An Update on My Begleyan Quest for Efficiency

Last week I wrote about the inspiration I took from Bill Nye’s Unstoppable to improve the energy efficiency of my own home. This post is an update on that, so if you didn’t read that, it may be where you want to start.

Resolving to improve things has really opened my eyes to a number of things that I had either never considered or willfully ignored. I’ve already taken a few small steps toward improvements.

The first thing I wanted to do was check on the status of our attic insulation. No worries on that front, as there’s a solid layer of blown insulation up there. Surprisingly, the same is also true of the attic of the garage. That seems strange, given the garage itself is a drafty cold/hot mess. Very cold right now.

While in the garage attic, I did discover it is faced by our bedroom closet, which is always freezing. I believe I will add a layer of fiberglass insulation against that wall up there and see if that improves.

Also while examining the garage, I discovered this.


That would be a very large and obvious crack under the weather stripping of my internal garage door. Warm air is flooding out under there, and this is no doubt the biggest offender I’ve discovered in the house thus far. For now I’ve put a towel down to stop up that flow of air, and I’ll be exploring options for correcting the problem permanently. I expect that one problem alone accounts for a measurable and wasteful loss of efficiency.

I have been opening our living room windows during the sunniest parts of the day. We have three large windows side-to-side on the facing of the house that gets all the sun. This has noticeably improved the solar heat absorbed into the house during daylight hours, in theory taking load off the furnace. When it cools off, I close the blinds again for insulation. The only downfall to this particular strategy is I work in the basement, which is not aided by that heat upstairs much. Brr!

I picked up some caulk with an eye toward fixing some of the window cracks I’ve known about for a while. Two large window frames on the cold side of the house in particular need a lot of work. This is one area I’ve been willfully ignoring until now. We’ve redone some of the windows, and knew that more needed it, but it got put off.

I also discovered when shopping for a replacement dimmer bulb for the living room that they offer LED ones now. Dimmer bulbs have been an incandescent hold out, as standard energy efficient bulbs don’t handle it at all really. I picked up an LED to try, and it does not dim as variantly as the incandescent ones, but it does the job. The only real negative seems to be that it makes a soft buzzing sound when on. I worry that a whole array of them in the fan lights might be annoying. Still, the difference in efficiency between incandescent and LED is stark.

I’ve also tried to be better about turning PCs off in the house. I have a work and a personal desktop that are both almost always left on. That’s a convenience for both, but obviously wasteful. I’ve been turning them off when done with them. I have also been making an effort to unplug chargers when not in use.

Those are some of the steps I’ve taken or looked at so far. Here are some things on my hit list still:

  • Insulating hot water pipes
  • Converting the rest of our incandescent bulbs to CFL bulbs (the only ones that aren’t have been in our house and have not burned out since we moved in back in 2009!)
  • Being better about unplugging chargers when not in use
  • Checking fireplace for heat loss
  • Clean HVAC filter more regularly

We haven’t received an “efficiency” update yet from the power company. I’m interested to see it this time, and I’ll be hanging on to them now for comparison, to see how my efforts pan out.

Lessons from the Nye vs Begley Feud

I have been reading, and am almost finished with Bill Nye’s Unstoppabale (link to signed copy from Barnes & Noble). The book is a general overview of modern climate science and some of the options of dealing with it. Nye makes it no secret what his agenda is, so if you’re a climate change denier, or don’t believe it’s worth addressing, this may not be the book for you.

Some of the large scale ideas presented in the book are bizarre and impressive, such as massive concrete pistons raised by a water pump to hold energy in a potential state, to be recovered via gravity later. Wow. These devices would be used to store excess solar/wind energy near the production site for use later when they are not producing as well, making them the world’s most unconventional battery.

Large scale ideas aside, the part of the book I am finding most compelling is the telling of Nye’s “green feud” with his neighbor, Begley. I found these parts of the book hilarious and inspiring in equal measure. In general, Nye’s humor in the book is tasteful (though his incessant pointing out of puns gets a little grating).

Essentially when Nye moved into the neighborhood, he discovered that Begley was a hardcore conservationist, and had made many improvements/alterations to his house to further that agenda. Solar panels, solar water heating, ground water cistern, etc. Seeing these and the benefits they all offered, Nye felt compelled to “keep up with the Begleys”, leading to massive improvements in his own home.

I just love that. Competition for such a real and meaningful thing instead of who has the bigger better car or TV seems amazing. I have been similarly inspired to “keep up with the Begleys”.

We get a bi-monthly mailer from our gas/electric provider comparing our usages to similar nearby homes, presumably to engender this kind of competition, but it never moved me much in the past. Our house’s efficiency is middling, trending to high, but not “in the red”. I never worried over it much, as money isn’t a terribly large concern when it comes to a few (dozen?) dollars on the power bill.

I feel compelled now to change that attitude. Hearing Nye talk about how much fun he had making the changes and watching them work, as well as the savings and efficiencies realized, made it all seem much more visceral than a bar graph in a mailer. I’ll definitely be taking a look at what small changes can be made soon, and will be researching larger options like solar power installation. We get solid, unobstructed sunlight on an entire long facing of our roof, so I suspect they will be very effective.

So, I just wanted to share that I’ll soon also be trying to keep up with the Begleys (who I might add, Nye seems to far surpass in his telling). I’ll definitely be watching the mail with more interest to see how well I’m doing compared to my local Begley’s. Maybe I can inspire them to do the same.

Think Big. Act Big. Inspire Others. That’s a mantra I’m trying to adopt more in my own life. Thanks to @AstronautAbby for that.

Just Who Are These People Anyway?

I have written in the past about my strained relationship with characters. As a reader I am normally much more interested in the world, the universe, surrounding a story than I am invested in the characters. There are some notable exceptions, and I think that speaks to just how well those characters are written. I want to be able to write characters that make even me interested in them.

I have about a month and a half of prep time for my novel writing challenge in January. I am not allowed to actually write any real content before then, but I can plan to my heart’s content. Much of that prep-work will be really establishing who my characters are. What are their nuances? What drives them? What relationships do they have? I expect this is how most authors go about things, but this will be the first time for me.

Since I prefer reading about places, events, and grand schemes, I normally start my story planning there. I have come to understand this is generally viewed as amateurish, and I have no doubt a lack of experience is part of my problem. Perhaps taking the time to go through this intense prep-work for this story will make all my future characters stronger. I hope so.

I have been toying with the idea of doing some writing exercises – randomizing some traits and motivations and trying to write character-focused vignettes to get in the habit of caring about them more. Does anyone have experience with this? It seems like it would be a good primer for getting back into writing in general, being a solid writing task, but not something that will distract me long-term. I’ll have to schedule some time. Perhaps I will post them up here.

Productivity Is On The Rise

Over the past few weeks I have made a commitment again to be more productive / self-enriching. Other than activities at my day job (which I enjoy well enough, but don’t find particularly … rewarding), I had been in a real slump lately, with no real productive output and a lot of wasted time (at least, wasted in my mind – that is an argument I get into often with friends that I won’t delve into here).

I have started scheduling my days again, and that has helped tremendously, as it has in the past. I just need to commit to sticking with it. It’s much harder to slack off and waste time when that time slot is burning a hole in a schedule you took the time to prepare.

I recently signed up for an online electronics class offered through MIT. I happened to see the opportunity, and the timing was perfect for this push to become more productive, so I said what the hell and signed up. It cost me nothing, so the risk was low. So far, the reward has been great. I’ve really been enjoying the lectures, and the information is inherently relevant to my electronics hobby. The only “downfall” is I have had to relearn some calculus from wayyy back in 2003/2004. Admittedly, I have mostly had to relearn how to make my TI-89 do that calculus.

On top of that, I have committed, with a subset of a writer’s group, to a NaNoWriMo clone event to be held in January. November has never and pretty much will never work for me. Good luck to all of you currently participating. I’ll be spending some time this month and next planning heavily for that. I have a solid story idea in mind. It’s one I’ve wanted to do for a while and just haven’t committed to before now.

Additionally, I’ve been spending some time developing a card game I put some work into long ago. This one is a tougher one for me, because I really enjoy doing these things collaboratively, and my friends are generally unwilling to commit time to game development, despite all having an interest in it. I could look for other groups or online groups, but that seems like more tangential effort than I’m willing or able to exert at the moment. For now I will press on alone.

So, I am tackling productivity on three fronts currently. I really don’t know if this is a sound strategy. On one hand, I have a range of interests and I feel the pull of all of them. On the other, I fear that spreading myself too thing runs the risk of losing interest in all of it and devolving back into indulgent consumption again. I wonder if it might not be better to devote myself to a single pursuit, to really challenge myself in that domain, and see what happens.

In the past when I have done that, I’ve achieved “success”, followed by a rapid decline of interest. This seems to be a true failing of my personality. Once I know I can accomplish something with a reasonable modicum of success, there’s no allure in it anymore. I don’t know how to avoid that and instead build on that success into bigger and better things.

For now, I am testing the waters again. Once I finish my class, I have the option of two other follow on classes. I will probably need to focus solely on writing in January to complete the event, so perhaps I’ll see if that’s an area I can really invest myself in fully again. Will have to see how it all shakes out.

Better Than Expected

It turns out that my choice of starter vehicle for my RC car project was even better than I thought. I was able to completely remove the battery casing and circuit board by removing a single screw, which left me with an ideal workspace to put in whatever I need. It also netted me a modular battery pack, which is pretty rare based on my personal scavenging of electronics.

After checking that the existing electronics were passing in full voltage to both of the motors, I removed everything, giving me ample room to put in my own stuff. The frame had a nice lip for inserting a platform for my Arduino to live on.

I measured out a piece of balsa wood and screwed my Arduino down to it. Right now it is just resting on the frame. I am not sure how I want to go about mounting it. My prevailing thoughts are hot glue or boring out some slits and zip tying it on.

The existing power supply was 7.5 volts. The Arduino seems to naturally output a maximum of 5 volts. That would probably suffice, given I am not looking for a speed demon (at least initially), but I’ll have to look into how to increase that voltage output for my own knowledge. I plan to power the Arduino with a 9 volt battery, which should tuck nicely under the platform.

Next up is writing some simple instructions and wiring the motors in to the Arduino. I have decided I need something to call this project. I think I’ll go with Project Origin. Also, sorry for the terrible pictures…I’ll try to work on making those better.

Fresh Canvas for a New Project

I am back in the land of the productive, and am starting my first serious electronics project with my Arduino Uno. An Arduino is an open source microcontroller that is great for hobby electronics projects. I picked one up some time ago, and other than tinkering with some buttons and LEDs, I have not done anything serious with it.

Arduino Uno – Intimidating at first glance

I have been meaning to get more serious about my electronics hobby for a while, and have recently been inspired out of my creative slump by the reappearance of my favorite childhood show, Battlebots.

Icewave – Basically a lawn mower without safety guards. What could go wrong?

The first episode, which aired last Sunday, was everything I wanted it to be. It was very true to the original show. I love that there is a prime time show that celebrates robotics and engineering, even if it requires smashing said engineering to bits in the process.

For my first project, I decided to cheat a little and start by modifying an existing physical structure. The obvious choice for me was an RC car. Here’s what I picked as the starting point for my creation.

An RC car brings a frame and purpose designed motors to the table. My plan is to rip out the existing circuitry and splice my controller in, along with programming to make the car do what I want. At first this will just be simple hard-coded directions. Go straight for 2 seconds. Turn left. Go straight for 2 seconds. Once I have the interface with the motors figured out, I’ll pick up some proximity sensors and make things more interesting.

I chose this particular model because I wanted a relatively flat and workable body to mount everything on. I felt kind of silly pressing my face to the packaging of RC cars in the toy aisle, struggling to see what things were like under the hood, but my efforts were ultimately rewarded as this gave me exactly what I wanted. I can remove the circuit board in the middle and mount my controller right there. That is the plan at least. I will post an update when things are further along.