Small Scale Solar, and Other News

Well, for those of you in the Rochester area I will be talking a bit about a small solar power system I put together this Saturday at BarCamp.  This is my first time there, and I wanted to do something a little different than the other things that were on the list.  First, though, I have to make up a presentation, which will probably mostly happen tomorrow after my test.

But I have been thinking about it, and so I guess I’ll post a little preview here.  My system is small, utilizing a 10 watt solar panel.  Energy production, obviously, depends on how much the panel is in the sun; since it is not a permanent system, I don’t really have a fixed answer to that other than I’ll take it outside for an hour while we go to play frisbee.  The system is just the panel, a batter, and a charge control.  I use it to run some lights, charge my cell phone and radio, and my laptop.  I guess you could add an inverter too, but I find that most things I want to run I can do directly off of 12 volts (or through a DC-DC boost converter in the case of the laptop, which likes 16 volts to charge the battery.)

This system could be nice to take camping, or to an event of some sort.  While it might not anihiliate your electric bill or make you an ecoviking, it can be useful during power failures and emergencies.  And of course it’s a great learning tool; if nothing else it makes you aware of the fact that electricity has to be produced some how.  (After all, they don’t just pump it out of a hole in the ground, amiright?  At least, never that directly.)  We’re so used to electricity being that cheap stuff that comes out of the wall to power our digital lives, and kill us if we fuck around with it too much.  Well, there is something neat about making your own power.  So come on down to learn more.

Now for some other news.  It is actually starting to warm up a bit here.  The temp has been in the 50s quite a bit, even the 60s sometimes.  That’s a ncie temp, IMHO.  Sun’s out more too.

It was warm in our apartment too.  Warm and steamy, actually.  I went home for Easter, and came back Sunday night to find that the bathtub faucet was leaking, providing a steady stream of hot water for a decent chunk of the weekend.  My roommates had put in a maintenance request, and they finally fixed it on Monday.  It was actually pretty neat, aside from the gigantic waste of water and gas.  Our entire apartment was warm and humid, like a tropical paradise.  The sound of water was also kind of nice, though it was kind of lucky that I couldn’t hear it from my bedroom.

So that’s that.

Battery Life and Other Nonsense

As I mentioned before, I have switched my laptop to Gentoo again after getting a new battery for it.  When I first finished my Gentoo install there was this beautiful feeling of euphoria…  It was just a raw Linux system, somewhat optimised for my machine.  It could be a normal Gnome desktop, it could be a mobile server…  It could be a workstation with no GUI at all…  So much potential, so many things I could do without having a predetermined computing environment like what Ubuntu provided.

Yeah, I ended up putting Gnome on it, along with the other types of apps normal people tend to put on their laptops: OpenOffice, Firefox, Pidgin (thus completing the desktop publishing-Web browsing-instant messaging trifecta), etc.  And now I find myself trying to replicate a lot of the things Ubuntu did configure out of the box.  Things like PulseAudio, multimedia codecs, and power management settings.

Actually the power management was a bit of a sticking point with Ubuntu.  I mean, it did provide decent control over LCD backlight brightness, and it configured CPU frequency scaling out of the box.  But at the same time I still never got the battery life I got in Windows.  The same is true for Gentoo.  I can get maybe four hours of life, which is nice.  But the older, smaller battery was rated for about this also.  Yeah, I know that rating’s a bit optimistic, but I sitll got maybe three of those hours on XP.  I’d like to get about 5 or 6 with this battery.

So I have some tweaking to do, no matter which distro I use on here.  I really do like having a less-bloated system, and at the very least Gentoo is a little more encouraging of tweaking, and is more familiar to me, so I may as well try diferent power saving methods on here for a while.  (Yeah, compiling software takes a bit of juice, but I do that when I’m plugged in anyway.)  Ubuntu 9.04 is coming out soon, and I’m thinking I might go and try it on here.

So, that’s that.  On an lighter note, the sun is coming out more and more here in Rochester.  We’re finally starting to get some Spring weather, even though we also just got some snow.  (I woke up one morning and it looked like it was winter outside.  It didn’t last long, but it was still weird.)  Though I do enjoy winter I am looking forward to the warmer weather a lot.  Soon it will be summer, and I will (hopefully) be working.  Getting away from class will be nice.

Spring and Optimism

It’s coming up on mid-February, and the weather is beautiful.  Not only is it warm out but we’re also getting plenty of sun.  Well, it is a little cloudy right now, but it’s been beautiful.  I really don’t even need a coat going outside.  Of course this won’t last forever; already it’s supposed to drop into the 20’s come the weekend.  But I’ll enjoy it while it’s here.  Soon it will be March, then April…  And soon it’ll be too warm.  But whatever.

Well, all the quirks of Rochester weather aside this has made me feel good, despite hard times in classes and such.  The whole seasonal affective disorder (SAD) thing never really got to me much (I don’t think), but the sun definitely uplifts me.  So, despite not knowing what I am going to end up doing over the summer I can say that I’m quite happy right now.

So I’m feeling optimistic.  I know that doesn’t necessarily jive with some people, but for me a positive angle on things is healthy.  Now, there’s a difference between being optimistic and delusional, and it’s something every optimist (and pessimist) should watch out for.  But, at least for me, if I am to get through life I have to try at least to be happy about it.

And you know what?  Ask me when the weather’s crappy, or when I’ve just had a bad day, and I may very well feel otherwise.  Bad days do that to everyone.  I guess overall I would say I’m 51 % optimistic.  Well, whatever, take it how you will.  But at least join me in taking pleasure in the fact that it will be spring soon.

Solar Powered Web Server

As you have probably noted from past entries I like to run my own servers.  I’m not running a big enterprise here, so they don’t have to be extremely reliable (though they have been very reliable).  Mostly, I like the control that I have, and the flexibility.

But I find myself running into a few brick walls here.  Mainly, electricity.  Now, it’s relatively cheap, particularly if I run a server at school where I don’t pay for electricity.  But, there’s also the wastefulness factor.  Global climate change or not, I’m not a fan of the idea of wasting energy.  Or at least grid produced energy that could result in carbon emissions.

Alright, if I really wanted to reduce my footprint I suppose I could walk a lot more instead of drive, maybe get a more efficient car, you get the idea.  But there are a lot of servers running out there, and someday it would be nice to be able to keep them all going with an alternative source of power.  Or maybe keep them going out in a remote location, or during a prolonged blackout.

Hence, my idea for a solar powered Web server project.  I have some of the parts for this project already, so but I’d still need to make a few more purchases.  The big thing is design, and here are my thoughts: If I can get some kind of embedded, single-board computer that draws say 3 watts at most and runs 24/7, that is 72 watt-hours per day.  (Just in case anyone is unsure, to get watt-hours you multiply watts by hours.  So 3 watts for 24 hours is 72 watt-hours.)  I will bump that figure up to say 90 watt-hours a day, just to compensate for losses in the battery.  After all, we do want to be able to serve Web pages at night, right?  So 90 watt-hours per day is not too bad.  Supposing that, in sunny Buffalo, NY we get an average of 3.5 sun hours per day, you would need about 25 watts of solar.

My solar arsenal right now consists of one 32 watt panel mounted on the side of my house, plus another 32 watt I have not yet installed, as well as a 21 watt flexible panel and a couple smaller ones.  (There’s also a big 100 watt panel in the garage, but that’s a different story for another day.)  So I have more than enough to make this work in terms of producing power; in theory one 32 watt panel should be enough, but having a second one in case of shade or low light from clouds would be good.

Now, we want some battery backup as well, as I mentioned before.  To do this we probably want to be able to run the server for say two days without sun.  (This isn’t mission critical.)  So, 90 watt-hours at 12 volts is 7 amp hours (90/12), so for two days that’s 14 amp hours.  Not too unreasonable; I have a 18 amp hour gel cell battery that should be able to handle that, without drawing it all the way down (which is bad for the battery).  Although I may consider getting a bigger battery.

Now, this will be a simple server, probably not something I’d install the standard LAMP stack on.  My main thought for this would be that it would also log data from the system via shunts and some analog-to-digital converters, and then present the data in a nice looking Web page.  Maybe if I felt like it some day I could even add some AJAX stuff to it, but whatever.

So this would really be proof of concept.  It would also be great for backup power; if there was a bad power failure I could of course turn the server off and use the power for other things, like charging cell phones and running lights and a ham radio.  So it would be a good thing to have.  I will soon be looking around for a nice single board computer to use as the server, and then maybe a better battery and solar panel location.  With a little luck I will be able to pull something together.  Stay tuned.