Power4Patriots Review


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.

Does Google Throttle Search Impressions?


A few months ago, I read an excellent posting by Lisa Irby about how to use Google’s Authorship feature. This feature was also mentioned in a blog posting on Google’s Webmaster blog as way to see your search impressions and clicks on articles for which you claimed authorship.

I had been curious about how some bloggers were getting their faces to appear next to their articles in Google’s search results so I was eager to give it a try. Upon following Lisa’s instructions, it appeared to do the job of claiming authorship for me, but my image was not appearing next to the results. The image I had on my Google Plus account at the time (and many other places for that matter) was of myself sitting in my LongEZ like the image shown to the right. Lee in his LongEZI began to ponder whether this was part of the problem since Google specifically requests a ‘recognizable’ headshot and I’m not very recognizable in that photo. I noticed that was a consistent feature of the faces that were appearing next to the articles, i.e., it was a headshot, not an icon or a image of their whole body. It was almost like Google was running the image through a facial recognition algorithm and if there wasn’t a recognizable face, then nothing would appear. So on my last visit to PA, I asked my brother-in-law, Jay Yozviak, Northeastern PA’s premier photographer, if he’d take a professional head shot for me. Whenever I tried to take a headshot of myself, it ended up looking like a mugshot, or at best, a namebadge ID photo. It seemed like no sooner did I upload my pro headshot to my Google Plus account than it started appearing next to my articles in a Google search.

Google search results with author photo

This is how a Google search that finds one of my articles shows up now.

Later, I began to look at the number of impressions that were appearing in Google’s Webmaster Tools under Labs/Authorship stats and I noticed a graph that appeared to be bumping up some sort of ceiling of 8000 impressions per day. (You can click on the image below make it bigger.)

My website is hosted with GoDaddy on an IP address that also resolves to many other websites and it’s no speed demon. Sometimes it loads very fast, other times it can be downright slow. But I can’t complain about the price. For $7/month, they allow 150GB of storage and unlimited websites and bandwidth. On domaintools.com, I see that my IP shows over 4500 websites resolve to that server. Now, I expect that it’s not a single server, but a bank of servers that automatically do load balancing and all kinds of other cloud-like behavior, but I know that when Google was measuring my performance in the Webmaster’s tools, my site loaded slower than 80% of other sites and I can’t help wonder if Google intentionally will back off on the search impressions they show based on trying to keep the target host from getting overloaded if they detect a slow server.

The line across the bottom is the 20% percentile for all websites monitored. Therefore, my site with an average page load time of 5.8 seconds is slower than 80% of all sites.

Google’s all about speed, and if they find a slow server, they may just give it some kind of throttling in search impressions so as not to provide a bad customer experience. I’ve tried all the various tricks to make the site faster, caching, various pagespeed recommendations, db optimization, etc., but sometimes the site still takes a while to respond and load.

Going with a dedicated server costs a minimum of $100/month and I don’t know if there’s any guarantee that a single dedicated server will perform any better. And of course, that unnatural looking ceiling may be completely natural. There may be exactly that many searchers for the kind of results they’d find on my website every day for weeks at a time, but it just looks suspicious. In looking at the result for Matt Cutts’s blog which was used in an example in the posting mentioned above, he sees a much more varied number of impressions for his content over time, by a factor of two at least, without any apparent ceiling even though he’s getting 10x the traffic I am getting. But he’s also on a dedicated server. And.. He’s Matt Cutts :-).

I can’t say for sure what’s going on here, but I know what clipping on an analog signal looks like and I’d say there is some kind of clipping going on with my number of impressions per day. I also understand that my graph is rounded off to the nearest 500 impressions, which can add quantization effects and make a line graph look unnatural as well. But I’ve also see a graph of someone who has fewer impressions per day than I do, and Google appears to resolve the impressions per day to fewer than 500 and I don’t see any clipping going on there. To me it looks very ‘natural’.

This graph was from someone on an seochat forum complaining about getting too few impressions per day, but I don’t know how he was able to deduce any pattern from the data, other than it never got above 2500.

Maybe Google is trying to do me, my hosting company, and my visitors all a favor, by limiting traffic to a reasonable volume. But if they are doing it, it would be nice to know about it for sure. And if you know how I can make a GoDaddy.com host (or shared/cloud server) that has thousands of other sites hosted on it run faster without having to pay 1400% more per month for a dedicated server, please leave a comment below.

Replacing the plug on an Etymotics headset


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


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.