Making Solar Pay

I have always been fascinated by the idea of generating my own electric power. Back in late 1998 I installed a solar power system that has sixteen 75 watt solar panels, along with a 4,000 watt power inverter/charger and a bank of expensive deep-cycle batteries.  Mention solar power, and most people think that all of these elements are necessary, including the expensive bank of batteries.

It turns out there is a much better way to think of home solar energy – use solar energy equipment strictly to push power back into the electric company utility grid. Batteries should never be considered to be part of a solar installation unless utility power just isn’t available, say in a remote location. Battery technology is an albatross when it comes to being able to store enough power to meet real-world needs.

If electric grid power is available, there are only two elements necessary – the arrays of solar panels, and what are called grid-tie inverters. In this battery-free scenario, the math of pushing power back to the utility to offset electrical use becomes much more interesting.

Power companies in the United States are required by law to “buy back” consumer-generated power. A grid-tie inverter takes the DC power being generated by the solar panels, inverts it into AC power, and then sends it back directly into the grid via a standard AC power plug plugged in to a regular 110 volt outlet. It is possible to have more than one grid-tie inverters, which also come in different sizes.

The relatively high-end inverter that I have is capable of producing 4,000 watts sustained output. So, if I wanted to push 4,000 watts back into the electric company utility grid, I would need at least two more arrays of solar panels feeding DC current into the inverter.

In my case, the batteries died within about the first three to four years. I simply turned the equipment off and my youngest brother sold the battery carcasses to a battery recycler. The equipment sat dormant until yesterday. A friend that does solar as a hobby helped me check the inverter and get it up and running again. I contacted my electric company and they sent a man out this afternoon to look over and approve my system, an absolutely necessary step. So the net effect is that now whenever there is daylight, the inverter is pushing power back into the grid. Obviously the maximum amount of power is generated when the solar panels are in direct sunlight.

The electric company performed a test of the inverter to make sure that if there is a grid power failure that the inverter automatically cuts off its own output. This is quite critical to the power company, because they want to be absolutely certain that in case of a grid power failure, no user-generated AC current is being fed back into the downed power lines.

I was able to verify that my inverter was pushing power back into the grid by turning off all internal breakers in my house so that no power was being used. At that point I looked at the power meter out on the utility pole and it was actually running backwards! Of course, in normal operation with different things consuming electricity in the house it is unlikely it will run backwards much, but it will be slowed somewhat.

My local electric company is a rural electric cooperative and they actually encourage customers to set up these types of “selling” consumer-generating power systems. It helps them reduce peak demand, thus reducing the need for more electrical generating capacity on the utility’s side. Solar panels are generating electricity at peak capacity when peak demand is likely to occur when air conditioning demands are at their highest.

Can a system like this ever pay for itself? It depends on the initial cost of the equipment, installation expenses, and how long of a payback period you are able to live with. If you can do most of the installation work yourself, then obviously the math works better. Eliminating the batteries really helps the cost come down.

An HQRP 1,000 watt grid-tie inverter sells for $287.95 on Amazon.Com. Aleko brand 75-watt solar panels sell for  $149 dollars each. Sixteen of these solar panels multiplies out to $2,384 dollars. With brackets, wiring and installation let’s estimate a total package price of $4,000, which may or may not be wildly off one way or the other. The 1,000 watt electrical output of the inverter would have to offset $4,000 dollars worth of electricity over a period of years before it would pay for itself, which is likely a long period of years. If the price of the equipment and installation can be brought down, then the payback period shortens.

My electric company will only allow this type of setup to function as an offset. So, let’s say that someone was putting more power back into the grid than they were actually consuming. My power company will never issue a check for the power, so it’s really just an offset for how much I consume. With enough equipment feeding power back into the grid, it would be possible to bring electrical grid usage down to zero.

Many local and state governments offer tax rebates for new solar equipment installations, which could also help mitigate the cost.

The beauty of a battery-free grid-tie solar user-generated power system feeding into the electrical grid is that once it is initially set up, everything happens automatically. Since I already have the equipment and it is long since paid for, I might as well be utilizing it to offset a portion of my power usage.

Loftek CSX 2200 Remote Wireless IP Camera

I recently started looking to purchase a remote IP camera that would allow me to remotely view my home via the Internet. There are quite a variety of remote IP cameras that offer a number of different viewing options at widely varying price points. After a bit of looking, I ended up purchasing a Loftek CSX 2200 wireless IP security camera via Amazon.Com based mostly on the large number of positive buyer reviews.

Among other features, the Loftek CSX 2200 offers VGA/QVGA/QQVGA resolutions, a built-in microphone, supports external audio, UPNP/port forwarding, 802.11 b/g WiFi, 270-degree horizonal pan, 120 deree vertical tilt, automatic motion detection and alarm, alarm notification via email or FTP server, infrared LED’s cover up to about 15 feet, and support for all major browsers.

The Loftek CSX 2200 offers a lot of features for the $67.99 price tag. The downside is that the small included quick start guide is printed in very small type and isn’t all that helpful.  A fair amount of networking knowledge is required in order to be able to get all of the features working properly. Simple Windows setup software is included, and even though once it is set up it will readily work with Apple and other non-Windows devices, Windows is required for initial setup. Initially it has to be plugged in directly to an Ethernet port so the included software can detect it. Once detected via Ethernet and into the browser setup screens, WiFi can be enabled. A more complete PDF manual can be downloaded from the Loftek website.

I was able to go into my ISP’s DSL router and enable port forwarding to port 1029 and get remote access to work from outside my home network. I was also able to get the automatic email alarm notification feature to work on motion detection. Motion detection sensitivity can be selected, but it seems to work good so far at the default setting. When motion is detected, it will automatically take a series of 6 photos and email all 6 photos to up to four pre-determined email addresses. One quirk I ran into is that when setting up an email account the email “test” feature won’t work even if all of the parameters are correctly set up until the configuration has been saved to the camera.

Since this camera is designed to work with it’s own infrared LED’s in complete darkness, the color balance can be a bit off in normal lighting conditions. I’m including two photos of the same scene, one with my compact florescent lights on and the other with the lights completely off.

 

Even though one of the Amazon.Com reviewers claimed he was able to get this camera to work with an iOS app designed to work with Foscam brand IP cameras, so far I’ve been unable to get any of the free iOS apps to work with the Loftek. On the other hand, I can easily access the camera directly in Safari both on my iPad and my iPod Touch using an Internet connection completely external to my home network DSL connection.

Overall I’m quite pleased with my purchase. The Loftek CXS 2200 offers a lot of value for the $67.99 price.

Maytag Oven Self-Cleans in 1 Hour

Maytag LogoIf you think CES is all geeky gadgets and gear, think again: many household names take the opportunity to show off their latest technology-driven product developments. Home appliance manufacturer Maytag talks to Courtney about their latest innovations.

Self-cleaning ovens are associated with high temperatures, long waits, clouds of smoke and bad smells as the deposits burn off. Maytag’s new self-cleaning range uses “Aqualift” technology to reduce the temperature to 200 F and the time to 1 hour. It’s a coating on the bottom and sides of the oven that works with water to lift the deposits so that they can be simply wiped away.

The Maytag’s induction hob is controlled by a touch panel which keeps the top surface smooth and easy to clean. Induction heating is efficient, highly controllable and much safer as the hob itself doesn’t heat up (though there are other disadvantages). It’s a technology that’s been around for awhile but hasn’t yet gained widespread acceptance – perhaps its time has come.

Interview by Courtney Wallin of SDR News.

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Nest Learning Thermostat at CES

Nest Smart ThermostatThe nest thermostat has received more than its fair share of press coverage recently, but that’s because it’s both smart, cool and well-designed. Todd chats with Kate from nest about this great new product.

The nest thermostat is a smart thermostat that learns from your habits and behaviours and adjusts itself to match them, turning the heat up when you want it and down when you are out of the home. It’s exceptionally easy to use – you turn it up, you turn it down, that’s it. The nest has several learning modes, including schedule learning and activity detection, which help it keep you comfortable but the energy costs down.

The nest thermostat costs $249 but it’s on back order because it’s been so popular. The thermostat comes with everything you need to install the devices yourself, including a screwdriver!

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Nest Remote-Controlled Learning Thermostat

As an over-the-road truck driver, I spend most of my time traveling. For many years, I have set my home thermostat when I’m away to 45 degrees in the winter and 95 degrees in the summer. The idea is to prevent frozen plumbing in the winter and to keep things from literally melting in the heat of the summer.

This system has worked quite well over the years, with one big drawback. When I do come home, it can take several hours to bring the house to a comfortable room temperature.

For the past couple of years I’ve been looking for a simple remote-controlled thermostat solution that would allow me to remotely change the temperature via the Internet at home several hours before getting home so that I come home to a comfortable house that is neither too hot nor too cold.

There are a number of Internet remote-controlled thermostats available, but none of them has excited me much. Most of them are downright clunky and require one to jump through a number of hoops just to get them to function.

Enter the Nest Learning Thermostat available at www.nest.com. The Nest thermostat is the brainchild of Tony Fadell, Founder and CEO of Nest. Mr. Fadell led the team that created the first 18 generations of the Apple iPod and the first three generations of the iPhone. The Apple design philosophy is clearly reflected in the simple, clever design of the Nest Learning Thermostat. Obvious care and incredible attention to detail went into the design of the Nest. Like Apple products, the Nest simply works. The Nest has a satisfying tactile feel to its build quality. A lot of thought also went in to the packaging, which results in a very Apple-like un-boxing experience.

The Nest can easily be remote-controlled via iOS and Android apps. The apps are tied to a user account the owner creates at www.nest.com. Once the apps are linked, it’s easy to bring up the app and view or change the Nest’s temperature setting. The design of the Nest allows it to easily sidestep typical ISP firewall issues. Again, the Nest design simply works without making the owner jump through a bunch of hoops.

The acid test was with my Mom, who just turned 87. While Mom has been using a computer and cell phone for a number of years, she questioned me as to whether she or Dad would be able to run the Nest. The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Walk by, and the Nest’s display automatically lights up displaying the temperature setting. To raise the temperature, rotate the outside ring to right, and to lower the temperature, rotate the outside ring to the left.

More complex settings can easily be accessed by pushing the outside ring, very much like a mouse click, and rotating the ring to select various options.

If you are in the market for a remote-controlled learning thermostat that can help you cut down on your energy bills, I highly recommend the Nest Learning Thermostat.

Kaspersky Total Security

KasperskyKaspersky Lab has been fighting computer malware for over 13 years and have over 300 million users adding 150,000 a week. Their newest product is called. Kypersky Pure Total Security it is a total PC protection for up to three computers. The system manages all three computers through a single PC. The security updates occur automatically in the background and all three machines are updated at once. It has total award-winning parental controls. There is a password vault that can help protect against identity theft. It can even encrypt your important documents and folders. It even has a cleanup tool to keep your system running smoothly. There is even a sandbox mode called Safe Run which allows you too open suspicious applications, Web sites or email attachments safely.  File Shredder a program which can erase your documents and files securely.

The package is $89.95 and includes a year of service to cover all three machines.

Interview by Andy McCaskey of SDR News.

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Ecovas: Window Washer of the Future?

Almost no one likes to wash windows it is a monotonous task, but at some point in time everyone has to do it. If you own a commercial building you have to hire someone, set a schedule and then hope they do a good job, well at least until now. Now that job can be done by a robotic window washer made by Ecovacs. Ecovacs is a Chinese company that is well known for making products that help you clean. It is in over a 100 countries and serve more 25 million families.

They make vacuum cleaners both regular and robotic, along with carpet cleaners and air cleaners. Now they have produced a robotic window cleaner called Winbot. The cleaner sticks to the window by magnets and moves in a set pattern to prevent streaking. There are two halves to the robot, one half is on one side and provides the locomotion. The other half on the other side does the cleaning.  They have different models depending on the thickness of the glass. It is still in the development stage and should be available later this year for around $399.

They are looking for distributors now in the United States. There isn’t a lot of information to be found about Winbot, I was wondering how it works at different temperatures and if it uses any batteries how long they last. It does look like a promising product, it will be interesting to see if it works as advertised.

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Tech Serendipity

Sometimes things no one ever thought of simply seem to come together. Services and devices end up being used to do things the individual inventors and designers couldn’t have imagined.

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about attaching one of the new Mac Minis to one of my TV’s and utilizing it as a home theater PC as well as an over-the-air DVR to record high definition digital broadcasts from the local TV stations. A late Sunday afternoon trip to my local Best Buy and a Mac Mini was mine.

I sat the Mac Mini up with Eye TV and a USB HD tuner attached to my outdoor antenna. Depending on how I have the antenna rotated, I can receive upwards of 17 or more HD and digital broadcast channels. Of course, keep in mind that the Mini is on my home network, so I’ve got complete remote access in a number of different ways.

The Eye TV 3.4.1 software has easy iPhone/iPod/iPad/Apple TV file conversion, so I’m easily able to convert the files to the format of my choice.

A thought popped into my head. What if I converted the files to the iPhone format and put them into my Dropbox? I also have the Dropbox app for Android installed on my Sprint HTC Evo phone. Since I have an 8 gigabyte SD card installed with the possibility of going all the way up to a 32 gigabyte card if I wish, could I synch the exported iPhone files from my Dropbox on the computer to Dropbox on my phone?

To my surprise, I don’t even have to synch the exported iPhone videos to my phone – once they are synched to the Dropbox server, all I have to do is open the file from Dropbox on my phone and the file immediately starts streaming. If I’ve got a decent 3G Sprint cell signal, the video plays perfectly without a glitch.

So, I’m taking multiple different technologies, and using them in a way no single inventor or designer ever envisioned. I can record local TV programming from home, export it as an iPhone format file into my Dropbox folder, and stream the files to my phone. Pretty phenomenal stuff if you ask me.

For sure, there are other ways to accomplish the same end result, particularly if one has adequate bandwidth. For situations where bandwidth is limited and more variable, this solution works surprisingly well.