Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Who killed the vampire loads loads in my entertainment system?

In a recent post I wrote about replacing my dead 37" LCD TV with a new 50 inch unit.  I didn't realize I was buying into an entirely new AV ecosystem.  I got talked into purchasing a sound bar for the TV which completely replaced my old-style stereo amplifier that I originally used for the sound system for my TV.  So I have completely restructured my entertainment system and in the process I have taken detailed measurements of its power consumption using a Kill-A-Watt meter.  The biggest take away I have gotten from this experience is that over the last 10 to 20 years new appliances have dramatically reduced their phantom loads.  A phantom (or vampire) load is the power an appliance consumes when you think it is "off".  In an entertainment system this includes all of the devices that you can turn on remotely.  They have an internal circuit that sits there all day waiting for a signal from your remote control and that consumes a certain amount of power - sometimes several Watts.

My original entertainment system consumed around 9 W in standby mode not counting the DVR and I used a timer to turn everything off from midnight to 6 PM thus reducing the load to the timer itself which is only 1 W:
My new entertainment system is significantly more efficient, not only when everything is on, but also when all of the devices are turned off.  My Kill-A-Watt could not get a valid reading for the TV, sound bar or Fire TV (streaming video) box because it is below its measurement threshold of 1 W.
I have recycled the DVD player, stereo amp, and CD player because I no longer need them.  The new sound bar lets me play my music via Bluetooth from my tablet or from the cloud using the Fire TV, and who uses CDs anymore these days?  So now my power consumption when watching TV has dropped from 223 W to around 102 W.  A 50% reduction.  Here in Maine we pay approximately $.14 per kilowatt hour, and if we assume I watch TV for five hours a night which is considered average then the monthly cost drops from about $4.68 to $2.14.  So I am saving over $2.50 on my electric bill every month.  (Actually I don't pay for electricity during the summer months because my solar array generates a surplus!).  If you extrapolate this across all the entertainment systems worldwide, this energy savings is really significant.

By the way, in the process of setting up and configuring the new TV, I learned that by adjusting the brightness setting I could reduce its power consumption from around 73 W down to around 50 W without any significant compromise in image quality.  You may want to dig into the settings on your TV and see how low a brightness setting you find acceptable.  If you do this while the TV is plugged into an energy meter, you can balance brightness versus power consumption.  It may take a period of adjustment to get used to a slightly less bright TV, but the default settings are usually much brighter than is necessary.

I think the drop in power consumption has a lot to do with advancing technology, but also some push back from consumers who want more efficient appliances.  Over the last several decades televisions have dramatically improved their operating efficiency as they transitioned from old-style CRT tubes to cold cathode backlit LCD screens to LED backlit LCD screens.  Similarly, engineers have found a way to reduce those pesky vampire loads in the entertainment systems.

So if you are overcome by "consumer-itis" and decide you need to upgrade your entertainment system, you may find that your electric bill drops significantly while your viewing experience is enhanced.  Guilt free TV! - who knew?  Just don't forget to recycle your old equipment.

Monday, July 20, 2015

My artwork that inspired an Invention that became a successful Business

I am going to start by going off topic for this post and tell you about a surprising success I had back in 2002.  At that time I was making turned wood artworks that took the form of undulating shapes supported by legs.  I have sold most of those pieces, but here is a good example:
"Ground Effect" by Guy Marsden
These artworks created a sense that the central lighter colored piece of wood was floating and eventually I decided that I  wanted to create a piece in which the wood actually levitated.  The result was this piece:
"The Mother And Child Reunion"
by Guy Marsden
(this piece is available)
The large yellow "mother" section is actually attached to the tusk shape in the back, while the smaller "child" element hovers just below:
"child" suspended in thin air!
The "child" moves around slightly in air currents but remains about a quarter inch away from the upper section at all times.  When I decided to embark on this project I researched magnetic levitation and eventually decided to develop my own circuit that would accomplish the levitation for this artwork.  (I design electronic products for a living: There is a small powerful magnet embedded in the lower section, and an electromagnet with control circuitry that I designed in the upper section.  It took me about two weeks of research and development to come up with an ideal circuit.

Having completed the artwork, it occurred to me that other electronic hobbyists might enjoy building the circuit that I came up with.  So I approached the hobby electronics magazine: "Nuts and Volts" to see if they would like me to run a construction article.  They approved enthusiastically and my article was published in 2003.  

Authors who publish construction articles often offer a kit of parts along with a circuit board and instructions to make it easier for people to build their design.  So I designed a circuit board, ordered parts and created instructions comprising a total investment of around $500.  I hoped that I would sell several dozen kits over the next few months after the article was published.  Here's a photo from the article showing the original kit levitating a matryoshka doll:
Original levitation kit assembled
I was quite surprised by the response to my kit and in my first full year I sold over $9,000 worth of them!  It was delightful that my email inbox went from: "you've got mail" to: "you got money" as order confirmations came in via PayPal.  Since then, sales have tapered off somewhat but I still sell several thousand dollars worth of them every year through my website:  I offer kits and fully assembled versions and often hear from people that have made amazing projects with the kit - like this wonderful flying bird:
click here to see more projects
I often look back and reflect on the unusual sequence of events that began with creating an artwork that transitioned to designing an electronic circuit that became a successful product.  I think the lesson to be learned here is to always be open to the possibilities and to recognize and take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.

To bring this blog post back around to the topic of sustainability, a few years later this experience inspired me to market another product that I originally designed for my own personal use.  This is a solar differential temperature controller used to improve the performance of my off-grid solar thermal heating systems.  I was equally surprised at how easy it was to start the business and how successful it became - I guess I have a knack for starting small businesses.  I eventually developed more sophisticated versions of this basic product and market them from a separate website:
ART TEC SolarSolar Differential Temperature Controllers
There are now hundreds of my products out there in the world improving the performance of off-grid solar heating systems and I feel good that I am making a contribution to this important renewable energy market segment.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Upgrading my TV and recycling the old one

A few days ago I went to turn on the TV and it would not turn on either using the remote control or the button on the side.  This TV does not owe me much because I bought it over six years ago on clearance from the now defunct Radio Shack store nearby and I had since repaired it by replacing the motherboard.  It was a 37 inch LCD flatscreen with a nominal rated power consumption of 140 W.

I found another clearance deal at Sears for a 50 inch LED TV that is rated around 60 W.  It is impressive that this larger TV uses much less power and has a very favorable Energy Star rating compared to other TVs in its class (actual label shown at left) and I am quite pleased with its quality overall. 

Incidentally, as an engineer I need to point out that TVs are marketed as "LCD" (Liquid Crystal Display) or "LED" (Light Emitting Diode).  The current crop of TVs are all sold as "LED TVs" yet they are still really using LCD imaging technology but LEDs as the back light which is what helps to make them thinner.  Older style "LCD" TVs used fluorescent lamps for the back light that used more power and added more bulk to the back of the TV.  My old TV was this latter style.

The Sears salesman also suggested that I replace my old style stereo amplifier and speakers that I use for the sound system for the TV with a new sound bar and subwoofer.  I declined, but ended up being curious about the idea since it might simplify the whole setup.  Eventually I drove down to Best Buy since they had a big selection of them and ended up purchasing a relatively affordable sound bar that fits very nicely right below the TV on our stand.  The salesman reminded me that Best Buy accept old appliances and recycle them so I just got back from dropping off the old TV to Best Buy.  I am so pleased that major retailers are stepping up and offering to recycle old equipment.  Most electronics appliances contain a variety of toxic chemicals that do not belong in the landfill.  I have also returned computers and printers to Staples.
I made the 32 mile round-trip in my solar charged Chevy volt (note the license plate is SUN PWRD!) with no carbon emissions.  

Solar water heater tank failure

A few days ago I was showing someone my solar domestic water heating system and when I opened the utility closet I was confronted with a quarter inch of standing water.  Clearly my solar heated water tank had sprung a leak.
The tank is a Whirlpool 40 gallon electric water heater that had a warranty of six years and by replacing the anode rod I extended that out to nine years or so.  My system is designed so that I can change the position of three gate valves to isolate the solar tank and continue to use hot water from our tankless water heater.  I did a web search to try and find a direct replacement for this tank because of its unique properties of having additional ports on the side and eventually found one in a Lowe's store about 40 miles away.  Fortunately it barely fit in the back of my Chevy Volt and I was able to spend the following day removing the old tank and replacing it.
I am an experienced plumber and engineered this system myself (I have a background in photo processing engineering from the 1970s) so it was relatively easy - yet time-consuming - to swap out the tanks.

I was quite disappointed that the water leak alarm that I had installed at the bottom of the tank (at bottom right in the top photo) did not alert me to this issue.  Perhaps it had run its battery down while I had been out of the house for a day.  Or perhaps I could not hear it in the rest of the house considering that the water heater is in a utility closet in a corner of the basement.  As part of the replacement and upgrade I have installed a deep drip pan under the tank and will find a better/louder leak alarm.  Lessons learned!

The old tank will find its way to the landfill eventually next time I do a major dump run with the help of a neighbor's pickup truck.  It bothers me that water heater tanks have a planned obsolescence of 6 to 10 years, but at least they don't contain any toxic materials!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Reducing waste - repairing my trash can

Last winter when the temperatures here in Maine were well below 0°F the trash collectors accidentally drove over the plastic lid of our plastic trash can and it cracked across the middle.  I repaired it with duct tape across both sides to keep the rain and snow out of the trash and the repair lasted until now.  Sitting out in the hot summer sun today, the duct tape came loose and I almost considered asking our trash collectors to take the whole can next time.  What was I thinking?  I am Mr. Sustainable!  So I decided to repair it by stitching it together with some nylon twine.
Here is a close-up of my surgical style stitching:
I added a little Crazy Glue around each hole to secure the twine.  Dr. Frankenstein would be proud!  I am hoping this lid will last many more years.  It is the little things like this that when added up represent my personal commitment to reducing my footprint on our planet.  Given a little patience and ingenuity almost anything can be repaired and kept out of the landfill.