Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DIY Keyboard and Mouse Lap Board

A while back I had to give up my office so our kids could each have their own room. That left me with trying to find an unobtrusive corner of the house to cram all of my stuff into. I wound up getting rid of a lot of stuff and consolidated big time. One point of consolidation was to take an old credenza and turn it into a wing desk for my laptop and game rig. It just tucks in to the right of my chair and shares a small bit of overlapping space with my "big" desk which is just a 3 x 3 foot corner desk itself. I'm making the most of a very small footprint these days!

Well, gaming is one thing I like the PC for. As such, I have usually a full keyboard and mouse in use. The credenza is a bit tight for getting comfortable so typically I wind up sitting back in my chair with the keyboard balanced on my left leg and the mouse pad resting on my right. This leads to some bad game play moments when the keyboard decides to slide out of place.

So, to solve this problem, I wanted a tray for both keyboard and mouse that would not be tied to the desk and could fit the way I use the devices specifically for game play. I envisioned a boomerang shaped desk that could take up the length of my left thigh and allow enough surface on the right for the mouse pad. What I came up with is this:

It's just two pieces of left over 1/4" sub-floor with a hole to allow a small nut and bolt with washers at a single hinge point to allow adjustments.  After making it and using it (and liking it) for a few weeks, I went ahead and made it pretty with some stain to match the majority of the wood-work in the office corner.  I keep calling it a butterfly keyboard tray so I guess that's as good of a name as any.  I think I splashed out about 30 cents on the hardware as everything else was just left over items.   I like quick and easy solutions.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Savings from Electric Water Timer

I can now quantitatively recommend the excellently placed investment in the installation of an electric timer for your electric hot water heater.  First let's get a baseline of data to support this statement.

Below is a table of data, the same used in previous charts graphing our electric bills for the past year.  I've added a column showing the kWh (kilo-Watt-hour) utilization and a cost in pennies per each.

Statement Dt Cost kWh Cost / kWh
09/20/09 116 959 0.12
10/28/09 117 968 0.12
11/20/09 127 1050 0.12
12/20/09 121 1013 0.12
01/29/10 139 1184 0.12
02/21/10 134 1155 0.12
03/25/10 117 978 0.12
04/28/20 137 1175 0.12
05/28/10 124 1033 0.12
06/21/10 131 1058 0.12
07/28/10 112 889 0.13
08/20/10 125 1010 0.12
09/23/10 108 847 0.13
10/28/10 86 655 0.13
11/20/10 85 647 0.13

As you can see, the cost per kWh has been creeping up.  Notice that this is for the past year back into 2009.  My wife found a note she'd made in 2004 when we were paying .09 per kWh.  That was way back before we used a lot of CFLs, timers, had better windows and power hungry CRTs everywhere and the average monthly bill was right around $100.

Notice the last two rows in the table above.  The October bill represents our first month of automatic switching of power.  The month preceding that we did our best to manually turn it on and off as we remembered, which was nearly every day but not as precise.  The automatic timer is set up to give us morning and evening hot water in enough abundance that we are fine with confining our showers to evening time and getting our wash done during the day.  Sometimes these switch where wash is done at night and showers in the morning.  No great discomfort is felt on our part.

So, an updated version of our chart (now rendered by Open Office on Mac OSX) looks like this.

 Now that, my friends, is quantitative evidence of a money saving trend, which justifies both the cost and effort to install as well as the mild inconvenience of scheduling your major consumption periods of hot water.  I should add, we are not without hot water during the day.  Our tank is a 75 gallon model and we often have enough hot water throughout the day for washing hands and the like.  

Updated 12/22/2010 (I finally charged my old camera phone)  Here's what the installation looks like.  The Orange wire is 12 gage 2-wire.  This is attached right next to our breaker box.
So, if you're on a budget (you are, aren't you?), go out, get a "little grey box" like device and install it or have it professionally installed.  It will be worth the cost if done right.  And do get it done right.  If you don't know how, ask a friend who does and pay them with a nice bit of food or a return favor.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Motivating My Kids

As a parent, getting the kids to do what they are supposed to do is the biggest challenge.  I can handle the birds and bees talks, the life and death discussions - but getting the kids to DO something they don't want to do has got to be the biggest challenge.

Tonight, I had a revelation from God and broke it down for Offspring #1.  The example at hand was cleaning the bedroom (a certified disaster area eligible for federal funds).   I taught 4 principles for tackling a seemingly insurmountable job that I thought were worth recording here for others.

Principle 1: Awareness.  You have to know what the job is, identify it's parts and take stock of what needs to be done.  Do you have the tools you'll need (baskets for misc toys, etc.)?  Never let yourself say "I can't" or "I'll try" because the first totally preempts victory and the second allows the possibility of failure.

Principle 2: Discipline. You'll need to keep reminding yourself of what the task consists of until it's done.  It's the only way you'll know when you are done and it is essential to keeping your mind focussed on the task.  If you need to make a list, do that.  If you need to break the work up into visual chunks, you can do that too.  A strategy I teach everyone here for attacking a messy room is to categorize.  Pick the biggest category of item and get all of that first.  It optimizes your time and frees your mind from the dullness of thinking about each item one at a time.

Principle 3: Motivation. Make a game out of it.  A favorite game here is "mail" where things get picked up into a bag and then "delivered" to where they need to go.  "beat the clock" and "i spy" work well too.  I also pointed out the value of tackling the low hanging fruit first (and what that meant) and how small victories encourage you to tackle larger items, so organizing your work from smallest to largest can work too.  Celebrate each small victory.

Principle 4: Endurance.  The most important thing to achieving total victory over a task is to complete it.  That last fraction will be tempting to put off until later, but do it now while you're still motivated and have momentum.  It's the hardest thing besides getting started but the biggest victory because victory over the last fraction of the job is victory over the entire job.

Brilliant Offspring #1 (we'll name this one someday) added Principle 5: Celebrate!  When you accomplish a big goal, it's time for a big celebration.  Cookies and milk, having a friend over to play, whatever is suitable to the work accomplished.

As I was typing this, my little ward came down with a crayon written version (from memory, with some adaptations) of the above in short form and asked me to type it up and print a copy.  So we did and now it's officially a tool for use in the Carter house. :-)

DIY TV Repair

I confess, that title sounds like the lead in for a comedy sketch or a photographic essay on the misapplication of duct-tape.  But, by the grace of God, it's the truth.  Our TV started flaking out last Thursday and my resourceful wife Googled the model number and problem description and was able to secure information and detailed instruction for repair.  Armed with this knowledge, I set about deconstructing our 5 year old (bought factor refurbished no less) flat panel TV.  After about 40 screws were removed and carefully grouped on the workbench by geographic origin, I was able to gingerly dislodge the circuit board for the power supply, locate the three failed capacitors (bulged out on top a slight bit rather than perfectly flat) and remove them.

The following morning, out for breakfast with Offspring #1, we picked up three new capacitors with the same mili-jule rating (1000uf) at a slightly higher voltage, 35v as opposed to the parts being replaced which were 25v.  I also needed a desoldering tool as I couldn't clear the holes on the board with my improvised bit of wire.  All told, the cost was $16.33 including tax.  I think the capacitors were only $1.87 a piece or so... expensive as capacitors go but the price to pay for one-off access (in multiples of 3).

My wife and I agreed, $16.33 is much more affordable than a new TV or a $75 minimum repair look-see.  And, to my amazement, the  whole thing works just fine... and I learned a bit about capacitors.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fall Project Barrage

This past weekend was a good opportunity to catch up on a couple of items that I've been wanting to knock out.

Hung Out To Dry

We decided we liked the clothesline arrangement out back so the posts got set in cement Saturday.  It's getting too cold to use them now but we might chance one or two more days of use before winter really sets in.  Making inside arrangements for clothes drying without electricity has been the subject of some research and discussion.

The "Amish" make collapsible wooden drying racks that look really nice and fold away for storage.  Unfortunately, good ones start around $80 and go up from there.  Plus they take up floor space which, in our somewhat cramped family room in the basement, is at a premium.  God blessed me though with a new friend at work who shares many if not all of my values and views.  He's a remarkable individual in his own right having survived near total bodily decimation in an auto wreck 20 years ago.  On a recent visit to his place, I noticed a very sad looking "party" deck in the back yard.  I asked him if he had plans to fix it up.  "I want it gone."  A quick visual inventory told me that it was a trove of reusable materials, so I offered to help demolish it in exchange for first pick of the best parts.  He readily agreed as his wife was keen to have it gone as well.  A couple of weeks later we were having a party with the Sawsall and a nice hefty sledgehammer.  The railing was made out of 7/8 inch rigid conduit and was one of the first things I called dibs on.  And that's where this story and the need for clothes drying space inside meet.

Taking two six foot lengths of the pipe, I assembled some home-brew expanding gaskets using about $3.00 worth of hardware from Wal-mart.  Starting with a 1-1/2" x 1/8" screw I added:
  1. a small lock washer 
  2. a 5/8 inch washer
  3. a 1" x 2" strip of felt folded thrice and wrapped around the screw
  4. an additional 5/8 " washer
  5. a 6" length of 350 lb. dog chain
  6. one final 5/8 washer and...
  7. the nut.

This assembly was placed inside the end of the pipe and then the nut was tightened, compressing the felt between the two inner washers.  I kept tightening till the gasket made a very snug fit inside the pipe.  Repeating this at the opposite end, I hung the chains from the bottom of the floor joists by screwing 1/2" wood screws through the other end of the chain.  Et viola, semi-instant clothes hanging space.  Using plastic hangers and clothes-pins where needed, we have enough hanging space to dry a load of laundry up out of the way.

Electric Crusade

Last month I posted our results for our electric bill attained by turning off the water heater except when needed.  We managed to narrow it down to about 3 hours a night.  To our great joy, our electric bill for last month was only $87 for roughly 600 kw hrs.  This is half the electricity we would use keeping it on all the time.  That pretty much sold us that it would be worth the hassle for me to wire up the 40 Amp 220 V Timer.   I sent a call out to our neighborhood network seeking just 5 ft. of 10-2 660v wire.  Fortunately, the engineer down the street was installing an electric space heater in his garage last weekend and after getting it run, he had 5 1/2 ft. left over.  God is good!  He was happy to let me have it (and knows I'm happy to share whatever excess I find myself in possession of that fits his future needs as well) and inside an hour I had the switch wired in.

I started by cutting the mains and then cutting the line coming out of the main panel leaving enough to bend it into a new junction box and splice the new wire in.  I used heavy gauge wiring nuts to connect the new splice to the old wire.  10 gauge wire is stiff stuff, so it was easy to use needle nose pliers to bend the leads into alignment like small pipes to make twisting the wiring nuts on easy.  The timer simply mounted to the same board the main panel and new junction box are fastened too.  After carefully studying the wiring diagram, I cut the spliced in line and threaded it through the knock-outs on the timer box  and made the connections.   This particular timer is electro-mechanical and so "setting" the timer involves screwing the properly colored cut-in and cut-out tabs onto the timer wheel.  We set the timer to run the water heater from 6:30 to 9:30 and after a day of use it seems to be sufficient for our 78 gallon tank which has a 4 inch foam jacket.   The other nice feature is that it has a manual cutoff/on switch which itself is actuated with the timer, so you can turn it off early if you like or on early if you like.

I'll report back in the future to let you know if our savings hold out.  One future bit of data crunching to do yet is to compare the dollar figures from last months chart with the actual price per kwh we were paying.  That, I expect, will show that while we've been cutting our use, the cost has been rising with the down economy (for various reasons - lack of wholesale buyers to offset our facilities costs for one) and while we're making good progress against our cost here, it could be a lot lower with the cuts and improvements we've made.

Hogan Hero

The last bit of fun this weekend was building the shell of a Navajo Hogan, sans dug out, out of cedar rails for the kids and their friends to play in.  It was an immediate hit and was occupied for the remainder of the day till sunset.  I got the idea from D.C. Beard's Shelters, Shacks, And Shanties.  It's a great resource for educating your own woodland critters on the finer points of wilderness survival.    A real hogan is sometimes big enough for a man to stand in and is usually dug into the earth or overlaid with sod or dirt.  Ours is just a free standing arrangement of cedar rails for demonstration and play purposes.  Having had a lot of fun building it though, I think we might build a real one (including digging the pit to set it over) out near our campsite sometime next year.  Maybe.  I suppose the last thing they need is a place to get into trouble hidden away from the watchful eye of mom and dad.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Power Savings Adding Up

For a month now we've been shutting off the Electric Water Heater during the day and turning it on a couple of hours before showers and laundry and shutting it off after.  Sometimes we'll turn it on before going to bed and then off in the morning or get up a bit early to turn it on and have showers an hour or so later.  This has had a measurable impact on our energy use and I think at this point it merits setting up the 40 Amp 220 V timer to control the on/off times for us.   I purchased the switch a long while back and never set it up since I wasn't sure it would have an impact.  It appears that it will.  Take a look at the graph below.

We've established a good downward trend but this isn't all just flipping a breaker with some regularity.  Let's review some of the changes that we've made in the last two years to help us get there.
  • Replaced our Old Windows
  • Added a Wood Stove as secondary heat, became mostly our primary heat source.
  • Replaced all lights with CFLs.
  • Added motion switches in a couple of strategic areas.
  • Stopped using the Clothes-dryer so much when we installed an outdoor clothesline.
  • Not mentioned in a blog but - got rid of energy hungry computer and CRT monitor and replaced with a used Mac-Mini and flat panel monitor
  • Added a wind break / privacy fence on the windy side of the house
I'm not going to go into the dollars and cents here because it will make me cry, but we stretched ourselves financially to the limit to accomplish these things.  Some were for the future knock-on savings.  Some were for the improved energy independence and some were just things we wanted to do anyway.  All in all, it has all been a value add on our home.  Realizing savings from these things will likely take a few years and may not happen at all with the rising and variable cost of electricity, but we'll pray and see.

Friday, September 10, 2010

South Side Courtyard

I've been emboldened lately in my carpentry efforts.  After building the clothesline and enjoying the work that went into it as well as the sense of accomplishment, I decided it was high time to do something about the. disused side, the ugly side, of our house.  It's the south side, sadly, that is so unloved here.  Just the utility meters,  a pile of tires, and our AC compressor.  Not much to look at and as a mater of fact, a pretty useless space except for traversing from front yard to back.  Weeds had overgrown and the grade didn't slop away from the house nicely, so the time for action had arrived.

I had my local help (aspiring Dr. / Lawyer 15 yr old from down the road) de-weed and grade the area with a pick and rake.  Then I called in the utilities to mark where the under ground gas, electric and phone were located.  I was on my own figuring out where our well line ran but had a pretty good bearing on that.  Once the area was marked, I started measuring out the area I wanted the fence and flagged the holes.  I didn't use any fancy trig to get it square, just kept checking my measurements and moving stakes till things were true.

Off to Lowes for 13 pressure treated 4" x 4" x 8' posts which went 18" into the hard clay.  This was actually fun for me as using an old clamshell post hole digger really gives you a good upper-body workout.  One night I was so eager to get out and dig I skipped dinner and got to learn all about the need for carbs!  I had started smelling ammonia and kept looking around for the cat peeing on the house, a post, my leg... something.  Lo and behold - the stench was coming right off my chest.  Turns out that when you don't have carbs, your body breaks amino acids for energy and produces an excess of nitrogen in the process.  This bonds with CO2 and if you can't (or aren't) peeing it out fast enough, you sweat pure ammonia.  Wow.  Blew my mind and cleared my nose.

Once the holes were dug and I was happy with their placement, I ordered fence panels and concrete which came two days later on pallets (reusable!) by truck.  It only took one night to mix cement and set the posts.  A trick I learned while doing it was not to set the posts all in a row, one by one, but to set the corners first,  then tie a string or rope between them along one side as a guide for the other posts.  This helped me find that one hole was too far to one side so I was able to widen it before setting the post there and the lines are very straight now with the panels on.

It took me about three nights to put up the fence panels (two in the wind!) with screws, including cutting them to size.  They were 6' x 8' and I really wanted my posts 6' apart for wind resistance, so close to two feet came off each segment which left me with 11 nice narrow segments of fence for other future projects.  I found triple corrosion resistant screws at the local hardware store and the coating really made the screws go in like butter with my electric drill.

Tonight I built the small gate that will go at the front to permit the utility meter readers access to the area.  That came together nicely and prompted me to impromptu an infomercial for "invisible gate".  We make it! Where is it? We don't know! It's invisible gate!!  One large gate at the back will allow garden tractor and cart to be parked there as needed and allow larger items to move in and out, like perhaps a picnic table.

The fence will also get a coat of colored stain to match the house and protect the wood.  5 Gallons will hopefully do it but I might have to go back for more.  Corner boards will go up and get the same color as the corners of our house to tie it all together.  Not sure how I'll work the tops though as I chose stockade tops for the fence (like slightly rounded pickets) and my posts are square and a tad above the fence tops.  I'll have to think on that for a while.

So far, project costs:

Yep.  A fair sight more expensive than I thought I was getting myself in for at the outset.  But, to date, no regrets.  The courtyard already feels like an extension of our home and despite still being rough, it feels like a nice place to be outside with some privacy when you want it.  And, as it is near our bedroom, I have noticed it already cuts down on the wind noise around the corner of our house at night, which is an added and unexpected benefit. Once it's painted and the interior space less rugged, I'll try to get some pictures on here.  Ever since switch to a camera-less phone for work, I've been less the shutter-bug.

So - some lessons learned, some good hard and enjoyable work, some nice craftsmanship going into the finished product... I'd say I'm well pleased with this project despite the cost of all new materials.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Solar Power: Clothes Dryer

It seemed like our electric bill was high or getting higher.  At one point it felt like it was climbing 9% per month.  In actuality, it fluctuates wildly month to month, shown below.  The last figure is an out-lier as we were gone for 8 days during that period and the hot water heater, dryer and washing appliances were all off duty during that time.  Just that 8 days saved us 14.5%! 
Household Electric Bill -  9/09 - 7/10
The chart is baselined at $100 to provide more drama, which really needs no help.  While we've started a modest downward trend, it's still up where I would consider it too expensive.  So three weeks ago, having identified what I perceive as the main energy hog in our house, I put together a new solar powered clothes dryer.  In other words, up went a 4 strand clothes line.

I was proud that it only cost me about $36 in new hardware.  I had scavenged some pressure treated 1" x 3" x 44" boards from the Lowes dumpster locally - free for the asking.  Also left over from the garden fence project were two 8' x 4" x 4" pt posts.  Using my miter saw, I made 45° gussets for a cross member from the 1 x 3's and assembled what basically looked like telephone poles with for wires running between two of them. Screws were left over from the play ground kit and scavenged from our old shutters.

The poles went two feet into the clay and the cross members were an inch from the top, leaving room to glue on some old copper / tin post caps.  Max height of line is then 5'-11" so my wife has no trouble reaching.  The poles are 40 ft apart.  I bought 200 ft of steel core green plastic line which has stretched with use.  Fortunately, I anchored it to the hooks on either end with cable thimbles and u-bolts so it is adjustable for tensioning.  I could probably come up with a more convenient tensioner mechanism given some more time... something that doesn't require getting out the socket wrench.

Per usual, till we're satisfied with placement and utility, the post holes are just backfilled with crushed limestone and capped with packed clay.  If we like what we have, I'll cement them next year.  It took about three evenings to put it all together; one night spent shopping for hooks, u-bolts and cable, one night cutting the gussets and one night assembling and installing.  Probably 3 or 4 hours all together in effort.  I installed the whole thing in an area that gets full sun for about 85-90% of the day during summer and should get 100% daily sunlight other times of the year.

I am very much looking forward to what our electric bill is like next month.  I am anticipating a good percentage drop, perhaps 30%.  We'll see.  Also consuming a lot of load here is our Electric hot water heater, two freezers, a refrigerator, a dehumidifier which runs in 4 hour intervals, the clothes washing machine and the dish washing machine.  Lights are almost all now CFL except for the basement which has dimmers so those are incandescent but I took half the lights out of the recessed cans down there.  My desk lamp is a 40 watt... I can't have a cold blue glow of a CFL at my nice warm writing desk... just too incongruitous.

I'm looking closely at other solar powered items, like the food dehydrator I mentioned last month.  A Solar water heater is very appealing to me as it would be something within my mechanical means.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Food Storage - Dehydrators

This is not a food blog, but a DIY blog, mostly.  As we continue to see signs that the economy is getting worse, supplies are becoming limited, and things in the future may not as be cheap and convenient as the past, it seems good to me to turn our attention to the well being of our families.  Some religions, I understand, teach long term food storage as a preparation for certain prophetic events.  I'm a Baptist, and the only prophetic event we generally look forward to is the Rapture, which means material needs will not apply.  But, I don't have any doubt things could get much much worse before they get to be on par with the end times discussed in scripture.  
With that in mind, I began my investigation into food dehydration this afternoon.  I found many good resources which appear below.

First, you'll want some general information, hints and tips from an experienced food dehydrator.  Dehydrate2Store has a lot of good information.  There are videos, recipes, hints and tips and apparently an avid following.  The biggest value on this site (to my eye) was the tips section.  I printed and filed that.

There are apparently a number of different dehydrators commercially available on the internet.  Some people say they all amount to plastic boxes with fans.  Some people swear by electric, some swear by solar only.  A few things ran common, however.  Any unit worth the money or time to construct will be made out of food grade materials wherever the food or drying air will be circulating.  Lots of materials you might think are good for a DIY version are actually stabilized with chemicals you do not want leaching into your food.  Good old standards like Stainless Steel mesh, glass and untreated wood seem to be the best and safest components.

There are a lot of plans out there.  I found two that I tucked away for a future endeavor.  This one uses just glass, black painted metal, screen and solar power.  It appeals to me for the simplicity and lack of moving parts.  The main draw backs are a dependence on sunlight and a lack of good temperature control.  Dehydrate2store recommends 120 - 125 F.  Most sites agree that much over 130 and you are cooking your food instead of drying it, which can give you a cooked flavor in your dried goods rather than a fresh flavor.  The lower slower temperature preserves the most flavor.

Alton Brown has a lot of good tips and a humorous presentation style.  He talks about energy efficiency, food flavor and practicality.  He also offers a good tip for food prep - lemon juice cut with water as a pre soak to kill bacteria and pathogens and help the food retain better food and color longer.

On the energy efficiency side, there are some folks that like to use light bulbs, and some that suggest you get a gecko warming ceramic element (like Alton does).  To my mind, anything electric means more of the stuff that seems to be going up in cost about 9% per month here.  I'm thinking it won't be long before deep cycle batteries and a hand full of cheap solar panels will be very cost effective.

But I digress.   If you are going to go electric, it seems that ceramic is the best heating element.  Light bulbs produce light and heat and the light isn't strictly useful for drying food and in fact can degrade photo sensitive nutrients.  If you do use a light bulb, make sure it actually produces heat.  CFLs don't produce as much as incandescent, and halogens produce massive heat.  Which brings me back to the temperature control I mentioned earlier.

Temperature control is important in any configuration you use.  Alton and other suggest using a kitchen thermometer.  A cheap meat and poultry thermometer might do just fine.  If you don't have a variable and controllable heat source, you will need a variable and controllable heat exhaust or cool air intermix feature on whatever you build.

My thought for this is if I go solar, I would want to have a sliding slat behind the air inlet holes.  Reducing air flow by sliding the slat over more holes would increase the temperature.  Opening more inlets would allow more cool air into the dehydrator, increase air flow and lower the temperature.  This is strictly a manual, low tech approach that would require some pretty constant monitoring on partly cloudy days.  A mechanical thermostat would be a good way to automate this.  Old thermostat controls (non digital) have bi-metal springs that could be useful here.

So, I think this is definitely on my list of things to do, along with continuing the expansion of my cultivated area in the garden.  The more food I can produce and dry, the more we have that is ready (even out of season) in the winter.  Ultimately, I would need to produce and dry several tens of bushels of food per summer to feed us through the winter and would need to supplement with hunting.  Hopefully, things don't get bad so quickly that I run out of time to ramp up our capacity here.   Cheery thoughts, no?  Chin up - humans are one of the most tenacious and adaptable creatures on the planet.  Little adventures like this will make it all the more enjoyable when hard times do set in.

Friday, May 21, 2010

PVC Cable Minders

 PVC is great stuff.  It's durable, millable, drillable and paintable.   Once upon a time I created a monitor riser for my laptop to sit under.  You can read about that here.

Recently, I moved my desk yet again and it would now have the back facing the room.  That's the side where a waterfall of cables usually drapes to the floor, making it impossible to find a wire for a given device to unplug it and creating problems for keeping the floor clean.  Nobody wants to vacuum if they have to pick up a rats nest every time.

The solution was to make some custom cable minders to hang off the back of the desk to keep things some what tidy and out of the way.  Here's a couple of shots of those which I created from a spare length of 2" PVC.

Here's a single unit.  It amounts to a "C" shape with a hole near one end throug which a 3/8" wood screw holds it to the desk.  With dense fiber board like that used in my furniture, this is sufficient.  If you have a softer material, a longer screw may be advisable - just don't put in more screw than you have wood.
And here's an indication of the spacing.  I created three in all.

The only thing on the floor now is the power strip.  These were pretty easy to make and just took a tiny bit of work.  To start with, you'll want some 2" PVC.  I use schedule 40 for most of my work due to the hardness.  You  get a more rigid structure and thicker walls which means a bit more work cutting but a lot lower incidence of failure.

I don't have step by step photos (apologies) but here are the steps I went through.

Before you start, remember safety rules.  I use un-powered hand tools for most of my work except when impractical. They are safer and cheaper and often times work just as well.  Use your brain and don't blame me if you get cut up doing this.  PVC is a bit stiff but will work easy enough if you are patient and careful.  Alway cut away from yourself, look both ways before crossing the street, and wear clean underwear for the love of Pete.

1. Mark your segments on the pipe with a grease pencil, crayon or sharpie.  Allow for blade width if you are picky about uniformity.  I'm not in this case.

2. Make a line parallel to the pipe along one side.  This will be your center line for drilling the screw holes.

3. I used my baby drill press to drill a hole on the center line in each of the segments I had marked out.

4. Cut the segments free from the pipe as a group if you only have two or three.  If you are making a lot, you'll want to do them in groups of three, four at most....

5. ...because next you'll want to head to the miter saw.  I have an old fashion one that my fingers don't fear too much.  Make a set of lines parallel to the screw center line about 1/4" away from the center line and about 1/2" or slightly more apart from each other.  You will remove this material with your saw.  I used my biggest wood block clamp and a sacrificial bit of blocking to get this set on the saw.  Clamp, cut one of the lines through one side of the pipe, unclamp, line up the second cut, cut through one side and then remove the waste material and burs.  A pocket knife or box cutter is handy for getting the burs off.

6.  Turn the piece 90 degrees and cut each cable minder free.  You might need to block and clamp your last one for finger safety.

7.  Decide where you want your cable minders and drill a small pilot hole if you have very hard material.  I did and so I put in three 1/16" pilot holes. 

8. Insert screws through the inside of the "C" and into your pilot holes and tighten till snug.  Don't over tighten as you may strip out the wood and have to move your cable minder to a new pilot hole.

9. Run your cables.  You can see from the pictures that I just fed them through the gap in the "C" and then looped the excess back and forth so all the cable was up off the floor.

Now, as a bonus step, if you are really anal like I can be sometimes, use zip-ties to tie the cables that must run to the floor to find the power strip to the legs of your desk.  In the past, I had done the revers and mounted the power strip up under the desk, but then the power button is hard to get to.

There you go.  If you already have scrap lying around (like every good shop hog should), free cable minders for little effort.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Custom Built Reading Lamp

I've been wanting to get this written up for a while now.  Sometime last October I was having a less that perfect day and stopped by Lowe's on the way home to hunt around for a couple of pieces I had been wanting to get for a lamp I wanted to build.  I picked up some 8x10 sheets of clear lexan, a copper post cap, some copper tacks and headed home.  Then I set about scrounging up the parts I needed to build the frame for what is pictured below - a sort of lantern style table lamp.


I took a piece of red oak I had left over from making a bench seat and squared it up with the table saw.  Then I pulled out an old piece of quarter round left over from making my root cellar and used the table saw again to segment it into four 10" pieces and then put slots for the windows in them.  These went together with a spacer made from 1/4 plywood which I had used to line some cabinets with.

To make the corner notches, I just set the rail on the table saw the width of the quarter round away from the blade and then cut the corners by flipping the piece over and rotating it 90 degrees each time.

I also used the table saw to size the lexan sheet.  Lexan is very hard and tends to chip, so I had to go slowly cutting it.  The top spacer was made the same way as the bottom but has one side cut short to allow the lexan on that side to be pulled up to maintain the bulb.  The quarter round was toe-nailed into the spacer with a nail gun and then glued with Tight Bond III wood glue.  This assembly was clamped and glued to the heavy oak base.  The base, I should mention, almost broke my hand.  I was drilling it with a flat drill bit on the drill press and had forgotten to clamp it down.   BAD.  At one point the bit locked up in the wood and it turned into a whirling wheel of death giving me some pretty awesome sub-dermal abrasions and bruises.  If I had decided on a rectangular base, I would probably have a broken hand or wrist.

Update 2/23/2011 - The Lexan has had a rattly sound in the slots for a long time, making the lamp noisy to turn on and off and seem cheap and fragile.  The other night I put a dab of hot glue in each corner inside the lamp where the lexan fits into the slots, top and bottom.  The whole structure is much more solid feeling now and sounds a lot more stable and sturdy when turning on and off.


I had most of the wire and couplings on hand, but bought the switch and the socket.   The switch was a threaded push button model so I was able to tap the oak with my tap and die set to accept the thread on the switch.  I thought that was pretty cool as it made for a very snug fit.  The cord was salvaged from an old alarm clock, which rests in pieces in a cardboard box on my desk with an array of other discarded items.

I soldered couplers onto the wires and crimped them.  The couplers are friction fitting and set up pretty tight when you jam them together.  Not wanting to expose the dust bunnies to the raw ends of the couplers, I sealed all the connections with some multi-temp hot glue which has to get pretty hot to melt and is generally non-flammable at low to moderate temperatures.  It does however seep into all the crevices, making an air and water tight seal.


The wood lamp frame was given a once over with some ebony polyurethane.  The lexan was treated with a coat of Testers Dull-coat spray to create light diffusion.  I tried a number of approaches to diffusing the lexan and the Dull-coat was the most uniform.  Plus, it can be cleaned off the lexan with goof-off or similar if I decide to try something different.   I put some of the copper tacks in the base for accent - not much but a nice touch, and then seated the copper cap on top.  Last of all I glued some sections of corner molding on the bottom of three corners to make feet to match the depth which the switch protrudes from the bottom.  This also allowed the wiring to not be crammed into the base but just tacked to the bottom with hot glue.  I had wanted to use white LEDs for the light element but wound up finding a 3 watt florescent tube bulb that was the same wattage and better illumination once it warms up.  A socket extender helped loft it into the middle of the lamp cage. 


I'm pleased with the final result.  Things I would do differently next time: pick a switch with less mechanical resistance.  I would also frame the lamp differently.  This thing is not going to suffer much abuse as built, but it looks nice.  I would make the top and bottom spaces thicker and dove-tail the rails into them for a solid fit.  I would also probably try to get tempered glass.  The lexan is fine for what is essentially a prototype, but it rattles and sounds cheap, and scratches easily.  I might also try to incorporate some brass next time.  Tempered glass and brass have a complimentary look to my eye.

I really enjoyed this project.  It gave me a lot of tiny challenges to figure out how to get certain things accomplished and let me put some of my meager skills to use which normally don't get a workout.   With a simple table saw, clamps, wood glue and some creativity, I think this project is doable by just about anybody.  Just be careful with that table saw (and the drill press!!).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Get that dust out!

I was *this* close to getting a new computer this weekend.  Then I remembered some advice a friend of mine had given me that I had just recently passed on to others.  If your computer is very slow as of late and it once performed very well, don't just blame Windows or a fragmented hard drive.  Check the dust bunny quotient.

I tore my computer down last night and found: dust caked on the CPU cooling system, dust caked on a memory stick, dust all over the fans.

Dust on the fans makes them less efficient due to drag.  Air moving over the blades of the fan is slowed, reducing the amount of hot air, and hence heat, which can be displaced.  Displacing heat from your computer is essential to keeping the chips running in peak condition.  Too much heat in the chips causes electron flow to literally slow down as resistance is increased.

Dust on the heat sink for the CPU also contributes.  Not only can the fan not move air past the fins on the heat sink if dust is in the way, the dust acts as a blanket helping the heat sink to retain more heat.

Now this one I did not expect.  Dust on my memory sticks.  The fan for the CPU in my setup blows right on a memory module.  Dust was caked up to the point that I suspect it was causing a short on the surface  - just enough for the module to test bad on Boot.  So, after cleaning it, I got half my Gig of memory back!

To clean my system, I used the soft brush attachment for my vacuum cleaner AFTER removing the components from the case.  Trying to put a vacuum in your case could damage things, so be careful in there!

Happy computing!