Tuesday, August 9, 2016

MMM Check-In

So it’s been a year since I signed onto the MMM train; at the time I kicked myself for not discovering the group earlier. I still do, but I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer than I did. So now that we’re 12 months in, how are things shaking up?

If you recall, the first order of business was taking advantage of any tax deferred accounts. This meant things got kind of lean towards the end of 2015, but it also meant I was able to max out the 401k up to the federal limit. If I had to live on Ramen to do so, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Everything not put there gets taxed at your AGI, plus the state tax, and if you spend it, better tack on sales tax, too. In the end that dollar only has about 75 cents of buying power, even in your savings account. While a simplification, you just worked 10 hours of your 40 hour week for free. Not only did you do it for free, you will never get that time back. Scale that out to 25% of the working year, and….

Don’t have a 401k? You likely qualify for other pre-tax savings plans.

Next step was investing in an IRA. Nice thing about a Roth, if you need the money in an emergency, the contribution portion can be withdrawn at any time without penalty as it’s post-tax money. You can’t make up for the lost cost-opportunity of pulling that money out, but it is a legit option. Roth or tIRA, see which one is right for you.

There was some pain and work involved.

The next goal was to reduce fixed costs. I sat down with my insurance man…several times…and sharpened the pencil; coverage is now appropriate and we moved a couple cars over to take advantage of bundling discounts. A pain in the ass for sure, but I’ll be sitting down with him again in a month to revisit. If I don’t like the numbers, I can always take my business elsewhere. You’d be surprised how much money can be ‘found’ if you talk turkey.

Other fixed costs; I had a car I was making payments on. A 2009 Sky Convertible. My newest vehicle…working A/C, impressive gas mileage, fun to wind out. It had been on various trips to MN and even New York, but I had a note on it and as is the case with new cars, eventually it would cost me major bucks. Sold that off before it would eat me alive. No more car payments.

Some very uncomfortable phone calls to the farmer renting my land, and lots of paperwork at the FSA office to get us into a CRP program. This also meant a conversation at the Assessor’s Office to get us squared away for farming changes. And it’s not as easy as shuffling paperwork. Both C and I have spent untold hours on the tractor rotary cutting 47 acres of grass and weeds so the prairie has half a chance.

Taxes: Such changes have implications, but there are likely credits and deductions you qualify for that aren’t caught by H&R Block nor a computer program...because to qualify, action is required on your part ahead of time to take advantage of such. The biggest takeaway for me was that if you wait to look at your tax situation when taxes are due, you’ll always be behind the 8 ball. I admit, this is a rather daunting topic, but the question becomes, at what level of effort are you okay with sitting in a cubicle vs. taking action. If you look into it right now, you still have 4 months for course correction.

Flexible Spending. Based on a rolling 12 months from the year prior to the most recent 12 months. Groceries and adult beverages: We don’t scrimp here, but the local grocery stores put almost everything on sale on a given rotation so it never makes sense to pay full price. If there’s a sale, I stock up and ride it out. This takes almost no effort and keeps the spend under $200/mo for two people. If I’m out of state and see a good deal, I’ve been known to buy a few cases of libations which really adds up in savings over the long run. Plus I send in the rebates.

Fuel costs are down, due to a combination of pump price, but also due to a little planning. I have to drive into town for work anyway, might as well make the most of it.

How about plugging those leaking holes? I know people here at work that buy both breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria DAILY. That way madness lies. According to my records, in the 12 months prior, I paid for lunch at work 20 times during the course of the year. That’s less than once every 2 weeks. For the most recent 12 months? I cut this number to 1, and it was for the outdoor car show with coworkers.  

And coffee? 71 times at $1.18 now down to exactly 10 cups over the year. And I ate outside the office 4 times at a total cost of <$10. So roughly, a $20 bill took care of lunch and coffee for the last 12 months. I can live with that. Yes, I am still drinking coffee every morning, it just means I have no excuse not to clean the percolator and load the basket each day. And I still eat lunch at my desk, I just don’t “treat” myself to the overpriced cafeteria. Is my quality of life somehow reduced due to those decisions? Not that I can tell.

I was a debit card man up until this time last year. It made record keeping easy as all transactions were in one place and I could be completely up to date in 5 minutes. Plus, as you know, credit cards are evil. Well, so much for that. There are folks that take CC churning to new levels, scoring travel miles and cash rewards by being savvy on the latest offers. I decided to stick my toes in the water and took advantage of several cash back rewards cards and can honestly say it was worth the juggling. The Citi Double Cash is my go-to for most purchases but each card has their advantage. For example, there will always be something I need from Amazon, so having that card as a tool in my belt makes good sense. I will always buy groceries, so why not take the 7% bonus for 3 months and 2% for the other 9? It’s free money.

Additional “opportunities”. I try to routinely list a few items on eBay for a little ‘fun money’, branched out into other services for RR Central, and doubled down on our energy costs by going solar. Interestingly, as time rolls on, the state and fed tax credits continue to decrease so it makes sense to get this plant in now. As of August, we are online and producing and just crossed the 1 megawatt/hr production threshold. Yes, payback time is in YEARS but the tax credits are arguably more valuable now during my working years when we’re in a higher tax bracket, so that’s bonus 1. And every dollar I save not giving to the utilities for electricity can be put in pre-tax savings, so that’s bonus 2. Oh yeah, did I mention clean energy? Plus they look cool.

No, I am not riding my bike to work from where I live; I don’t have a death wish. No, I am not trading my ‘gas guzzling’ vehicles; I see the automobile as more than just transportation. Yes, I actually bought a project car earlier this year that I can spend time working on when I’m out of the rat race. Perhaps not the most opportune timing, but the fact that I could see the car in person rather than as photos on the internet, and that I wouldn’t spend 25% of the purchase price transporting it on a carrier, weighed heavily into my decision. I don’t plan to stop such insanity anytime soon.


Wow, so I guess I did make some changes in the last 12 months. In my estimation, quality of life is exactly the same, but now I know each day I spend at work gets me one day closer to a goal; something tangible. C is onboard and has made similar changes with her spending and investing as well. Do I recommend it? Hell yes.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

Good. Lord.

It has been a week. Literally, a week’s sabbatical without pay to get away from work for a few days during the factory shutdowns and allow me some quality time to get to know the Shasta Airflyte. Most of it was fun, though rustoleum paint dripping in my face, and lots and lots of sweat were not so fun. I looked back yesterday eve and managed to cross off 41 projects; others had to wait as parts weren’t yet here, and still others due to time constraints. Eventually I’ll put up a webpage with info for other owners, but I was pretty vocal on the Shasta Reissue FB group, to the point some people thought I was talking cheap shots at the manufacturer (and to think I was holding my tongue).

But it wasn’t all trailer work. The rock came in for the driveway on Monday. Took 17 truck loads, which I estimate to be over 300 tons. In addition to the rock MidAm put down on the final curve, that gets us a layer a couple inches thick from tracks to road. Problem was, it wouldn’t spread from the truck as it should, which meant bare spots and piles several feet high, both left/right and fore/aft. So instead of spending Monday working on the trailer, I was busy with the loader trying to make things passable while the rock kept on rolling in. To add insult, the final product is so bumpy that if you exceed a crawl, you’ll get bounced through your windshield. I made a call midweek and found a guy in Waverly that does excavation and grading work and he stopped out Sunday. He’s going to put a guy with a skidloader on the job today to see if they can smooth it out before it compacts. Fingers crossed.

I managed to burn a couple other mornings by running errands- Menards a few times for supplies, then groceries, post office, etc. That still left me with afternoons. Friday morning (with last bearing in-hand) was spent rebuilding the PTO for the Farmall and  getting that installed for the real test on Saturday. The original outer bearing had blown out to the point several ball bearings were worn into halves! After assembling a cheap hydraulic press, I was able to drive in new bearings as well as the output shaft. What a lifesaver. That meant Saturday we’d finally be able to cut the grass that had been growing for two weeks. That took the better part of Saturday…thick, wet grass that put the mowers to the test. While I ran the Farmall, Cara ran the JD as the 14 acres of prairie on the east side of the tracks needed another cutting. I managed to sneak in a couple hours late in the day but she really handled it, finishing that field on Sunday.


All-in-all, an enjoyable, if not exhausting, experience. By the end I couldn’t even remember what the office looked like. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Heat-Wave Update

So here we are, mid-July already. I figure an entry is due, at least as a way to capture the progress and events of the last few months should I ever look back at 2016 and wonder what happened.

On the solar front...Apr was set aside for planning the system, revising the system, shopping components around, contacting the necessary authorities for approval and ordering parts. May was the buffer for the parts and components to arrive from all corners of the globe (and of course multiple freight deliveries), while the galvanized pipe was sourced locally. I also took care of the digging and cement work during this time. June was slated as the build month, for trenching, framework, panel bolt-down, excavation into CS3, etc. And I'm happy to report we were ready to flip the switch as of 1 July, with just one little hangup. Inspection. However, this process went smoothly after a date was pinned down and as of 14 July, the initial pass was given, CFU installed their net meter, and we went online that afternoon. Initial response is favorable- we are in fact generating more power than we're using, though without the ethernet link connected (hopefully be end of the week) I can only compare values off the inverter display and the registers on the net meter. It's an interesting paradigm shift (to use a phrase I'd rather not use). During the day we generate power at a higher return per kWh than we use.. And at night, we buy kWh's from the PoCo at the standard reduced rate. So when it's a cloudy day and production is down, the initial instinct is to conserve, but I'd argue that's probably the best time to consume as you're not offsetting those more valuable solar kWh's your selling back. One day I might get around to putting together a web page to capture the entire build; I made sure to snap photos and keep a log of the process and part numbers as others have done as no two builds are ever alike.

Earlier this month was the annual trip up north. This year was similar to last year's in that obviously the destination (Leech Lake) was the same, but also that both grandmas tagged along. On what is normally one of the busiest travel days of the year by car, I chose to avoid the whole 35/94 beaten path and headed west at Albert Lea, taking 13 to (state) 14 to 15 which merges with 10 at St. Cloud.  With no congestion, accidents or construction, I'm convinced this was a faster route. And it allowed us to have a nice sit down lunch at McCormick's Family Restaurant, to pick up some tasty bacon and summer sausage at Knaus' Sausage House, and spend a few minutes at the Motley antique, uh, shop. Plus it was a beautiful day to cruise the two-lanes.

Once up north things unfolded predictably, except my desire to play Canasta. Years ago I'd play this up on 3rd Crow Wing and it didn't take much doing for us to get back into the grove of things after a quick consult with Wiki on the scoring rules. But for some reason this game managed to bring out the bickering and loathing of half the players when we'd all sit down for a 6-handed round. I have no idea why. Dominoes was a much safer choice and became the default when it was obvious things were going sideways.

This is likely the first year we didn't get to see the fireworks. Had pizza at Rocky's but the rain moved in fast and after sitting for an hour with clouds moving in the first droplets starting, we packed up and headed for the car before it became a frenzy of dashing tourists flailing coolers and folding chairs in the dark. As it turned out, they went on with the show 45 minutes after the fact (according to the radio), but I can only imagine sitting in all that rain and lightning just a few feet from a sizable body of water. I think we made the right call. Too bad the drive back to the parents was another hour.

We have our rock! Well, a quarter of it at least..I'd estimate about 50 ton. I got Mid Am to lay rock on the final stretch of lane where the biggest wash outs occur after the final turn. Actually, the rock extends up past that turn as we originally did have gravel there which was bladed under during their construction this winter. Nice to have that corrected, and the order for the rest of the out of pocket aggregate should arrive this Friday, weather permitting.  Still have some grading to do as well as laying more of the geotextile fabric.

The Farmall is in intensive care due to a PTO bearing "failure". This little issue has turned into a project after pulley failure the week prior, prompting the purchase of a hydraulic press, which'll come in handy for lots of other uses. New seal, bearing and gaskets are on order. I just hope all goes well and soon! We'll get by with the push mowers and the rotary cutter if necessary, but that grass is starting to take off.

The CRP project is underway and we have completed the first mowing of the 47 acres. This is to cut the weeds down so sunlight can reach the prairie grass seedlings. It was roughly a 2-week task of getting in a few hours here and there whenever weather would allow, and burning weekends to stay ahead of the growth. Though it's really a never-ending battle and it looks like we'll have to go for round 2 here in just a couple weeks.

With respect to the Annex, the siding and paint work are officially complete. Soffits are next, though I'm not entirely sure if that's in the cards this year. I've got the materials, but it's a major time sink and there's enough other projects happening that it can wait. They say you'll never be bored living in the country, and that's true to a fault. I have finally managed to slug my way through sorting and stacking all the wood we cut from the highline project. I forget now, 3 or 4 pickup truck loads full up to the Lodge. Initially I laid a pair of treated 6x6's over landscape cloth as a makeshift drying base and stacked the logs on that. When that filled up, I added an 8' pallet and went three rows deep with logs (took another afternoon). When that reached capacity, I dragged over a 4x4 pallet (yesterday) and managed to get the last logs off the ground. Those rotting, not easily stacked or partials then got hauled to the burn pile. At least there's no longer a big pile of cut-up wood killing the grass and inviting snake habitation.

And to top things off, we got to see Huey Lewis and the News play right here in town to a venue of 1500 just two days ago. There's nothing more surreal than spending your afternoon sweating in the sun stuggling with a galvanized fence...a few hours later, raiding the refrigerator, and in between, seeing Huey Lewis perform. Foremost, they put on one hell of a show and somehow, 30 odd years later, sounded just as good as if I were spinning Sports. I have no idea how these guys manage to put on a show almost every night of the week; check their schedule, I'm not exaggerating.  Frankly, I couldn't say enough good things about the performance, but the venue was a little too formal (typical CF haughtiness), and the dynamic of the crowd, a bit odd due to a mix of college kids not entirely familiar with the repertoire, older folks, like the man next to me, who I'm not entirely convinced had heard of HL before, and those in between who were rocking out to Power of Love.


(note: Originally photos were going to be added to this post, but it's 98F in the room I'm sitting in, and if I don't post the text now, it'll never happen).

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Spring has Sprung

It’s been a while since I’ve written…partly lack of desire, and partly due to concerns of modesty or privacy. It’s hard to give personal updates that involve the positive progress in one’s life without it coming off as a humble-brag, but rest-assured, I don’t like to dwell on negativity nor air dirty laundry, so that’s why you don’t see that here. I have no problem mentioning challenges and obstacles in this blog, but when I do, it’s because I’m thinking about ways to resolve them. If you want bad news, just turn to your favorite mainstream media outlet.

So some good news- Spring has finally arrived. No April showers yet, but the grass is greening up and the temps are warming. That means spring maintenance like taking down the snow fences around the trees, trimming branches, putting away the snow shovels and ice chipper. And a return to fair-weather transportation.

The to-do list is growing and I didn’t accomplish all I wanted to last year on my “break” summer. Still one wall of siding to complete on the Annex, soffits remaining and painting to tackle. I think the secret here is to hit it hard while spring-fever gives me enough drive to do so. And before the heat, bugs and humidity make it unbearable. The picker batts are charged and I have this Friday off so we’ll see how the painting goes on the north side.

There’s also some new construction projects this year, including adding lean-tos to each side of the existing tractor-shed (of course that means geo-textile fabric and gravel $$). I’m also moving full-steam ahead on the 10kW grid-tie solar project. I’ve spec’d out a system and put together a proposal. This week I met with CFU to share my details and was met with a “fine, whatever” response. I was provided a form for Parallel Generation of Power to be completed and submitted, but am waiting on questions regarding credits to make sure this project is worthwhile. Unfortunately, Iowa is not as progressive as other states when it comes to alternative energy, and this utility offers ZERO rebates for installing such a system. If the answers come back favorably, I’ll be pushing this forward hard to take advantage of the summer peak-power producing months. The next obstacle will then be pulling a permit and working with the district inspector for approval.

This is the first year we’ll be ‘farming our own’ and have pulled the land off of cash rent. Seeding is already taking place around us but we’re at the mercy of MidAm to get their equipment and dirt piles cleaned up before that can start (within the next 10 days). This’ll be an interesting experiment as well as it requires a lot more work than just depositing a check once a year, but it does mean no more heavy equipment cross-traffic on our lane. On the upside, with MidAm out of the picture, and potentially the neighbor using his own new-found property, we might just get a real road put in this year.  

Plan 2020 is still in effect. We added a camper to the lineup this winter for future endeavors but my engineering side has put together a list of improvements and upgrades that will actually be fun and provide instant gratification (as opposed to multi-year gratification which ain’t so hot). I also brought home a ’66 Toro from MN with Ben’s help…something to tackle later on, after construction projects are wrapped up and the Bluegill Pontoon is restored. And after I figure out what to do with this Touring Sedan. Actually, if it were in better interior shape than I thought it was in, this wouldn’t be a problem. I suppose I could clean it up..after all, the paint and body is excellent, and after some mechanical work it should run like a new car. Hell, with a little elbow grease it’s essentially free transportation.



Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Mid-Summer's Check-In Part 2 aka The Second Half of the Year in Review



It wasn't too long before an opportunity in Michigan presented itself. A complete Cad 390 engine and Hydra-matic transmission from a 1959 Cadillac were put up for sale. The pickup was empty and the price was right. Don offered up his place for an overnight stay and Ben and I hit the road for a quick turnaround. We made it back by Sunday afternoon though missed out by minutes on a Radarange. We may also have worn out a few cassettes….

Next thing you know, the Cadillac-LaSalle Grand National was staring me in the face. Betwixt the construction projects and travel, I was also working on the '59 CdV that's been off the road since '09. Brakes were completely dry and still on a single MC. The rebuilt engine was untested. The fuel system needed an overhaul including a new fuel tank, hoses and fuel sending unit, and the exhaust remained loud as hell despite throwing money at it back in '05. The leather was dry, the interior panels were once again discolored and the mice had made a real mess. But by the end of July, the car was ready, and we set out for Milwaukee with Ben and his '61 for the show. It was the perfect 'shot in the arm' needed to get the car ready and roadworthy and we had a great time traversing the countryside and taking in the other beautiful cars despite the rainy departure. I think we may have even made a few friends there.

With barely time for a breath, Cara, myself, and both grandmas, loaded into Grandma K’s Deville and set-sail for Walker, MN for a week of relaxation. This was the first 4th of July trip since my grandma sold her place so it was a little different game plan, but I'll save that for another entry. Let it be said, there was some Cracker Barrel on the way! The fireworks did not disappoint and Cara and I got in a little canoeing. We even came right upon a bald eagle perched on a branch enjoying a fish he had just caught. Our presence didn’t seem to faze him.

The '59 Pontiac became the daily-driver after putting exactly 1000 miles on it last fall. Mileage is probably triple that by now this year. The only issue has been a faulty fuel pump (new last year) causing a knock and occasional starvation issue. Easy fix once I figured it out. 

For a brief while, we had a functioning 1957 dishwasher, after adding casters, replacing hoses, and sprucing things up a bit by adding a lighted dial. Unfortunately, it was not to be as the pump seal started leaking thereafter, so this one goes back on the list for repair. A GE combo machine was added to the collection and after a few hours work, is now in service. This was my first transaction with Uship and getting the machine from California to Iowa was interesting with delays, excuses, and break-downs, but it made it intact.

Summer Chores
Almost every week there was something new in July…from getting tipped off about a CRP program and getting the ball rolling with the local FSA office, to finishing the rock and drainage at the pole building. I even finally pulled the trigger on a much-needed tractor at the local dealership which handled mowing duty, lane maintenance and snow removal this December. Plus hauling and transporting rock and other heavy things around the place (like toting a THM325 from the Lodge to the pole building in its bucket). 

Taking a break to enjoy a weekend bonfire
By this point we were bearing down on August, and a welcome invite from some washer friends had us loading up the Sky and heading to Minnetonka, MN for the weekend. The weather was perfect as we enjoyed drinks on the lake, cruising away the afternoon. Just recalling it from the distance of this snowy January morning is enough to give me a little inspiration to get the Blue Gill restored. The trip was memorable for another reason as well….we almost died. A 4x8 sheet of plywood broke off of a semi we were about to pass and hit us square on, but since we were so low to the ground we were fortunate that it only skimmed us. Any other vehicle and the force would probably have tripped the airbags while we were doing close to 70MPH. This also meant that I had to deal with the transport company’s insurance and have the repairs made on the car.

But August was busy for other reasons, too. My failed attempts at trying to finish the Lodge EIFS had culminated with me tracking down Fernando. He took on the job but it was slow going, finally wrapping up almost a month later. Meanwhile I focused on the Annex siding. Finished the front, the rear and 95% of the west, though only the rear received paint treatment. My bigger focus was finishing CS3 and between rocking the foyer, installing pavers and milling cedar for the rear siding (which I painted a 2nd coat earlier in the spring) I’d say is just about there. I also discovered MMM and the potential of early retirement that month which I’ve written about prior.

Trimming out the doors after EIFS completion
During this time Cara and I were also busy sending out invites and securing Black Hawk Park for our wedding celebration (29Aug). The party was a major success even with torrential downpours the days prior.

September kind of snuck up on us. I found a little breathing room to get things ready before Geoff dropped in from Australia and spent a couple weeks. We paid the Kiwi a visit to exchange a teletype for a homebrew computer that was once a Mohawk Data Systems Key-to-tape unit and took in some super computers in an Iowa barn as well as a Delorean, but more importantly, toured the Iowa countryside in the Suburban on a sunny, but chilly, day, and had a memorable meal at the Dirty Dog. 

The '59 Catalina and '61 DeVille ventured to Montour, IA.
The month marched on, I continued with my evening RR panel repairs for folks and struck up a deal with a seller on the east coast who had an actual RR-1. A friend is holding it until I can get out there in 2016; while I don’t want to count my eggs before they’re hatched, this would be a real centerpiece in the collection. Meanwhile, more dealing was taking place on setting up the CRP paperwork for next year. Cutting out costs and getting my insurance up to date, and deciding to sell off the Sky. I could either have that money working for me generating interest, or working against me as depreciation in a used car. Time to get serious!

Now it was getting cold and the prospect of snow was on the way. With the potential for MidAm to come in this winter and work in our field, I decided a gate and fence would be cheap insurance not only from trespassers, but also from damage to my personal portion of the lane from their heavy equipment. I cut up some of the old drive-in 6x6 timbers and Cara and I installed them along with a 12’ gate down near the tracks. It took a few weeks (not a lot of evening light in December) but I eventually got the barbwire fence put in along with the timber N-frames at each end. A come-along put the needed several-hundred pounds of tension on the barbed wire so I could get it tacked in place and supported. An educational project for sure.

I had wanted to get CS3 online in the fall, but eventually decided the only way to get the project moving forward was to skip connecting to water at that time (digging down to the well and installing an underground valve and drainage would have been a major undertaking). I can run an alternate path to the east side of the building at a later date, and the savings of trying to combine both in the same trench is minimal in the long run. After lining up the trencher, I got cold feet and decided to ‘play it by the book’ with the service entrance. It worked out as we spent all day trenching from the new gate to CS3, then CS3 to the Annex for power. We got a little snow a week later and the electrical inspector got back to me and gave the go-ahead for the service entrance. While not exactly a ‘fun’ time, cables were buried for power to the meter and for communication into the lodge.

We wrapped up the year with solar power up at the road, an automatic gate opener controlled from the Lodge, and full time power into CS3.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Solar Garage Door Opener

Well, not really. More like the 12V DC powered opener. I’m sure they exist, and they probably cost an arm and a leg. But let’s see what we can do with a more conventional model; both for cost and for parts. The idea is to use a 12V deep cycle battery charged by a 100w panel with charge controller to run a garage door at a remote building. The primary use for the power is for lights inside and out, but if a suitable door opener can be added, why not?

After some googling, I found several commonly available openers (Sears/Craftsman, Champion to name a couple) that possessed a battery backup feature. Checked the batt specs and they were indeed 12v. Their description seemed to match what I was looking for (door operation with the loss of 120VAC up to a dozen or so times). But such ‘fancy’ openers also have lots of unneeded features. Would they work at all on DC? Would they be totally useless for the life of the opener? Let’s find out.

After shopping around I picked up a new, surplus ¾ HPS Belt Drive Craftsman model off that popular internet auction site. Model 9-54918 (139.3043). It came with a pair of remotes, a wireless outdoor keypad, the required electric eyes and a switch panel that included control of the lights and door plus backlit LCD display with program buttons. Hmm.

Right off the batt…let’s tear this thing apart and see what we’re working with. Well, the switch panel with all the fancy features, like motion detection and display of interior temperature, connects with only two wires, so there’s a communication protocol taking place, and it’s safe to assume microprocessors at each end. Indeed, the rear of the opener contains a circuit board with micro, relays, driver transistors, etc. And you know what else that means? Software.
Standy Curent Measurement
The drive motor itself is the type used in automotive window regulators and to cycle windshield wipers and is pretty easy to drive. +12v on the red lead and -12V on the other will drive it one direction; reverse polarity to go the other way. So, if you want a brute force drive method and have no need for wireless control, cut those leads, run them out and there you go. However, you now have no safety features nor remote operation. There’s probably a better way…and there appears to be.

First, the thing is too smart for its own good. Buttons and indicators on the rear allow for setting the upper and lower limits of the door and for entering a learning mode to communicate with remotes. When first connected to AC, a rapid flashing green led indicates battery charging. This will turn orange when fully charged. The unit also communicates by flashing the 120VAC bulbs to tell you what else is going on, such as a wiring or communication error with the photoeyes, or restoration of AC power. I would like to rewire one of the two lights for 12VDC operation, and seeing as a basic SPDT relay on the PCB turns these on and off, some hacking should be easy, but it’s not. Software detects the absence of AC power and prevents engagement of this relay except when the motor is energized, so no time delay. And while the wall control has a Light pushbutton and the remotes can be programmed to use their other buttons for remote lighting, that’s a no-go on DC only. At least the 120VAC convenience sockets are wired with spade terminals, so a little rewiring allows the second bulb to be pulled out of circuit and wired to DC as we see fit. A 555 timer triggered off the relay coil (that only energizes during motor movement) should do the trick.
D24 is in the center of the relay footprint. Sharpie + and - marks denote
coil pins that will trigger external time-delay circuit.
The photo eyes must be wired and installed, and I believe they also have serial communication to the opener. The good news is a visible LED is mounted on each to see when they’re connected and when they’re drawing power. There’s no tell-tale click of a relay when the eyes are blocked, so bypassing to conserve power is not an option. However, there’s some good news. After 5 successful door open/close cycles (aka learning mode) once power is connected, the eyes power down when the door is closed. This cuts standby current in half (0.130A drops to 0.055A in standby). That’s less than 1 watt in the quiescent state.

If you think you’ll just bypass the transformer and inject your DC there, that could work, but be aware the system voltage is in the low-20’s VDC so it’ll take more than a 12V battery to make it work. I have to assume the way the software is written that you’ll also draw more standby power going this route, as it will think it’s connected to AC.

When on DC-only several other things happen. The backlight is shut off on the wall control and the LCD lets you know you’re off the grid. The light button is disabled as well as temperature and motion sensing. Luckily the door button still works. The wireless remotes still work, too.  A “Time to Close” feature that automatically closes the door x-minutes after opening is disabled. Big deal.

While I haven’t buttoned the unit up and installed it yet, one glaring issue is that if DC power is removed while not plugged into an AC outlet (such as swapping your battery) the unit will not power-up again without momentarily seeing AC. And you can’t just leave the onboard battery in parallel with the external deep cycle source as it’s small enough to be damaged/overheat and lead to bad things. Since this should be a rare occurrence, it might be possible to wake it up with a little AC inverter plugged into my cigarette lighter should the need arise. Current would be minimal, we’re just jump-starting the micro. 

Update: The unit has been installed and works! I used 14 awg NM romex for the 12V power and I suppose voltage drop could be improved with 12 awg or larger, but honestly these openers were never designed to be "speedy" on DC; their aim was to get the job done. At less than 20' from the battery, this doesn't appear to be an issue. 

I used a 12v inverter and a pair of aligator leads to jumpstart the unit. After leaving it powered for 30 seconds, I simply disconnected the clips, put my wire nuts on the DC leads and coiled up the AC cord. Disconnect too early and it won't go into DC mode. If one really wanted a belt-and-suspender approach, one of those cheapie 150w self contained inverters could be mounted inside the opener case (plenty of room) and a toggle switch added to the exterior. The AC cord could be removed and rewired internally to the inverter. No futzing necessary. 


Also of note, this unit learns remote controls dynamically. You press the Learn button on the unit, then hold in the wireless remote button until the unit flashes its lights. Well guess what...on DC it won't flash its lights (obviously). It won't even click its relay....but it will still pair with your remote. Simply hold down your remote button for 30 sec and then see if it works. If it didn't learn it, try again but hold it down longer. Eventually it'll get through all the codes and have picked the transmitter up. And there you have it-  A custom 12V opener with remotes and minimal power consumption for the price of a discount standard model. 

(Update 12/23: It's one month later and the unit works perfectly. No resets, no outages, no issues.) 

Monday, November 9, 2015

On November, Part 2.


One couldn’t ask for a better segue into this month. The days are sunny and temps hover in the 50’s; we’ve only started to nip on the heels of the overnight frosts, and there’s less than a week to go before we can cross off half the month. Soon enough this’ll all feel downright tropical…better make hay while the sun shines.

And make hay, we did. Since this year was one of a maintenance-mode (no major construction), it’s meant I’ve gotten a little soft in crossing off the to-do items. Oh, I still update the spreadsheet daily, and try to at least chip away at the projects that are due, but there’s been no hard and fast schedule to dig a trench by a certain date, nor play beat the clock with the weatherman over getting a roof on the place. Since I rely on setting goals and crossing them off the list so I can sleep well at night, lately this has posed a problem. If I were one of those types that took serious satisfaction in my corporate office job, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I have a hard time equating 8 hrs in front of a computer with the same mental planning and physical effort of framing a wall. That’s not to say one is inherently more virtuous than the other, it’s just that lunch tastes better when you’ve worked up a sweat.

So this was a welcome weekend where I was able to cross all the to-do’s off without exception. Saturday morning I decided to defrost the Deepfreeze..first time it’s needed doing since I brought it home and since it wasn’t 200F inside I figured I had half a chance of knocking it out without the ice cream turning to mush. A little heat gun action and a bucket to haul off the ice chunks and we were back in biz. Love that pre-war Deepfreeze…. I also got it into my head to vacuum the upstairs, grab the shopvac to get all the Asian beetles and boxelders swarming the clerestories, then go after the bugs that so love the 18’ garage door windows. Plus a good downstairs sweeping. What a difference! And let’s not talk about the flies…

Sat PM I could start on the work, and this involved cutting, edge priming, drilling and installing more siding on the west side of the Annex. I’m really beginning to rue siding work, especially with all the gyrations of fetching planks, crawling up ladders, using the picker bucket, painting ends, etc. I managed to wrap it up by 5PM, leaving a couple courses of siding left that will have to be cut to follow the slope of the roof. This gave me time to clean up before Ben stopped by at 5:30 for a trip to the OP in Waverly. Note: Good food, extremely busy, too damn bright. But it was a nice night and despite each of us only eating half our orders, I think we still required rolling to the car.

It seems I have a tough time on weekends these days. I wake up far too early, still tired, but not wanting to go back to sleep. The sun is up so I screw around on my phone for a while, say enough is enough, then get up and get dressed. Sunday was no different. So after a quick breakfast, I proceeded to juggle the chargers on the picker batteries, got the compressor and charged it, then blew out the yard hydrant lines. Next was man-handling the old 16’ gate, and the 18’+ long 6x6 timbers once used for the drive-in screen. The pickup handled them with ease, along with the post hole digger and shovels. After a few trips to the tractor shed for pea gravel, I was set. Cara came down to lend a hand and we installed the cut down 6x6’s on each side of the driveway on the east side of the tracks. A third 6x6 went in to form the slat reinforcement for the hinge side of the gate. Prior to digging, I decided a smaller gate would better suit us, even if we had to go buy one. The 16’ would be unwieldly in the snow and force the posts too far apart…then there was the matter of weight. We ended up getting everything placed and backfilled before 12:30, though I still need to pick up a 12’ gate to hang.

Next was the unenviable chore of sealing the front cement deck on the lodge. This is a yearly chore to help keep ice from damaging the cement. Last weekend I replaced all the butyl rubber in the expansion joints as part of this two-pronged attack. The trick is to roll out the sealer without allowing any of it to run or drip off the cement edges, yet all top surfaces have to be coated. It went fairly well this year.

Finally, a vintage light fixture was installed at the pole building up at the road. This is in preparation for a 100w solar photovoltaic system I’m planning on putting in this month. Just a simple, single panel arrangement with charge controller and deep cycle batt. Depending how the install goes, I might expand the system with a modified overhead door opener so Cara can get in and out with her car this winter without the “fun” of a manual door in sub-zero temps.

However the big news will be next weekend…the current plan is to rent a trencher and put it to work. 500’ feet will need to be trenched for some Cat-5e cable to run to a telephone down at the gate (as well as future connection for a camera, low-v lighting, etc). Then underground 12-3 cable from CS3 to the Annex. Then a trench from CS3 over to the Pump House to finally get CS3 on the grid. Dropped into the same trench in ¾” poly pipe will be network and coax cables tying CS3 to the Lodge. Cable and other items have been ordered and are enroute but the biggest obstacle is the planning. There are already enough underground cables and pipes that we’ll have to tread carefully in some areas, which means lots of hand digging.