

The Electrocuter from the top
The Electrocuter from the bottom. There's a lot of soldering and wire routing on there.

Surgery on my baby

Yesterday my projector was acting up in a very unfriendly way. There was something wrong with the lighting. It was uneven with a couple lines through it. Worse, when I moved the projector, the lines moved, and I could hear a part moving around inside. Eventually, percussive maintenance no longer affected any change in the image. My only real option was to take it apart. Projectors aren’t cheap, and they are built of complicated and sensitive parts, so I was reluctant to open it up. My first thought was a flaw in the light bulb. I took the bulb out and examined it, cleaned out some of the accumulated dust, and tried again. No luck. Then I removed the case to expose the inner workings. I couldn’t see any problems immediately, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. Since it was approaching 2am, I decided to call it a night and worry about it the next day. Just in case, I ordered a new bulb, which will be delivered early next week. It turned out that the bulb was not the problem, but it’s too late to cancel the order, and it will be nice to have a backup bulb anyway.

Today I decided to give it another try. I dismantled it again, and this time turned it on while dismantled. It is incredible how much light comes through a tiny aperture. I could not look at it without some kind of protection. By following the light path, I was able to discover the problem.

The light goes through a very small square, perhaps half a centimeter wide. It enters this light tube composed of four small rectangular mirrors. The tube is about 3 centimeters long, and the four mirrors are attached along the long edges with some sort of glue. What had happened was that the heat from the lamp had weakened the glue, and one of the four sides of the square had dislodged. This led to the dimming because the mirror was no longer directing the light, and it explained the lines because the mirror was partially in the path of the light.

I was able to extract the square and, using scotch tape (bless the stuff), reconstruct the square tube and replace the fourth side. I am concerned that the scotch tape will melt or otherwise not hold, but if that happens I’ll look for a more formidable adhesive. I put everything back together, and my projector worked as well as it ever had.

It was a little intimidating working with an expensive piece of equipment whose mechanisms were mostly unfamiliar to me, but I’m glad that I was able to figure it out and fix it without damage.

Computer Lights Show

Back in college I occasionally did DJ gigs. It was a lot of fun and I did some pretty neat things to make it easier. I had a remote control for my WinTV card and I remapped the buttons to control WinAmp, so I could control the music while I was dancing on the floor. Another thing I did was build some lights for inside my computer case.

When I originally built it, the lights were controlled by the internal serial port, and I wrote some software to advance the lights. I was even able to integrate the sound volume into it and had some rudimentary beat detection going so that the lights would change on the beat. Unfortunately, the system slowly degraded over time. The first problem was that the beat detection didn’t work when I upgraded from Windows ME to Windows XP. The next problem was that the external power supply died. Finally, I switched to Linux, so the software I had written to control it wouldn’t work.

In January 2007 I cleaned things up quite a bit. First, I connected the power to the computer’s power supply, thus removing the dependence on an external plug. Next, I set it up with a 555 timer chip and inserted a potentiometer to vary the speed of the flashing. I had to replace a light bulb, but the refurbishing took only a few hours. Now it seems to be working fairly well. See the pics and the video. There are 5 lights throughout the case, and they flash in order.

The circuitry is very simple. I have a decade counter which increments every time it gets a pulse. Each time it increments it turns on a different transistor, which powers a different light. On pin 6 it goes to the reset pin so that the decade counter only counts 1-5 over and over again. The 555 timer provides the pulse to the decade counter. If you want more details about the circuitry, contact me.

Video of the computer lights show in action (Windows Media Video (WMV) format, no audio)


Bob Baddeley Memorial Fountain

At the lab a model of the campus additions was placed on display in each of the buildings so that people could get an idea of how the campus was going to change. One day I made a little addition to the model. It stayed up for at least 4 months and moved from building to building.

The addition was the “Bob Baddeley Memorial Fountain,” and it was placed right in the middle of the display. It was made out of green cellophane taped to a piece of colored cardboard that was taped onto the piece of paper labeling it the memorial fountain, which was then taped to the display. I managed to get the scale believable, and the fountain just blended in with the rest of the display. At first I was sure it would disappear and I would get in trouble. After a few days, the display disappeared from my building. Later I got a message from a friend in another building asking me if I knew about it, because the display had been moved to his building and he had recognized the name. I knew about the display moving to two other buildings after that, and I never heard from anyone about it. I walked by it a few months later and it was still there.

I have been asked why it’s the Memorial fountain, as I’m not dead. My answer is two-fold: if I had been discovered by the wrong people, I might have been dead, and this way I can say it was a joke ahead of its time. I was also asked why I used my real name. In retrospect, I should have picked a more clever name, like a famous scientist or a random person. Oh well,

Audio Switch

I have a set of speakers that I embedded into my coffee table. This actually made a lot of sense because it moved the speakers to the center of the room and away from the apartment walls and increased the stereo effect, as well as saving room in the cramped apartment. The speakers serve both my computer and my Playstation2. The speakers only have a single 1/8” plug, though, so I built a switch using a tin of mints (the mints were horrible anyway) that accepts the speaker plug and the plugs for the computer and the Playstation2. It’s a cute little thing and does exactly what I needed.


My digital camera needed some accessories, and the steadicam seemed like a perfect addition. Built out of simple parts from a hardware store (and a pie plate from ShopKo), this steadicam makes sure that while I’m taking video the camera stays level and steady.

The pictures should be pretty self-explanatory as far as building it. We were making two at once, so there’s twice as many parts as you’ll need. The parts can be acquired at most hardware stores. The purpose of the pie plate is to create a wide surface so that the steadicam can be set down and used like a tripod without tipping over. It works surprisingly well. One thing that is different from the pictures is that we discovered that the plastic screws were too wobbly, so we went with metal screws instead. The plastic wing nuts are still fine, though.

Composite to S-Video

With the projector in my apartment, I have a VGA cable and an S-Video cable running as inputs. However, my Playstation2 cable only has composite video output. It turns out that composite can be hacked into s-video fairly easily. By running the composite video signal to both the brightness and color parts of the s-video you get a usable video feed. It’s not great quality, but it’s better than nothing. I also managed to find a Playstation2 cable that had s-video out, so it’s no longer an issue, but for a while I needed a solution.

Staples Easy Button Hacking

For a project at work I needed a solid button that would be easy to press. It turned out that the Staples Easy Button was a perfect match for what I needed; heavy, easy to locate without looking for it, a great size, and it was just a single button. I opened it up and removed the speakers and disconnected the majority of the inner workings, rewiring some bits so that I could run a wire out of it and into the serial port of a computer. Then I could use the button as an input device. It worked perfectly.

Here is a step-by-step gallery that shows how to dismantle the button, remove the speakers (you could leave them in, but what’s the point? Why not take out the free speaker for use somewhere else?), tap into the switch, and re-assemble.

We start by removing screws. Keep removing screws until you can pry the speaker out. Cut the red wires and remove the speaker. Reassemble the button most of the way. Remove the resistor on top. Also cut the black and white wire coming from the battery case. Cut the traces to the chip (the black mound). Solder wires at the points shown on the images: there’s one point where the resistor used to be, and one point that’s just a bare hole. Then solder the other ends of those wires to the black and white battery wires. Now reassemble completely. You can now tie or solder wires to the pads where the batteries go and use the button for whatever application you have.

OLD Personal Projects

In high school I played around in my basement bedroom a lot. I discovered some neat things, some things that I still can’t explain, and some very useful things.

One thing I worked on was a sound system. I found a couple speakers and a really old amplifier at Goodwill and rigged them together. The sound quality wasn’t professional, but it was more than enough to do what I wanted. It wasn’t even stereo, but I could get it loud. Then I took apart an alarm clock and rewired the speaker output into the sound system. Occasionally I would have the amplifier volume a little loud and I would wake up EVERYBODY in the house at 6am for school. Later I took my 386 computer apart and wired the internal speaker output to the amp. The computer didn’t have a sound card, so this was my only option.

Another thing I played with was input devices. I took a keyboard apart and tapped into the wires for the arrow keys. Then I took apart two pens and taped them so they were perpendicular to each other. I put a small piece of metal in each that would slide around easily. Then I taped paper clips on each end so that the pieces of metal would make two separate paper clips touch and complete a circuit. The circuit it would complete was the arrow key. I then attached this small contraption to a glove. The end result was a motion sensitive glove that could tell whether my hand was tilted forward, backwards, left, or right, and would send the appropriate arrow key through the keyboard to the computer. It was the cheapest glove ever.

One of my experiments involved plugging a socket into a bucket of water. Bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen appeared at the terminals. After a few days, so much of the wire had corroded that the tub was blue-green with copper. There wasn’t really a point to all of it, just the coolness of seeing science doing what it was supposed to.