Tag Archives: power

Hurricane Irene: MREs and RACES lessons learned

Last night, I participated in a RACES amateur radio net, manning 2 different fire stations over the course of 12 hours (2000 – 0830).  This was my first time doing something like this, so I brought what I thought I would need:

  • 2m/440 radio (IC-92AD)
  • 12v AGM battery (just in case)
  • Cellphone with unlimited 3g and tethering
  • Laptop
  • Power strip

All of these but the battery proved useful (and the battery is currently useful at home).  But, I found my setup was lacking quite a bit.  First of all, I need a better 2-meter antenna.  My rubber duck performed really well considering the circumstances, but had I been a bit further away, I wouldn’t have been able to get into the repeater.  So, my first purchase is going to be a 2-meter antenna, probably 5/8-wave or larger.  Another ham mentioned using speaker-stands as a tripod, and had a nice little setup of a plywood stand and some sandbags to anchor the tripod.  I’ll probably duplicate this somewhat.  I’ll need to get some long aluminum pipes for a mast, as well.

The power strip really came in handy, especially with these completely awesome wall-wart extensions with passthrough plugs.  They’re stackable, so you can even plug 3 wall-warts into the same single outlet, and leave the power strip at home!  I still like having it – it gives me piece of mind.  I’m going to buy more of these extensions though…

While I was setting up my station, I realized that if I needed to go 12v, many of the power adapters I had used a cigarette lighter adapter (yes, I know the correct term for it now is “auxiliary outlet” but that’s a bit ambiguous IMHO).  I definitely need to incorporate one (or preferably more) of these into the power junction box I plan to build.  The other connector I desperately need to adopt is Anderson Power Poles.  I have about 30 of them and a crimper, so I’m setting to work today to start remedying that.  One thing I found out is there’s a ARES/RACES standard way to mate them (right on red facing away).  But what if you super-glue your connectors that way and run into some nincompoop who did it backwards?  Well, I think creating a polarity switcher by crossing a wire is probably a good answer.  I’ll probably label it profusely once I make it, like one would do with a crossover cable (hopefully).

Driving down the road, I reported several downed trees to the Howard County Emergency Operations Center.  But, I realized that I only had one road flare in the car.  Next time, I’ll bring at least 3 so I can help mark these kinds of hazards immediately.

Another thing that would be great to have is a configurable wall wart that supports quite a few DC ends, polarity reversing and at least several common voltages.  This is really nice to have in the house, and I’d think would be even nicer to have in an emergency.

I really need an SMA -> N-connector cable.  I want to standardize on N-connectors instead of PL-259/SO-239.  I’m looking to buy a really nice one of these.

Finally, I need to get another 2m mobile rig.  An HT works, but it’s too low-power to be a great solution.  Also, it’s nice to be able to have a base station set up, and carry around your HT as a backup if you need to walk away.  Hooking up an antenna is easier and more stable as well.

I highly recommend RACES/ARES operators get a phone with unlimited 3g internet.  I have the Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V, which allows tethering and only costs $25/month with no contract.  You could even keep it deactivated, and re-activate it right before an event if you wanted to save money.  I use it as my main phone, so I keep it paid up all the time.  This kept me online all night even when the fire station didn’t have wireless.  I was able to read and send email, watch radar and weather reports, etc.  If the power or phone lines would have gone down, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

Now to talk about MREs – our power’s been out for 12 hours, so we tried some MREs today:

  • Italian Style Sandwich: 4/10.  This was pretty terrible.  I had it when I got home, then went to sleep.
  • Buffalo Chicken Entree: 8/10.  Very good.  Kind of saucy, but Kelsey and I (and Ruby) all liked it.
  • A-Pack Chicken Noodle Entree: 9/10.  This was my favority.  It needs copious amounts of pepper, but it’s totally worth it.

Switching to an energy-efficient desktop computer

Since 1990, I’ve had IBM-compatible desktop computers in my life. Before that, I had Tandy computers beginning at age 2. At first, they were the only computers I had, so I did everything with them – gaming, BBS surfing and eventually the internet, word processing, etc. In college, I got really into video encoding and I played all the newest games, which required quite a bit of PC hardware. Since then, I’ve done less and less encoding and gaming, and have settled into a state where all I do with my desktop machine is surf the web and watch HD movies and TV shows.

Now, decoding HD video isn’t exactly the easiest task ever. Routinely, playing 1080p video would peg one of my processor cores at 100%, and I felt that justified keeping the extra horsepower around. About a year ago, I started experimenting with VDPAU, which allows UNIX machines to offload video decoding tasks to the GPU. I bought a new video card basically just to mess around with this feature, and eventually I got it working very well. I’ve been using it for all my video decoding needs. Recently, I found out that YouTube and a couple other sites started supporting hardware video acceleration in their Flash movie players. Since I do actually watch a lot of video online, this was pretty much the last thing keeping me away from low-power CPUs. I found out about the Nvidia ION chipset, which supports VDPAU, and happens to come on a lot of Mini-ITX motherboards. Now, if I could find the right combination of hardware, it would finally make sense to try and trim down my desktop.

My system was a X3220 Xeon Quad core processor. I had 4GB of RAM, but I never touched most of it. I had 3 2TB hard disks in a RAID5, and a 120GB Raptor root drive. I also had a Blu-Ray burner, which brings us to a total of 5 SATA devices. I ended up buying a ZOTAC IONITX-A-U Atom 330 1.6GHz Dual-Core 441 NVIDIA ION Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo for $179, one day before they lowered the price and the rebate came out, which makes it $155 today (lucky you if you choose to follow in my footsteps). It has 3 SATA connections, and 1 eSATA on the back, and about a million USB ports. I’m going to hook up one of my RAID HDs with the eSATA, all the other HDs with the regular SATA, and I bought a $10 converter for the Blu-Ray drive from SATA to USB.

This is where the fun begins. The day I received the board, I quickly stripped the RAM out of my desktop and put it into the little Zotac. Once I got everything hooked up (at this point, just the Blu-Ray and my root disk, along with my TV and monitor). I booted it, and it performed beautifully. There were exactly zero snags getting it to boot into Ubuntu. Once in, I got to work making everything work correctly with the Nvidia ION and VDPAU and Flash. I managed to get it all working with the Nvidia 260.19.06 driver and Flash 10.2 d151 32-bit. This is a bit of a complicated process, and will be much easier once Adobe makes 64-bit Flash support VDPAU. This is only available in the 32-bit beta at the moment, and all this went down around November 2010.

The process for getting all this working is just barely documented here and here. You basically have to install getlibs to download and install a 32-bit version of libvdpau, then download npwrapper, which wraps 32-bit plugins with 64-bit bindings to make it work in all your favorite 64-bit browsers. Yeah, it sucks, but hopefully you’ll only have to do it once.

I can play Big Buck Bunny in 1080p completely smoothly (as long as my connection can keep up) with only about 30% CPU usage! I can also play pretty much everything in mplayer with VDPAU smoothly. But how has my power consumption been affected?

Before the changeover, I measured my computer’s consumption with a Kill-a-watt meter for several days. Idling with everything else off, the computer consumed around 160W. My old processor’s max TDP was 105W, and the idle wasn’t pretty either. The new Atom 330‘s max TDP is only 8W! Just changing this one component brought my current idle power consumption down to about 60W according to the meter, a 100W savings. Since power costs around 10 cents per KWh, and my old computer was using 3.84KWh/day, it cost around $12/month to keep it on all the time. Now, it’s only about $4.50/month. Obviously, this isn’t a HUGE savings, but considering I don’t have a giant loud computer next to me taking up space for no reason, I think it’s kinda neat. Also, this brings my computer well within the realm of being able to run exclusively on solar power, once I get my panels and inverter installed.

Since I bought a Mini-ITX motherboard, I could complete one of the projects I’ve had in mind for about 3 years now – an old-school toaster machine. I’ve had this toaster body for several years, and I really like it. I cut out the back panel with a plasma torch – that thing cuts this sheet metal like butter. Mounting the board inside was difficult – I tried welding the standoffs to the frame, only to realize they were aluminum and promptly melted when exposed to my steel weld wire. Kelsey and I pondered for a bit, and came up with hot glue as a solution. We went to Michael’s (eww), and got supplies. I hot glued all the standoffs to the inside of the toaster and let it set up for 10 minutes or so. This worked very nicely. After checking about 5 times to make sure nothing was shorted, I hooked up everything, and hit the power pins with a screwdriver blade. It powered up! I’m typing on the system right now, and it’s purring quietly. I can feel the very slightest bit of heat coming out of the top. I’ll post pictures as soon as I figure out how I can hook up my USB card reader.

Is it time for the Electric Car?

A reader asked about the Chevy Volt in comparison to the Honda Civic, which is a wonderful question. The Volt people claim that it can go 40 miles on just batteries, which is perfect for most people’s commutes provided they can plug in at work (or not for the really lucky ones). So, it’s obvious that there is no fuel consumed by the vehicle in these first few miles of driving, but I’m going to look at how much fuel is consumed to create those 8.8 kilowatts of electricity it takes to go 40 miles. First, the 8.8 number comes from Chevy’s claim that the gas engine kicks in at 30% battery charge, and the battery will only charge to 85% from the wall outlet, meaning it goes 40 miles on 55% of the battery capacity (16 KW), which equals 8.8 KW.
Continue reading