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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Boiler Fun: Zone Valve Repair

As many people in the US I grew up in a house that had a forced air HVAC system, and my only experience with boiler heat was in public buildings such as schools.  For the last 4 years however I've lived in a home with a two zone boiler system and it's been an interesting experience so far.  I rather like the fact that the heat is consistent throughout the house, and I have little need of a humidifier as I don't have air being dried out by an open flame in a furnace.  I also like that my relatively old and inefficient 1960's boiler costs as much to run as my mothers brand new 94%+ efficiency furnace in the same stretch of time.  Another benefit that I just discovered is how easy it is to repair some basic functions.

For those of you who aren't familiar with a boiler the basic parts consist of the Boiler itself, a pump, an Air release, and Zone Valves.  There are a few other parts, but these are all you need to understand the basic functions.  When the thermostats call for heat the Boiler heats water and triggers the pump to circulate water.  The Zone valve opens allowing water to flow to the zone and that area of the house heats up.  A zone is an area of the house that is controlled by a thermostat.  This can be defined in any way, but in most homes it's usually by floor of the house.  Newer furnace homes have this feature, but adding it to a forced air system is expensive requiring specialty baffles or even a second furnace system.  Boilers just require a thermostat and zone valve.  As for the air release that knocking and banging you hear in public buildings with old systems is due in part to air being in the system.  Home boilers have air releases that help purge this out of the system allowing them to run almost perfectly silent.

One particularly cold day this winter I woke up to find it 64 Degrees Fahrenheit.  Not too bad, but out of the norm considering my thermostat stated it was set to 70.  Heading downstairs I could notice a temperature change immediately and the main level was 70.  I immediately know either the thermostat or zone valve has died as I have heat in the lower level.  Heading to my boiler room I find the zone valve buzzing which usually means the motor has died.  Flipping the manual switch I immediately find heat restored to my upper level.

A little research on the subject via Google I learn two things.  First over time the motor in a zone valve does give out.  Looking at the manufacture date on the valve and noticing that the parts are all original my valve (a replacement part requires wire splicing which my unit did not have) has been operating almost 60 years.  A good run for a motor that isn't constantly exposed to temperatures over 100 degrees.  Secondly a zone valve consists of two parts.  The valve itself which is a ball valve and is designed to outlast the rest of a boiler heating system, and a power module consisting mostly of the previously mentioned motor and some gears and springs.  The power module is designed to not only be replaceable, but also easily repairable in place.

Unfortunately while the zone valve was designed to be both serviceable and replaceable, parts are not easily located.  After calling a number of plumbing and heating supply companies I found that any store that actually had it in stock would only sell the part to a licenced contractor.  I also found that the price they were charging was more than double (and in some cases triple) what the same part could be had for online.  Luckily my zone valve started working again and as such enabled me to overnight the part I needed.  Once it arrived it was only a 20 minute install including the time needed to gather the needed tools which were a wire stripper, a torx wrench, a philips head screw driver, and some electrical tape.

I'm not sure what this heating repair would have cost me exactly, but I know the average rate for a service call to get a tech to your door is $75-100, and the average cost of the part at a shop was over $80 so you could very easily have a bill of over $200 for this repair.  The cost of a OEM part from amazon was $27.  The included paper instructions were enough to get the job done, but a number of people have shown how to do this repair on Youtube making it a great easy to do repair.

Now as I stated before I have two zones in my home.  As such when I placed my order I specifically ordered two motors.  One for the immediate repair, and one to keep on the shelf for a future repair.  As these don't go bad over time I figure I'll keep it boxed near the boiler for a future repair.  If you live in a home with a boiler like I do you might want to consider doing the same even if you're not in immediate need of a repair.  Buy two motors and have them ready.

Here are links to everything you'll need for this repair.
The OEM Motor (This matches my zone valve.  A honeywell v8043.  Check to see if this matches your valve, or search google for the motor you need)

A Wire Stripper

A Screw driver set that includes Torx bits.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A new project: Well that didn't work

A while ago I tried using Kickstarter to fund a project I was considering.  I have an older 1960's home that needs a lot of updates.  At the time I was looking at doing a full Air Conditioning system and I was considering using http://www.younits.com to purchase my  Unico equipment and do the majority of the install myself.  For a lot of reasons including the fact that I only had one person kickstart the project that failed and I wound up hiring the project done by a local company.  This is where the story gets interesting.

I wound up choosing a middle bid of 4 companies.  The low end bidder was offering a Goodman compressor which at the time I was nervous about.  The high end price was using all high end equipment, but was double the price of the low end.  The middle end bid was using Trane equipment and promised to not use wall space to run the High Velocity vents for the lower level.  The price was double what the equipment would have cost me, and the majority of that was labor.  I was told the project would take a week.

At the end of the first day of work the majority of vents were pulled into place.  This was supposed to be the time consuming task.  The team came out the next day and installed a few pieces in the attic.  My electrician came by and installed everything they needed electrically to finish the project.  At that point everything stalled for a week.  They would come by and make a few adjustments then leave.  Reasons varied from they were missing equipment (they weren't.  I found it for them in my garage where they left it) to workers were sick (looked fine the day before and the next day).  So my install wound up taking a month and a half.  The final product is a mixed bag as they damaged a lot of drywall in the process.  Some done as part of the install, not disclosed at the beginning as a possibility but was in the contract so that's on me, and some caused when the worker stepped through my ceiling.  They were responsible for the patch and did a terrible job.  They also drilled through walls carelessly almost damaging clothing in my closet and sawing through my hardwood floor accidentally just past the trim in one spot then tried to pin the damage on the install of a wooden banister.

The Air Conditioning works, and after having a great dry wall contractor out to repair the damage I'm mostly past the project.  I've used various review sites to spread this tale and warn others away from this company, but that's not what this is about.  My lessons learned here in regards to the Kickstarter are two fold.

1)  Don't use Kickstarter for a continuing project:
What I was thinking of doing, and might pick up the project again on a smaller scale is a poor fit for Kickstarter.  As a continuing project something like Patreon is a much better fit.  Kickstarter is better for getting a product off the ground as a one time cash infusion.

2)  Start the project before asking for support:
Have something to show before you try to get support.  Many podcasts use Patreon for funding.  Most of which were already in existence.

3)  A bad contractor experience gets you a DIY greenlight:
My wife was worried about me tackling the AC project.  After seeing how badly contractors handled the install I've got a greenlight for a future project.  I'm definitely starting small however.  I might kick this off with my bathroom remodel coming up this year.  That I already have the products for and won't require financial support to kick the project off.

Anyway welcome back to 1g1k.  In years past I've only updated this site when I had something to get off my chest or hammer out once instead of sending out multiple times.  This year my goal is to write a few articles a month at least.

Soylent: Because why not?

I'm not sure about you, but my facebook feed and youtube ads have been focused lately around either Soylent or Wise food stores.  I'm not sure why.  Perhaps my search history on the history of personal computers in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras has pegged me as a paranoid survivalist type.  While I have little interest in dry food stores in case our new comb-over-in-chief winds up causing world war 3 I had been considering trying out Soylent.

So far it's going well.  Before I get into details let me illuminate how I found out about this product.  Despite the recent ad push on Facebook, and the fairly cool ads for their breakfast product "Coffiest" I heard about their powdered product from a friend in September.  He was using it while at work and had enjoyed the product so far.  The Soylent powder product was developed by a software guy in California and it shows as he includes version numbers on the product.  Each update gets a new minor revision.  My friend came in under version 1.5 and loved it, but dropped off when 1.6 came out citing it as being too sweet.  I decided to order the product in early October and wound up having to wait until Christmas for version 1.7.  Apparently enough people complained about the change that they had to reformulate the product.

A number of people like me will automatically flash to the movie "Soylent Green".  The creator acknowledges he did name his product to take advantage of this, but also in part because his initial formula was based on what the movie's product claimed to be made out of (Soy and Lentils).  The formula has been changed to address people's complaints and issues.  The version I'm reviewing here is again 1.7.

So far I'm enjoying my experience using Soylent.  I decided to try this product out as a meal while I'm at work.  Where my office is located I have a number of food choices available to me ranging from quick service (Panda Express, various pizza shops both chain and family owned, etc), fast food (McD, Taco Bell, Wendy's, etc), sit down (Chili's, Applebees, Friday's, etc).  Honestly I'm tired of all of these options.  There were days where I'd sit at my desk hungry because nothing sounded good.  I experimented with keeping a stock of frozen meals at the office.  That didn't last long as the flavor was bland at best and microwaved meals had a texture I couldn't stand more than once in a great while.  Finally I tried bringing in leftovers, and after the third time leaving them in the fridge at home I decided to try something else.

So I received my order of Soylent just before Christmas and tried it out when I got back to work.  I've set up my pitcher at work and one pouch (which is supposed to be one days worth over 4 meals) has lasted me two days (Breakfast & Lunch).  As such I'm getting about two and a half weeks worth of usage per one weeks purchase.  I'm now on my second week of this diet and so far I'm enjoying it.  I have a meal as soon as I arrive at the office, and another about mid day.  I start to feel hungry again as I get ready to leave.  Sometimes I'll have a "half meal" serving (a meal being defined as a 500cal, or two scoop serving) as I leave and I'm good until I get home and then I have a normal meal at home.

Cost of eating out per day was topping $15 a day.  Usually leaving my home I'd grab breakfast on the way in ($5ish) and then lunch at mid day ($10ish).  On top of that the questionable nutrition value of these foods left me feeling heavy most of the day.  Even salad's were leaving me feeling like I had just eaten a fried chicken box.

Soylent is costing me $2 per meal.  As such I'm paying on average between $4-5 per day.  After each meal I'm no longer hungry, and I don't feel heavy or sluggish.  I've not had a day where I've used strictly Soylent, and truthfully I'm not intending to.  As such I can't relate the experience as to how it is living off of this strictly.  I can say that so far I'm loving it as an alternative to fast food options.

This product is not being sold as a weight loss solution.  In fact the market that they want to tackle is medical food replacements for those who cannot have regular food (coma patients, etc).  As such there is very little garbage diet fluff involved on their page.  Personally I can attest I have lost some weight.  Of course considering my diet previously had been McDonalds / Taco Bell for breakfast and throw a dart at a board of generic american food for lunch.  Dinner is usually cooked at home.  Shifting away from that would almost guarantee some form of weight loss.     I'm sure that if I stopped using Soylent and went back to my old diet I would rebound instantly.  The thing is I have no intention to go back.  I didn't start this with weight loss in mind.  I started because I'm tired of my local food options near work.  Occasionally I'll probably go out for lunch.  I like this because it gives me an option.

The biggest question I had for my friend when he told me about this product is "What does it taste like?".  The website just says "neutral flavor" and I find that description both accurate and infuriating.  The most accurate way to describe the taste would probably cause people to run from the product.  Think about how pancake batter smells in the bowl.  If you're honest it smells great, but if you've ever tasted uncooked pancake batter you know it tastes awful and completely unlike how it smells.  Soylent's flavor can be best described as tasting like how raw pancake batter smells.  It's rather pleasant and after a week straight of using it I can say it's not something you'll tire of.

If you're considering trying this out let me give you a few tips.  They give you a large tumbler for making up a pouch for one day's meals, and a scoop for measuring out a half meal portion.  No matter how you're going to use this do yourself a favor and get a tall blender bottle of some sort.



The reasoning is that the powder is not unlike protein powder in consistency and the better it's mixed the better your experience will be.  The giant tumbler they give you does not make mixing easy.  You wind up with sludge at the bottom of the container.  The other unfortunate issue is that the daily package of Soylent powder does not pour easily into the tumbler.  For my usage I keep the blender bottle at my desk with the scoop.  It makes mixing easy and clean. That and if I decide to have lunch out I don't have mixed product in the fridge that I'll have to throw out.

For my usage so far I'm enjoying the product.  I'm not going to say this will be the only product I use.  I might try some of the DIY Soylent products you can find here:  https://diy.soylent.com/
It's an interesting solution to the question "What's for lunch?".

Sunday, June 5, 2016

HTC Vive hands on

I've long been a huge fan of Virtual Reality.  I was turned on to the subject during the first VR boom of the early 90's.  This was spurned on by a visit to Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center where I was able to check out a public test of what would become Disney Quest.  The technology was the best at the time but the results were still primitive.  After pulling on the huge head mounted display (HMD) that was so heavy it was supported by a ceiling mounted pulley system I was treated to the streets of Agrabah and chasing Iago to the castle on the Magic Carpet.  After that experience I stuck around to speak to one of the Imagineers.  He turned me onto a book called "Garage VR".  I poured over that book many times and still have it to this day.  Unfortunately I didn't have the ability to make my own VR headset as per the instructions (holy crap were LCD screens expensive back then! A 1"X1" screen was over $150!) it was something I kept following.

Years later I heard about the Occulus Rift.  I had hoped this would catch on.  The project kept dragging on and only development kits were being released.  I promised myself I would wait until the technology was done before I would try it or even buy it.  I've yet to have the opportunity to try the Rift, but to my surprise the Microsoft stores are running a demo of the HTC Vive.  I was able to spend 10 minutes in their demo and get a feel for this headset.

The experience was beyond my wildest expectations.  I was immediately reminded of a few things from my experience with the Disney Quest system but I could see how the new Vive was a light year beyond.  The old Disney Quest HMD and others of the time had a point of view that was very narrow.  On top of that processing power at the time wasn't where it is now.  It's easy to forget that the GPU we all know and love in PC gaming wasn't a thing until the late 90's or early 2000's.  The Disney Quest systems were powered by Silicon Graphics rendering servers.  The best way I could describe the experience to you would be to have you hold two paper towel rolls up to your eyes, blink very fast, and try to walk around your home.  These were the primary issues that caused VR to stall out in the 90's.  They had to wait for display technologies and computing power to catch up to the idea.

There were good points to these experiences.  There were two VR experiences at Disney Quest that I was able to try.  The "Magic Carpet Ride" and a scifi pirate raid.  The magic carpet ride had you jump on this very oddly shaped chair that felt very weird until you put on the headset.  Once it was on and you looked down you saw the Magic Carpet from the movie and suddenly the odd feeling of the chair translated to you holding onto and riding Aladin's magic carpet.  In the pirate experience there was a stick you held that in the game appeared to be a "laser sword" (Disney didn't own lucas arts at this time!).  The Aladin experience worked well as the "Chair" controller was largely stationary and didn't need to be tracked meaning that there wasn't a slowdown in the game introduced by having to track the controller in space.  The laser swords however made the pirate game chug to 10 frames per second or less.

The Vive demo was the culmination of this technology growth.  Instead of two tiny CRT displays like what was used in older VR headsets they use one large(ish) LCD panel similar to that in many cell phones.  The point of view is very good and when paired with a computer meeting the recommended specifications everything flows well.  The best analog I could give you is to get a pair of safety goggles, use black tape on the sides and remove the plastic lens.  This was about the viewing angle I got.  After a minute I was able to ignore the "goggles" viewpoint and I felt like I was there.

The Vive controllers were probably the best part of the demo.  Google them if you don't know what these look like.  They track in real time just like you do.  The tracking is so accurate that they feel like natural extensions of your hand in the environment.  They also can be inserted into each other in both the real world and in VR showing how perfectly these are tracked.  They can be used in a number of ways in applications ranging from paint brushes, shields, weapons, or hands.  Honestly the only way this could be better is if HTC builds the VR gloves we all saw in the 90's.

Right now there are VR experiences out there that are pretty cool and some games that have been retrofitted to work with this system.  I do believe that if you have the money and the interest it is a worthwhile investment.  For those of us who don't have $799 for the Vive and a $1000 - $2000+ gaming PC to drive it I would suggest waiting for the new Google Daydream specced phones and HMD system that's coming out this fall.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A new project

Over the last few years I've been looking for something new to do.  Work is good, but honestly I've been looking for a new project to tie somethings together.  Last year my wife and I purchased a home that was built in the 60's.  Minimally updated and in need of a lot of love.  With the help of my friends I've ticked off some of the projects that are needed.  I've had to run through the process of how we accomplished the projects enough that I thought it might make an interesting video series.

This idea has grown into an idea for a YouTube series "Deep Dive DIY".  Basically showing the process of deciding on what equipment to use, ordering, sorting, getting permits, installing, testing, and finally resolving issues as they arise.  My main issue with other DIY shows is everything is too clean.  Rarely does anything go wrong, and when it does it's resolved by the behind the scenes team.  You also have a crew of carpenters and craftsmen helping off set ensuring projects are completed on the shows schedule.  Have you seen a basic bathroom remodel over two days, and when you try it yourself it takes more like a month?

This video project will be edited for time, but I will be including a real time clock showing how long the project is taking.  At the end of the project I will include a cost breakdown and a set of photos of the completed project.  Unlike other DIY shows the end of the project won't mean the end of information on the project.  As time progresses I will include information on energy usage, maintenance issues, and continuing costs or savings occurred.

The initial project is the installation of a Air Conditioning system in my home.  It's something I was going to tackle anyway, and it might prove to be interesting as unlike other AC installs you'll find on YouTube you'll see the entire project from start to finish.  Also I'm not a HVAC company using YouTube to solicit your business.  If things go well and and the Kickstarter is successful I have additional projects planned as stretch goals.  Ranging from installing a roof, Solar Hot water, Solar power, and a new boiler.  If things go extremely well I'm more than happy to tackle the Tesla Home Battery...  :)

Here's the project.  Please take a look, watch the video, and if the project sounds interesting please consider funding me.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1455557351/deep-dive-diy

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lets revisit cost cutting!

So we're at the cusp of another possible government shutdown and many of you may need to look into tightening your belts. As a number of things have come out or changed in the last year I thought I would revisit my previous article and show some new options. With little fanfare here we go! 

TV:

For TV service if you're in range of the broadcast towers you can instantly cut your bill by switching to an antenna. The number of stations you will receive will drop but for the most part everything will be in HD. You don't even need a new antenna. Any TV antenna will pick up the over the air signals (even ancient antenna towers, roof antennas, and rabbit ears). You just need a TV with a digital tuner or a digital adapter. The kind of antenna you will need is easy to determine. Visit AntennaWeb and plug in your address. It will give you a list of channels you should be able to receive as well as the antenna color code you will need. These color codes are on the boxes of new units in stores. Also the color codes describe the type of antenna if you just want to see if what you have will work. Please note that this isn't a complete list of channels you may receive. With new HD channels you can get multiple channels of programming in each number. Where in the 80s you may have had one PBS with rabbit ears, now you'll have three PBS channels each showing something different. I have about 20 stations. Your mileage may vary.

Personally I live near the broadcast center of my town. I have had great luck with the following products. One is an indoor antenna you can hang on the wall behind your tv, the other is a exterior mount antenna. Both never need to be adjusted. If they can't pick up a signal that's because you need a more powerful directional antenna. Directional antennas are able to pick up signals from further away, but the issue is they only pick up things in a shotgun like path in front of the antenna. This means if you're in the middle of your broadcast towers you'll only pick up a few at a time and you'll need use a motorized antenna rotator to turn the antenna (remember those!?)
 The Indoor Antenna
 
The Outdoor Antenna
 
 More Powerful DIRECTIONAL Antenna
 
 Now a word to the wise. The indoor model I listed comes in multiple configurations. If you're near your broadcast center you don't need an amplifier. As such you can get the cheaper models. If you're further away I would recommend the outdoor antenna for your whole home before getting antenna's for each tv. It might be a little more work, but you'll save money. Also walking around your home won't interrupt the TV signal which is possible with indoor models.

This gives you signal. You can just wire the antenna to your TV and have service, but as many of us have become accustomed to having DVR service with the ability to pause, rewind, and record live TV with a guide lets look at your options. Antenna TV is actually easier to do than Cable as you're not being screwed with by the cable industry. Any Windows Media Center or Tivo solution that works for cable TV will work for an antenna setup. The nice thing about this is that if you already have one of these setups you don't have to give it up and you can easily move back if you so choose. Now there are new products that are antenna specific.

The first is the SimpleTV. This device is a network DVR. This is a little different than what you're used to. It does not hook up to your TV. It hooks up to your antenna, your wireless router, and finally you need to hook up an external hard drive to store to. This unit is controlled by your phone, tablet, apple TV, roku, chromecast, or Plex receiver. Now like a Tivo you either buy the device cheaply and pay $14 a month for service, or you pay a bit more and you'll never have a monthly bill. This device is from Silicondust the makers of the HDHomeRun. Now this can be used on "ClearQAM" cable as well (unencrypted basic cable) so if you find your antenna doesn't work you can still use this box.


Another similar option is the Tablo. Same idea as the SimpleTV. Same need for a Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast on Televisions. And the same need for a monthly subscription to the Tablo data service. The main difference is that you can get a four tuner version which is handy for larger households.


Finally there is the ChannelMaster DVR+. This unit is rather impressive to me. For those of you who want a direct cable company DVR box experience and don't really care about watching TV on your tablet this unit is for you. You set it under your TV like a cable company DVR. Unlike any cable company box this thing is about half an inch thick. It will need an external hard drive to store to. If you don't have internet you get guide data for a few hours via the antenna. If you do have the internet it can download up to 14 days of guide data. This box does not have a monthly service cost or need extra equipment, but you need one per TV. As such if you're a one TV household this is a great option. If you have more than one TV in your home you'll be better served by a Tablo or a SimpleTV. If you want to stream to your tablet or phone you'll need a slingbox 500 add on.

ChannelMaster DVR+
 
Slingbox 500
 

For the above options (Either Simple TV or Tablo) you need a Roku, Apple TV, or a Chromecast on every TV you want to stream to.  Here are these products if you don't already have them.  I should warn you that the Chromecast doesn't have a UI of it's own.  As such you must have a phone or tablet to control it.  The Roku and Apple TV can be used normally.

The Roku


 The Apple TV


 The Chromecast


 I'm a huge fan of cutting the cord down to internet access only. If you're in an area where you can't do this try hooking the cable up to your TV directly and run a channel scan. If you're lucky enough to not have Comcast there is a good chance you get at least antenna channels unencrypted. If you pay for more you may find you get more channels. This means you can use the above options as though you are using an antenna and cancel all service from your cable company but internet. You will possibly loose the extra channels but you will keep the basic stations.

As for those of you who are stuck with Comcast. They decided last year to start encrypting all video including that which you can get with an antenna. This means if you use them for internet you will not be able to just split the signal and send it to your tv. You will need to either get an antenna or keep comcast service.

Cable TV

Now as for Cable TV options. If this isn't an option at all because you want all of the stations possible you can still save money by getting rid of the leased equipment and buying your own. The average monthly cost for a simple stupid two tuner DVR from a cable company is about $18 after taxes. The actual cost of the box is difficult to nail down, but I could build a replacement with all new equipment for $150. So in the course of a year you could have just bought your own and saved cash. The more advanced "Whole Home DVR" systems are about $50 a month for two TVs, and another $18 for each additional TV. I can build a similar system for $450 for the first TV, and $90 per each additional unit.

What you can do is fairly limited thanks to lobbying by the cable industry. You need a DVR that supports cable card devices. There are three good options you can use. Two of which are Whole home DVR equivalents, one is more of a standard TV tuner with no DVR.

1) Windows Media Center: Have a Windows 7 or 8 computer sitting around doing nothing since your shift to tablets? Stick a TV tuner in it and turn it into a great whole home DVR. There are many ways to do this. Desktops have a few more options with internal upgrade cards from Ceton, but you can use even laptops and a network TV tuner like the Ceton Infinitv6 eth or the HDHomerun Prime. Then at each TV you just need either a Xbox 360 with a remote or a Ceton Echo. The PC will need to be on constantly so a laptop may be better for power usage and the fact that a power brownout or outage won't bother it. The nice thing about this setup is you can modify everything about it. Adding more storage is easy. You can even get some cool software from The Green Button to add new features such as automatic commercial skipping. The issue here is you will want to avoid using the PC for anything else. While you can continue to use the PC, I've found some software combinations do cause WMC to become unstable. A dedicated PC is better. Also while Windows 7 includes WMC for free, windows 8 you need to pay for it in the windows store. You do not ever need to pay for guide data.

Now this seems like a lot of equipment, but if you look it over you might find you have a lot of this already. If you have a Windows 7 or 8 pc lying around you've got a big part of the expense. Many people already have at least one Xbox 360. At that point you just need a Xbox 360 remote and the tuner. After that it's all setup, and the setup is fairly easy. All you will need after that is a cable card from your tv provider. This should be free for the first card, but some companies charge up to $4 with tax for the card.

A special note on Ceton Products:  I'm leaving these here as they do function and can produce a very nice all in one HTPC product.  Unfortunately Ceton was hit hard by the discontinuation of Windows Media Center and seems to be just selling off existing stock and not innovating.  If you're not an experienced user I would strongly suggest skipping Ceton's products and looking into the SiliconDust HDHomeRun tuners.

Ceton 6 tuner Desktop card.
 

Ceton 6 tuner Network Card
 

Ceton Echo
 

Xbox 360 Remote
 

HDHomeRun Prime
 

As for the Xbox, I do recommend picking one up used. I've seen the 4gb new xbox 360 for around $90 used or remanufactured. If you insist buying new...
 

2) Tivo: Tivo's have been around for a long while. Most people know about them already and the website does a great job of describing everything. Basically they work like the cable company's Whole Home DVR where you get one main box and then smaller "Tivo Mini" units for any other TV in the home. Just like Windows Media Center all TV's have access to the same pool of tuners and recorded shows. The main difference is you need to pay for the Tivo service which is either $15 a month, or you shell out $500 for lifetime free access. The Tivo mini also has fees per tv. $6 a month per Tivo mini, or $150 for permenant access. Tivo is a great product with great support. You will need a cable card from your provider. In the long run even with the expense of the lifetime service you will save money in two years vs a whole home DVR setup, but you do need to shell out a hefty amount up front for the devices and service contract. While if you're made of money you can have multiple full Tivo units in your home, for the most part you only need either a Four or Six tuner main unit, then Tivo mini's everywhere else. This is a great option for people who don't have spare PC hardware, or don't want to bother with that and you want something that "Just Works".

A Four tuner Tivo
 

A Six tuner Tivo
 

Tivo Mini
 

Internet

Now I always recommend people get Cable internet over AT&T. Mostly because Uverse's top speed is no where near Cable, and you cannot own your equipment on Uverse. Cable modems are easy to get and rather cheap. Most cable providers charge $10 with tax per month for cable modems. These can be purchased for $50 on up to what ever you want to pay. Most good units are $75 and I recommend the universally supported Motorola surfboard products.


Now there are cable modems that integrate cable modem and your Wifi network router. I do not recommend these. They are quite expensive and you are tying yourself down to a wifi router you'll have no ability to upgrade or replace later. The cable modem won't need to change for years, your router you may find you want to swap out in two years if a new technology comes out. It's always best to buy this seperately. Many routers support faster network access as well as printer sharing and file sharing. Here's a good example.


Phone

In the past I've used an Ooma for a land line phone. I still have one for family members. It's a great device. Sort of a set it and forget it. You only need to pay local taxes per month for the line and 911 access. This comes to about $4 a month. The Ooma box has buttons to act as a voicemail access, or you can hit their website or an app to get voice mail that way. All in all it's great if you want your old land line stuff to work (Including fax machines!). They have some premium features such as bluetooth handling to sync with your cell phones. If your phones work only in one room of your home just sync them to the Ooma and your Cell phone calls will be forwarded to your land line network.


If you want to spend less than $4 a month, how about $0? Another contender is the Obihai series of devices. They use your google voice and hangouts account to provide phone access. Just like the Ooma you hook it up to your landline and you get dial tone. The only issue here is that you cannot use 911 with Google. You will need to subscribe to a third party 911 provider (I hear these are $1 a month). This is a bit more technical. If you're a "Set it and forget it" type of person you are better off with the Ooma.


Cell Phone

Thanks to 4G LTE technology most cell phones can be unlocked and taken to other carriers. In most situations I recommend people switch to T-mobile. If you can unlock your phone and bring it with you great. If not (or your phone is too old) you can get a new affordable phone and not be locked into a contract.

Another option is Republic wireless. They have phones that use the Sprint network ranging from $99 - $399 for the phone, then the monthly expense is anywhere from $5 (wifi calling, wifi text, and wifi data only) to $40 a month (unlimited sprint talk, text, and web). The great thing is you can change your plan twice a month. If you have a family member who doesn't need a phone outside of the house get the $5 plan. If you're all going on vacation for a week bump it up to the $40 plan for that week then change it back later. The only issue here is there is no phone support. Everything is web based. Also tethering is not supported.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reducing Cable Costs without Cutting the Cord

So after a call with Comcast I have found out that they have started encrypting even basic TV channels that you used to be able to get with just a digital TV.  Until now ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and a few others that you could get with an antenna you could get on your TV without renting one of their boxes.  Now you must have a box from them or a cable card ready system of some sort.  They are very quick to blame the government mandated transition to digital TV for this inconvenience.

Let me be very clear.  This has nothing to do with the digital transition.  The digital transition only covered antenna transmissions, and those affected could either get a converter box for free or purchase a digital tv.  Cable companies were not actually part of this.  There was only one governmental regulation on cable companies that has a direct affect on us as customers, and it's actually a positive.  It's called cable card.

Now Comcast does not readily tell you about cable card.  In fact they fought the standard for a few years and dragged their feet implementing it.  Consumer groups realized that with all the encryption and standard shifts cable companies were doing that caused standard TVs to stop working without special boxes and associated fees consumers were getting screwed.  So they petitioned the government to put a standard into effect that had a universal gateway.  This way people could buy a cable box of their own and only have to get a free part (called a cable card!) from their cable company that would allow their own equipment to work.

Now a lot of us already own our own cable modem to avoid rental fees.  Imagine how much money you could save if you owned your own cable box!  fees range from $10 - $24 a month per tv.  If you have more than one TV this could get very expensive.  These new multi room box setups start at $30 a month and go up quickly. 

After a bit of experimentation I have come up with a great setup that not only enables you to use every screen in your home including your tablets, tv's, computers, etc to watch TV it will also allow allow you DVR functionality to record shows in one spot in your home and watch it anywhere.  To begin with you will need a network cable card tuner.  Two that I recommend are the Silicon Dust 3 tuner and the Ceton 6 Infinitv ethernet box.  These attach to your home wifi router and to your cable company coax. Once this box is installed you just need a cable card from your provider.  Comcast provides the first for free.  Make sure you get a M-card cable card.  This means the card supports multiple tuners.  

This puts your cable service on your home network.  Any device on that network can access the tuners with the right program.  Add a windows pc into this mix and you get DVR functionality with Windows Media Center.  Most Windows 7 versions included this program.  Windows 8 has it as an option that you have to pay $10 for.  It is a descent DVR if you're not someone who is technically inclined.  You can watch TV on the pc, and any other xbox 360 you have in your home.  It basically acts as a multi room DVR without the monthly cost.  There is one issue with this setup.  Most DVR's today will record an entire show from the beginning even if you hit the record button half way through.  WMC won't do this.  It will record from the point you hit record.  Otherwise all other functions are the same.


Now if you are a bit more technically inclined check out XBMC.  You can install it on any system (Mac, linux, Windows) and use many different end points as clients (Ouya, tablets, ipads, apple tvs, Rokus).  It has all DVR functionality included. 


The one really nice thing about this is other than saving fees is that you can eliminate a lot of splitters from your home.  If you've ever noticed that some TV's in your home have a better picture than others you're seeing the effects of over splitting.  When you shift to this system you can eliminate all splitters except one.  You just need a two way splitter on the incoming feed from the cable company.  One line goes to your cable modem, the other to the network cable tuner.  Every TV in your home will now have the same picture.