Monday, February 23, 2015

Geeking out on affordable thermal imaging

I am a geek and proud of it!  I enjoy using instruments to quantify physical properties and have an arsenal of electronic instruments ranging from voltmeters and oscilloscopes to data loggers, a tachometer, decibel meter, Geiger counter, light meter and Gauss meters and many more.  The most recent addition to my tool belt is a VT04 Visual IR Thermometer made by Fluke.
Fluke VT04 Visual IR Thermometer
This tool is a fraction of the cost of a thermal infrared camera at under $500 and has many features that I find more useful than the Flir brand of IR cameras.  The one feature I find most compelling is that this clever camera incorporates both an infrared imager and a regular camera and it allows you to blend those two images in various ratios.  Here is an example of the dining room windows with three different percentages of infrared overlay:
While the infrared overlay is not very high resolution, and shows as somewhat blurry compared to the professional cameras, it is perfectly sufficient for identifying cold spots inside buildings.  The temperature shown is taken from the center of the image.

The temperatures here in Maine are below 0°F outside tonight, so I used my new tool to study the exterior walls of our home from the inside looking for cold areas that indicate missing or poor insulation.

One of the first things that I suggest that people do when they start out to tighten up the heat leaks in their home is to install outlet covers to prevent cold air leaking in through the outlets in outside walls.  This is a quick inexpensive fix that can have a big effect. Here is a good example showing a normal image of an outlet with an electroluminescent nightlight blocking one outlet:
As you can see the uncovered outlet is leaking cold air and if it were covered with a plastic outlet cover this would reduce the cold air infiltration.  You can buy inexpensive kits that include gaskets and plugs to seal up these leaks.  Here's a how-to about insulating outlets.  I had already installed a foam gasket behind this outlet plate, so there is no cold air leaking around the edges, but I need to buy some more plastic plug-in covers for the actual outlets like this:

The coldest rooms in the house are the bathrooms and laundry room on the west wall. Here is a shot taken of the laundry room wall and ceiling.  The cold area indicates poor or missing insulation, and now I know exactly what needs attending to.  I will be looking into the crawl space above that part of the ceiling real soon!
Most houses do not have any insulation covering the rim joists between floors, and this may be part of the issue here.

The software that comes with the camera allows you to adjust the blend of normal vs IR after the images have been taken which can be very helpful in identifying what was in the shot.  Another feature is the ability to take time-lapse sequences automatically.  And you can set a temperature threshold so that the camera will automatically take a picture when it is exceeded.  Both are features that I have plans to use in the future.

The Fluke VT04 will see a lot of use as I work to identify heat losses and repair them!  It will also come in handy in my electronic design work so I can track overheating components.

June 2017 update: I upgraded to the FLIR One thermal camera that plugs into my smart phone. Much better!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Snow throwing

For those of you who like to read vicariously about my life in the frigid Northeast, I thought I would share what is involved in using a snow thrower.  The recent snowstorm was relatively light, but it blew some massive snowdrifts that were over 18 inches deep across our driveway that I had cleared previously.

Gearing up to go out and use the snow thrower makes me think of putting on a spacesuit.  I pull yellow waterproof slickers over my fleece lined jeansI, then put on full-length rubber boots with heavy cotton athletic hiking socks under and pull the slickers down over the boots.  Then a full-length Thinsulite insulated jacket is zipped up all the way to my chin.  Under the jacket I wear just a T-shirt and a plaid flannel shirt, any more than that and I would sweat too much and sweating is a bad idea in frigid temperatures because it makes you feel a lot colder.  I wear very thick Thinsulite insulated gloves with good rubber grips on them.  On my head I have a padded wool hat, and hearing protection that also serves to warm my ears.  (The snow thrower is quite loud).
I use a 5 hp craftsman snow thrower that incorporates all of the basic controls

There are 5 forward speeds, and 2 reverse speeds that are selected by a big lever.

a crank handle allows me to rotate the chute to direct the snow left and right.

The top end of the chute can be tilted to direct the snow further or closer to the thrower.

Squeezing the left handle clutches in the auger that sucks the snow into the impeller.

Squeezing the right handle engages the drive clutch.
Starting a snow thrower is just like starting a gasoline lawnmower.  I set the throttle to full speed, pump a little gas into the carburetor and then pull start it.  I also have the option of using an extension cord to start it electrically which can be convenient sometimes.  Like a lawnmower (or tractor) the engine runs at a constant rate set with a throttle lever, and you set a gear that is appropriate for the snow depth.  Drop it into gear and off we go!

On a day like today, the temperatures barely got up to 15°F with wind blowing at an average of 20 mph and wind chills down around 0°F in the gusts.  There are times where the fine snow blows back onto my face and freezes into my beard mixing with snotcicles from my running nose. 

There is a lot of strategy involved in planning where to throw the snow.  If you throw snow upwind it will just blow back in your face, and that is not only unpleasant but ineffective.   So every pass I have to adjust various aspects of the thrower to put the snow where I want it to go by turning the chute and selecting the appropriate gear and tilt angle for the chute.  For instance if there are only a few inches of snow on the ground I can cruise along in third or fourth gear.  But when the snow is at or above the height of the hopper, I slow to a crawl in first gear leaving the auger running and stopping and starting forward momentum using the right hand clutch handle.  I can hear the engine straining when it is chewing down on too much snow and that is a sign to either drop to a lower gear or pause to let the thrower catch up and chew through the snow in its hopper.

It takes me anywhere between one and two hours to clear our property depending on how much snow has landed.  I need to clear our driveway which is relatively small, but also a path between the house and my workshop.  Another path around to the back of the house so we can get to the woodpile from the rear basement door.  And another path around my workshop to make it easier to access my woodpile, and to clean snow off my collectors and solar panels.  All in all this amounts to hundreds of feet and tons of snow that need to be moved.

I have to admit that it is quite a bit of fun as this is the closest I will get to using heavy earth moving equipment.   Almost every boy/man idealizes having a job using big earth moving equipment I think.   For those of you in southern climates, I hope you have enjoyed this vicarious ride along with me and my snow thrower.

The jet stream is being severely affected by changes in the Arctic.  The result is that there is an "Atlantic conveyor" that draws moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and blows it up along the East Coast.  For the last several weeks, we have had a series of heavy snowstorms arriving a few days apart.   Any one of these storms by itself would not be an anomaly, but this consistent sequence of heavy storms is a clear indication of climate change. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cli-Fi and climate awareness

I have been reading science fiction since I was a kid in the 1960s.  Currently, I read two or three SF books every month on my Kindle and sometimes go back and re-read books that I had read in print years ago.  I particularly enjoy science fiction that takes an existing facet of our world or culture and extrapolates it into the future.  Some SF authors work in the new genre known as "climate fiction" (or Cli-Fi) in which the story focuses on climate change in the near future.
Several years ago I read Kim Stanley Robinson's science in the Capital trilogy that focus on abrupt climate change set in the present day.  Kim is one of Science Fiction's best authors and also one of my personal favorites.  His books tend to be long and wordy and filled with relevant and apparently well researched science, while his characters remain engaging throughout.  Beginning with "Fourty Signs of Rain", this trilogy left a profound impact on me and permanently changed the way I see the world.  Since then I have studied climatology and climate change and have come to believe that what he has portrayed in these books is quite likely to occur this century. 

If you enjoy reading fiction, or science fiction as a way to gain insights into our contemporary culture as I do, you will find these books a good read.
I recently read John Barnes book "Mother of Storms" which sets a much more dramatic scenario in some ways than Robinson's books.  John is one of Science Fiction's "killer B's" that include other great authors such as Greg Benford, David Brin and Greg Bear - all favorites of mine.  The abrupt climate change scenario in this book is based on cutting-edge science and proposes the idea that enormous methane releases from clathrates buried under the Arctic could trigger a jump in global temperature which in turn could create massive hurricanes on a scale never seen before.  Given that this book was first published in July 1994 (I read a re-print from 2102), it reads as amazingly prescient even today given what we know about the methane trapped under the oceans in the Arctic.  This is known as the methane gun hypothesis in climate studies and is an issue of grave concern to climate scientists as a potential trigger for extremely abrupt climate change.  We are already beginning to see the impacts of increased ocean and air temperatures on moisture uptake into the atmosphere in the form of increasing numbers of severe rain and snowfall events.

Barnes's book follows several intriguing characters through the mayhem that ensues as a giant hurricane and its spawn devastates much of the planet.  This is no made-for-TV style novel, but one grounded deeply in reality and science.  The only thing I found uncomfortable was his penchant for portraying sexual deviance and torture, along with horrifying ways to die.  This is no book for the faint of heart, and portrays a dystopian future humanity.  Nonetheless it is a vivid and engaging read that puts the potential for abrupt climate change into a clear context of a near future human world scenario.

I am currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson's book "2312".  As the title would suggest it is set in the future long after the Earth has been impacted by climate change.  Humanity has become interplanetary and inhabits most of the moons and planets in the solar system.  His characters are deeply engaging and the story is rich and filled with wonderful science fiction technology insights and obscure cultural references.  This is yet another book which indirectly addresses climate change as a possible future for humanity and I highly recommend it as a good read even though I'm only about one third of the way through the book.

If you enjoy reading fiction, or science fiction and want to learn more about climate change, these books create an entertaining and yet factually based way of absorbing knowledge about this crisis that humanity will certainly be confronting in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bye-bye beaches

Frenchman's Bay, Maine - looking northeast
Do you have a favorite ocean beach?  Well pretty soon it will be a memory only.

My extended family has a cabin on Frenchman’s Bay in “Downeast Maine”.  It is a stone’s throw from the beach with a spectacular view of the bay.  In the center of the image below is Mt. Cadillac (the hill in the center) which is the easternmost point of the continental United States where the sun first strikes the continent.

Beach on Frenchman's Bay, Maine looking southeast toward Bar Harbor

This is my sanctuary, the place where I go to rejuvenate and shut out the world for a while.  As beaches go it is not exactly your tropical island paradise, but the rocks are endlessly interesting and the tide moves so quickly you can actually watch it as it changes over 10 feet two times per day.  Watching the tide rising inexorably is a portent of things to come.

I am sharing this as a reminder to everyone who has a favorite beach somewhere in the world that most of these beaches will be permanently underwater before the end of the century.

Climatologists estimates of how high the ocean level will rise by 2100 continue to escalate, at present they are saying 6 to 13 feet but I suspect it may be more by the time they factor in all of the other feedbacks.  Take a moment to fully process this concept - the beaches will be gone, period.  This means that within your lifetime you will lose what cherished memories you have because we have so thoroughly screwed up the planet that the oceans will inevitably rise and take away many of our favorite places.

If this is not enough of a wake-up call, I do not know what is.

edited and re-printed from my earlier June 10,2014 post