Engineering House

A Proposed New Bench, Brought To You By Amazing Tools

After talking about my planned bench on Episode 26 of The Amp Hour, I thought it’d be fun to animate the finished versions of my plans (or at least where I’m happy with for now). I know Dave likes making fun of me, but the implications of such free and powerful tools cannot be understated. Even 10 years ago, CAD programs were inaccessible to the layman. Now, a very simple and intuitive program like Google Sketchup is letting someone like me design something like this. Amazing. It’s a subtle message for engineers to keep increasing their values and their skills over the years, as skills that were once coveted become more mainstream and commoditized.

Also, I should explain before I get more questions about it. The thing hanging off the left side of the bench is to hold the mixer for recording music and The Amp Hour. My drumset usually is just to the left of that and I’d be able to control it while sitting and playing as well as when recording the radio show.

Basically, I’m continually amazed at the power of the tools available to us today. If you’re not already taking advantage, I’d suggest giving it a try.

What kinds of tools do you use that you continue to marvel at their ability and power?

Engineering House Learning Life

On The Importance of Prototyping

Sometimes I dive head first into problems and it gets me in trouble. Other times, this is called “prototyping”, which is encouraged in many engineering circles, and sometimes even required! The best case scenario is when you can flesh out the details and downfalls of a project before you make costly design decisions. You can realize not to use a particular op amp or even decide if a project is feasible at all.

I’m not shy to say that Google SketchUp is one of my recent favorite prototyping tools. While it’s not the SPICE simulation or the rapid circuit prototyping that most people might think of for analog system designers, it is useful in myriad projects. Even just knowing what form factor a future analog board might need to take (by making a quick drawing of what you envision your product to be) can save lots of time, money and headaches.

My experiences with Google SketchUp  prototyping (drawing, really) has been to help me realize what kinds of components I’m looking for when making design decisions. And it could help you too, at least in a mechanical perspective. Perhaps you know that a certain connector shape and size will be better than another. Or that you’re space constrained and can’t use a particularly large inductor.

My most recent (home) project has been building myself a home theater PC (or HTPC). I use it to watch shows on and surf the internet in my living room; in the future I might also task it with home automation type functions as well (turning on lights, closing blinds, etc). Quite convenient and the first PC I have ever built. But I wanted to mount the HTPC in a nearby stairwell to keep it out of sight. I first did a mockup drawing in Google Sketchup:

As you can see, the models are 3D; they’re darn easy to make too. I can’t speak highly enough of the program itself.

Aside from the program though, the results allowed me to figure out what I would need for my build. The first requirements were easy. I wanted to make sure my HTPC didn’t fall down the stairwell. I know, I’m a stickler for protecting my investments. But figuring out the shelf and strap idea was a breakthrough in my design. It would be low cost and sturdy. Here’s how it ended up looking:

Notice I ended up buying cheap off the shelf wall mounting brackets instead of trying to create my own out of 2x4s cut at funky angles. This was an iteration on the original design idea I had in the SketchUp drawing.

And a picture of the component that the model pointed to as critical for the design:

So would I have been able to design all of this without the “prototype” I made? Yeah, probably. I would have figured something out or used duct tape or something to get it all together and working in some capacity. In the situation shown here though, I was able to determine troublesome components and think of a workaround before they became an issue (i.e. it only took me one trip to the hardware store, pretty good given my past record).

So next time you’re doing a home or work project, try prototyping, even if it isn’t necessarily electrical (hey, maybe that’s even more reason to try it, right?). It could save you time, money and frustration.
Engineering House Life

Energy Consumption Improvements in the House

Now that we’ve made it through a bit of the summer, I think we really need to focus on something important.

Winter is on the way!

If I recall correctly, my home is still not quite up to snuff in terms of how much money I’d like it to cost me to heat and energize my house. I realize my home will never be 100% efficient. I also realize I’m not going to plop down money to get to 100% because that’s silly and sort of impossible. Instead, I have to pick my battles with my own castle and decide what will produce the biggest returns.

  1. Insulate
    • This is the number one project for the late summer/fall for me. I have very poor insulation in my upper floor. In fact, when we bought our house we could actually see the snow melting on the roof where the heat was escaping. Talk about watching your money fly out of your pocket! Check with a local contractor to see how much insulation you’ll need to really see some energy savings. Also, don’t forget the federal credit when you’re finally cutting that check…you could get up to a $1500 tax rebate.
    • But wait…there’s more! Don’t think that whole house insulation is the only thing to focus on. Oftentimes, the biggest culprits of letting expensive, hot air out (or in really) are the small cracks around windows and doors. Spending 40 bucks on some expandable foam, a tube of caulk, a water heater blanket and some new winterizing doorstops can go a long way.
  2. Turn it off
    • There’s no denying that the most effective way to cut energy consumption is by turning devices and lighting off when not using it. This idea, coupled with using energy when it is cheapest and most abundant, is the crux of the “smart grid” idea. For devices that aren’t managed by a central management unit such as the one in the article, most devices now have a “sleep” mode that has reduced processing instructions; the device periodically “wakes up” to check to see if anyone has requested its services and if not it’s back to sleep. Devices with low quiescent current (or the current while not doing much of anything) can show large energy consumption savings.
  3. Buy/Replace
    • Even though people probably don’t relish the idea of throwing away (or hopefully recycling) their old appliances, this is sometimes the best option. Your old freezer in the basement might be saving you trips to the grocery store (good) but might be doing it at the environment’s and your expense by increasing your electricity bill(bad). Pick up a Kill-a-Watt meter to see how much power your old junker is really pulling out of the grid; if it’s considerable, think about pulling the plug.
  4. Inspect your ductwork
    • Oy, with the not-electronics already! I know, it’s not glamorous, but it’s often the simple things in houses that can really cost you. This is a big weakness in my house and something I will have to address before this winter. Back in the 50s and 60s they must have thought it fashionable (or at least cheap) to attach boards to the underside of the crossbeams of my floors. As such, the air actually being pulled down through the cold air returns is minimal, most of the air is actually pulled down through the floorboards and back into the cold air intake of my furnace. It’s a good time in the summer to check out where your ducts are leaking air so that you can save big dollars in the winter months.
  5. Junk Water Dump
    • I saw an article a while back about the waste water from your tub also wasting energy. Think about how much natural gas/electricity it takes to get your water heater to temperature. Now think about how warm the water still is when it’s washed away all the nasty off your body. Finally, think about how cold the tap water can e in the winter. If you have a reservoir underneath your tub collecting warm wastewater and then coil the incoming cold water through it on the way to the water heater, you could possibly retain some of that usually wasted energy. Check out the link and check to see if you ever have that kind of option the way your house is set up. This could be the same for the dishwasher and the washing machine while the water is on “warm”.

I know you’ll see a lot of this information elsewhere but I’d feel silly not to encourage readers here to try it out for this coming winter. As I said above, there are many different monetary incentives to do so, both in rebates and power savings. I plan on getting the jump on these updates now so I can take advantage of the energy savings for cooling my house as well as heating it later on. If I find out about or come up with any other ways to save money and energy in the future, I’ll be sure to post them here.

What about you? Have you decided to do any updates to your home (energy-wise) while the weather is still nice? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Just leave them in the comments!