Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Springing back into action

*Blows dust from top of cardboard box*

*Gingerly opens large cardboard flaps*

*Takes blog out of box, sets it on the ground*

*Presses button, steps back, peers in.*

Hello blog. Can you hear me? You on? Great.

Date now is .. April 10th. It's sunny today! Yesterday was wet, and a few weeks ago it was the spring equinox. Before that, we had a balmy few days in February and people got proper spooked, I reckon. Since then, who knows? Hail, snow, storms, and sun. The shadows are getting shorter and the clocks have gone forwards. I'm reminiscing to the other side of the calendar. It's time to get this project running again.

So I decided to switch back off mains power a few days before April started. My USB batteries still had some mains charge in them though - I like to think of it all swirling around inside like soup, mixing with sun power as time goes on, like one juice drifting into another, yin into yang. Grid energy in increasingly homeopathic quantities.

Feels good to get the panels out again.

I'm starting back in slowly, no major changes. But in the back of my mind, I'm building up a list of things to do this year, from the tiny to the large. Here's my mental list currently:
  • Get more small USB leads (0.5ft or smaller) - I only have 2.
  • Get more power packs
  • Should I get more solar panels?
  • Should I make the jump and invest in some proper panels, like caravans have?

 In terms of what I want to aim for, there are some clear wins potentially:

  • Get some kind of permanent setup, rather than relying on putting panels out on a day-by-day basis. However, I think that might take a more permanent rig to be installed. Ideally this would go on the shed, but I want to replace the shed as it's falling apart.
  • Power more devices as a matter of course. I'm a heavy tech user really, but it would be great to extend the idea to cover not just my phone and watch, but also my headphones, and maybe my old Gameboy Advance SP - there are USB leads available. What else? I've recently upgraded my Macbook to one with a Thunderbolt port - could this run off solar, realistically?
  • What about passive solar tracking to get more efficiency? I saw a link on this last year, and this would be amazing to achieve.
  • Just learn more about solar panels and electricity generally, including where panels come from, recycling, and overall lifecycle costs.

So plenty of ideas, and a whole summer ahead...

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Winter Solstice: End of the Road

So the clouds and the dark are here in abundance now.

As Christmas rolls in on Atlantic winds, my ability to get panels in front of sunlight is diminishing. The odd nice day here and there provides maybe a couple of hours of weak light, which isn't quite enough. The risk of my phone failing when I'm somewhere random is pretty high, and the situation isn't helped by a recent Android upgrade.

(Fairphone released an Android 7 update recently. The battery management when not in use seems good, but I'm getting a lot of battery drain under normal usage, like writing this post. Yesterday I had a drain from 40% to zero in 10 minutes, indicating perhaps something more fundamental is wrong.)

So I'm going to call it for the year. I think I have just enough battery left to last till tomorrow, which symbolically is the winter Solstice and the shortest day. I like the synchronicity there, and so plan to use my phone as little as possible today, and end the solar cycle after 7 and a half months. Which ain't bad.

(My Pebble watch already switched back to mains a week or two ago.)

I'll use the next couple of months to take stock - maybe a review of the year, what I've learned, and what I want to do differently next year. With a bit of luck, the light will be ok again from February onwards, so I'd love to get my plan sorted out before then, ready to go. Maybe permanently in-place panels, more batteries, etc. That kind of stuff. Also, MOAR READING about electricity generally, probably.

So if you've been reading these posts, thanks for that. It's been a long time since the start of May, and hopefully this blog proves that it can be done.

To the future!

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Bleak Midwinter: A Guide to Minimalist Phone Activity

I knew clouds would make things interesting (see last post). An abundance of sunshine allows for laziness - it's the deep darkness of winter where necessity becomes invention.

Currently battery levels are low - I have maybe 2 or 3 charges left, which is 2-3 days on normal summer use. It's Tuesday today, and the next predicted sunshine is for Friday. That's a bit too close for comfort.

So I can't skip to the Southern hemisphere quickly, or seed the air with magic cloud-dispersal beams. I can only change what's in my control - and that comes down to what my phone is doing.

As a guide to future me, and for anyone else interested in phone efficiency, here's a rundown of what I'm doing to help save battery life as much as possible. And judging by the battery chart for the last two days, it's having a good effect:

Two days is a lot better than one day. (The upwards blip three-quarters of the way through is when I plugged directly into the solar panel.)

So here are some current suggestions.

1. Uninstall non-essential software

Some people can live with only a few apps. I'm curious about what's out there, to get interesting ideas. And I have kids, and yes, sometimes a phone is the easiest way for a bit of peace and quiet. So there's a fair amount of 'gumph' on my phone.

Step one is to uninstall what you don't need. This has three aims: first, stop any unnecessary background tasks/data usage. Second, to avoid any extra load caused by installing updates (especially if you have them turned on automatically, via your usual app store). And third, to stop using your phone for distractions. Sorry kids! Here's a pack of cards instead.

2. Block network access

It seems annoyingly difficult to control how much apps check in to their home server - a lot of them let you turn off notifications but it's not clear whether they still request data or not. Assume that they do, because capitalist tech and it likes to know everything about you. But that all takes energy too - I often see a battery drop of a few % straight after connecting to wifi for the first time in a while - I assume a bunch of apps are making the most of the renewed connection.

On Android, a couple of apps can help here. I've started using these:
  • NetGuard, available on F-Droid and Google Play - this runs as a VPN and gives you fine-grained control over which apps can connect under either WiFi or Mobile Data conditions.
  • Net Monitor, also on F-Droid and Google Play -  this lets you see which of your apps are making connections in the background, which can be useful when trying to work out which ones might be taking up more energy than others.
Do a bit of detective work to see what's connecting, but ultimately, lock down network access for anything non-essential, and feel free to open it up later on, on a per-app, per-need basis.

3. Install a screen time/prevention app

This has been my favourite part so far - there are plenty of apps out there to help you monitor and cut down how much you use your device. I've been trying out:
  • YourHour (Play Store) has been my favourite app so far - it's one of many that tracks device usage, and you can set it to only track certain apps, show you an ongoing timer for each, and set a daily limit (although it doesn't seem to lock me out after this limit). It's great getting to the end of the day, and realising you've only used for 10 minutes, without worry. I've also got a lot more reading done.
  • Off The Grid, available on the Play Store - this locks your phone down for the time you set, allowing you whitelist one app for free, and allowing incoming calls. I whitelist my messaging app in case I need it. I'm not sure if I'll be paying 89p a month to whitelist further apps though, and will probably look for free alternatives. Still, it's a useful app to start with, and good for those bursts of time when you think you'll be tempted to fiddle with your phone.
  • Peace of Mind+ (F-Droid, Play Store) originated from the Fairphone stable and is now available for free. It doesn't lock you out like Off The Grid, but does put you in the mindset of just not using your phone.
There are a whole bunch of these kinds of app these days, which is probably a good thing. I don't have the battery to install too many ;-) so let me know if there are any in particular that you think are good.

4. Turn on Battery Saver mode

I started doing this when I was on holiday and started running out of juice. Back then, I was also manually disabling background data, but I suspect battery saver mode and using NetGuard basically covers it.

On Android 6, it's fairly easy to access - I drop down the top menu, tap the battery icon, hit the three dots and go into "Battery saver". There are probably faster ways to turn it on and off, but it doesn't matter too much when you're only using your phone 10 minutes a day ;-)

The main issue with killing off background data is probably around instant messaging apps, such as Signal and WhatsApp. You may want to avoid battery saver mode if you're expecting urgent communication. Personally, I don't use WhatsApp, and the few other people on Signal generally don't require an urgent reply...

5. Figure out the energy-expensive apps

Over time, as I've got more sensitive to battery usage, I've noticed certain apps  and behaviours really drain the battery, so I've started avoiding these.

In general, I find the Camera app - with its live video view - fairly intensive. So back to good old analogue film there, whoop!

6. Lock everything down overnight

Finally, just get really paranoid about battery usage, and keep a close eye on what your phone battery is doing incessantly ;-) At night, stick everything into Airplane mode, try out Greenify to kill off unwanted processes, and remember to turn it all back on again in the morning! (Device automators such as IFTTT and Easer don't seem to have the ability to set Flight Mode under Android 6, but YMMV.)

In addition to all this, I've also started switching off Bluetooth when absolutely necessary (which means my watch no longer gets notifications - I do prefer the gentle buzz and otherwise silence, over udio prompts though, so will try to turn this back on soon). And I'm trying out locking the screen to Portrait Mode - I have no idea if this saves anything though.

Has it all helped? See for yourself...

Getting about 2.5 days on a single charge, which makes a big difference in this weather. I figure I can harvest about 5000-6000mAh on a sunnyish day, which is only maybe 2 or 3 charges, so the difference between 2 days and 9 days is huge.

The grey days and rainclouds are persisting as I near the 7-month milestone. Will I make it much further though?

Friday, 23 November 2018

Grey days...

Well, this doesn't look great.

Not with 2 out of 3 batteries mostly drained. This might be it, end of the line for an unbroken run. Or I can try to eke out what power I can, depending on how thick the cloud layer is. I'm already monitoring my phone usage with an eye on keeping it down, and starting to uninstall unnecessary apps.

Crunch time.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

6 months milestone, finding winter space

This post marks the 6 month milestone of going solar-powered, which is about twice as my as my previous effort. The phone I'm writing this on and the watch it's connected to haven't seen mains electricity since the end of April.

Even better, we're now into the start of November, a month and a half after the equinox, and my three little batteries are still pretty full.

(The grey battery was on 4 lights, but dropped to 3 in the five minutes it took to get the photo...)

(I'm thinking of naming the batteries. Maybe Huey, Dewey and Louie after Silent Running's little helpers?)

The extended summer, probably thanks to climate change, has seen fairly dry weather with a decent amount of light recently, and I've been able to keep things topped up despite often having to start off in shade, and unplugging batteries in the 6pm dark. The grey battery seems to charge up whatever, but Big Red may possibly prefer to start with some voltage - I'm not convinced it charges if it starts out in the dark, with sunlight showing up later on. A simple experiment with some shade and a USB power meter should tell me though.

More generally, I've been mostly occupied with issues of space, and the idea of land ownership that goes with it. In built up areas, the big challenge of winter is in battling the long, pendulous shadows which are much more pervasive and unpredictable than in summer. My old charging spot is no longer viable. And while we're lucky to have a decent sized garden on a south facing slope (despite the effort to mow grass up it), I'm aware people in flats or smaller plots might struggle to find a decent spot as the sun gets lower. I can think of a few places I've lived where this experiment just wouldn't be viable past September.

But this is turning into a different, socio-political question, which I'll return to one day. For now, I'm concentrating on the basics - such as being ready to come up with a suitable tilting mechanism to hold your panels. Or "appropriating" whatever you can find lying around that fits the bill...

As I try out different places, I'm becoming more aware that being able to either fasten your panels and batteries, or get them at the right angle, is a key part of 'nomadic efficiency'; portability is one thing, but effective portability is another thing entirely. I can imagine an accompanying set of travel utilities, such as carabiners, bits of string and wire, and lightweight angled blocks to get everything just so. And that's assuming you don't plan to track the sun as the earth spins on, soundlessly and endlessly.

Anyway, time to sign off to save on battery. Keep your leads short, your screens clean, and your software lean.