Dimmables Come into the Main Stream

On a recent trip to the local Home Depot, we were pleased to see not only a whole section of CFLs, but Phillips dimmable CFLs in the R30 and R40 sizes available for the first time. They only had a few boxes, but $11.95 each was still less than we’d found online. So, check your local home improvement warehouse for these dimmable CFLs if you can.

Programmable Thermostats

When we started this site, we did not think we would necessarily emphasize energy-saving. But, with rising fuel and energy costs a consideration for all, we feel it is a good move to explore new technologies can save you money.

Now, with the summer over and winter coming, it is time to think about heating your home. There are two basic types of heating systems: 24 volt and line voltage. Line voltage systems are usually used for electric baseboard heaters. In this, the 240 or 120 volts that power the heater run directly through the thermostat.

Now, there is no lack of programmable thermostats on the market. They are not all created equal and are priced differently for a reason. Programmable thermostats are divided into 7, 5-2, and 5-1-1 day programmable thermostats, based on the number of different programs it can contain. While we think that backlit displays for thermostats make them look more impressive and are easier to find, we have never sprung for the extra feature.

Some also have a vacation override function, which allows a second program to supplement the first in the event of a vacation. Another feature related to this allows the vacation override to be triggered by a dry contact switch. Thus, a wire can be run to a home automation system to allow remote control. This allows you to call ahead and switch back from vacation to normal mode, a wonderful feature for any vacation homes you might have.

One of the biggest problems with heating and cooling control is the multi-room house. With central heating and cooling, if one person wants the air on, the whole house gets air. With varying cooling/heating capability and size of room, that can mean variants in temperature. There is an option. One is of course, having vents that can close. A more high-tech solution is a motorized duct damper. By installing these dampers and wiring them to temperature controls, the duct can be opened or closed based on the temperature. This is called zonal heating or cooling, as it divides the house into zones.

This system is already in place if you have electric heating. Electric heating usually mean independent thermostats per baseboard, and thus the cost of upgrading to programmable is much more expensive, as there are more to replace. We are preparing to field-test the least expensive programmable line voltage thermostat we could fine, a rebranded version of the Line Voltage Thermostat – LUX ELV1 for a list price of $39.99. We’ll have more information on how that worked out in a future post as well as thoughts on controlling your temperature remotely.

Ridding Yourself of Legacy Hardware

Legacy hardware consists of hardware or ports no longer necessary to the availability of better alternatives.

  • Parallel port – You would be hard-pressed to find a non-USB printer nowadays. So why do you need the port?
  • Serial port – While there are still some devices that still run off of serial ports, they are rare enough that one could purchase USB->Serial Converter cables for the last ones and eliminate that port as well.
  • Floppy controller and floppy drives – Floppy drives and floppy disks are fairly rare nowadays. We’ve removed them from all of our computers in favor of one external USB floppy drive for emergencies. Most people will find a USB flash memory drive is not only more durable, but can store more in less space
  • IDE connectors – We have yet to fully rid ourselves of 40-pin IDE connectors. While hard drives now come with Serial ATA connectors, which are smaller and more efficient, removing the headaches of master and slave that come with the IDE system, CD/DVD drives have yet to switch over in any large majority.
  • Analog Video Connector – The 15-pin VGA connector, despite having been around since the earlier days of VGA monitors, shows few signs of going away. The newer standard, DVI(Digital Visual Interface), not only transmits to the monitor digitally, but usually has the pins to transmit analog signals as well in order to remain compatible with the older standards.

Friends of the Environment

Some of us are more environmentally conscious than others. Most tend to want to help the environment, but admit they could do more. Corporations are the same way. Check out The Green Electronics Guide. This guide from Greenpeace lists companies and their records for environmental responsibility. We commend Greenpeace for its efforts to get companies to remove toxic chemicals from their components.
When it is time to dispose of your old electronics, if you cannot find someone to use them, research takeback programs. Dell, for example, will offer you a recycling kit with every computer purchased to allow you to rid yourself of an old one. If this fails, there is always donation. Allow your old tech to be someone else new tech.

Protect Yourself from Burnout

Our colleagues at Flight Wisdom wrote a few weeks ago here about the danger of laptop battery issues. Dell was followed by Apple in its battery recall. As this article from Business Week reports, the online community kept pressure on the manufacturers to do something about this. And now Dell and Apple are recalling over 5 million batteries.
But the danger of computer components isn’t limited to batteries, as one writer reports here. His hard drive burnt out in what appears to be a rather dramatic manner.

So, we thought we would take this time to give our tips to reduce the risk of preventable accidents. Obviously, if your component is faulty or improperly designed, there is no amount of preparation you can make to prevent problems…although even outside of warranty, some companies will replace an item that spontaneously combusted as opposed to other types of mechanical failure.

  1. Make sure cables inside your computer do not interfere with airflow. The biggest cables in computers are ribbon cables used for components such as ATA hard drives and CDROMs. The cheapest solution is to replace these with round cables, which compress the ribbon down for increased airflow. The better solution is to, if possible, replace your drives with the new Serial ATA drives. The SATA cables are much thinner than the older parallel ones, and the drives themselves are better as well. SATA CD/DVD drives are still relatively rare though, but at least consider replacing the hard drives.
  2. Once a month or so, shut the computer down and blow out the interior of the computer with a bottle of canned air, especially the exhaust fans to remove dust that might accumulate and reduce air efficiency.
  3. Keep aware of any product recalls or reports of problems with hardware in your system and be prepared to replace it if necessary. For laptops, blow out the exhaust fans from the outside while the computer is off.
  4. Also for laptops, if you plan on using the laptop for long periods on AC power, take the battery out. If that is not an option, regularly discharge and recharge the battery. For business travellers, consider a second battery and regular swap the two.

Unrealistic Expectations

In this modern world, we tend to wonder about the customer service experience. The goal of companies seems to be to make the most amount of money from you while doing the least amount of work. Whenever a company diverges from this and provides quality service, we feel they are not only worthy of our business, but worthy of loyalty and perhaps more money than an equivalent product from a more shoddy company.Even companies with poor service records will have their shining moments, however. CNet News reports here that cable and telephone providers are working to improve their images. Traditionally, these companies have had monopolies in their markets and are thus not concerned about competition. But, a few years ago, the long distance and local telephone companies expanded into each other’s markets. This was followed by both cable and telephone companies offering broadband service. Now, thanks to companies like Vonage, not only are the cable companies breaking into telephone service, but the telephone companies are offering internet-based telephony.The cable company is offering telephone service, the phone company is offering television service…The monopolies now are merely on methods of distribution. The largest cable companies have, to keep their customers, increased service spending by 48 percent this year as opposed to the same time last year.

One of our own recent experiences with our local cable monopoly took three weeks to resolve…and while we were only requesting the latest functionality in cable boxes, they kept sending us repair technicians, cancelling appointments for unknown reasons, etc, and finally admitted that the only way we could get what we wanted was to head down to their payment center and find it ourselves. Which we did.

Issues with service are not simply confined to post-sales…In a recent article here, Computer Shopper went undercover to rate several major computer chains with their attempt to purchase a computer.

Is it unrealistic to expect quality and competent service? Or is customer service merely an undertrained person sitting in a cubicle reading instructions from the company website to us and providing little helpful information? More on this to come…

The Lightbulb

We were intrigued when Fastcompany.com reported on the evolution of the CFL, the Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb. Obviously the lightbulb itself is no new invention, but the traditional incandescent lightbulb uses five times more energy than these newer bulbs.

Over the years, they have been plagued with problems. Flickering when turning on, inability to be dimmed, harsh white light instead of warmer tones, dimness during the first minute or two of activation…but the technology continues to improve.

As the article reports, if every American household replaced one 60 watt bulb with an equivalent CFL, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million. Not only do they use less electricity, they generally last longer than an incandescent bulb…rated in years instead of months.

Walmart is getting in on the act, apparently, trying to use its size to try to sell every customer one of these bulbs, and teaming with General Electric, singlehandedly double CFL sales in the United States in a year.

Just go to your local home improvement store or large department store and see the different kinds of lightbulbs you can get in a CFL. Not only are there lightbulbs of varying spectrums of the white and warm families, but replacements for tubular bulbs, globes, chandelier bulbs, floodlight bulbs, etc. Most of these come in both the spirals and frosted glass forms that look so similar to the incandescent equivalent you cannot tell the difference.

We have yet to find a store carrying screw-in dimmable CFLs, but these items are available for mail-order. The dimming on a fluorescent bulb is not as variable as it is on an incandescent, and goes in a series of steps, limiting fine tuning. However, it is still a viable option for those who wish it.