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. 

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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Enter November

Yes, I spent far too many hours at my local insurance agency renegotiating my homeowners coverage and adding protection for the other buildings on the property. In order to get the discounts that mattered, I had to move at least one vehicle from a competing firm, and to get multi-car, we moved a second. There was also lots of 'recalculating' going on as the previous lodge coverage was far out of date. While I trust the competing firm more, it’s nice to have a local rep for all the other insurance and I’ve been with both of them for at least 10 years. Not wanting to leave a stone unturned, it made financial sense to sign up for their credit card (no fees, etc) which essentially adds another discount on top of the quote when used to pay for “insurance products”.

I also found a nice card that returns 3% on gas and 2% on groceries and offers a nice bonus if you spend so much in the first 90 days. Again, no fees or ‘gotchas’. Just pay it off each month and it’s essentially free money on things we would buy anyway. For now I’ll continue to use cash/debit for everything else which makes tracking easier.

And then there’s the big one. On an impulse I sold the roadster. Let’s just say I received an offer I couldn’t refuse…man that was a fun car, but no more monthly payments, and no more silly triple-digit registration fees for plates. I sent her off to the new owners yesterday…hope they’re happy with her.

Meanwhile, I’m just keeping my head down, working my way through the fall and into winter. Trying to finish siding and paint work on the Annex, winterizing the cars, trying to get the wheels in motion for the ag CRP arrangement and doing my best to stay sane at the day job.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Putting my money where my mouth is.

This post was meant to pop up approximately one month, to give a quick update, since I decided I was all-in on the Moustacian train (http://www.mrmoneymustache.com). But what can I say? I’ve been busy. So how are things looking a month and a half later? Did I commit or fall flat on my face?
As I eluded to recently, the first order of business was figuring out expense ratios on my employer’s 401k plan and making those adjustments after figuring out just what the heck those were (see last post). Done and done.
Next, I opened an online brokerage account after doing some googling to determine who was offering the best deals at the time. Nerdwallet gives a good general breakdown, but YMMV. (http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/investing/best-online-brokers/stock-trading-accounts/) Next I started watching darling Apple to see when might be a good time to buy. The latest phones hadn’t come out yet, nor had the iPad Pro and other goodies, but if history was any indication, the stock would rise, then plummet after announcement, then slowly climb again. Now, ask any advisor what stocks you should invest in, and if they’re not on your payroll, they should be telling you to avoid any single stock pick and instead invest in index funds. If you are paying an advisor, then they’ll tell you the opposite after consulting their crystal ball (they don’t care if you make money or lose money, their commission is on buys and sells). However, Apple is one of the few stocks solid enough that it’s tough to go bust on if you like to gamble. Incidentally, I ended up buying both ‘pre’ and ‘post’ product announcements and then again yesterday. Nobody that ever invested in the stock market has lost money if they buy for the long term. Not even through the last recession nor the crash of ’29. Additionally, if you sell without holding for at least 12 months, you’ll get taxed up the ying-yang, so why not let it ride?
Then the market dropped out. No joke, about a week after going all-in, the market fell apart. But guess what? No better time to buy then when stocks are “on sale”.
Now, after crunching the numbers, having adjusted my 401k diversification and seeing the S&P plummet, I went all-in on my 401k contributions and will continue to do so through the end of the year in an attempt to hit the IRS max contribution limit. This will be a bit of a game as if I cap out early, I won’t get the employer match…or maybe I will (and a question to HR on front-loading and percent-distribution was met with boilerplate that didn’t answer my question). Yes, my take home checks are pretty small, but the net gain is larger in the long run as the majority was deducted tax-free.
Unlike a 401k that limits contributions for the year at Dec 31st, an IRA can be contributed to through April 15th of the following year. Though both traditional and ROTH IRAs have a combined cap of $5500. Since my 401k plan doesn’t offer Vanguard index funds (seriously, look these guys up), it made sense to open a free account with Vanguard themselves. Anyone can do it, and since they manage the funds directly, you’re not paying a second party a hefty expense ratio to do so. This is where you want to invest. I opened a ROTH and invested in a stock heavy mix. Then when the markets dipped yesterday I made another buy. The goal is to max this out by the 2015 tax deadline, then do it again in 2016. Yes, this is considered taxed income, but withdrawals on the deposits can be made at anytime without penalty. If you don’t have a 401k plan through your employer, you should seriously consider a traditional IRA which is pre-tax and see if you meet the guidelines.
So, the goals so far have been pretty simple: Max out any tax-advantaged vehicles. Put any “savings” into index funds (whether taxed or not). Optimize any company matching. Cut frivolous spending (I cut my coffee/lunch bill for the last month down to $1.18 for the ENTIRE month). Invest in stocks when they’re on sale. Oh, and go read Mr. Money Moustache.