Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hot Water, Almost

Two days ago I finished the plumbing a flash water heater that I built. It's been really cold, and rained all day yesterday. I thought two days would be good to make sure the glue cured thoroughly. This morning I rigged up the electrical part and gave it a test. The pump ran fine and there didn't seem to be any leaks, so I got some wood and lit a fire. Right away I could tell it worked quite well. The infra-red thermometer registered about a 16 degree differential on input and output, but I'm not sure what the effective flow rate was. One problem I soon noticed was that the pump input, which is connected to the water tank cold inlet, was drawing the warm water off the top of the tank. I kind of assumed that they had a pipe extending down into the tank so that the incoming cold water wouldn't mix with the hot. Apparently that was a bad assumption. I originally planned on the pump intake being connected to the drain on the bottom of the tank, but after flushing several pounds of scale out, including gravel sized pieces, I became concerned that the scale would end up either damaging the pump or plugging up the 1/4" tubing in the flash heater section.
Everything seemed to be going fine and I was just sitting on the porch enjoying the momentary feeling of accomplishment when all of a sudden one of the pipes burst. I quickly shut the water off, and assessed the situation. With the flow shut off, temperatures rose in the flash heater and the next thing I knew, the flexible hose connected to the copper blew off: so much for faucet lines. Steam and smoke was all bluring together and the feeling of accomplishment quickly changed to disappointment. Now I'm going to have to use a galvanized or copper line, which means spending more money. At least a certain proof of concept with the flash heater was accomplished. The next step may well be moving to the other side of the house and going ahead with connections to the house tank. That way at least I'll be able to easily use the water once it's heated. The down side is that I'm still a long way from being able to take a hot shower.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hard Reality

Yesterday I painted at two jobs before playing music for 6 hours. I grosed about $50 for my skill and labor, and probably spent $5 in gas while I helped beautify houses that are already in the top tier of real estate in the USA, and even more so world wide. Some of the houses on the way to Point Venture feature the worst displays of ostentatiousness that I've seen. Along the road are signs advertising "million dollar views."
Relief (or torment) comes in the form of Rock'n Roll. As soon as I turned on the Marshall, I fired off into a frantic version of REO Speedwagon's Riding the Storm Out, to which I was soon joined in by the drummer and bass player while everyone else stood in amazement. It's hard not to get excited when you can slash at the guitar with abandon and yet have it sound like music, very loud music. The Marshall's 8x10 cabinet screams like a 747 taking off while I stand in front absorbing the energy along with the guitar as the feedback creates a nuclear reaction of energy which explodes into a furious lead. It's like being able to grab a 10,000 volt wire and yet you don't get hurt. After hours of musical ecstasy, suddenly the last song has ended, and all the equipment is quickly packed up. I drive back to the place I will park the van and spend the night after heating some tortillas on the camp stove for dinner.
This morning was very cold. I noticed during the night that I had condensation on my moustache. The sky was perfectly clear for the first time in at a week if not two, and it quickly warmed things up into the 60's. I got to take a leisurely morning and then went back out to PV to work some more. I have to be thankful for some work, but it sucks to be working in the same neighborhood doing the same thing I did when I was 16 and 17 years old, and hardly making any more money, while everything else costs more and the houses have turned into bling bling. I could do anything, and I've done so many things, and here I am back where I started doing the same old thing, playing the same old songs. This too will pass.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Inverter Power and the Boogie Man

It was too cold today to work for money so I worked around the house. I cleaned up the carport considerably, and got a better vision of how to set up the water heater and peripherals, including a firepit for testing a heat converter that I built out of 20' of 1/4" copper tubing.
I found a small piece of extension cord in the yard with the male end still attached. I fitted a second male plug to the other end and then used the resulting cord to plug a 12v inverter into the outdoor outlet on the porch. I turned the inverter on and nothing blew up (yeah!) and then opened the front door and turned the lights on (presto). Curiously nothing seemed to work outside of the living room circuit, so I'll look into that another time -- probably on another phase of the bus.
While gathering firewood from the nearby woods, I met a neighbor who was also gathering wood. He was quite curious, without coming straight out about it, as to what I was doing at the house. Two nights ago someone drove past, turned around, sat up the hill looking at the house for about 5 minutes then drove into the driveway. As soon as I turned on the headlights on my van, they quickly left. Security has been on a little higher alert since then (what does that mean?), so it's nice to have some working lights and wood for the fireplace. I also happened to use some scaffolding to reach the exaust vent upstairs to plug it so that the warm air will have a chance of staying in the house if I actually light up the fireplace and spend some time inside the house instead of the van.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Direct Current

Well the other week I got a 45w solar panel kit from HF, and today I finally got a fresh deep cycle battery to go with it. I also got a 12v DC power supply for the laptop I'm writing this on, it's cool because now I don't have to use an AC inverter -- more efficient. Solar to 12v battery, then battery to DC powerboost at 19v for the laptop. Supposedly 85% efficient step up conversion.
What all this means is that I am at the first stage of successfully living off the grid! From now on its just a matter of increasing capacity, and convenience. Even as I was purchasing the new battery, the solar panels were powering an AC inverter to provide juice to an 18v battery pack for a drill. Most importantly I'll now have enough power to run the laptop during the day and work on the heliostat controller routines some more. Yeah, testing can resume!
Also now in the picture will be using the inverter to power the Taco circulation pump that I've got, which is key to getting some solar hot water happening -- and developing the first heliostat target product.
It may be crazy dangerous, so I'll think about it a few more days, but I'm thinking about plugging in 12v to the house wiring and running some 12v lights and stuff off of the outlets scattered about the house. I realize that the breakers sharing the same phase of the buss will be the only ones sharing power. As long as no AC devices are hooked up it may be safe - provided I'm sure to run through at least one breaker.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Testing 1,2,3

Well the first test was getting the prototype working. This week I realized that I had be running the prototype set to Daylight Savings time, which caused the solar calculations to be off. With that little tidbit out of the way, tracking is now in the +/- 1foot accuracy range which is ideal.

The second test has been finding a place to live and work on the project. Two weeks ago I was abruptly kicked off the ranch after only my second day of outdoor testing. The last two weeks have been pure van living at it's finest, hanging out in the suburbs of Austin and bathing in a local creek. Fortunately I found an old friend with a shop where I've now done a couple days of testing and seem to have most of the kinks worked out.

The third test is going to be turning this great idea into a business. I need a pilot site, and at least one business partner to help some capital to make things take off. I'm drafting up an ad that I'll try floating on Craigslist to see if I can find any partners that way. Plan B in the wings is to find a place (park, flea market?) I can set up and see if I attract anyone interested in being a pilot site or investor.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Once Again

What is it with these carnivores? All the sudden, one day, for no apparent reason, they decide that they hate you and they say "Get the f**k out. Now!" Honestly, this never happened to me before this year, but now it's happened twice. If I didn't already meditate a lot, I'd have to meditate about that just to figure out what the heck is going on. The Vedas say that eating meat destroys compassion. Stepping stones aren't meant to be foundations, you just stand there till you take the next step. It looks like the ranch was just an incubator for the prototype since as soon as it passed level zero tests, it was time to move on.
12 to 16 hours later everything is packed in the van and it's off I go again: on the road, destination unknown. It was quite a bit of work packing up the electronics this time, but practice makes perfect. The environment is always beneficial, so what's next Srila Gurudeva?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Closed Doors

I'm sitting here watching the show "Who Killed the Electric Car", and besides making me want to rant against companies like GM, it's making me realize that I'm going to have an incredibly hard time bringing heliostats to the masses. Since I'm not independently wealthy, I'm going to have to find big investors, who will naturally gain control any company that would be based on this, and they are most likely going to take it and sit on it so that no one can use it. This is probably the same reason that you can't find any sterling engines on the market.
Did you know that Toyota currently is using more than 50% of the precious metals production available worldwide in its hybrid vehicles? Anyone touting hydrogen fuel cells as a solution for alternative energy is ignoring the fact that there just isn't enough platinum to give everyone fuel cells. The government continues to pour billions of dollars into research programs controlled by the existing petro-chemical oligarchy that has no intentions of changing the status quo anytime soon. Have I mentioned before that these same companies established patents for heliostats back in the 70's and 80's and then DID NOTHING with the technology. Fortunately most of these patents have since expired, but unfortunately it's hard to build a business plan around a product that can't be protected by patents. Hopefully some of my concepts are unique enough to be patentable, but without funding for patent lawers, I won't know. Ask Leo Gerst who spent tens of thousands of dollars only to see his own heliostat patents die a slow death.
Last week I found a place called the Clean Energy Incubator in Austin Texas, which is affiliated with the University of Texas, and part of the I2C consortium. At first I got really excited. They've got a venture summit next week where 5 inventions will get selected to receive funding to move them to market. The expressly stated purpose of this organization is to help nurture new ideas in clean energy and bring them to market. I sent an email with basic information and have yet to receive a reply. I called and got no answer. I drove there and couldn't in the door without an appointment. I can't even get through to the receptionist. Nice job guys.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Been a long time

It lost the thrill long ago. All the troubles with blown up motor drivers and mysterious bugs have been worked out. The mysteries of error analysis and rotational translations have been solved, and over 6,000 lines of finished C code have come together into a heliostat.

Been a long time since I rock and rolled
Been a long time since I took that stroll

Days, weeks, and months have gone by while I've toiled away 7 days a week in total isolation except for an occasional trip to the grocery store. Staying up till 3 or 4 am, getting up at 9:00. Soldering and routing hundreds of little connections, trying not to hook up anything backwards, and occasionally succeeding.

Been a long time since I spoke of love
Can't take the tears of a life with no love

And the final challenge is the biggest: to get rid of the anger and sadness that comes from having my faith in people reduced to ashes. I don't like other people, and I don't like myself. It seems that humans, though arguable the most advanced of the millions of life forms on the planet, are the lowest form of life with the ability to worship God. In fact most people aren't even at this level, and most of those that think they are worshiping God are just trying to reverse the roles and have God satisfy their own selfish material desires.

Been a long time
Been a long time
Been a long...
Lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Eagle has landed

Once I got started in Eagle I got a little loony. Hours go by in a flash as I work at a sub millimeter level routing connections and sorting out placement issues. It's kind of like a very seductive puzzle. I've now laid out three different circuit boards in Eagle, and it feels like I'm getting the hang of it. Two (motherboards) are based on the Arduino Mega reference design, and the other is a shield (daughterboard) that could be used with most Arduinos. The first board is what the heliostat needs, but the other variants use cheaper components that may be of interest to others (and thus are potential spinoff products). After several frustrating hours I think I've been able to source nearly all the necessary components. Mouser Electronics will sell SMD resistors for 5 cents each compared to 50 cents from Digikey! Seeedstudio's Propaganda PCB service will make the prototype circuit boards for only $5 each. I've followed several tutorials from SparkFun and I feel ready to stencil the solder paste and cook up a few boards on a hot plate. Quite the blend of low and high tech. If no major issues pop up, then the Gerber files will go to manufacturing later this week.

I went to Houston for Srila Narayana Maharaja's Bhakti Yoga Festival, although I was a couple days late because I listened to the advice of everyone around me and avoided the potential DUI checkpoints that were setup for the Memorial day weekend (since I don't have a valid drivers license at the moment). This was of course just another one of Maya's tricks (Maya - that which is not) trying to impede my spiritual progress. I was feeling kind of weak and nauseaus before I left, but immediately felt better once I got on the road. Nothing in this world compares to the mercy of the vaisnavas and the delicious prasadam at the festival.
I tried talking to various people at the festival about the heliostat project, but it seemed nobody had an understanding of the implications, or any interest in helping. At the very end of the festival, I sat down at a table by myself, and another devotee sat down and after a while we began talking. He was interested in my story, and offered to give me his old laptop (which should be fine for coding). This was yet another excellent example of the following principal: although we must make an effort (endeavor) to achieve something, success is not due to our own efforts, but rather the mercy of the Lord (and his personal representative - Srila Gurudeva).

While I was gone the 30x40 fresnel lens I ordered arrived. A quick test outside showed about a 8" long focus point (this is a linear lens designed to focus light into a line instead of a point). This quickly smoked some grass and made some mysterious stuff bubble out of a rusty scrap of metal I found in the yard. I have my doubts about whether or not this is more efficient than a parabolic reflector, but it is certainly practical for concentrating light on something like the heat tube of an ammonia refrigerator.
I'm still trying to decide what is best as a first target for testing the heliostat on. The refrigerator is "cool", but some sort of water heater would allow easier calculation of BTU/hr, thus yeilding effective wattage level.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

After the Flood

Well I've had a little time now to take stock of the situation following the storm last week:
- laptop motherboard: dead
- laptop hardrive : spins, whirs, and clicks, but doesn't mount
- backup hardrive: wasn't even plugged in, won't even spin
- Freeduino board: dead
- Mirror control shield: dead
- SOC Amber webserver motherboard & daughterboard: smoke when power applied!
- USB memory stick code base backup: over month old, missing custom libraries

Truly amazing what can happen in a couple minutes when you walk away from something.

Data recovery costs $200-$800
Misc electronics $200
Backup drive $200
Replacement laptop $300
Total damage: $900-$1600
That's a very conservative estimate, not including lost code, time, and rebuilding effort.

Meanwhile this week the Arduino Mega board that I ordered (the day before the flood of destruction) from NKC Electronics arrived, as did the WaveShield from LadyADA. The waveshield was simple shield to assemble and I especially like the way it was designed so that remapping the pin assignments doesn't require cutting traces. I'm a little worried about being able to use the PWM on 9,10 after looking at the code. I'm hoping to have 3 pwm channels (6,9,10) for an accompaning LED light show to go with what I am calling the Bhajamatic - it plays audio loops of mantras and kirtans, with a discreet light module for small/medium altars. Audio is 16>>4 (i.e. 12) bit 16khz mono, not the best but ok, at least loads of play time from a 1Gb card. It would be nice to add a graphic display and do a slide show to go with it.

I spent the evening and some of this morning working in Eagle and finished a library entry for the SCA3000, and began editing the Arduino Mega specification board layout to include it. A little ambitious for a first project maybe, but the hookups are pretty simple, and I just followed a tutorial for another chip. The tricky part is that it's a surface mount device (SMD), and I'll have to hope the product dimensions shown on the spec sheet indicate the recommended landing pad layout which is somewhat unusual, not to mention tiny at just 7mm square. Add a DS1307 for RTC, and an H-Bridge driver w/connections and we've got a nice board...
... and I just got lost for a couple hours checking out prototype services, pcb no problem, still don't know about parts placement and reflow work. Many questions, but perhaps this is the path meant to be taken.

I've been working this week making "bliss bars" at the factory, a small step towards funding repairs. Srila Gurudev's Houston festival is next week, and things will be different afterwards!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It's dead, Jim

That's the line Doc said to Cap'n Kirk on Star Trek so many times, that's what he would have told me yesterday about my computer.
Keeping the agony in protaganist, here's a quick recap: The ambitious hero of our story, rejected by friends and family, after leaving California on borrowed funds, with nowhere else to go, has piled all his material possessions in a car and gone to Texas to spend the summer working (in the upstairs of an uninsulated cabin - can you say hot?) on an invention to save the planet. Sitting on the floor toiling all day at the computer, soldering tiny wires while kneeling over circuit boards and chanting Hare Krsna. Alarmed by the appearance of success on the horizon, the demi-gods who are worried of their powers becoming impotent due to the widespread adoption of heliostats sent a storm with powerful lightning, winds, rain, and hail to prevent their power from being usurped. Casting a spell of delusion they rob our hero of his limited intelligence, leaving his computer and software vulnerable. Like when Rama was falsely led into the forest, and Sita was snatched by the demon Ravana, our protagonist Madhu must now chase down and retrieve his code....
I've been sitting within 3 feet of my computer for probably 22 hours a day, and yesterday I stepped away for a few minutes, you know to Eat, and a huge storm blew in from nowhere and before I could even get back to the cabin the rain had blown 8' horizontally through the window saturating everything in the area, which included my guitars as well as my laptop which was on and open. The keyboard was completely saturated, and the display was looping through some nasty sounding hardware failure message that I had trouble reading because I was so frantically trying to turn it off and shut the window at the same time. The next 10 minutes or so were spent trying to get the situation under control and drying everything off. Up to 1" hail came down, the neighboors had baseball sized pieces. Good news is that the heliostat mirrrors weren't broken and the whole stand rode the storm out nicely. Measured highest wind was 21, but gusts were certainly higher.
I knew the prognosis was bad for the laptop. I dried it off as best I could and waited. After a couple hours I powered it up, but it wasn't happy and didn't boot. The BIOS setup worked though and the hard drive test also passed, so I'm optimistic about the data. Ugh, I hadn't backed up since I left California, and my last backup didn't get the motor control library! I saved a shred of hope for the morning, but all I was able to learn in the morning is that the motherboard isn't happy.
Fortunately I was able to borrow a computer to write this with.

My guru says this verse should be engraved in gold on our hearts:
Tat te 'nukampam su-samiksamano
bhujnana evatma-krtam vipakam
hrd-vag-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jiveta yo mukti-pade sa daya-bhak

It means that one who accepts all sinful reactions (Karma) as Krsna's mercy, understanding it to be a result of his previous activities), enduring it with an undisturbed mind, while continuing to practice devotional service with body, mind, and words - such a devotee is eligible to attain Krsna's lotus feet, which are the shelter of liberation.

I can't do that yet. I try, but I'm not qualified. My mind gets disturbed, and I become angry to avoid being sad because it's so hard to live with myself while accepting that I am the cause of all my suffering. Srila Gurudeva is slowly grinding me to a fine powder because I'm too independent to surrender to him even though I want to.

Bottom line on my computer is that I need around $300 it seems to get a used Compaq 3000 that I can pop my hard drive in, and hope the heliostat code is still there. At a minimum this is going to be a one week disruption, but given my lack of funds, probably a month. I've been working on this every day and now I either can't, or I have to redo my last month's work on the assumption that I'll have to anyway. All this is just too much to accept this soon, and I'm going to have to figure out what's next after taking a couple days off (if that's possible).

Friday, May 8, 2009

WIP: It Good

So much work in the last week...
The motor control library caused issues that made me learn more about Arduino program architecture than I thought I needed to know! My old QA skills narrowed down the offending line of code that caused the whole program to crash before it even ran (!!!) That only took a day or so to figure out and resolve. With the libraries working, I moved on to debugging the i2c command interface which had problems returning data from the slave unit because I was trying to send it one byte at a time since I hadn't read the Wire library commands. Oh the fun of being a novice. Once again there went another day of head grinding.
Then for a brief moment it seemed as if all the clouds might be disappearing, all the pieces were going together: the UI display was getting sorted, the input routines were debugged (a whole day coding manual Latitude and Longitude setting with only 5 buttons), the target and schedule tables were defined, the database routines were almost done, and still 10k of program ROM left.
Oh but the most important part, the solar position calculations was still absent! I had tested the code module long ago, and at that point was just happy to have some code that put out accurate numbers. As I started looking through the header and counting all the floating point variables, I began sensing trouble on the horizon. The SolPos algorithm uses over 1/4 of my total SRAM. Even when I commented out all the unneccessary variables and code, it still caused the 328 to reset during execution due to corruption of memory.
Yesterday I had some breakthroughs with the 128 based Amber board from SOCMachines, but it didn't turn out to be enough. It's an exciting little board with 256k of external memory and built-in ethernet connectivity. Back when I got the board, the first thing I did was the thing they tell you in bold letters not to do, and that was after reading the instructions! The result of that was that I erased the memory so that the demo program didn't run, which took some time in itself before I was able to test because I had to get a usb/serial cable and a special link cable to plug board straight into my laptops ethernet connection. After a couple months of EEPROM burner phobia, I downloaded PonyProg2000, figured out the parallel cable interface, and was soon uploading hex files both to the Amber, and the Arduino. This was cool because I learned how to upload an Arduino bootloader, and upload and run a program without any bootloader.
I was opti-mystic about the Amber being able to run an Arduino program since the new MEGA 128 based Arduino came out, but it turns out the Arduino team chose to support the 1280, and the Amber has the 128 16AU, which has 4k less of SRAM, although identical in almost all other aspects, and after much experimentation and diving into the Arduino core files, I determined that it just wouldn't work (with my level of knowledge at least).
Several more hours were spent investigating the demo program for the Amber, at the end of which I decided that it would just be too much work to port everything I've done over for it.
So the end result was that I decided to byte the bullet and buy a new Arduino Mega board (yeah)! It's still tempting to simply integrate a 3'rd processor (168 or 328) into the design, as a second slave, using the i2c bus and have it perform all the solar calculations, but that would still leave the master unit (a 328) perilously close to capacity, without network functionality added to the code base yet. So now I'll use the 128, like I knew I needed in the beginning, but it was a good learning experience the last couple of months: first with the 168 chips, then the 328 came out and doubled the memory, and now I can step up to the 128 and quadruple the 328's memory!
So bottom line is that the code base is coming along very nicely and the remaining processor issues should be taken care of as well. The new MEGA board is ordered from NKCElectronics and should be here within a week.
Oh yeah, the H1 heliostat prototype has been outside and setup for over a week now, and has endured several thunderstorms with wind gusts up to 30 mph!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stand Up!

Well I've been in Texas for a few days and its been pretty nice. I've had time to lay the electronics out and work on things as well as build a decent prototype/test stand. The new rod I got in Santa Cruz feels totally beefy and there is hardly any flex. The stand did feel a little vulnerable though because the friction of the bicycle seat post clamp isn't really up to the wind torque that can be exerted from the forward position of the mirror assembly. I've got some heavy boards making a 6'x8' cross and the center of gravity is pretty close to the middle, while the mount is to the rear. Since it's been really windy here, I used some rope to tie the front down so it won't move. I'm going to leave it outside for a while just to observe how it handles the winds. I've got to say, I like the way it looks. It's probably just a parent's bias though. Someone else came up, looked at it, and said "I give you an A for engineering, and a C for asthetics." Ouch.
One thought about the stand is that a forward mount with some sort of provision for yaw adjustment (i.e. north/south alignment) would help solve much of the stress issues. Parking in a horizontal position also greatly reduces surface area for wind resistance and reduces loads. The final model needs to go into Park mode under high winds, probably by sensing excessive vibration rather that wind directly.

I spent all day yesterday working on the i2c bus and ds1307 clock module. I had missed a solder point on the chip socket leading to about an hour of fiddling with the software before finding the missed pin while double checking the circuit.

A significant portion of the previous day was spent building headers for the i2c cable (cat 5), and in the process of hooking everything up to get both boards and the clock all talking over the i2c bus, I realized that I had to add a reset line for the mirror/motor control module so it would properly sync up after the ui/command module booted.

The Arduino IDE has been a headache lately, I learned the hard way that multi-line parameter lists for function definitions completely throw the IDE line count off and compile errors become very hard to line up with the causative line! I'll try the new rev and see what the guys on the forum have to say about it.
My FSM for the command module needs a lot of work yet, not to mention the rest of the code issues. Slowly though it is coming together. Today I finished a routine for setting the date/time for the clock which gets triggered on boot up if the clock has lost power too, which mine does since I lost the darn battery!
Have I mentioned that this stuff takes a lot of time? No, really -- lots of time, everyday. Four months of work now. So much for that original two month schedule! Still I feel like my basic assumptions about the design are all sound, and production issues should be minimal. What is becoming more and more clear is how hard it is going to be to make people understand the significant differences between heliostat arrays and parabolic type reflectors, and the advantage of heliostats. The heliostat is just an enabling device for the target device, and as of yet I have no official target device built, so it just looks to some like I'm shooting into space. Multiple targets have to be built to demonstrate the full concept.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Texas Time

Well, I made the journey without too much drama. It was a little nerve wracking. The van wasn't running good, funds were tight, and certain legalities were put aside. I had a little moment in El Paso where I looked down for some peanuts to snack on, while waiting to leave a parking lot, and accidently rolled into the car in front of me! Fortunately there was no damage, and we both happily drove off, though I might have been a little happier than the other person was! What a close call!
I'm writing this from the cabin I helped build last fall. It hasn't been finished out inside yet, but it looks like I'm going to call this home for at least a little while now. Home is becoming an increasingly abstract concept for me after 6 years of drifting about. Though I rolled after 1am last night, I did some basic unpacking today and setup a little corner to stay in upstairs. I spent a couple hours sorting out all the little electronics that got completely jumbled up during the trip. Now all the LM74xx chips are in order, along with the CM4xxx chips, transistors, resistors, capacitors, LEDs, etc.
I looked around and found a nice 4x6 board and a 2x6 that will make an excellent stand for the prototype unit.....

Monday, April 20, 2009

Command table strings to EEPROM

Saturday I used some Naval jelly on the new rod and then gave it a nice coat of flat black paint.
I went to the temple last night in Santa Cruz and had a great time as usual. Nothing over the weekend for the email inbox. Observing Ekadasi today, energy is way down. I can really feel the stress of the last week. I'm taking some fruits and nuts to make sure I don't freak out and throw-up like last time!
Added DS1307 code to HelioCommand3 as well as introduced EEPROM routinesBegan to work on command/event loop details FSM details need definition...Worked on little sketch to write EEPROM for command module: frees up memory for other stuff by reducing cmd_tbl size and getting other strings as needed from EEPROM rather than keep them in SRAM. This also has the added benefit of architecting the software for international versions (by isolating all the strings in EEPROM separate from program ROM).
Arghh, I bought a lithium watch battery for the DS1307 but lost it before I even used it. Guess I'll make the prototype supply batter voltage from Vcc. That way I'll make a good UI for setting the clock :)

Friday, April 17, 2009

SC gives me the rod!

It was a hard day. I was really sore from tree clearing the last two days. First thing Wednesday morning I helped as everyone pitched in to fell some trees that were already on their way down. We completely limbed the first tree by hand because the chainsaw was out of order. It turned out the trees weren't too dangerous as it took quite a bit of work for us to get them separated from the other trees so they would fall. I had to pull one 60' acacia tree out with my van since it didn't fall when we cut it. Two days of almost non-stop slashing and dragging and piling. At least it probably helped the community feel better about me being here, even though I haven't taken care of any of my own needs, which means I won't have the means to stay.
Finally made it to town today though and sent out some emails. I got really sad because I haven't had any luck getting connected to support myself better. I guess I have to go to Texas. Heliostat wise it was a decent day, I tried a few metal shops on the west side of SC and found a piece of steel rod the right size (1.0625") for the support stand - $10, not bad. It's probably a little over 2' long. The guy that sold it to me weighed it at 7.5 lb before deciding the price. He also touched the rod to a grindstone just to be sure it was steel. Jaya Gurudeva! This was a good move (getting the rod) because I'll probably be a lot harder pressed to find this stuff out on the farm in Texas!
I sanded the frame down and sprayed it with some gray primer and now the old graphics on the bike frame are gone and it is starting to look like it might have some other purpose!
I also spent a little time going through the i2c h-bridge mirror motor module code (got it to compile but that was it)

Monday, April 13, 2009


I just got the heliostat mirror module to compile using libraries I created for the the motor control. Sweet. Hopefully the debug will be painless from the conversion.
It's been hard to concentrate in this environment, but it is always favorable as long as I can remember my dear Sri Sri Guru-Gauranga.
My cousin hooked me up with some nearby devotees of Srila Narayana Goswami Maharaja and I met them Friday and heard Uma didi speak. Saturday Radhanatha das gave me a ride to Berkeley and we spent the afternoon doing Hari Nama Sankirtan with about 20 devotees and Uma didi came as well. Sunday night I went again and listened to Hari Katha again.
I tried to do some networking, but it doesn't seem yet like I found any connections for here.
Texas is calling...
...but it's frustrating because its going to be so hard to get there and such a diversion for the heliostat project. I'll end up out in the middle of nowhere at Sadananda's farm, but I'll get to see Srila Gurudeva in May. The big question is what next after that.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Homeless Again

Wow, this morning as I got the batteries I had ordered (to run the motors at 24v), I was told that I have to move out. Not quite thrown out on my ass, but almost - one week notice. The way my cousin's husband is acting, I might resort to leaving sooner -- if I can figure out where to go to. Let's see: bank account? $20, wallet $38. It costs $6 just to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. I might have enough gas to get back to Santa Cruz, but what then? I spent all my money on heliostat parts so my car insurance is expired, and I can't get a sticker for my license plate, although I paid the DMV, and my drivers license even expired a couple months ago.
Taking on this heliostat project for me is like a Hail Mary pass in football - if it doesn't work, I've already lost anyway.
I've heard that entrepreneurs have a knack for underestimating the difficulty of doing things. That way they can fool themselves into trying something that no one else wants to do or has already done. That must make me qualified, if not yet successful.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Idea

Hardly anyone knows what a heliostat is. In simple language a heliostat moves a mirror so that the suns reflection off the mirror is stationary while the sun tracks across the sky. Heliostats have been around for a long time and most have been impractical and complex designs. Mechanical and opto-electrical controllers are expensive and lack flexibility. What's needed is a simple to use cheap heliostat run by simple microcontrollers.
Check it out, there's only two web pages out there right now where you can possible by a heliostat. One company wants $2,000 the other $1,500 to get started with a 1sq meter unit. That's hardly going to create an energy revolution. What if one could be sold for half of that? Maybe $750 or even less. This would come out to $0.30/watt of raw energy capacity, compared to more than 20x that for PV.
Are you ready for an energy revolution?
The vision:
Affordable heliostat modules that wirelessly network and communicate with specially designed target appliances which request tracking services from the heliostat modules and distribute the solar power in the most efficient manner.
Example: 5 heliostats, a solar oven, water heater, window, sterling engine/generator
Heliostats target the stationary sterling engine (which uses a fresnel concentrator) providing electricity, occassionally one or two units will switch to the water heater to keep the temperature within the desired range. Someone enters the living room and flips a switch to "turn on the light" which detects that a heliostat is available which is redirected to the room's window bringing both light and warmth into the room. The person leaves the room, but forgets to turn off the switch, the switch eventually detects that the room is getting too warm, and automatically retargets the heliostat back to the sterling engine where it contributes electricity to the grid or a storage system. Now the person enters the kitchen and starts to make a pizza. The solar oven located on the north wall opens its shutters and three heliostats target the oven. Electronics in the oven redirect the heliostats and use shutters to control the temperature as desired. The pizza is half-way cooked when a cloud blocks the sun, and the oven automatically switches to electric or gas backup operation.
This is distributed on demand solar power at it's best.
I could go on and on about the benefits of heliostats over the alternatives. Simple manufacturing, no dependence on precious metals, efficiency....

Birth of an Idea

It was during Christmas of 2008, and I was living in Santa Cruz in what is known as the Apple Orchard Community. I had about $40 to my name, no job, no insurance, and the license on my van was about to expire. I was sleeping in my van, in freezing weather, with no heat, and an outdoor bathroom. Everyone had left to be with relatives, so I was alone. I had a lot to think about. I spent most of last year living in an Ashram in Houston, but felt compelled to come back to California after some disheartening experiences in Texas. I am a Krsna devotee, commonly known as a Hare Krsna, though not associated with ISKON. Even without the headshaving and sheet wearing, it's not a popular thing being a devotee. Few people understand, and I am used to being subject to contemptuous attitudes. Anyway I bring up all this just to help you understand that I have surrendered my life to my guru (Srila Narayana Maharaja, and although I am a pathetic fallen soul I am trying to serve The Lord as best I can. In this mood I was reflecting on the fact that I was in California with friends, rather than my guru's ashram in Texas. Though I could not see how, I prayed that I could still serve Krsna.
I found a spot where I could get WiFi from one of the neighbors. The Apple Orchard sits on 8 acres, and I never even figured out which of the neighbors on the other side of the woods had the signal, but I was just on the edge of the reception area. Nevertheless it was phenomenal that I could surf the internet and do research without going to town. I pulled up a picture of my father on my computer and just sat back and looked at him for a while, he died in 1984, and it felt nice to spend a little time remembering him and his presence in my life.
When I was in my 20's I spent a Christmas broke and alone, eating Top-Ramen. I ended up writing an incredibly upbeat song that I saw as the present that was given to me at that time. This time it wasn't a song, it was The Idea.
The Idea had to: have the ablity to change the way people live (for the better); be low-tech enough that not only could I develop it, but people in third world countries would be able to build it; be affordable; and be environmentally friendly.
My father invented a tool used to survey oil well holes. His tool used gyroscopes, accellerometers and magnetometers to very accurately determine the hole position. Thanks to things like iPhones and various game devices, digital accelerometers are pretty ubiquitous these days. Accellerometers don't just measure acceleration, they can measure tilt with respect to gravity. How could an accelerometer be used for The Idea? Bingo!


This experiment has been going on for most of my life now. I was in high school during the OPEC oil embargo and energy crisis of the 70's. I was also a debater, and the last year I debated, the subject was energy policy. I studied the subject fastidiously. I went to a summer debate camp at Baylor University and spent 20 hours a day studying for two weeks. I filled cases with index cards sorted by subject and position. I learned that there was always someone saying something about any given subject. Quotes are irrelevant if the sources are not bona-fide. Somewhere between the doomsday people and the naysayers lies the truth. New technologies will not allow us to continue our petroleum addiction forever.
The Experiment has taken various forms, some recognizable, some not. Back in the 80's I tried making a solar powered refrigerator, but didn't know how to make a good enough heat transfer, or have enough heat. A few years ago I got excited about ethanol and did extensive research on it. I realized that the VOC emmissions from large scale production were a serious (expensive) issue, and then the price of corn shot up and people in other countries began to go hungry because corn was going into our tanks, and everyone knew this wasn't a good answer to the energy question.
A couple years ago I was also living in a mountain community that had thoughts of going solar, so I researched it, and I decided concentrated solar power (CSP) held an advantage over photo-voltaics (PV). This was too radical for the community so nothing happened.
Last year a friend of mine scored a new 2hp DC motor while dumpster diving, and it got me to thinking. The motor was for a treadmill. You can always go on craigslist and find a treadmill for free. What if I could make a simple electric vehicle using treadmill motors? Exploring this idea led me to recumbent trike designs, and I wanted to come up with something that would utilize old bike frames. While investigating motor drivers, I came across a website ( that really sparked my imagination.
Several years ago I toyed with building a robot, and also built an interface card for the PC, but I didn't get too far due to a lack of robot mechanicals which were much harder to find than they are now. When I saw the little microcontroller boards with motor drivers, and digital and analog I/O, I was excited. I knew these little boards could make an idea come to life, but what idea?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jaya Sri Ekadasi

Not many Americans (North or South) are familiar with the Hindu practice of Ekasi. It is marked by a religious observance which occurs on the 11'th night of each waxing and waning lunar cycle.There are many reasons given for Ekadasi, for those with little faith in Krsna, there are materialistic explanations dealing with the effects of the moon's gravity on water. The only significant explanation from a devotional perspective is that Ekadasi is a direct manifestation of Krsna's mercy and it pleases him when we honor Ekadasi, which means at a minimum fasting from all grains, or ideally completely fasting from even water.
Yesterday I decided to observe Ekadasi by fasting from all food and only taking a little bit of water. It seemed like an OK thing, and I felt pretty good most of the day...
I woke up this morning, and even before sitting up I began crying. I just felt completely empty and unfullfilled. Ahh, the thrilling life of renunciation. The morning after Ekadasi is always a bit intense emotionally, so I was observing and rolling with it. After my prayers I went down to prepare some Krsna Prassadam and break the fast. Before I could even get my oatmeal cooking, I threw up. Barfed. Ughh. There wasn't even anything in my stomack to throw up! Ughh, again. Yellow bile. Shaky legs, low blood sugar, general weakness. If I was in a video game my life energy low warning indicator would be flashing in the upper right corner while motor skills deteriorate rapidly.
Ekadasi has rules regarding when the fast has to be broken: not before a certain time, and not after either.
Furtive glances at clock... try to eat oatmeal... ughh, throw up again, and again, and again, and again. Whooee, this is serious.
I see S outside and he makes a comment (sarcastic, as usual) so I tell him what's going on (he's heard me urping). I told him if he didn't see me in a few hours to check up on me. He replies: "there is a hospital in Corte Madera that takes walk-ins. You can take myself there if you need to." Hmmm, now this is getting clearer. I don't have any psychic skills, but I sure can feel it when someone is having unhealthy thoughts about me. S totally worked himself into a negative vortex of huricane strength because he resented the fact that I spent the day Sunday observing my spirtual practice instead of working all day in the yard like him. Too weak to work Monday because of it? Double the hate.
V said that contact with the devotees quickly gives people liberation or sends them to Hell. The purport of that statement would be that those who are ineligible to receive the mercy of Krsna tend to also be inimical to the point of creating offenses to Krsna and the Holy Name, which quickly robs them of all intelligence causing them to run into the jaws of death, which are no more than gates leading to Hell for such offenders.
This is another reason why it is good for advanced devotees to move about and not stay in contact with materially minded people: because they have compassion for all the fallen souls, and knowing them to be offensive by nature, the pure devotees limit the opportunity for offenses while still sharing sadhu sanga.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Using a Junction Box for an Arduino Enclosure

Soon after my prototype circuit was running on the bench, I began wondering what could I put this in? I did some searches, and other than an outrageously priced recycled plastic soap container, I couldn't really find anything being marketed to the Arduino community as a practical enclosure. I looked at the other things out there like Pelican boxes, and then one day I was at the hardware store and saw some standard outdoor electrical boxes. I ran back out to my car and grabbed my Freeduino board and the harness kit from NKC Electronics.
I was happy to find that a standard metal outdoor junction box was adequately sized. and a square PVC box fit the chassis plate nicely too. I had already realized with the other things that I had considered that an enclosure for my project would cost nearly as much, or even more, than my precious Arduino itself. If you go to a large building supplies store you can get these boxes for under $10.Of course you don't actually get a finished enclosure for under $10. You've got to put a top on it. There are lots of options there. The fancy clear plastic shielded weatherproof outlet cover will set you back as much as an Arduino board itself. I settled on a standard outlet cover that had a nice rectangular hole in it that whispered "put the LCD here" when I saw it. I think it cost about $8. When I got it home I found that the metal plates for the face/switch/outlet mounting on the metal box made getting the Arduino board inside very hard. Additionally the rectangular hole in the cover was about an 1/8" too short on the long dimension, while being about a 1/4" wider than the LCD on the narrow dimension.

OK now to see how much work modifications take...

The first thing I tackled was cutting down the bracket inside the enclosure so that the Arduino board would easily fit. At first I just thought I had to make room for the USB connector as you can notice in the photograph, then I realized that the LCD shield stacked on top would need even more clearance. I carefully left the four corner tapped holes while cutting back to about the middle of the line connecting the threaded holes. On one side I took a little more off by angling the corner, the picture is a little fuzzy but you can see it.
Also notice in the photo to the right that the conduit connector in the housing ended up hitting the USB/Serial connector and had to be ground down a little bit to provide proper clearance. I realized that I have to add another shield for a DS1307 clock circuit so I'll probably have to take the serial connector off of my installed board - a Freeduino serial v2.0 kit upgraded with a 328.
It turned out that the LCD shield had to be modified by lopping off the corners of one end where there were no traces or routes, while still keeping the four mounting holes on the shield. A few passes with the file to take a little extra off the box and I felt like I could get the LCD in the enclosure while it was on the Arduino and also mounted to the top - which constrains the angle one can use to insert the boards.

A rotary tool and file were used to notch one end of the top plate so that the LCD would fit. The trim pot for the backlight sticks up quite a bit on the shield so the plate needed to be drilled out both for clearance and access to the pot screw. Next I took a piece of paper and put it on top of the LCD shield buttons and made little marks where the buttons were. I then attempted mark the mounting hole pattern of the shield on the underside of the top by holding the shield in position and inserting a guide pin through each hole and striking it with a hammer to leave a mark at the desired spot. Using these spots as reference points I now transfered the LCD button pattern and used a drill press to drill out the holes. I'm still thinking that I'll take a small screw driver or stick or something to push the buttons through the holes: not the most user friendly option. Perhaps something could be put in the holes to provide a tactile surface....

Being an idiot and not thinking about what I would need, I had ignored several opportunities in the last week to buy a few standoffs, so now I needed to fabricate some. Fortunately I found some 1/4" aluminum rod, so I cut off a couple inches, mounted it in a vice on the drill press and bored it out for a #6x32 screw. I happened to find a couple suitable screw in my miscelaneous screw bin left over from when my father worked at the Stanford linear accelerator back in the '60s! My hole stayed pretty well centered and I tapped it out, grinding my tap down a little on the tip to get a little better bottom thread. With an inch or so tapped out, The LCD mounting points on the cover at the bottom end (visible in the photo above) ended up being in a transitional area where a ridge in the molding prevented mounting a standoff, so once again the rotary tool was used to grind down the area so that a proper mounting could be established.

I carefully measured the distance from the top plate to the top of the LCD board, which was different at each end because of the grinding, and cut the desired standoff length from my short length of threaded rod. Tapping it out a little deeper after cutting off the first two pieces. The spring hinge on the top accidentally slammed shut while I was doing a test fitting and I ended up loosing (only) one of the standoffs and had to make another one after searching for 10 minutes. I screwed the standoffs onto the LCD module, and put it on the upside down cover plate and experienced one of those very short moments of satisfaction in the material world. The button holes ended up pretty close but slightly skewed, and the hole for the reset button on the far end had to be enlarged a little, not too bad for a prototype. I mixed up a little epoxy and seated the standoffs in the epoxy while they were still attached to the LCD shield to maintain their alignment. The next morning I mounted the Freeduino board to the LCD shield and fit it into the box. It only goes in one way, and I have to be a little careful, but it seems like it will work fine.

Total modifications and fabrication took about 4 hours. I haven't mounted the finished project with wires attached yet, but if your time is cheap, I'll tenatively give this a enclosure a good recommendation to anyone else who wants to try using it. It's relatively inexpensive, and uses commonly available parts.
Tools used:
  • Rotary tool with cutoff disk
  • drill press & drills,
  • 1" mill file, hack saw,
  • #6x32 tap, guide pin, hammer.
  • Outdoor Metal Junction box (1/2" pipe thread connections)
  • Weatherproof Cover Plate
  • 4 6x32 3/8" machine screws,
  • 1.5"x1/4" dia. aluminum rod, epoxy.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Solar Oven & Range Concept

This is a quick appliance concept that would integrate with heliostats very nicely. This setup would look like normal kitchen appliances, but would use direct CSP instead of AC electricity.
Notice that the cost of the solar optical components should be low and therefore not increase prices substantially over existing models.
Ideally this would be installed on a North facing wall (for Northern Hemisphere locations) for best exposure to heliostats throughout the day.