Thursday, 22 August 2019

Autumn creaks and preparations

August 22nd, and I'm getting some creaks. Mentally, I still think it's mid-summer which might be true-ish for temperature, but not for light. We're now 2 months after the solstice (1 month until equinox!) and the shadows are shifting rapidly.

The daily pattern of shadows affects me depending on my daily pattern of life. It's easier to work around the shadows if I'm around the house during the day - but if I'm out, like at work, then it's trickier. I still suspect that the electronics inside some of my batteries throttle the charge if it's too low, and don't unthrottle it when it picks back up again. If I start my panels out in shade, then I don't seem to get much charge even if the sun hits them for a full day starting half an hour later.

I think I'm going to need to look into solar controllers more... (Or work from home 😏)

I'm also being confused by my batteries not charging properly with certain combinations of panels. Having run some tests yesterday using my USB power measurers, I'm now fairly sure my big old red battery is playing up, so maybe it's time to replace it. But it seems to have a knock-on effect when I plug in a different battery to the same panel, and I get the same charging problem - but then a while later it seems to work. Hmm.

I was out collecting the first crop of early blackberries yesterday, and the strawberries in the garden are dying away and rotting now. Autumn is on its way, and it feels like time to start preparing.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Recharging the batteries - a holiday roundup

Status: 4 months complete.

This year's family holiday was to the same French campsite we went to last year. This made it a little easier to plan - see last year's notes for what happened - but the biggest differences this year have been a couple of changes:

1. I am so full of batteries now. The sun has been good in the run up to holiday, so I was pretty much full up to go away - the usual ~79KwH worth of batteries I have now is way enough to keep my phone and watch going for 10 days, whatever happens.

2. Learning from last time, I knew that the biggest battery sink for my phone is taking pictures and videos. This year I decided to keep my photography simple - I didn't even take a film camera! 😁 Instead, I picked up a little Apeman 4K device which I can charge up via USB - the efficiency of a separate device, rather than piggybacking photography on top of a whole phone OS, is huge. I've been taking a bunch of footage, and needed to charge up the camera battery once every few days.

3. Relaxing on holiday is great - I've got free data roaming (thanks Europe!) so it's not been expensive at all to use Internet on my phone. But I've been reading books and magazines and drinking wine, mostly. The phone has either been idle or off, apart from the odd bit of GPS when visiting strange new towns. I've also been posting a few postcards via email and am really loving email for status updates, without all the overhead of a web browser.

4. I've had so much battery, and used my phone and watch so little, that I've been able to charge up the camera, plus my wife's iPhone, from my batteries without too much worry as well. I've brought my 20W solar panels with me as a bit of a top up, but either the clouds have been too cloudy, the panels are struggling, or I'm spoilt by my new 60W set - I haven't had much luck charging up my battery anyway. I've had something, so I think it's just not being able to get a full whack of sunlight.

I'm starting to get a bit low on battery now - here's hoping the sun comes out for a few days when I'm back home...

Monday, 1 July 2019

3 months: Devices, Solarpunk gaming, and Laptop experiments

April, May and June are under the belt, and the European solstice heatwave - milder here on the UK South coast at around 29 degrees C max - is certainly helping with electricity at least.

I'm not having to think about power source and energy conservation much. I had to plug my phone into the mains one weekend when I was travelling and misjudged how much battery I had left in my bag, true, but one to learn from.

I've expanded out the devices I'm feeding with solar power as a result, currently sitting at:
  • Phone
  • Pebble watch
  • Kindle (e-paper version) for e-books
  • Nexus tablet for news reading (see previous post)
  • Nintendo GBA SP for retro gaming
  • Bedside light for reading by
  • Bluetooth headphones (which also have audio in as backup/battery preservation)
I've also got a USB cable coming in for the Nintendo DS as well, for extra solared-Zelda'ing.

I'm continuing to develop this idea of tying devices to usage functions, so that it becomes easier to add/remove 'ways of life' according to solar power usage. A bit like how money gets 'ring-fenced' and reserved for certain purposes. The aim of this is to more consciously prioritise and choose between my activities, and to work out what is 'essential' and what's 'luxury' if/when the time (winter) comes.

It also makes it easier to see how much battery usage a particular activity takes up. Is there scope for, say, retro gaming to be a more "solarpunk" version of gaming, for instance, if the older tech uses up less battery?

Finally, I've also started playing around a bit more with powering up my laptops:

Attempt at laptop charging (nestled below bench)
So far I've only run proof-of-concepts. My new Kingsolar panels have a USB output and an 18V DC output. My Macbook laptop has USB-C power in, while my Entroware Linux laptop is DC only.

Initial results are useful:
  • The Macbook does get charged via USB straight from the panels. I think it may help to turn it off first, to avoid software management kicking in, but need to test this. I'm also not sure yet if directly connecting to a fairly/potentially irregular power input can damage the laptop battery yet, so I'm not planning to continue this. 
  • The Macbook also charges up from a USB battery, or at least the one I tried. Leaving it over night, the laptop charge went from about 9% to 84%, and the 25000mAH battery was empty afterwards (from full). 
  • Charging from the USB battery has the added benefit of not having to leave the laptop outside. I'm definitely a lot more comfortable leaving a battery out (no personal data, much cheaper) than a device...
  • Charging the Entroware laptop using the DC adapter provided with the panels didn't seem to do much. This isn't too surprising, given the maximum voltage on the panels is 18V, but the laptop wants 19V.
There are a few options around to charge up a device via USB, such as this XTPower battery bank, or a bulkier setup with a charge controller I think. I'm wondering if I can afford the XTPower, and whether it even makes sense to run a laptop off solar.

I'm also going to have to start reading up on electricity more at this point, I think.

If you've got this far, thanks for reading? If you're at all interested in supporting the experiment, then you can donate via various ways here. Currently any donations will go towards a few small e-books, each the price of a coffee or two.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019


Helloooo, 60W. [Amazon link]

It's pretty sunny recently. All batteries are full. A quick test shows this gets very nearly 2A (around 1.95A) in direct sun, where the 20W panels hit around 1.5A. Time to level up...

Monday, 13 May 2019

Solar-powered, Re-purposed Feed Reading

One of the key questions going through this exercise is on what next? I'm deeply aware I'm at the start of a personal journey - that others know more about electricity than I do, or have richer setups, or endure with less technology. But all experiments at this small scale should be a personal endeavour. So, in fact, the question is - what's next for me?

Solar-powered feed reading

At the end of last year, I grew a bit tired of trying to read RSS feeds and do emails on my phone. At the time, I made a conscious decision to do more email on my laptop instead - I love the feel of physical keys holding onto  my fingerprints. The travel and bounce seem to convery more speed and emotion than any virtual input device. It's a hard habit to shake. Moving to a laptop for email was pretty easy though.

This didn't work so well for RSS feeds though - laptops are too bulky and intensive for lightweight reading. I'd had a couple of tablets before (through work), and I also have an old Kindle which is OK for reading e-books, and I wanted something similar. I liked the idea of separating reading out into its own function, isolating it from other network activity. Distraction-free, I'd be able to lose myself in some of the longer form articles I've been saving up to read for months now.

So this was my plan:
  • Run off second-hand hardware - re-use is becoming a a new part of my tech ethics, which I'm slowly formulating.
  • Run off free software - free as in speech. I'd seen some discussion of LineageOS on-line, and wanted to try it out as an alternative. I really shoudn't need anything fancy to read feeds. I also already have a Tiny Tiny RSS server and a wallabag server set up, with associated apps on my phone via F-Droid.
  • Run off solar power for reading. Because, natch.
After some research on devices supported by LineageOS, I managed to grab a cheap 2013 Nexus 7 off ebay. Bonus marks - the seller had already installed Lineage on it! I was happy to pay an extra 5 quid to save a few evenings doing it myself...

So this is now A Thing. The reader device is great - F-Droid and ttrss and wallabag all installed within minutes. I'm resisting putting the Medium app on, but it may be useful. I'm also trying to find alternative routes to hook together ttrss and wallabag with other services - so far, I'e set up IFTTT to tweet out things tagged with certain text, or to save to Evernote notebooks. Eventually I'll look at replacing these with FLOSS as well. And the battery on the Nexus seems to hold well, only dropping 3-4% over a few days of non-use.

The Separation of Functions

Most of all, I have become fascinated idea with this initial idea of defining a use case for tech in my life - reading RSS feeds and saved links, in this case. I feel like that defines the value clearly, and from there, I can work out if it is a function which is - or could be - powered by my current solar setup (ie. do I get enough sun light, and can I get power to the device?)

In other words, by tying and restricting certain functions to particular software AND hardware, I feel like solar power is "sponsoring" certain of my activities now. The ttrss/wallabag server is still mains-powered, yes, but Raspberry Pi's are pretty lightweight. This way of thinking extends out to other things hopefully - anything my phone is primarily responsible for, and then the afore-mentioned Kindle, and then even things like portable gaming (thanks to the new USB cable for the old Gameboy Advance).

This feels easier than just trying to power everything, indiscriminately, into some vague solar-powered bubble. It means I can take a more considered approach to power management (both on the devices themselves, but also for panels and batteries) and prioritise between functions as the batteries run out. The eggs have been divided up into more basket, now.

So this feels good. Coming soon - I've received a new USB-A to USB-C cable, and I'm writing this post on a laptop charged up on solar power for the first time. Bring it on!