Household hardware

I have written before of my bad luck with my external hard drive, but there had been a few more more failures at my house, not related to computer hardware though, mostly related to household appliances: both the dishwasher and the washing machine decided to break up.

On the bright side the washing machine is under a 5-years warranty (I extended it when we bought it, my parents didn’t want to) and the dishwasher was quite cheap at the time. I’m going to replace the latter with a new AAA-class (highly energy efficient) appliance, possibly with programming support so that my mother can make smaller loads (for instance when she’s alone eating at home) or make it run early in the morning while we sleep. Since the problem, at least with the washing machine, is with the hardness of water (it’s full of calcium) I’m also considering adding a filter to the tap the washing machine is connected: the boiler already has one based on polyphosphate “salts” (not sure if they are actual salts, I’m sorry but my chemistry is not really that good), and it seems to work decently well; finding something that would be refilled with the same stuff is better since it’d be less stuff to buy, and keep at home.

Luckily there has been also good news: I finally replaced the light fixture in my room with a 4-way (from a shitty 3-way that always looked like falling down); the new fixture uses GU-10 sockets, and was designed to hold four 50W halogen lamps (which would give it a 200W total energy use, which is definitely too much for my bedroom). I bought instead four GU-10 LED lamps, 78 LEDs each, declared between 2.3 to 3W the lamp. They are bright! They are brighter than the three CFLs that I used to have at the beginning, which, total, consumed around 30W. Sure there is still the problem of cost (€47 of the four lamps, from Germany), and the size (the fixture had some glass container that was quite nice to the eye, but the LED lamp does not fit in it), but it seems like that kind of technology is really flying.

I’ll have to see if I can get more LED lamps around the house, saving money with energy efficiency on lights will probably allow me to hide the money I spend on computers turned on all day long…

Digital light dimmers

We almost all are well comfortable with the idea of a light dimmer, it’s a simple device that usually changes a resistor in series with the an incandescent or halogen lamp to allow reducing or increasing the light that it makes. It ha a very nice effect when you want to have a more softer tone of light in a room, for instance a bedroom.

There is one huge problem with light dimmers though: they work only with lamps that reduce their light depending on the current that passes through them. It does not work well with LEDs (it works up to a point, if my electronics skills tell me good, but it’s not very efficient anyway), and does not work at all with fluorescent lights.

So what is a digital dimmer? Well, it’s not a dimmer at all, at least the one I’m thinking about ;)

You can easily achieve a softer light tone without using actual dimmers and incandescent lights, by using different lamps with different light bulbs. I wrote about this before, I think, saying that I prefer using LED lights in bedroom as they give a softer tone to the light, which is perfect to read, or play the PS3, without getting the eyes tired. Unfortunately, it ’s not very good to clean when there is no light coming from outside.

My solution to this would be to replace the ceiling light with a different one, with, say, five Edison connectors, wired 32 with two different switches. I’m just looking around for what I want to use. The idea is then to put two CFLs on one switch, and the tree LED lights on the other: when I need to clean up the room, I could just light up the CFLs and be done with it.

A similar thing I want to do in my office, which is now empty to be cleaned up and refurnished. Instead of changing the light support there, which is quite nice for me and quite nice to light the room, I want to use different lamps entirely.

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A picture of my 2008 home office desk with a fading LED lamp on top.

You can already see in the photo on the right that I have a desklamp on the desk (well, I had, the desk is now closed in half waiting to be replaced too), with a LED bulb that I use when I’m working the night and I don’t want to stay awake too much. It gives me light reduced to the area around the monitors and the keyboard. I used to have a CFL on that lamp, and it made a nice halfway to light most of the room, with a softer tone. As I can’t replace the bulb every time I need a different kind of light, I thought of a different solution for the problem.

I have an old standing lamp, very nice design, let me just ignore for a second the pink glass on it, but it’s not so bad to have around. Unfortunately, it is designed to use halogen lights, and it hasn’t been used for many years now because of that. The bulb in it is a 300W halogen light, so you can think of how bad it is. I’m thinking of removing the dimmer it has, replacing it with a big pushbutton (designed to be pressed with your foot), and replace the circuitry so that I can put a fluorescent light in it. I’ve seen kit with all the circuitry needed at a local shop, it shouldn’t be too difficult to adapt to put it in the lamp.

When I’ll have analysed the structure of the lamp and I’m tearing it down to replace the circuitry I’ll see to blog about that, maybe with some photos, it might be useful to others :)

LED lights photos

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I didn’t blog more about them when I received them because I didn’t want to suggest to a friend of mine what I did get him for his birthday ;) I also wanted to make a long post explaining the difference in usage patterns between compact fluorescent lights and LED lights, but it’s late, and I’m actually working on quite a few other stuff at once, so for now I’ll just link this photoset where I’ve described a bit my LED lights :)

And to leave you with a link for today, I think this podcast from RTÉ looks quite interesting :) I’ve downloaded a few episodes but only listened to latest for now, I’ll have something to listen to tonight :)

I’m happy with my LED lightbulbs

Yesterday I received the new LED lights I ordered last week. They are quite nice, very little power consumption, and they do quite a nice light. The 2W spotlight version I have in my bedroom now make as much light as a 25W incandescent lightbulb.

It sure isn’t the flood of light I had before, with just two fluorescent lights, but I didn’t want so much light in my bedroom anyway, it distracted me wile reading, and caused me not to sleep when I wanted to read something. The new lights give me a cone of light just on my bed, and keep the corners of the room in half-shade, which is a very nice visual effect, I have to say. There is enough room to cleanup and to choose my clothes day after day.

I’ve traded 2x8W fluorescent lights with 3x2W, so it’s a decent improvement in consumption too.

I also bought another one, spherical, true white rather than warm (amber) white as the ones of the bedroom, to put in the lamp on my office room. I used a bigger 20W fluorescent light before, it flooded the whole room with light. Now it only lits the area of the desk where I work, exactly like I wanted. The bulb there is less than 2W, which is quite a nice saving too.

I’ll be looking for some different kind of bulbs for the stairs though, as the opaque types I found on the eBay store where I bought these didn’t seem powerful enough to light my stairs properly.

But, for all the people skilled with electronic out there, I’d like to know something. Somehow the lights I have in my room lit up even when I turn them off. It’s not entirely bad for me as I actually sleep better with a minimum of light around, rather than in pitch dark. But I’m a bit concerned. I thought it was a condensator before, but it doesn’t uncharge even after a whole night, so I’m more thinking along the lines of a possible electric problem, like a wrong return line, or some problem with the grounding, but I admit i have o idea how to proceed. If I unscrew the light, it shuts down.

Also, the fluorescent lights I removed started being employed already: one replaced one of the stairs’ bulb, that was the last one in the house, now I can say that the whole house is powered by green lights, either fluorescent or LED.

Talking about lights

Russell Cooker posted today about fluorescent and incandescent lights. It’s an interesting reading for those of you who are interested in energy saving for environment and money (the two things can easily go along).

His notes about the need to remove excessive heat from incandescent lights might not be as obvious as it seems for many people, but it’s actually an important part of the whole package. I for one started spending extra money for compact fluorescent lights (CFLs, like Cooker called them) when I was sure I couldn’t put air conditioning at my house, and during summer even just turning on a light made me sweat.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I never tried a low pressure sodium lamp, so I don’t even know what they look like. I should look them up on Wikipedia, but I haven’t had time to do that yet, and I doubt it’s going to be my next “paradigm shift” in lamps. As he said, fluorescent tubes aren’t always an option.. they don’t even look that good, and they can be a bitch to deal with as their starters an fry quite easily if the voltage is not properly regulated… and where I live, even if the nominal voltage should be 220V, it’s usually about 200V – sometimes, still having lights on, I have the UPSes moving to battery, even the line-interactive ones! – so just having three of those is hard enough.

I wrote before the night I was hospitalised, by the way, that I would be considering LED lamps, and so I do have LED lights in my bathroom on the mirror, rather than fluorescent (making too much light to be useful) or incandescent (wasting too much power). Maybe they are less efficient as a whole, but rather than using a more-efficient CFL using five times the power needed by two LED lamps to make more light than needed, I find this useful.

Similarly, I’ve been wondering about my bedroom. I already have a LED-powered desklamp; the new furniture that my sister got me gives way less shadow than before, as I don’t have a bridge-like wardrobe anymore, so I removed one of the three CFL I used to use. Still the amount of light is huge. When I want to read something before going to sleep, two CFLs are already too much, but I can’t reduce the lamps too much or I wouldn’t be able to have enough light to clean the room, or find the proper clothes to wear for a night.

So my idea at the moment is to get one ceiling light with four lamp sockets, and two switch lines (thus two switches). On a pair of sockets I would put the two CFLs, on the other two, two LED lamps. Having two switches I could easily choose between high light (for cleaning and choosing clothes), and lower light for reading (and no light for sleeping). Unfortunately I can’t really make decision on placement of lights here, as the house is quite old, and breaking the ceiling to change the lights position wouldn’t be feasible – especially after painting the room anew last september – but if I’ll ever get an house of my own, I would certainly prefer having a lot of smaller lights around, so that I could use the right light as needed, rather than a “catch all” light.

Christmas tube lights

So, my mother is preparing the house for Christmas, yes it’s tremendously late, but this year we had some problems, somehow related to my health condition.

One recurring problem with Christmas time, is when the lights break. In most cases the lights lasts for enough years to let us just throw off the broken ones, and get new ones. This year, though, a tube of light broke down, this was bad because I bought it just four years ago, and they aren’t as cheap as standard lights.

So I opened the controller box on the cable to check it out, and indeed, one of the ICs was burnt down. The IC is a PCR406J, produced by UTC. For what I gather on Google, this IC is used in mass production of Christmas light controllers, it works directly on the 230V alternate current, although I’m still not sure *what the IC does*… (the best I could find is that it’s a Silicon Controlled Rectifier I can’t seem to be able to order that IC anywhere on my usual webshops, and also for what I read it’s also hard to find in standard shops; also, the lights controller might as well be fried, if something was able to fry this IC.

So what are my current options? The first and probably easiest is to throw away the tube, and buy a new one. But it’s not funny to do.
The funny thing to do is… design a new controller! :)

I certainly won’t be able to design it before this Christmas, or before the end of the holiday season, but I can try for next year’s at least. It will be a nice project to distract me from other more complex stuff, and might finally give me the time to refresh my electronic skills, as I don’t want to die knowing to do just one thing (developing).

Right now, I need to find how the thing works: it’s entirely AC-powered, no transformer or converter of sorts. There are the two PCR406J, a 50V 10µF capacitor, two resistors (one 180KΩ, one 240KΩ, neither seems to be ready for high power dissipation), and four things that are probably diodes, they seem to be IN4007 from DC Components (they are Rectifiers, but I admit I don’t know what they are or what they actually do). The board is certainly handmade, and the only two components I could track down to a producer, are Chinese, so I suppose the whole thing is Chinese.

The lights themselves look like a lot of LEDs, but I somehow doubt they are actually LEDs, probably some gas lights or something like that. The lights are connected through three wires, one red and two black wires. I know there are two series of lights, so one is the common (probably the red one), and the other ones are returns for the two sets. Also, as one of the programmed modes had the lights fading in and out, I’m sure that they work at different voltages, and they decrease their luminosity depending on the voltage they are given.

I start to doubt they actually use 220V and even less that they work on AC, as the red wire is connected to two rectifiers, each of one connected to one of the two mains’ wires. I suppose this could be the part of the circuit that straighten AC into DC, although I’m by no mean expert of that. The 220V idea was mostly killed by the 50V capacitor, and the size of the two resistors.

This is the time when I’d like to have a controllable power supply like I had in the lab at school, to check out which voltage do the lights take correctly.

Actually, I think the capacitor and the 180KΩ resistor could actually be an RC net, which makes sense, as the controller changes the program after a few seconds. So I should probably ignore those two, as they are part of the controller. There is also a button used to change the current program, but that just concerns the controller circuit which I don’t care about.

The controller is connected to the two SCRs (PCR406J) by two lines, which are, as far as I can see, connected the gates of the ICs. Which makes sense, as the controller decides when to turn on either of the lines.

I have doubts right now on how the thing the fade in/out thing, as that was a pretty nice effect.

Now, I suppose it shouldn’t be too difficult to design a new controller, maybe with some extras like music (this one does not support it), through a programmable (versus hardwired) microcontroller. It might not be convenient (as in it could probably cost more than a new tube of lights) but it would be interesting.

My main problem now is how to control the lights, do they work in DC or AC? Which voltage do they support? If they work in DC, I suppose I could get the fade in/out effect by using a potentiometer, a digitally controlled one for instance, or by using two properly sized capacitors.

If I need DC, I can use that to power up the microcontroller, otherwise I can simplify things by using batteries to power it.

Anyway, this is the start of a new project for me. If someone can help me by providing information I might be lacking in all this, it’s certainly welcome. As it would be welcome a configurable power supply, or at least some idea on where to find a cheap one.

Oh by the way, there’s a good side to writing your own lights controller if one breaks, I think and hope: it should produce less waste to just create a new controller rather than throwing away the old lights and buy a new tube.

LED lamps, part two.

You might or might not remember that the last post on my blog for the three weeks I spent on ICU was talking about mirror lights.

Well, my interest in LED light bulbs hasn’t disappeared yet, so a few days ago I decided to take a look to eBay to see if there are other similar LED lights to put on a desk lamp (I needed one in my bedroom to read something before sleeping without having the ceiling light on, which makes it difficult to get sleepy.

When I looked for LED lamps last summer, the only eBay shops carrying them were Hong-Kong shops, and indeed I bought them there (they arrived while I was in the ICU). When I looked the other night, the shops were mostly German instead. Nice change I’d say, although I can’t tell how this happened.

So I ordered four new lightbulbs, two of a “candle” type, and two spotlights. The (cheaper) spotlights have a reddish light, unsuitable for me to read (I react better to greenish light), but still nice, they would probably be good for either my mother or for big flashlights. The two candles instead are quite good, they make quite some light, and consume less than 2W. I put one of them in an old ceramic and glass desklamp my mother was not using for a while, and put it in my bedroom (strange effect such a classic lamp against the modern bedroom, but the light is quite good); they have a soft white tone, which makes it perfect to read before sleeping, and it’s enough light even to get to the drawers to get socks and company.

Not sure if LED technology improved this much while I was in the hospital, but at least I have to say that the LED lightbulbs are becoming quite interesting even for ceiling lamps. Who knows, maybe in a few years we’d be all saying “fluorescent lights? bah you’re not green enough!” ;)

Mirror lights

When you feel depressed for your personal situation, there are many things you can do to stand up again and don’t think about it. Myself, what makes me feel better most of the time is bricolage. Just making a new hole for a frame, or recabling a power plug, or changing the disposition of my room. Today, it was changing the ceiling light in my bathroom.

Let’s skip over the fact that my neighbour had a new ceiling light at home, and just focus on why I wanted to change mine: the previous one was quite small and a fluorescent light wouldn’t fit, and the bathroom was the last room in the house with an incandescent bulb. Well beside a couple of desk lamps that are never turned on.

I’m not sure if it’s a testosterone thing or whatever, but punching holes on the ceiling with a 18V battery drill is something that makes me feel powerful. Am I a freak? Probably.

Anyway what I want to hear others’ opinions about is about the lights of the mirror: right now it has two E14 screws, with just one 15W incandescent bulb in it, I used it mostly while shaving (as the 75W incandescent light on the ceiling wasn’t good enough) or when I didn’t need much lighting and this was a nice power saving. Now, the fluorescent light takes 20W, so I’ll probably just turn that one on, as it has better performances when compared to the amount of light, and it shouldn’t be much of an issue while shaving.

Even if the need for the mirror light is now quite reduced, it doesn’t mean I’ll never have to use it. Sometimes you need some more near lightsource to look for instance at a broken nail. It bugs me to have to use a 15W bulb for so little light. First I thought to replace the lights with some kind of halogen bulb, but even if those have way better performances, they still consume quite a bit. I don’t need so much light, I just need to reduce the power consumption.

Then an idea was in my mind: I have a sort of flashlight in a three-in-one tool (screwdriver and spirit level are the other two tools); the light tool uses a LED, supplied by a button battery, and has quite some autonomy. This convinced me that the best thing for my mirror lights would be a LED-based light system.

Now, do you think there are already kits to set up LED lights on a mirror closet? Are there LED-based bulbs that just need a socket and a controller? Are those 220V supplied, or should I decide for something battery-based? Any pointer and suggestion is very welcome.

Environment- and Wallet-friendly

As I think I said previously in one of the many posts related to the active PFC power supply units, I’m not really one of the greenest person on the world. I’m quite pragmatic, I’ll try not to increment waste, but I don’t usually actively try to reduce use. I know, I should care more and be more active on this, but I just can’t get enough time to care about so many things on my day.

There are, though, some things I care about because they are both good for the environment and help saving money, like the active PFC units, who both reduce the power waste, and makes it cheaper to keep a box running by improving its performance (and adding to this the fact that almost all active PFC units are rated 110~250, they are usually more suitable for places like here, where the voltage is actually floating between 195 and 240).

One other thing that is both environmental savvy and good for your wallet is the usage of fluorescent lights, which consumes a lot less than the old-style incandescent lights, and by now, the lights themselves are quite cheap too! I have changed all the lights in my house already, but two (one because I need to change the whole light support, the other because, well, the bulb support is broken and the higher weight of fluorescent lights stops it from making contact, plus for some silly reason if I leave it without a bulb, the other light connected to the same line starts blinking — problem with the electric return).

Then there are the water pressurisers, which I installed on every water outlet in my house, they increase the pressure the water flows, so they not only reduce the water usage, but increasing the pressure makes it way easier to clean stuff like toothbrushes and shaving razors; they also work as raw filters if the water is full of mineral residuals (like here) as most of the time the biggest grains will get stuck instead of coming out. This actually is half a problem as you need to clean the pressurisers regularly, at least once a month here, or the water flow will be easily cut in half.

But there is again another useful thing that is often ignored: the use of rechargeable batteries. In today’s world, there are a lot of devices that use AA or AAA batteries, and I know a lot of people who regularly buy tons of batteries to run them. This is especially critical here during Christmas and Easter, as my mother loves all that silly gadgets that move, make sound or light. Lately I’ve been buying NiMh rechargeable batteries to avoid this.

I started using them for my cordless keyboard (well, the same was true for the mouse, but those were provided initially by Logitech, while the keyboard was supposed to be used with alkaline batteries), but nowadays I have those in all the remotes, in the nail-grinding tool, in the book lights and in the wireless headphones. It’s way easier to just swap them with the charged backup pair when I hear the headphones growing softer.

As with many other choices, there is an initial “high” investment, as they do cost quite more than normal alkaline batteries, but then you easily get to cover their cost when you start recharging them after the first few uses (the average recharge count is about 500). It’s a nice thing to avoid polluting with tons and tons of alkaline batteries, and nowadays there are batteries with high enough mAh to last at least as long as alakine batteries even in high-drain use cases like book lights (at least for AA batteries, whose alkaline counterpart declared average is 2850 mAh: there are AA rechargeable batteries reaching 2800, and even if the cost is even higher, I’ve seen at least a model declaring 3000 mAh).

One step further, that I’m unable to make right now, would be to recharge them with solar panels. It shouldn’t be difficult, after all you just need to invert the polarity; I haven’t seen any specific hardware for this available, if someone knows of some, I’d be glad to know. After all during summer there is a tremendous amount of sun here, I might as well make good use of it. Having it recharge my Nintendo DS and the cellphones would also be nice ;)

Really, if I could put a solar panel just under the window of my room, during summer it could easily take care of recharging my stuff, considering it’s in direct sunlight between 14:00 and 21:00 for three/four months an year. And if there is nothing to charge, it could just be an extra fan that tries to take off the heat from me…

Oh well.