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  • Power4Patriots Review

    Posted on November 14th, 2012 Lee Devlin 82 comments
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    I’ve been hearing an ad on the radio lately about a discovery that the power company doesn’t want you to know about from a guy named Frank Bates. He mentions that he could get in a lot of trouble for talking about it and calls the power companies and the government “incompetent, lying crooks who are counting on your ignorance and fear to keep your electric bills and heating bills criminally high.” OK, I’m intrigued, so what’s this guy selling?

    He wants to show you the secret of how he beat ’em, and how you can beat ’em too. It’s described as a “weird” trick on the website. It sounds almost too good to be true. You can hear the commercial along with a video at the Power4Patriots website.

    Upon looking further into what Mr. Bates is selling, I discovered it’s a CDROM and downloadable access to a series of pdf ebooks (about 300 pages total) and videos covering the topics of solar and wind energy. Much of it involves DIY information on how to build your own solar panels, wind turbines, and solar water heaters from components you can find in local hardware stores and online for less than you can buy equivalent off-the-shelf products. The value of this ‘package’ is $297, but with the 90% discount, the CD and downloads can be yours for only $27 + 2.99 S&H. After purchasing it, you’ll find that if you pay $67 more, you get a physical spiral bound book along with 3 DVDs that also cover solar and wind DIY projects which is basically the same material, just in a format that might be more convenient for you. If you turn that down, you’ll be offered the printed book for another $27. After that, you’ll be offered heirloom seeds for another $67 to help you through any upcoming societal collapse. So there’s a lot of upselling going on after the initial $27 investment. I’m also now on the email list and I suspect I’ll be hearing a lot more from the company in the future.

    How do I know this? I know this because I invested the $29.99 in the ebook/CDROM product. After all, what kind of blogger would review a product he didn’t own? I gotta tell you, this guy’s good. I’m surprised I got out without spending another $134 for the physical book/DVDs and heirloom seeds.

    You’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard all the fuss about how Chinese solar panels are coming down in price so fast that they are putting companies out of business that were trying to manufacture solar panels in the U.S. Witness what happened with Solyndra and Abound Solar.

    One of the ebooks and 6 of the videos are related to making your own solar panels. I was curious to see just how cheap these homemade panels would be and the book shows a bill of materials of $175 for a 65 watt panel. That’s almost $3/watt not including your labor, and the amount of labor looks quite substantial. I’d estimate the labor at 10 hours per panel or more. That’s not cheap, especially now that you can get manufactured panels that are $1/watt that are already assembled and guaranteed. The manufactured panels are designed to last 25 years, are safety agency-approved, and can withstand all kinds of weather, including hail up to 1 inch in diameter. So trying to roll your own solar panels would be a waste of time and money. And the cost of a solar system doesn’t just depend just on the panel cost. The inverter costs about $.50/watt which is quite expensive in the grand scheme of things, or about half of what you’d be paying for the panels.

    And then there’s the installation cost. Of course, you can do the installation yourself if you’re capable and comfortable working on roofs. Once you add in the other ancillary parts and equipment, you can put together a solar system for about $2/watt these days using off-the-shelf components. That’s about half of what they cost just 4 years ago, thanks primarily to the drop in panel costs.

    A typical house in the U.S. uses about 730 kWh in electricity per month. To satisfy this need, you are looking at approximately a 5 kW system. That system would cost about $10,000 for materials even if you’re handy and can do the installation yourself. With U.S. electricity rates now at an average at $.12/kWh, it would take about 10 years to pay for itself. That’s not too bad, considering most things you buy for your home will just depreciate over time and not save you a dime, let alone break even or start making you money in the long run. My grid-tied solar system is 5.6 kW and I haven’t purchased any electricity since it was installed nearly 4 years ago but I do get charged about $8/month to be connected to the grid. I have accumulated a surplus (about 5000 KWh) on the meter that could run an electric car for more than 20,000 miles.

    The radio commercials imply that you could slash your energy bills and live free of these greedy utility companies but you cannot do that if you install a grid-tied solar system with net metering, which is the most common kind. To disconnect from your utility company, you’d need to have a battery storage system, a charge controller, and a backup generator for those times that you may have a few cloudy days in a row. A set of batteries that would hold a day’s charge of 24 kWh would cost at least another $4K and generator would add another $1K to it. So you’re looking at a much bigger expense when you talk about completely disconnecting from the power grid, I’d say at least $5K more. And those batteries would need to be replaced every 6 years or so. That makes the whole payback period kind of a moot point because of this extra recurring expense so unless you live in an area where there is no grid power, or you believe we are on the verge of complete societal collapse, it’s hard to justify an off-grid system when you can get away with the less expensive grid-tied solar system.

    There are some other books included in the package related to making and installing a wind turbine (probably good for 5-10% of the average household energy needs), and some simple solar hot water and solar hot air DIY projects. Bonus materials include ebooks on surviving disasters, storing emergency water, and building a solar cooker.

    So for $27, you get 10 ebooks all of which contain some useful information, especially if you’re into renewable energy or worrying about Armageddon. I didn’t feel ripped off afterwards, although the quality of some of the graphic images in the pdf files was pretty poor. I don’t know what the printed materials might look like, but the numbers on many of the charts were unreadable like the image shown below.

    Power4Patriots chart

    The poor image quality of many charts used in the ebook files makes the text unreadable.


    I’m always intrigued when I hear an over-the-top advertisement for an energy product. Most of the time they turn out to be truly worthless and horrible investments. But this one is harmless enough, and you might even find a few good ideas for your $27. But don’t get your hopes up that you’ll take your electric and heating bills down to nothing without a significant investment in time and money even if you follow all of the DIY information in the ebooks.

  • Replacing the plug on an Etymotics headset

    Posted on October 12th, 2012 Lee Devlin No comments
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    I’ve owned an Etymotics ER6i in-ear headset for several years now and have been very satisfied with it. I use it for motorcycling, bicycling, mowing the lawn, and any other activity where ambient noise would otherwise drown out the audio from a standard set of earbuds.

    Recently the left earphone began cutting out. By wiggling the wires near the plug I determined that the problem was near or inside the plug. I briefly contemplated purchasing a replacement headset, but then I recalled how much they cost, and it was close to $100.

    There were a few resources on the web that showed how to fix a bad connection inside the etymotics earbuds, but I found nothing about how to replace the plug, so I decided to write up my experience here.

    I already had a solder-on 3.5 mm plug in my parts bin and, although it was a 4-conductor plug, I figured it would work fine with my iPhone, since it uses a 4-conductor jack to mate with the Apple headsets with integral microphone. I just wouldn’t need to solder anything to the microphone ring. If I didn’t already have a plug, I would have used a 3-conductor stereo 1/8″ (3.5 mm) plug, which is available at RadioShack for a few dollars.

    The ER6i cords are independent, but I didn’t know what to expect when I cut them off and stripped them. If I had to deal with coaxial braid, that was going to be a pain, but upon cutting the plug off and stripping the wires, I was pleased to find that each cord contained a pair of conductors, both made with fine stranded wire. Each cord had one wire that was color coded along with a bare copper wire carrying the ground. Upon some testing, I found that the red and green wire carried the right and left channels, respectively.

    The green and red stranded wires are coated with an insulating material much like magnet wire that’s so thin you can see through it so even though the colored wires looked metallic and like they would be conductive, they were not. You need to tin the colored wire with a small solder blob to simultaneously burn off the insulating material and make a point where you can solder to. I was worried that the red/green wires would touch each other or the ground wire and short, but they won’t short as long as you don’t tin too much of the insulating material.

    etymotics cords with conductors

    Both copper wires can be twisted together (sorry for the picture focus)

    This is what the wires looked like before I soldered them into the plug. The bare copper wires from each cord are twisted together and will be soldered to the ground lug.

    iphone jack pinout

    You need to use an ohmmeter to confirm which solder tabs are connected to the rings and tip of the plug prior to connecting each wire with a small amount of solder. I found it best to put a small amount of solder on the wires and on the solder tabs on the plug first and then just bring the wire and lug together and touch it with a very sharp-tipped soldering iron.

    Plug strain relief installed.

    Finished repair, good as new.

    It was great to have a working set of earbuds again and if it ever breaks, I won’t hesitate to repair it again.

  • Replacing a bulb in the OBC on a BMW E36

    Posted on October 10th, 2012 Lee Devlin 1 comment
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    The On Board Computer in the BMW 3-series produced between 1991 and 1999 has a series of bulbs behind its LCD display that will burn out over time. If it’s one of the bulbs behind the long display on the left, it will cause some dim characters on the left, middle, or right part of the display. If it’s the bulb behind the clock that has burned out, you won’t see anything where the numbers for the clock are typically shown.

    The bulbs are available from on line sources like BMW Parts Web for less than $1 (just search on p/n 62-11-1-391-260). On other BMW parts sites, they sell for $12 for a pack of 4 and so you need to spend nearly $20 after you take shipping into account.

    Fortunately, these bulbs are easy to change if you know the tricks of getting the OBC out of the panel. To remove the OBC, you need to reach into the sunglasses tray under and feel around for the hole in the upper part of it. This hole is under a lever that you need to simultaneously push up and forward. This takes a fair amount of force, and if you have long fingernails, you may want to have someone else do it for you, lest you break a fingernail. Once you can see the OBC come forward a little, you have probably unlatched it and can reach your finger around behind it to pull it out the rest of the way.

    Feel under the OBC for a hole in the upper sunglasses tray

    Feel under the OBC for a hole in the upper sunglasses tray

    Bottom of OBC with locking features

    Bottom of OBC with locking features

    Once the OBC is out, there’s no need to unhook the cables on the back of it. All the bulbs are accessible from the top. You can use a flat bladed screw driver or needle nose pliers to rotate the burned-out bulb 1/4 turn and it will pop out. Installing the new bulb the same way, place it in the hole and turn it 1/4 turn. Make sure to test it before putting the OBC back in its slot.

    3rd lamp removed

    OBC with 3rd lamp removed (1/4 turn to remove)

    Top of OBC showing 4 replaceable lamps

    Top of OBC showing 4 replaceable lamps

    In the case of my wife’s BMW, she complained that the clock was no longer working, so when I inspected it to see what had happened, I noticed that it had its own bulb. So I ‘borrowed’ a bulb from the other portion of the display while I waited to get the new one from BMW Parts Web. Borrowing the bulb caused the display to have a few dim characters, but it was still readable so it was a reasonable trade-off to have the clock working again.

  • Replacing the Electric Door Lock Actuator on a BMW E36

    Posted on October 10th, 2012 Lee Devlin 14 comments
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    The BMW 3-series cars manufactured from 1991-1999 are getting to the age where the electric door actuators are wearing out and there’s nothing more frustrating than a door lock that won’t respond to the key fob. My wife’s BMW 328i passenger door had this problem a few years ago and I recalled replacing one of the actuators with instructions I found on the Internet. However, when her driver’s side door began having the same issue, the instructions that I found on the Internet seemed to be lacking in the important details, and it had been long enough that I had to ‘re-learn’ the tricks I had forgotten since I last tackled this project. So I decided to write up this article to help anyone who is contemplating this as a DIY project.

    You will need the following tools: Torx driver with T-20 and T-27 bits, non marring pry bars and (possibly) a set of vice grips.

    Useful Tools, non marring pry bars and a Torx set (only need T-20 and T27 bits).

    Useful Tools, non marring pry bars and a Torx set (only need T-20 and T27 bits).

    BMW door actuators are available from several on-line retailers. The best price I’ve found for OEM actuators was at BMW Parts Web. Just search on p/n 67-11-1-387-726 (front actuator) or p/n 67-11-8-353-011 (rear actuator) for E36 models. Just be sure to get the correct one since the front doors use a different connector that has 6 pins whereas the rear actuators have only 3 pins. The ones I got were aftermarket units that I can’t find anymore.

    Original (left) and replacement (right) door lock actuators.

    Original (left) and replacement (right) door lock actuators.

    The door panels on the E36 are not hard to remove, you just need to pop off two screw covers behind the inside handle, and remove the screws they covered with T20 torx driver. Each screw was a different length, which I didn’t notice until I was going to re-install them. The longer screw goes in the hole toward the front of the handle.

    These covers expose two screws you must remove.

    Then you have to remove the dish behind the door pull and this is where I ran into trouble. Evidently, a lot of people break this part, assuming that it comes straight out. The advice is to push it forward. However, until you pry up the front of it, there’s no way it will move forward, so that is the step everyone seemed to leave off. First pry up the front, and THEN push forward.

    Push forward, but only after prying up the front part.

    See how latches need to be pushed forward to release.

    Next you remove the door lock plunger by unscrewing it (counter clockwise), and you may need some pliers to gently grab it and get it started because it’s hard to grasp by hand and apply any torque.

    Door lock plunger

    Door lock plunger

    The next step is to pry off the door panel using a non-marring pry tool and gently pop out all of the plastic fasteners as you work your way around the door. You’ll need to rotate it up to get it off of the door lock plunger push rod.

    Prying BMW Door Panel away from door

    Prying BMW Door Panel away from door

    When the door panel comes off, it will still be connected by the wires connected to two speakers and to the buttons that are used to adjust the mirror (if it’s the driver side door). The connectors are held in with friction, so you don’t have to find any hidden latches to free them, just pull them out. They are keyed so you can’t install them backwards.

    Disconnecting BMW door cables

    After the door panel is free, you’ll need to peel back a foam sound insulator that is held in place by some very sticky black adhesive. It’s best to peel it half way off and then use some duct tape to hold it out of the way. Be careful around the black adhesive, since it will get over all over you if you touch it.

    Internal Door insulation

    Internal Door Foam Insulation

    Peel back foam insulation about half way and hold in place with duct tape.

    Next you need to loosen 3 screws that hold in the door lock mechanism with a T27 torx driver. However, these screws have thread locking compound on them and I soon realized that I was either going to destroy the Torx recess or break the driver bit unless I loosened them with vice grips first. Fortunately this is easy to do. Use adhesive tape over the adjacent paint around the screw heads if you want to avoid scratching it with the vice grips.

    Using vice grips to loosen screws

    These screws were in so tight they need help to get them started.

    There is a rod that goes to the door opening latch and the latch can be removed with a T20 driver. I don’t have a picture of this, but it’s pretty self-evident how to take it off and disconnect the rod. Mine had a Tinnerman type nut that fell off the back, so be careful to catch the nut as you loosen the screw. Removing the latch allows you to move the locking mechanism with a bit more freedom.

    Once you’ve done this, the mechanism can be wiggled about inside, but there’s not enough room to get it out of the door. Cut off any tie wraps on the wires going to the actuator to gain a bit more wiggle room. This is where the confusion ensued. All you really need to get out is the electric actuator, but it wasn’t obvious how it was held on and whether I’d be able to install the new one working in the blind, so to speak. I even got desperate enough that I removed what I thought was a simple stiffening bracket that was in the way that turned out to be the curved window track. In retrospect, it didn’t give me much more freedom to move the lock mechanism about and I worried that it would be hard to reinstall, since its upper end mated with another part that was up inside a blind recess. If I were to do it again, I’d try to avoid removing the window track.

    The electric actuator is held in place by a cantilevered plastic latch that grabs a recessed depression on its housing. You need to feel around for this latch, pull it back and lift the actuator up and away from the door latch mechanism. Once you do this, you can bring the electric actuator out into the open so you can disconnect the connector.

    This latch holds actuator in place.

    Latch recess on door actuator

    Latch recess on door actuator

    The connector is one of those unique to BMW where you push a mechanism down and it forces the connector outward over some pins that follow a curved track in a cam mechanism.

    Removing the cable from the actuator

    Push cable lock this way to unlatch it.

    Removing cable from BMW door actuator

    Removing cable from BMW door actuator

    The re-installation of the new actuator on to the cable is just the reverse. You have to push the latch mechanism all the way down, and then align the cam pins in their slots in the connector and then pull the mechanism up to draw the connector into its recess.

    Once you’ve got the new actuator in place on the cable, the challenge is to get it back on the door latch mechanism by a sense of feel. There are 4 flat metal pins that need to mate up with holes in the actuator. Three of these are in line with each other and they have specific holes they need to mate with on the actuator. The two end ones go up into rectangular alignment holes and the middle one goes into the part of the actuator that moves back and forth. Make sure the middle hole is aligned with actuator pin by either pushing it forward or backward. When installed on the cable, this action will either open or close the door locks as you do it if you’re working on one of the front doors since they control the behavior of all other locks in the system.

    Note holes for accepting stamped metal pins in door lock mechanism.

    Note holes for accepting stamped metal pins in door lock mechanism.

    In order to get the door lock actuator to align laterally, you will have to apply some sideways force since the cantilevered plastic latch will be pushing against it and you need to spring it outward a bit. Once the metal stampings are aligned in their respective holes, you can push the actuator down on the latch mechanism until the latch snaps in place. This was the hardest part of the whole project. I assumed I was going to be able to get the door latch mechanism out in the open or at least in a place that was easier to see, but it ended up being more of an exercise in working in a confined space with very limited visibility and access.

    After I got everything back in place, there was a panicky moment where I had somehow gotten the door latch mechanism into a locked state even though the door was still open. Then door would not close. There was just a loud thud as the hook and latch banged into each other when I attempted to close the door. I was thinking I might have to re-open everything again, but I started playing with the lock, the key, and manually trying to open the lock by hand and I eventually got it all back in the proper state so the door would close normally.

    It was with a great sigh of relief when everything was back together. These parts generally fail over time, and my wife had been experiencing problems for months where it was intermittent. Finally, the cold weather made it happen nearly 100% of the time, so she was very grateful to have a working set of locks again.

    The BMW electric door actuators are available on-line from suppliers like Bavarian Auto for around $90 each + shipping but the best price was from BMW Parts Web and that was true of most BMW parts I’ve checked on.