Crowdfunding – Some good, mostly dumb

Now I’ve got nothing against the general idea of crowdfunding.   I’ve backed a few things and I’ve got some cool stuff to show for it.   But you really need to pick through the stuff on sites like kickstarter very carefully.   Especially after the potato salad thing.

And when you manage to get past the huge number of ‘I need a better camera to take photos of x’ , ‘my camera got stolen/broken’, magic battery free bluetooth location tags,  yet another bloody USB battery pack from China or the plethora of USB cables that claim to charge faster you find gems like this:

LumiFlex Light Bulb Covers

Oh dear oh dear oh dear…    Firstly a quarter of a million bucks?   I think he needs to look elsewhere for his tooling!   Worst I’ve done is about 20k for a 4 action tool with a 5th manually removed block.    Secondly does he know that CFLs can really overheat?   It even states on the packaging that you can’t put them in enclosed light fittings!   Even LED bulbs have the same warning.

I had a CFL in an open lamp shade and it ended up like this:



Full Article Here


If you put a silicone cover over it the poor thing is either going to die in a few months or catch fire.

He even puts one on an LED and covers the heatsink.   Dude, what do you think the funky fins are for?   Dead-bulb-tastic!

Get a frosted GLS shaped LED bulb.   They are getting cheaper and you won’t need to risk inducing self immolation of those nasty CFLs or early death of your costly LED.

Oh yeah, thirdly, Joseph Swan invented the light bulb 😉   Edison copied it.



Energy Saving gone stupid?

Ecodesign Working Plan 2015-2017

So EU regulations are now going to limit vacuum cleaners to 1600W and give them energy efficiency ratings.   Not sure if this is a good move or not, but I can be sure it was a good waste of tax payer money dreaming it up.   How about getting people to read the instructions rather than just going by advertising hype.   Nothing to clog?   Hmm, sure Mr Dyson!   What about the filters you should be washing regularly and the amount of crud that gets stuck in the cyclones?

No bad thing making the motors, impellers, air filtering etc.. more efficient.   But now there is talk the EU is going to look at hair dryers, smart phones and kettles.   Yes, kettles!

OK, some simple physics here.   An electric kettle is probably about the most efficient way to heat water.   Electricity makes the element hot and its in the water which gets hot.   OK some heat is lost to the air and a little is lost to the noise of the boiling and the movement of the water.   But not much.   (Unless you had the stupid kettle I did a few years back with the constant blue LED!   Didn’t need to turn on the kitchen light when I made late night fridge trips, it was that bright)

Water needs a specific amount of energy to raise its temperature to boiling point.   As energy is wattage x time (1 watt is 1 joule per second) so more wattage = less time, less wattage = more time.

Hmm… so would a 1000W kettle save me 50% energy over a 2000W kettle?   No!   Oh… umm… darn!

Actually a 1000W kettle would probably use slightly more energy as the longer heatup time would allow for more energy loss to the air.   oops!

I do hope the consultants and committees for the EU have at least one sensible person between them.   Just wish I could get in on that action, probably pays quite well 🙂

So how do you save energy with a kettle?   Boil just the amount you need, but we’ve all known that for years!   Plus it has the added benefit of taking less time to make your morning cup of wake up.

Most people will by now have a kettle with a newer type element and a plastic outer shell.   Both of the real energy savers.   Especially if you live in a hard water area!   Death to kettles!

As for hair dryers and smart phones… never use the former but again its heating something so will be similar to the kettle.   And smart phones… I’ve tried to measure the standby current of their chargers but its below the resolution of my mains tester.   Maybe less blindingly bright LEDs telling you its on would save some energy.

Is saving a few quid worth this?

I’ve often wondered about the safety of small mains to low voltage switch mode PSUs.  Just how much is between you and 240VAC?   You knew with a bulky transformer that there was actual air between you and the mains.   And what wasn’t air was earthed for extra safety!

This is not the first such safety issue by a long shot.   I saw an episode of Fake Britain on the beeb sometime last year where they showed an iPhone charger clone that blew clean off the wall smacking a girl in the head so hard it briefly knocked her out.   It also showed copy Dyson bladeless heaters made using non flame retardant plastic.   Not a good combo!

We live in a truly global marketplace and there is no way you could ever regulate every bit of electronics that people use.   And even CE gets it wrong sometimes, such as classing socket protectors as toys.

But when faced with £15 for a real apple charger or 99p for something that looks identical and most of the time does the same job…

Mid-Summer solar data

Amazingly given that it is mid-summer and Wimbledon has just started the sun has actually been out for a good few days!   Some good data collection has been taking place and my rig has proved itself reliable at last.

Green is the PV, Red is the thermal.

21st of June, longest day!   Some big fluffy cloud banks passing over as you can tell from the big dips.   My fault, had family over for a BBQ.


22nd of June, pretty sunny day.   A little hazy just after lunch and then blue sky all afternoon.


23rd of June, a bit more cloud.   Didn’t mind as it was a Monday so stuck at work.


24th of June, cooler start with little clouds passing over from lunchtime giving the very sharp drops in the PV wattage.   Cooled off in the evening.


These show nicely the larger working angles of the evacuated tube solar thermal collector.   It starts to make heat best part of 2 hours before the PV cells really kick in.   But this makes sense as a cylinder will always present the same surface area no matter the angle you view it from.   A flat sheet doesn’t.

The drop off in the evening is actually the house getting in the way.   I could move the experiment to the house wall but someone might not like the noise of the pump and the potential for the glycol solution leaking again.

The PV panel has a collector area of roughly 800 sq cm. (25x35cm with ~10% removed for corners and gaps)   The solar thermal collector has an area of 290 sq cm.   36% the area of the PV.   But we see equal if not better peak power outputs from the thermal collector.

The average per day is much higher from the thermal collector.   Ranging from ~1.8x higher on a sunny day to ~2.5x higher on a more cloud strewn day.   So per sq cm of collector the efficiency is almost 7x higher than a silicon PV cell.

OK, not the most scientific test and I’m not entirely sure of the efficiency of my PV panel.   But if we assume its in the 12-14% range (its from China via ebay after all) it puts the evacuated tube in the 95% range.   Which is about right from my research.

If I was using hot fluid in the cooling circuit this efficiency would drop.   Most solar thermal systems aim for 70-90 deg C.   The fluid temps I’m dealing with are in the mid 30’s.   Mainly for safety as the experiment is a little Heath Robinson.

Solar Datalogging project is working again!

I’ve been curious about solar energy for quite a long time.   Not really from a ‘renewable energy’ point of view, more the physics and efficiencies.   I recently went to the Mediterranean and saw a LOT of solar thermal and photo voltaic installs.   So here is an experiment to test how they both work in the UK climate.

The experiment uses the following collectors

  • 10W 12V solar cell (I had it spare from a previous project that went nowhere)
  • 58mm diameter x 500mm long evacuated tube heat pipe solar thermal collector.   I love ebay!

Both are mounted to the wall of my garage at the same angle as the roof.   Essentially emulating a system placed on the garage roof.   Why the garage?   Just cos its easier and the roof points the same way as the house.

The test load for the PV is pretty simple.   a 30ohm resistor on a heatsink.   I measure the voltage and power is V^2 * load resistance.

The solar thermal isn’t quite so easy.   First plan involved thermocouples, pumps and flow meters.   But when you actually work out the accuracy of the flow meter and thermocouples vs just how little temperature gain you will get the numbers would have been so fuzzy and worthless.   OK, take two!

Second plan involved a peristaltic dosing pump and some Dallas DS18B20 temp sensors.   Dosing pumps give a known volume of liquid per revolution and the DS12B20 could be put right in the flow.   No analogue wires to pick up noise.

I got a tiny pump from ebay.   Cost only a few quid.   Basically a 360 motor with a 3 rotor pump head and some 2mm ID silicone hose.   I fitted it with an IR reflective sensor to measure the RPM.   Worked well!


The whole setup was run by a Raspberry Pi with a GertDuino addon board.   Not enough IO on the raspberry and I can code Atmels in my sleep.   And the spare IO was connected to the leftover parts of an old Maplin wireless weather station.   Result!


The data was logged with WeeWx.   Its simple and easy to modify, although Python is the work of the devil.

I used copper brake pipe to make a heat exchanger for the solar thermal collector.   Brake pipe can be a mare to work with and making a tight coil is hard.   I have a lathe so I made a jig to bend the pipe around.


The final coil fitted snugly over the top of the heat pipe.


The whole lot would be covered in 1″ thick pipe insulation.   No way heat is leaking out!   30% glycol solution would ensure no freezing!


Small box on the solar cell is the outdoor temp and humidity sensor, it doesn’t live there normally!   The pipe insulation is to stop me catching my arm on the corners.

It worked well for about a month.   Then I started getting really bonkers thermal readings.   Turns out the little pump which was spinning at 100+RPM had split its silicone tube and leaked everywhere!   Couldn’t find any suitable tube to replace it so shelved that part for a while.

The weather station and PV logging worked for another 2 months or so before a power cut claimed the file system on the Raspberry Pi.   My fault for not backing it up!   So 4 month ish of data lost.   Bah!   Take three!

So gone is the ebay dosing pump and the Raspberry Pi is off to a new home on something less 24/7.   OK, what next?   Well as I’d based this on a GertDuino I decided to go whole hog and use all Arduino based hardware.   I had an Uno lying around and ordered up an ethernet shield.   Job done, send the data straight to my server which has a big UPS powering it.

I found a stepper motor based peristaltic pump which would be ideal apart from the price.   This whole project has cost very little as its basically odds and ends and cheap bits from ebay.   the Pi and GertDuino were the largest capital investments so far.

Hmm.. I have a stepper motor and drive spare.. I have a workshop where I can make stuff.. how hard is a pump?   Well not very!   A block of delrin made the base and some aluminium made a rotor with some more delrin for the rollers.   A length of santoprene tube finished it off.   One DIY stepper motor pump.


From left to right:

  • Cooling coil for the fluid returning from the solar collector (yes, its a failed brake pipe coil)
  • 1ltr container for the heat transfer fluid (Tesco mini chocolate rolls, yum!)
  • Pump, 3.5cc per revolution
  • Upper right hand end – Arduino Uno, ethernet shield and some veroboard for signal conditioning and connectors
  • Lower right hand end – PV load and heatsink

So now we are back in business and logging data!   A bit of fine tuning to do but it will be done before June 21st!   Want to get that high sun logged.

Arduino – They got it mostly right!

In classic Fast Show style – this week I have been mostly programming Arduino.

After the demise of my RaspberryPi/Gertduino weather station project I decided to go fully Arduino.   I’d bought 2 Uno clones from ebay and never did much with them, so time to put them to use!

Next I bought the ethernet shield.   About £10 has bought be an ‘internet of things’ building platform.   The plan was to have the weather station based in the garage reporting via IP to the Linux server in the house.   That way the outboard station was all flash based with no local storage.   I’ve used Atmel AVRs a LOT and know they are pretty robust.   No more worries about SD cards eating themselves!

All the code for the gerduino (which handled the time critical and analogue elements of the weather monitoring) was all written in vanilla C.   As I’m used to.   Lots of use of interrupts, printf (yes, I’m lazy) and some bit bashing too.

As I wanted to use the ethernet shield I could either convert to the Arduino build env or try and mate the Arduino libs with vanilla C.   A quick look around showed that using the C++ libs with vanilla C was like trying to drink the water of life.   Many have tried, few have come out of the experience with their sanity intact.

So time to get friendly with the way the Arduino IDE works.   The setup and loop is very neat, you can get something working in very few lines of code.   Even the ethernet libs were pretty simple.   Take up acres of flash, but pretty simple! 🙂

Stumbling blocks… I use the 1ms(ish) interrupt for things other than just counting milliseconds.   I don’t want to put time critical stuff in the loop section as the timing in there is uncertain.   I don’t want to use timers 1 or 2 as they are used to control the solar thermal experiment. (details later, it needs a new pump)   So cue a bit of core code hacking to add a function pointer to the end of the timer0 overflow.
static volatile voidFuncPtr intMsFunc = 0;

// volatile static voidFuncPtr twiIntFunc;

void attachMsInterrupt(void (*userFunc)(void)) {
intMsFunc = userFunc;
#if defined(__AVR_ATtiny24__) || defined(__AVR_ATtiny44__) || defined(__AVR_ATtiny84__)
// copy these to local variables so they can be stored in registers
// (volatile variables must be read from memory on every access)
unsigned long m = timer0_millis;
unsigned char f = timer0_fract;

if (f >= FRACT_MAX) {
m += 1;

timer0_fract = f;
timer0_millis = m;


So I’m pretty much on track.   Didn’t bother to use the library ADC functions as I oversample to get 12 bits.   The cheap chinese wind direction I’m using sensor is a bit crude and some of the direction values are too close together for accurate detection in 10 bits.

The onewire lib worked first time.   EEprom, serial, TCP sockets etc.. all seemed to fall into place.   They’ve  all done a good job.   TWI was a bit funky as the examples are a bit lacking.   Its also interrupt based which is something I’ve not done on the atmega.   And of course it takes the address shifted down by 1… they don’t really mention that bit 🙂

So what about gotchas… the serial writes!   Don’t use them in interrupts, they don’t work 🙂   To stop the serial writes from blocking they use a software buffer and interrupts.   Makes sense, anyone coming to this new won’t realise that sending strings at 9600 baud takes a really long time and it will mess up your carefully calculated delays.   But of course when in an ISR in atmel world all the interrupts are turned off!

Also, just like with printf you use up huge amounts of SRAM with the format strings.   Remember to put F() around your text!   Saves hundreds of bytes.   I always use rom_printf.   An inline that puts the format string in PROGMEM.

Just to make life complex I found arduino-netboot.   A small bootloader that uses BOOTP and tftp to update an ethernet equipped Arduino.   Luckily I have a JTAGIceMkII to hand so could re-program the bootloader.   That was the easy bit… turns out my 3com switch blocks BOOTP when spanning tree is turned on… that took me a while to figure out…

It needs a binary file for the tftp.   Not easy getting these from the Arduino IDE.   Simple way is to find the temp dir and avr-objcopy them yourself.   Yuk!   I wrote a bat file that creates the .hex and a .bin and copies it to the tftp dir.   Hacked platform.txt to make it call my bat file instead of avr-objcopy.   Would have been nice if they’d used makefiles… ho hum.

So now I have a fully Arduino based weather station based in the garage which boots off the network and reports back to WeeWx over TCP.   Lets see how reliable this incarnation of my ‘made from spare parts’ weather station is.

Raspberry Pi vs BeagleBone Black

Ahh, the age old question of which is best.   I’ve seen many a forum thread discussing this very topic.   And as ever many of the threads descend into total carnage!

So what has prompted me asking this?   Well my Raspberry Pi powered weather station has died and doesn’t want to play any more.   We had a power cut on Thursday morning and that was the final nail in the coffin for the SD card file system.   It needs a total rebuild!   And of course I didn’t take an image of it when it was in a working state.

Its not dead dead.   I can still mount it and read the data off.   And I’ll admit to a small portion of blame in this as I didn’t fully sanitise the amount of writing to the SD card.

Its not like I used a cheap SD card either.   An Integral Ultima.   But no SD card is really designed for lots of small write cycles.   They are designed for cameras or MP3 players.   It does make booting a Pi really easy.   Burn an image to the SD card, plug it in and away you go!   Very simple.

So there are 2 basic issues with the Pi that I’m not overly happy with.   1) the simple fact SD cards are not overly reliable and 2) the socket leaves a lot to be desired.   I’ve had to wiggle the SD card a few times to get it to boot.    (and 3) the lack of good IO on the Pi!   another story…)

I’m probably in the minority here as I’m expecting the Pi to run 24/7 in a not exactly kind environment.   The garage does get a bit damp.

The Beaglebone black does have the advantage of an on-board eMMC NAND flash.   And those have proper wear levelling.   As to how much better it will be compared to an SD card?   I will have to try.

The Beaglebone does also have the advantage of lots more IO.   Downside is its 3v3 rather than 5v and all my weather station IO has been based around Arduino type hardware so is all 5v.   *sigh*   This is something the hobbyist is going to have to deal with more and more.   5v is old skool and most electronics is 3v3 at most, if not 2v5 or below.   Would have been neat for the beagleboners to put some 5v tolerant IO on the board, even if it was just enough to replicate the IO of the Pi.

But I think the weather station is going to go fully Arduino. (I’m not using the IDE.   I live and breathe Atmel AVR so coding direct to the hardware is easier for me)   I’m going to try the ethernet shield as its cheap and maybe a Yun.   Costly compared to a Pi though.   Plan would be to make the weather station pipe data direct to my home sever (which runs RAID discs and has a UPS) and log the data there.   No more local storage.   Probably safest.

13A plugs and sockets

Found this in the IET mag.   Quite a good website (if a little badly layed out) about those little plastic socket protectors.

Makes me pretty grumpy that something like this only has to pass safety testing as a toy.   I think the BS 13A plug is by far the nicest and safest out there and probably the only plug in the world that will always sit ‘pins up’ in order to inflict maximum damage to your foot from those machined brass edges.

15A through one of those bent metal US plugs?   I’m amazed they don’t have more issues.   115V might be safer but you get awfully used to toasters and kettles running at UK speeds.   Making toast in the USA is a slow process.

Compact fluorescent bulbs

Oh how I hate these things!   They have to be the most evil of all cheap and nasty non-fake consumer electronic products out there!   I happily accept that the humble tungsten light bulb is far from efficient and that we really do need something better, but a mercury filled bulb stuck to cheap plastic housing stuffed with the worst designed electronics known to man is not the way.

Having tried CFLs in the early years and been frustrated by the glacial warm-up periods and annoyed by the gentle degradation of their light output I’d decided to ignore them.   I’d gone over to using the halogen GLS replacements as they offered a saving without the problems of the early CFLs.   Slight downside to the halogen GLS is if you knocked them when they were on they do like to instantly die.   No good for a bedside lamp it turns out, but that is another story.

So about 18 months ago I decided to have another look at CFLs.   Energy prices were going up and after managing to smack the hall light twice in quick succession while putting on my coat I was getting a bit miffed with swapping out the halogen GLS bulbs.

I had a look around and bought a Kosnic Quick Start spiral 18W CFL.   Well it did what it said on the box, star-up was much improved compared to 5+ years ago.   Oh good I thought, save myself a good few W/hrs a day, no more dead bulbs if I happen to knock the lampshade and no waiting for it to give enough light to walk down the stairs in the middle of the night.

Cut to 18 months in the future… the CFL is starting to flicker when I turned it on and its taking its time to get to full brightness.   Ah heck, they still can’t make them last!   I know putting them in enclosed fixtures will kill them but this lampshade has an open top so that can’t be the reason.   8000 hours?   Not even close!   I think one of my IET mags has an article about new lighting regs that give minimum lifetimes.

Well it only lasted about a week after that.   Flick the switch, darkness remains.   And this is what I found when I took it out of the holder….


Wow, that has properly overheated!   Brown plastic is never a good sign.   This is why you should not buy cheap knock-offs, they don’t use V0 rated plastic.   Anyone see the fake dyson bladeless heater that self-immolated?

Upon opening the CFL the cause of the failure was apparent, 2 of the lead wires had come off the base of the bulb.   They had been nice enough to shroud them in fibreglass sleeves but it didn’t help longevity.


The PCB looks like its FR-2.   No manufacturer or safety markings.   I’m sure we have to put UL references on all our PCBs to meed CE..   Hmm..

So where do I start on this utter POS I have in my hand.   There is a PCB reference for ‘Fuse’.   Well its not there!   The mains inlet bypasses it.   Oh brilliant!


The 4 output wires going to the tube are just twisted to stub wires soldered to the PCB.



Ewwww!   Now admittedly I did something similar once but I was 8, I was using some bell wire I’d found and the end result was my first electric shock.

So what is the future?   Not CFL I hope!   I now have to take this dead bulb to the dump for disposal as its hazardous.   I assume it is RoHS compliant.   It has the symbol (along with CE, however this passed any testing is beyond me!) but its still got mercury in it and either way comes under WEEE.

I have some LED bulbs that I’ve been trying in various places.   Not those nasty ones with 50 or so 5mm white LEDs.   Proper ones with BIG chip LEDs.   Not cheap 🙁   So far so good but they don’t really go much above 60W equiv.   Colour temp is pretty good too.   We will have to see about lifetimes too.   I’d love to dissect one of them but only after they are dead.