How to Track Your Home Energy Use

Posted in Green, Howto, Websites on November 24th, 2011 by Andy Duffell

First of all, I admit it: data is geeky. But it can also save you a lot of money and reduce your carbon footprint.

As part of my drive to improve the energy efficiency of my home I’ve started tracking my energy usage through the site iMeasure. It’s a very handy site and free to use, plug your power and gas meter readings into it every so often and it’ll generate a load of stats about your usage.

After only a few readings it will have enough data to forecast your usage for the year, but by far the most useful trick it pulls is correlating your usage against data from the closest weather station. The point of this is that the amount of energy you’re using for heating is only really relevant if it’s compared to how cold it is.

A chart showing energy use against degree days

This iMeasure chart shows my actual gas usage at various temperatures. The blue regression line shows how efficient the heating system is. A more efficient system will have a shallower slope

It’ll also tell you how much CO2 you’re emitting through your energy use, and what your costs are.

Where the site really shines is if you’re making changes to improve your efficiency. There are ways to predict the effect of most measures, but there’s nothing better than seeing the change reflected in your actual usage.

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Is your house leaking money?

Posted in Green, Tech on November 4th, 2011 by Andy Duffell

Draftproofing your home is just as important to keeping it warm as good central heating and insulation are. Sorting your air leaks out can save you money and reduce your carbon footprint. But where to start?

Smoke drifting in the dark

A little bit of smoke could help keep you warm this winter

Leak testing

All homes are supposed to be tested for air leaks when they’re sold these days. Basically a dude comes to your house and fits a giant fan into the doorway, then measures how much the pressure inside changes due to the air leaks. The result goes on your Energy Performance Certificate, which rates the home’s carbon footprint. You can pay to have this done, but you’re looking at £200 or so, which is unlikely to be worth it.

You can approximate the procedure yourself if you have an extractor fan:

  • Close all windows and vents, mask over any remaining vents and air leaks with tape.
  • Turn off your heating and crank the extractor fan up to maximum.
  • Slowly go round your house with a smoke pencil or jos stick
The smoke will be pulled away from any air leaks which are letting air into the house. In particular check for:
  • Badly sealed doors and windows. Sort these with stick on draft strip.
  • Gaps around pipes under the sink, in the bathroom, and where any other pipes disappear into walls and floors. Squirt expanding foam into these.
  • Unsealed wooden floorboards are a carbon footprint nightmare. A mixture of wallpaper paste, newspaper and floor stain can fill the cracks.
  • Open chimneys or flues. If these aren’t being used seal them with a chimney cap or balloon.
Doing all this is cheap and easy, and just as important for your carbon footprint as more expensive and labour-intensive jobs like insulating your loft or getting cavity wall insulation or double-glazing. I recently went round and sealed up leaks I estimate were costing me £60 per year in heating. To do this I used a £5 can of foam, £5 worth of draft strip and about £10 worth of materials to seal my floorboards. Easy money, and a smaller carbon footprint.
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How much can a smart thermostat really save?

Posted in Gadgets, Green, Tech on October 30th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A stuffed polar bear wearing a scarf

Keep warm and save polar bears this winter

Here comes winter again, time to crank up that central heating. But if you’re using an old-fashioned manual thermostat, you could be burning a lot of money for no good reason.

A programmable thermostat differs from a regular thermostat in that you can set it to provide different levels of heat at different times or on different days. They’re generally a straight swap for your old one, and cost about £50. Fitting it should just be a matter of unscrewing the old one from the wall, and switching the two wires that control your boiler to the new device.

Having fitted one of these beasties, you now have full control over exactly how warm you want the house and when. That means you can have it automatically warm up in time for getting out of bed or home from work, and cool down to save money (and polar bears) when you’re not in or asleep.

Will it save money and/or the planet?

Yes, if you tell it to.

For example, having it automatically lower the temperature by 5º overnight when you’re safely tucked up in your duvet can save you about £15 over the course of the winter. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s money for nothing, and it would save about 70kg of CO2 emissions (or about 200kg if you use grid electricity for heating). It’s also a lot cheaper than fitting a more efficient boiler.

A programmable thermostatIf you’re at work Mon-Fri you could save even more. Setting it to frost protection only for 7 hours a day could save you £80 and 335kg of CO2 over the winter compared to leaving the heating at 18º. And that still leaves plenty of time for it to warm back up before you get home.

So you can see that even if you’re heating your home really comfortably, using a smart thermostat to avoid heating it when you don’t have to can pay for itself easily. Sure, you could achieve some of the same savings by manually turning your stat up and down, but having it done automatically is much easier.

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How to upgrade the wifi on your Eee PC

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Tech on September 4th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
Two giant clusters of antennas poking above some trees

Here's one I upgraded earlier

Wifi comes in different speeds. The latest and fastest is 802.11n, or wifi-n. It’s pretty quick, but what if your Eee PC is an older model that only has wifi-g? Upgrading is actually really easy, and besides more speed should give you better range.

You’ll need a new wifi-n mini-PCI Express card, I used an Intel 4695 AGN because Intel are really widely supported. You can pick them up for tuppence on Ebay. You’ll also need a third antenna, which you can get here.

  • Remove the battery and pop the bottom cover off your machine
  • Disconnect the antennas, remove the two screws and remove the old wifi card.
  • Route your new third antenna along the front edge of the inside of the case. The orientation of the antenna is important, and luckily there’s plenty of room for it if you run it under the RAM stick.
  • Fit the new card and attach the antennas (the new one goes on post #3)
  • Power up and enjoy.

I’m running Ubuntu, so it all worked as soon as I switched on. If you’re on Windows you might need to download some drivers from Intel and do the little Windows next > next > next > reboot dance. If you do have any problems booting try clearing the CMOS (remove the battery, remove the RAM and short out the two copper patches underneath it).

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How to combine Facebook with Google+

Posted in Howto, Websites on September 2nd, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A combine harvester cutting a field of wheat

Combining stuff is cool

There’s a lot to like about Google+, but if you’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook it’s a pain to change networks. So it’s nice to know you can mash them both together.

You’ll need to install the Start Google Plus extension:

Chrome: SGPlus

Firefox: Start Google Plus

This not only allows you to post to both networks simultaneously, but will squeeze all your FB content into your G+ page. There are some other extensions that will add Facebook as a separate tab, but this one can seamlessly weave both sites together. Nice.

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Does making the battery for a hybrid car take more energy than the car saves?

Posted in Green, Random, Tech on April 13th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A Humvee

Some folks on the internet have actually tried to claim that a hybrid car uses more energy than a Hummer. Lol!

I recently heard someone trot out a factoid i’d heard before a couple of times:

The battery on hybrid cars takes so much energy to produce that it’s actually greener to drive a normal car.

As a Prius owner myself I wondered; could this be true?

Toyota have been rather tight-lipped about the exact details of Prius battery manufacture, although this is probably just because they consider their Hybrid Synergy Drive technology commercially sensitive (at least while they’ve got such a lead in the hybrid market over their competitors)

So let’s take a guesstimate at some numbers and see how it stacks up:

A new Prius starts at about £20,845. Let’s be generous to the sceptics and say that making the battery is a whopping 20% of the sticker price of the car (it’s likely much less than this). That means it costs £4169 to make a battery. Again, lets humour the sceptics and say that 90% of the cost of the battery manufacturing process is energy and that Toyota pays the equivalent of 5p/kWh. That puts the energy consumed during manufacture at 270GJ. That amount of energy is equivalent to a little over 1800 gallons of petrol. Toyota rate the hybrid drive as offering an improvment of about 25mpg over a standard drivetrain (using figures from the Auris vs Auris Hybrid), even if that’s only 15mpg in reality then a Prius would only take 27,200 miles to make back the energy used making the battery. Remember, those numbers I chose are extremely pessimistic, it’s likely that the real break-even point was much sooner.

Toyota’s warranty on their hybrid batteries is eight years, so unless you don’t think you’re going to put 27,000 miles on the clock in that time, a hybrid will reduce the amount of energy your driving consumes.

So bottom line: even a rough calculation of the energies involved does not support the claim that building batteries for hybrid cars is more wasteful than driving a conventionally powered car.

If you want to play around with the numbers, you can download this spreadsheet.

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How to get your Sky broadband username and password

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Tech on February 11th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A padlocked door

Just say no to pointlessly locked technology

Sky broadband is a pretty attractive package if you already subscribe to their TV, but it does have one annoying snag. Sky insist that you connect using the router they provide, and enforce this by locking the box down with custom firmware that obscures your actual username and password. This means you can’t connect using any of your own hardware.

While this might sound great if you’re a Sky first line support monkey, it’s a pain for the customer.

Sky have used several different boxes over the years, and cracks for all of them have been published, which is a good enough reason to think twice about using the hardware they supply.

Get the tools:

If you have a Netgear or Sagem router: https://www.cm9.net/skypass/

If you have the new D-Link router: http://pathogenrush.blogspot.com/2010/10/dsl-2640s-password-extractor.html

Note that although the T&Cs say that the router Sky sends you does become your property, you should keep hold of it, as Sky are unlikely to provide tech support to you otherwise.

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What would really happen if SETI discovered an alien signal?

Posted in Random, Space on January 12th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
Alf holding a telephone

"...press 1 to be taken to our leader, press 2 to strip-mine Earth for its natural resources..."

We’ve seen it all in the movies enough times: finally we get proof that we’re not alone. But how would it really go down?

Fortunately head alien-botherer from SETI Seth Shostak has given us some the inside skinny in his excellent book “Confessions of an Alien Hunter“, which I highly recommend if you’re a fan (and even moreso if you’re a critic) of SETI

The government would cover it up, right?

Nope. The first thing that would happen if an astronomer discovered an candidate signal is get another astronomer on the other side of the world to check it. This eliminates the possibility that the signal is anything boringly local like air traffic control, the military or a satellite. The parallax view offered by a remote observer would confirm that the signal really does come from a far off point. The bottom line is that by the time the signal had been confirmed as alien, no one government could silence it. The genie would be out of the bottle.

And even if they did try and cover it up, somebody would just put it on Wikileaks and the press would snap it up.  There’s no way you could cover up a discovery of this magnitude.

Ok, so we’d immediately start to decode the signal?

Er, no. Despite the enduring image of Jodie Foster in Contact sitting by a dish wearing headphones, the reality is that SETI processing is all done automatically, by computers. An unfortunate side effect of the mathematical transformation they do while scouring the background noise to find blips is that it averages everything. Obviously averaging everything destroys the actual information, although it will alert you to the fact that you’ve got a signal in the first place. That’s a bit of a pain, but it’s the best we can do.

Right, so we’d just point our dishes in the same place, and get the signal again?

Um, no again. Unless the signal came from our immediate neighbourhood, or was stupendously powerful, we’re unlikely to be able to extract any information from it, even if we detected it.

You can detect radio signals at much weaker strengths than you can extract information from them. You can see this when you scan for wifi signals with your laptop. You can detect lots of hotspots, but the signal isn’t necessarily strong enough to let you form a reliable connection. The wifi base station can pump out as much data as it wants, but your little antenna just isn’t up to the job. It’s likely to be ditto with signals from little green men.

So how would we decode it?

We’d build a bigger antenna. A MUCH bigger one. More likely, we’d actually build a behemoth made up of massive numbers of smaller dishes all working together. How big? A 1971 NASA study estimated a thousand 100m dishes, which is big boys’ engineering. Once we’d built all that, we would have enough receiving power to grab a good signal.

So what happens if the signal stops before we’ve built this mega-receiver?

We’re screwed. This is entirely possible if the signal wasn’t meant for us, for example if the original signal was Earth being inadvertently swept by the beam of some long range communication between a moving object and another point. Whoever coughed up the cash for building the receiver would probably be pretty pissed off.

Ok, so let’s say we’ve got the message. What would ET want to say?

We really don’t know. We know the kind of things we’d put in a message: some basic maths and chemistry, a map, some cultural tidbits, and a nice cheery hello. But we really shouldn’t try to second-guess the contents of a message. It would be logical for the initial message to be simple and easily understood, and based only on knowledge that a civilisation would require to receive it in the first place (ie: roughly the technological level of the early 20th century). Building radio receivers requires a certain understanding of maths and physics, and since the laws of physics are the same everywhere there should be at least some common knowledge between any two civilisations that can control radio waves. Using that body of knowledge as a kind of crib sheet for constructing a language to communicate in would seem the best strategy. Or not, maybe ET would rather beam their soap operas at us.

When will the signal arrive?

Well, if you’re a pessimist you’d say: never. We’ve been looking up for decades now and we’ve heard almost nothing of interest. Coupled to the fact that nobody from out there has ever been proved to have shown up here, despite having many billions of years to have evolved enough to do so, it’s entirely possible that there’s just nobody out there. Or at least that life is so laughably rare that finding another civilisation is almost impossible.

If however you’re of a more cheery, optimistic inclination you’d say: soon. The massive rise in computer power in recent years has enormously enhanced the ability of SETI scientists to scour the heavens. Their surveys are going from sporadic peeks at a select few stars to massive sweeping sky surveys. It’s not unreasonable to say that within a few years we’ll have checked all the good candidates, and that within a few decades we’ll have comprehensively searched the entire sky for all the viable frequencies. If ET is phoning Earth at all, we’ll see them.

The psychology of Anonymous

Posted in Pirates, Tech on December 16th, 2010 by Andy Duffell

The Anonymous logo of a suited figure with a question mark for a headI don’t often link to other people’s blog posts, but as the carnage surrounding Wikileaks and Anonymous rumbles on and individual anons are starting to get bitchslapped by the authorities, I found this informed analysis of what motivates these online mobs really interesting:

http://garwarner.blogspot.com/2010/12/internet-anarchy-anonymous-crowds-flex.html

The author is security researcher and blogger Gary Warner from the UAB Computer Forensics Research Laboratory.

The Space Shuttle is dead, long live the Dragon!

Posted in Space, Tech on December 9th, 2010 by Andy Duffell
Artist's rendition of the Dragon cargo capsule in orbit with solar arrays deployed

Dragon is a conventional ballistic capsule, designed to carry either cargo or crew.

The Space Shuttle is due to retire from service in 2011 after 135 happy jaunts into low Earth orbit (and a couple of unhappy ones). So what’s going to replace it? Well the answer in the short term is the brand new Dragon capsule from private space boffinry hub Space X. Yesterday Dragon celebrated it’s first proper (albeit unmanned) launch into space followed by a trouble-free splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

This is significant because it’s the first time a private company has built, tested and flown a spacecraft like this, and it’s likely to be the way of the future. Space X have a contract to run supply missions up to the ISS after the shuttle retires. This kind of thing used to be done by governments, but the sea change in the space business led by NASA’s influential “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy has proved that going into space can be done without the eye-watering costs of the first few decades of government-led space exploration. This has a whole new crowd of entrepreneurs and VCs lining up to try their hand at getting rich from doing business in space.

Space X is headed by Elon Musk, of Paypal and Tesla Roadster fame. The company makes the Falcon 9 rocket that throws the Dragon capsule into the sky, and the Dragon itself is able to lug 6000kg of cargo up to LEO, and return 3000kg to Earth, or carry seven live meat units.

Post-splashdown news: While the capsule was unmanned for this flight, it’s wasn’t entirely unoccupied. Seems Space X decided what space really need was more cheese.

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