Sunday, October 1, 2023

Boiler Heat for US citizens

 In the early 2010's my wife and I were looking for a good home for our lives.  While searching we found a number of homes that did not have a traditional HVAC system with a natural gas furnace and central air.  We overlooked a lot of these homes until we found one that we fell in love with.  Over the last decade we've learned a lot about boilers and at this point will probably never own a home with a traditional HVAC system.

So lets cover something straight up.  There are MANY different types of home heating and cooling systems out there currently.  The traditional furnace and air conditioner is probably one of the worst on the market.  Here's why:


  • Cheap to implement: Installs quickly.  A typical furnace and air conditioner can be swapped out in a day.
  • A total swap usually costs between $3k-$6k
  • Longevity:  Both a furnace and air conditioner have a life span of 10-15 years.
  • Humidity: Because you're heating air with a open flame all of the humidity in the air is eliminated.  This usually means you absolutely need some form of humidifier added onto your furnace.
  • Monthly expenses:  Even high efficiency furnaces are quite expensive to run.  Because you're directly heating air in your home, and even homes with the best insulation possible, you have no mass to retain that heat.  As such you're constantly burning fuel to keep your home warm in the winter.
  • Zoning:  The ability to set different temperatures in different areas of the house.  Very handy when you have some rooms that are warmer or colder than others.  You have few abilities here.  Either you open and close individual vents which doesn't help much, or you invest in an expensive shutter system or multiple furnaces and air conditioner compressors.
Now lets compare this to a Boiler.

  • Longevity:  Boilers can and do last 50 years and longer.  In many cases a boiler will be replaced because it's more economical to do so due to fuel consumed.  Parts are common plumbing parts and repairs can be done by most plumbers.
  • Humidity: Because a flame is used to heat water via a heat exchanger, and then the heated water is pumped through the home no humidity is lost.  A boiler heated home may still need additional humidity to be comfortable on the coldest days a room humidifier can usually perform the needed duty.
  • Monthly expenses:  A boiler heats water, and that water heats the home.  As you have the mass of the water and the typically copper pipe all heated you use less fuel to warm the home.  Even completely inefficient boilers will use less fuel to heat a similar home compared to a traditional high efficiency furnace.
  • Zoning: You're pumping water around your house through loops of pipes.  This is controlled with automated valves.  Simple to implement and control.  You'll rarely have issues keeping your home an even temperature.
  • Air conditioning isn't possible in the same way as a furnace based system.  Until recently a separate air handler needed to be added to the house, or you used window based AC units
  • Expense:  A boiler can cost 2x - 3x the cost of a furnace and air conditioner.
  • Install:  A boiler install is not a quick endevour.  Replacing a boiler involves a plumber and electrician and can take a week hence the massive expense over a furnace.  The boiler costs as much as the furnace.  It's all labor that makes the difference.
These numbers and experiences are based on my own experience.  Comparing two homes I've lived in at different points in my life of similar size.  One with a high efficiency furnace and the other with a 1960's no efficiency boiler and the older boiler proved to be more cost effective to run.

As for Air conditioning.  While a boiler means you don't have the familiar heat + AC system you're probably familiar with it does not mean you can't cool your home.  In existing boiler homes you'll see some of the following:

  1. Window Units / Portable AC:  These are fairly typical and cost effective.  New designs from GE and Medea mean you can now effectively leave a window AC installed year round and keep the ability to look out the window and open it.
  2. High Velocity Air Conditioning:  If you see little white circles on the ceiling of the property you're looking at the house has a central air conditioner already installed.  The unit is in the attic and pushes air through the house.  This system has fallen out of favor very recently due to advances and price drops in the mini split air conditioner systems.  If a house doesn't have this do not install it new.  The cost is high and parts are becoming hard to get.  If you already have one the only wear part is the condenser outside which is a standard part.
  3. Mini-splits:  If you've seen ads for "Mr. Cool DIY" you probably know where this is going.  This sort of air conditioner / heat pump has become very popular due to the ease in which a home owner can install it and save quite a lot of money over a traditional central AC.
Here's a scenario for you.  Lets say you're looking at a home with a very old boiler and no air conditioning.  Your inspection states that the boiler is in good working condition and will run for years to come.  You have a multiple mercury switch thermostats in the home allowing different temperatures to be set in each area.  You want a home with air conditioning and some convenience in monitoring and setting temperatures.

The solution is quite inexpensive if you're handy, and thanks to recent tax breaks for heat pumps will be even easier on your wallet.  You'll want to install a multi-head mini split unit.  Heat pump mini splits not only can cool your home, but can heat it as well.  In addition if temperatures dive below the mini split's ability to handle they can call for heat from your existing boiler as "Aux Heat".  The mercury switch thermostats are eliminated and the boiler is controlled directly by the mini split system.  As most mini splits are able to be controlled over wifi from your phone you can bring an ancient boiler into the 20'th century.  And as the mini split is highly efficient you gain the lower heating bills on all but the most extreme winter conditions.  On those days you'll fire up the old boiler.

If you're handy installing one of these kits can cost a quarter of a professionally installed central air system, and can be done in as little as a day even by an newbie.  Many YouTube videos exist on installing these units.  If money is really tight you can purchase one of the Mr. Cool competitors.  You might need a vacuum pump and a few extra tools, but you'll wind up with a better final product for less money even after buying tools.

Here's the final thought.  In todays competitive home market homes that are slightly different might wind up overlooked.  Most people want what's instantly familiar.  They don't want a home with a boiler and instead want something with a known furnace.  This means you might not have the insane bidding war on a boiler home in the same neighborhood as a furnace home.  The money you save can be easily spent to add a mini split heat pump system.  You'll wind up comfortable year round and wonder why you ever bothered with a furnace.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Solar options for outages

 Recently I finalized my DIY solar install on my home.  I purchased a kit around 2021 and jumping through all of the needed hoops, and the added complication of having a generator bypass on my electric panel meant I had to blindly bump my way through the install.  My system is a typical grid tied setup.  However since I purchased the equipment newer setups that enable whole home backup have come about.  Some are off grid systems that won't spin your meter backwards, but will enable you to have more control over your power.  Others are fully hybrid systems that can spin your meter backwards even at night and keep your house powered in an emergency.  

We recently had a power outage here thanks to ice storms.  Many people have been asking if they should purchase a generator.  My response is while you can purchase a generator they are much like snow throwers.  You have to buy them when you don't need them, you have to maintain them through the year to make sure they start when you do need them, and finally even if you do they abide by "Murphy's law" and typically won't run when you do need them.  Portable generators and Whole home generators need maintenance to make sure they work when you need them to.  Whole home generators typically come with maintenance contracts where someone does this for you through the year that usually cost $300 plus the cost of parts needed.  Portable units are yours to deal with or take into a small engine shop.

There is another option however.  Solar backup is now something that you can have installed relatively at parity with the cost of a generator.  Also, these systems can be used in ways that a generator simply cannot.  

For each of the below categories I'm going to design a system that can be used for backup power.  Each of these can be carried forward and grown with time.    The idea being you can purchase some parts as you start out and grow with time.  These are off grid systems so they will not sell your power back to the utility company, but they can lower your bills as they can charge overnight when power is cheaper and use that power during the day when it's more expensive.  Or even better they can also use solar power further reducing your energy usage.

There is one exception I'm saving for the end for people who own a home and want a fully installed solar system.


Something rarely considered when it comes to backup power is what someone who lives in an apartment is supposed to do.  Generators must be used outdoors and minimally 30 feet away from any doors or windows.  In an apartment this can be difficult or even impossible to do.  Generators cannot be used indoors as the carbon monoxide they produce is lethal.  This has lead to many deaths every year in emergency situations.  It's also the reason why all new generators sold have carbon monoxide emergency shut-offs to kill the generator if levels rise.

Battery based backup solutions, sometimes marketed as "Gasless Generators", do not have this problem and can be safely used indoors.  They produce no noise other than a fan, and can either charge over night or via solar panel inputs.  Unfortunately as most apartments have no "transfer switch" built into the unit you'll have to unplug things like a refrigerator and plug them into the battery pack, but anything that can be plugged in can be used.  Computers, Refrigerators, even portable heaters.  Hopefully with code changes battery integration will become mandatory for all apartments so that renters can bring their own units and ensure their power costs remain low or $0, and provide them with backup power in emergencies.

Here's the setup I'd recommend for an apartment:

An Ecoflow Delta Pro

This unit acts as the central hub for power.  It can be paired with other ecoflow equipment in the future.  Both additional batteries expanding it to a whopping 25kw.  Each battery is fully portable so you can just extend the handle and carry it with you.  In an emergency if you cannot generate solar (say it's too dark or you just can't get panels outside) you can wheel this out to any Level 2 EV charge station and top this up from empty quickly.  Even a friends garage with a 6.6kw charger could get this fully charged in less than an hour and you are back in business.  With solar panels however you may not even need to take this out to charge.  For an apartment I'd recommend either portable panels that fold up such as these:

Or for a more permeant install that you set up in a ground / patio mount and secure down I'd recommend 1 pack of these:

The trick with this being the Ecoflow Delta Pro can accept 150V solar input at 15Amp.  This means one string in series.  You can buy any solar panels, even used ones.  Just check the specs to what they can output at most voltage, and figure out how many panels will fit in that 150V limit.  If you have a panel rated for 35v max, you can easily use 4 in series.

As mentioned before you can pack up the unit, cabling, and even your solar panels and take them with you when you move.  Portable panels can be used constantly if you want to make a mount, and taken with you easily for camping or to use at a friend's place if they need backup power.

Small Homes\Town Homes

Growing the solar install from before lets look at a small home or town home.  With these types of houses you typically have the ability to make changes such as adding a sub panel for backup power.  Keeping to the Ecoflow Ecosystem Here's what I'd recommend depending on if your house is gas or electric.  Meaning are the major appliances such as the stove, oven, drier, and hot water tank gas powered or electric?

This design gives you 10 circuits of power.  It doesn't matter if it's a 120v or 240v appliance.  So you can run your furnace, hot water tank, fridge, stove, lights or internet and tv.  I'd avoid the microwave as those put a huge stress on backup power.

In all cases I'm going to recommend a Smart Home integration panel from Ecoflow.  This makes the hookup of your batteries simple and gives you control over how you use your power.  If your batteries don't charge fully in the day you can recharge overnight with lower energy rates from your provider.

Here's what I'd recommend.

  • One Smart Home integration Panel:  Put all your essential loads, up to 10, on this panel.  You'll need an electrican to install this.
  • Minimally 1, but more preferably two of the Ecoflow Delta Pro units.
  • Each Ecoflow delta pro can support 150v Solar each.  So for each Delta Pro you buy also get one set of solar panels.
  • Finally if you want more power for each Delta Pro you have you can add expansion batteries.  Keep the system balanced.  For each Delta pro buy one of these.

Mid size to Large Homes

Now for a large home you have options.  You can very easily use the Ecoflow design from the small home section if you're fine with 10 circuits of power.  However if you're looking at a whole home generator and are already fine with a $20k price tag let me recommend the following:

Call signature solar to get your full setup designed.  Treat this kit as a starting point not a fully realized system.  This price is not all inclusive.  When you add in panel racking, nec2017 compliance devices, copper wire, and electrical install to your panel (assuming you DIY the panel install, otherwise add more for the panel install) you can easily be looking at $24k before the tax rebate.  HOWEVER this system can be adjusted to run your entire house.  If your load is too big for one inverter more can be added in parallel.

The benefit here over the Ecoflow system is this is a hybrid system.  Not only will it provide backup power it will also sell your excess power back to the utility company.  So this system can pay for itself faster than off grid systems even with it's higher up front cost.  With the average monthly power bill being $122 that's 16 years to pay off the system.  However large homes frequently have higher power bills especially if the house is mostly electric appliances and if Air Conditioning is used.  In my case my summer bill can top $350 and winter bills are closer to $140.  My yearly energy expense was $2,940.  Once calculated my payback on this system should be 8 years.  However there are further ways to lower the payback period faster.  If you have a heat pump instead of an Air conditioner you can reduce your natural gas usage in the winter.  Imagine $0 heat bills.  As my heat bill this winter has been $400 per month over the last 4 months that's $1600 per year.  Or if you get a electric car to replace your vehicle you can eliminate your fuel costs.  In my case that was another $2,500 per year.

As my system was a grid tied model, once I finished my upgrades my payback period was 4 years.  Raising natural gas, energy, and gasoline prices have further reduced this.  I'm staring at a 3 year payback period.  My electric, gas, and natural gas usage is reduced to near $0 per month.

As these monthly bill prices continue to rise and as solar and battery prices drop this payback period will only get shorter.  At this point a solar system of any type should be considered a retirement investment instead of a green project.  At the rate these costs go up, it's a better investment than most you can achieve.


As I stated the solar industry is moving incredibly quickly.  Multiple products have come out that changed or modified my suggestions.  Many new portable solar + storage solutions for apartments and homes have come out including a new ecoflow solution specifically for apartments.  On the other end Signature Solar has introduced a new larger hybrid inverter for home backup power.  This is just one possible kit.

There are now kits for most budgets.  My suggestion, skip a generator.  If you find you're in the market for backup power right now start looking at Solar instead.  A solution that provides backup power via solar is not only at price parity with a stand by generator right now it's much cheaper after the 30% tax rebate going on.  In addition a generator will never pay you back.  It's a constant expense every year for oil changes, starter batteries, and air filters.  A solar system has none of that and will start paying you back from the minute you turn it on.  Even if you don't get a $0 power bill you'll wind up paying much less than you were.  Also start with an inverter with room to grow or additional inputs.  Mine was sized to my house and array, and now that I'm thinking of adding more panels I'm stuck buying a new inverter and selling the other.  Again it was the best solution just 3 years ago.  Now with the EG4 inverters coming out much better options are out there where you start small and grow over time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Power Wheel rescue: Turn a free Power Wheel into your child's favorite toy

 Driving through my neighborhood I stumbled across a sight that many before me have seen.  A Power Wheel on the side of the road with a sign reading "Free".  Many parents either received these large toys free from relatives and are then stuck with them after their child outgrows them, or worse the battery or charger die and as these are super simple devices you cannot check which passed without a multimeter and battery tester.  The replacement cost of both is high enough to warrant giving the toy away.

Thankfully these toys are incredibly simple.  Their design has not changed much since the 80s-90s.  They have no complicated electronics and in fact are a few switches, a relay, and a few passive components to drive a motor.  There are no processors here.  What is in there is easily purchased off the shelf from any electronics retailer with the exception of the battery and charger.

Now the battery is nothing special.  It's just a standard AGM lead acid battery you can buy off the shelf at any hardware store.  The difference is that the toy manufacturers have put the battery in a custom sealed plastic enclosure, and attached custom leads to the battery with a quick disconnect that is fairly proprietary.  They use a matching connector on the charger which isn't some super complex battery charger, but a dead simple analog lead acid float charger similar to what you can get from harbor freight.  The trick is that custom plug.

Now you could simply  chop out all of those proprietary connectors from the Power Wheel and install standard anderson or xt battery terminals, and just get a off the shelf AGM battery.  Heck you could get a bigger battery.  Most Power Wheels have space for a much bigger battery than they come with.  Just match the voltage.  However there is a much more modern, much easier upgrade you can do that is dead simple and super cheap if you're someone who has battery operated tools.  Swap that weak lead acid battery for a Lithium power tool battery.

Head to amazon and search for "<insert your brand of tool> battery adapter".  For me it's Ryobi.  A quick amazon search turns up this kit that doesn't even need you to know how to solder wire.  Just strip a bit of wire and use the provided wire junction matching red to red, black to black.

Here's Ryobi

Here's DeWalt

Here's Milwaukee

Here's Ridgid

For a 12v Power Wheel you can just run it off the battery directly.  The voltage increase won't blow up anything. You'll notice the Power Wheel will have a hell of a lot more power than it originally did.  The low gear will have more power than the high used to with the original lead acid.  

Now if you have a 6v Power Wheel, or if you find the speed is just too much you may want to put a speed controller like this in your toy to enable you to dial it back a bit.  The speed controller effectively limits the voltage to the motor.  So your 18v battery will drive as low as 7v

Through out all of this I'm assuming you have some existing cordless power tools.  If not here is a good kit that is just a Ryobi compatible battery and charger.

Another benefit here is you can swap batteries on the fly.  No more running out of power and have a sad child while they wait until tomorrow for that battery to charge.  Ryobi batteries charge in under an hour in most cases, and you can keep multiple around.  Swap the battery and your child is back off to the races!

Saturday, September 19, 2020

How to solve bad internet speeds on Comcast Xfinity / Charter Spectrum / WOW! / etc

 For the last three years I've been working with my city to possibly get a municipal fiber network installed so our residents have a choice between sub par overpriced DSL and sub par over priced cable internet.  We like many communities have no competition and the providers have driven costs up like mad.  We've gotten to a step where we got a survey of the residents and were shocked how bad it was   I've had a few indications I need to write up this article this week.  

I've had a few indications I need to write up this article this week.  First I've been working with my local government to attempt to bring municipal broadband to my community.  We have a full third of the community reporting speeds of 30mbps or less even though our cable company offering a lowest standard speed of 200mbps.  Secondly a friend of mine called me with internet speed issues where she was only getting 30mbps and that was affecting her three kids who are all in virtual classrooms and their ability to attend school.  In her case she not only had a very old 802.11b router she had been talked into a slow internet plan so the cable company could give her a cheap double play TV and internet package even though she only needed internet.  Finally knowing how many people assume cable equipment is good for years (and lets face it many of us have had cable boxes older than our children) aren't used to the fact that this equipment needs more frequent replacement than we knew.

With everything going on many people are finding out they don't have access to the speed of internet they thought they had.  In many cases they're simply overwhelming the system that was built decades ago to handle TV.  In many cases however the network outside of their homes was upgraded, but the homeowner never upgraded their modem or router assuming they were good with what they had.  Never knowing that every so often this equipment would need an upgrade.  Before you blame your cable company let me run you through some steps that will make the process easier to identify where your real bottleneck is.

1)  Check your bill / call your provider.  What we are looking for here is the speed of your internet package.  If your bill doesn't have a specific speed listed call them up and simply ask.  You like my friend might have a slow plan that was either given to you to keep costs low, or you might have a grandfathered plan and are paying way too much for slow internet.  Call and ask.  If you're getting under 50mbps ask what the standard speed is now for your provider.  Check their website and confirm what they are saying to you.

2)  Use your computer to go to  Run the speed test (It's a big green button) and verify that the download and upload speeds match what you've been told.  I'd give a little room for slop or high traffic times.  If your paying for 100mpbs download and get 80 your equipment's probably fine.  Your provider needs to upgrade theirs.  Best to complain to them and encourage your neighbors to do the same.  If the test comes back with what you're paying for you don't have a problem with your equipment.  However if you are experiencing issues with multiple video streams in your house (We're all working / schooling remote) you might need to upgrade your plan to a faster speed.  However if you get really low numbers say 30mbps when you pay for 100mpbs or better read on.

3)  If you got a really low number in step 2 you have a problem in one of three places.  Your router, your cable modem, or the cable from the pole to your home is bad.  Lets start isolating out equipment.  First off take down the model number from the wifi router and cable modem and look them up on google.  We can save you some testing here by checking these facts.

a)  If your router comes up as 802.11 a,b,g, or n you should simply replace it now.  It might still be working, but they were never really made for multiple video streams at home.

If you've never had signal problems in your home this would be a great replacement device:

However if you've always had some dead spots in your home it's time to upgrade to a mesh network.

b)  If your cable modem has markings for DOCSIS, DOCSIS 1.1, or DOCSIS 2.0 it's time for a replacement.  If you rent your modem or are provided one free by your cable company request a replacement.  If you own your own it's time for a replacement.  Here is an excellent one.

In many cases if one device needs replacement both probably do.  In that case consider a combined device with wifi and modem in one box.  It reduces unsightly wires and saves you shelf space.

4)  If you want to start testing out the root cause of your speed issue disconnect the wire between your cable modem and your router and unhook the power from your router.  Hook your computer directly up to the cable modem and then run the website again.  If you get the speeds you pay for then your router is in need of replacement.  However if you still have speed issues the problem could either be your cable modem, or the cable to your home.

5)  Call your cable provider and ask for tech support.  Let them know you want them to "Test the signal my cable modem is seeing."  They don't need to send a tech out to do this as the modem reports this information to them on request.  This is where things get a little confusing.  If the modem is seeing enough signal or the tech reports it's good you probably have an outdated modem that needs replacement.  If it wasn't getting enough signal you probably have a bad cable from the pole to your house or too many cable splitters.  Let the tech know you're having speed issues and that you're hooked directly to the cable modem without a router.  In most situations the tech will simply send out a new cable modem for you to install or schedule a service call. Let me be clear, anyone can swap a cable modem.  There are literally three wires that go to them (ethernet, coax, and power).  All you need to do is call service and read off the serial number off the device to get it running.  Most cable providers make this process easy.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Cutting the cord for $0 per month for TV.

As cable TV prices continue to skyrocket I'm having more people come to me asking how they can get their cable bill down.  Sometimes they are asking how they can cut the cord, others they just want to shave their bill and keep as much programming as possible.  I've been doing some research since my last post on this topic and I've set a goal for myself.  Design a system in which you spend absolutely nothing out of pocket per month but gives you access to as much programming as possible.

This will have up front costs.  You will need to buy equipment (if you don't already have it!) but nothing I'm suggesting is exceedingly expensive.  In fact I'm going to try to keep the total expense under six months of your typical on contract cable bill with three TV's and the associated equipment ($150 per month, so $900.  This is just TV, no internet).  I'll be designing a system using generic devices you may already have and equipment you already have.  As many of us have a old computer sitting around doing nothing as we've mostly all moved on to tablets and smart phones, or you have a desktop that has some spare processing power I will omit this cost from the total, however I will include a generic device for those who don't have a PC handy that can do the job.  I'll also design a setup assuming you have nothing available to you and need to buy everything, and prefer something that works out of the box.  I will also state that I won't include Netflix or Amazon Prime services in the total cost as many cable TV users have these services over the top already and they are in addition to their existing cable bill.

Now to do this you will need internet access.  As such I will start off with...


For this solution you don't need an extremely fast internet service.  You just need something over 50mbps to be reliable for two tv's.  Now every area is different as to what ISPs you have available.  Here are my suggestions:

Community fiber or AT&T Fiber (in that order):  

If you have this available to you use it.  Skip all other options.  Some of these systems provide you everything you need including wifi.  Others just give you a connection that you need to hook up to your own router.  You'll need to pay for a plan that offers at least 100/100 mbps and you'll love the results.  Here's a good wifi router if you need it.

Cable Internet:

Now most of us will be using cable internet.  No matter if you have Comcast Xfinity, Charter Spectrum, WOW!, or some other provider here's my suggestions.

  • Do not pay the "Existing Customer" pricing from any cable company.  Comcast and WOW are better at allowing existing customers negotiate lower rates after their contract ends.  Spectrum rarely allows existing customers negotiate their rate down because most of their customer base is stuck with them as their only ISP.  However you can usually skirt these "Existing Customer" prices with a little trick.  If you have some other adult living in your home (Spouse, parent, sibling, adult child) you can cancel your service and have the other adult sign up.  You'll need to pay the connection fee most likely, but they have no way to reject this other person as a new customer.  After two years switch back.  This is a hassle, but with a monthly cost jump of between $25-$36 you will make up for it in the two year contract.

  • Bring your own modem and wifi router.  Specifically a combined device.  While some ISPs offer a free modem, and a few offer free wifi as part of the contract it's better for you to own your device outright.  Cable companies are offering you these devices for free because they're using these modems to expand their wifi footprint for mobile customers.  Some of the electricity you pay for is benefiting your ISP and they're burying this in the contract fine print.  Better bring your own device and not only deny them this but avoid paying as much as $15 per month for wifi and $10 per month for the cable modem. 

    I used to tell people not to buy a combined device.  While cable modems didn't change much over time the wifi standard was changing every two or three years.  You were better off buying separate devices.  Now everything has stabilized.  Buy a unified device to make setup easier.  Here's a good device.

  • DO NOT LET THEM TALK YOU INTO A PACKAGE DEAL!  YOU WANT INTERNET ONLY!  NO PHONE, NO TV, AND NO SECURITY (dear god don't get security services from your isp!) 
  • You want the base service you can get for $50ish per month.  Usually this would be 100-200mbps service depending on your area.  
  • Ask if your ISP caps your monthly usage.  Most cable ISPs don't however there are a few.  A monthly cap could cause issues for you with excessive streaming.  Try to get an ISP that doesn't have a monthly cap if you can.

DSL internet (sometimes called Uverse):

If you can't get the above you will most likely be limited to your phone company's offering.  Be aware these are usually speed limited.  Some areas have speeds as low as 25mbps which will work for one stream, but you will see issues.  Others have speeds as high as 75mbps.  If you have a low speed be sure to call your phone company and complain and get your neighbors to do the same.  Also look into getting a community fiber network set up.  If your phone company and cable company won't support you then you are better doing this yourself.

AT&T provides their own modem and wifi for free with your service.  I can't recommend getting your own device as they're modem is proprietary.  If your phone company is not AT&T ask if they're providing their modem and / or wifi for free.  If not here is a good device.

With this your internet is secured.  You monthly cost currently will be between $35 - $60.  From here on out there will be no other monthly costs.

Television Service

From here on out I'm going to split this up between a simple solution and a more complex solution.  Both provide DVR services for recording TV.  The more complex solution provides you additional functionality allowing you to centrally store your personal movie, music, and photo collections and stream them anywhere.

Both solutions use over the air TV as well as Pluto TV.  We're all mostly familiar with antenna TV.  However those of us who've been on cable TV for 20 years might not know how good antenna TV has gotten.  Where we used to get just ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW, and PBS you now can get as many as 70 stations with an antenna.  Each station broadcasts multiple channels so instead of just "Channel 2" you now get "2-1, 2-2, 2-3, and 2-4" all showing different shows.  You just need an antenna.  Not even a new antenna.  Any old TV Antenna including the old 70's rabbit ears in your basement or the hideous thing on your roof you considered taking down can be used.  An outdoor antenna is better, and a directional antenna is best.  Here's a great antenna that can be used either indoors or outdoors.

Now for additional stations you just need to set up an account on is a service from Viacom that streams many popular TV and internet TV channels for free including some very well known channels (Fox Sports, MSNBC, Nickelodeon, etc).  By creating an account you unlock extra channels.  This is all free and it's ad supported just like your standard antenna TV.

Now it's not perfect.  I've seen some hiccups on a slow connection.  However this lets you keep your favorite channels for free vs a $150 cable bill.  As such I'm willing to make some allowances.  Also will be separate from the DVR from your antenna TV.  As long as you don't mind exiting your TV app and going to your app you shouldn't notice anything.  For $150 a month I think this is a fair trade. doesn't offer a DVR per say, however you do have some "On Demand" programming in their service.

Simple Solution With DVR

The simple solution requires you to buy Amazon Fire sticks for each TV, and a Amazon Recast device to act as a DVR.  While the recast comes with a antenna many times it's a cheap indoor antenna.  You're welcome to try it however you will get much better performance out of the one above.

So get one of these for each TV in your house.

Then get one of these for your entire house.

That's it.  Install these per their instructions or hire someone to help you out.  Set up your Pluto TV account on each TV's Fire stick.

So for a house with three tv's you're looking at the following costs:

Equipment Cost Quantity Total
Modem / Modem + Router       $141.97 1 $141.97
Antenna $82.70 1 $82.70
Fire Sticks $49.99 3 $149.97
Fire Recast $279.99 1 $279.99
Total $654.63‬

I'm under what you'd spend for 6 months of cable TV.  You will need an Amazon Prime account for these devices to work, however you probably already have this.  It enables the TV guide on the Recast and provides a ton of movies and programming as part of your membership.

More complex solution

Now if you'd like to not only have a DVR for your antenna TV, but also want to use your existing smart TV, video game console, Rokus, or other devices and have an old computer sitting around this is the option for you.

To start us off lets start with the software.  Plex is free to download and install on your computer.  You install it and then point at your library folders (Music, photos, Movies, Recorded TV) and it finds everything.  Your smart devices most likely have a Plex app already available.  All current video game systems do, as does the Roku and your phone!  You can take your personal media on the go with you streaming from your own home server.  Now for a guide to allow downloading TV programming you will need to get Plex Pass.  You can either subscribe for a monthly cost, or you can just pay once and own it outright.  The cost is typically $119.  I have seen them go on sale as low as $75 on  I will use the standard price in the final tally below.

You will need each TV to either be a Smart TV, have an attached Game system like a Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, or PS3, or just have something like a Roku.  If you have a TV that has nothing and you're not willing or unable to relocate a device from another TV (like a home theater with multiple game systems) then buy one of these per TV.

Now you will want to add some storage space to your computer.  I'd strongly recommend building a RAID or a Windows Storage Space in your computer.  This means you use multiple inexpensive drives in tandem to make one big drive that is more reliable and tolerant of failure. I'd recommend 4 drives.

You will also need a TV tuner.  The best on the market is the HDHomeRun Connect Quatro.  It acts as a TV tuner for your Plex server.

Now if you have an existing computer you can add the drives to great!  If you're not interested in modifying a computer or just want an easier solution you can use this instead of the four drives above.

Now you can use your computer, or if you used the NAS device you can use another laptop or computer to rip your CDs, DVDs, Blurays, and even scan your photos into your Plex folders.  This media will be scanned into Plex allowing you to access it from any of your devices with the Plex app.  This is all on your own storage media so you're not paying a monthly fee or renting movies.  This is your stuff.  It's great for people with big media collections who want an easier way to access it all.  Plex will even backup your camera phone to your home server over the internet.

Lets look at total costs here in a worst case scenario.  The price here will look high, but that's because I'm assuming you have no equipment to reuse and want this solution. In almost all scenarios you'll come up to a much lower price.

Equipment Cost Quantity Total
Modem / Modem + Router       $141.97 1 $141.97
Antenna $82.70 1 $82.70
Roku Stick $46.22 3 $138.66
NAS with Drives $769.00 1 $769.00
HDHomeRun Quatro $129.98 1 $129.98
Total $1,262.31‬

Again this price looks high, and is more than 6 months of cable TV service.  However you own all your equipment and will have no more monthly bills for TV.  Again if you have any unused or unloved computer equipment and smart devices this price goes down quickly.  In this scenario you'll have the ability to stream your personal media anywhere in your home and also anywhere in the world with your other devices.  It does require some skill to set up, but the folks at Plex have made this much easier than it used to be. 

Anyway I hope this helps some people.  I offer these designs up for free because I rather like putting the screws to cable companies.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Mobility for today's job market

A quarter of the way into the new year.  Weather gets nuttier, the ground gets squishy, and if you have a job site account that's been updated in the last few months you start getting spammed by recruiters about jobs all over the country.  As someone who's been in IT for two decades now I look back at what I would do differently.  I'm someone who followed the old model of get a job, buy a house, and settle down.  I've worked with people who have adapted to the newer model of short term gigs and constant relocation.  Some keep picking up and moving constantly.  Others... have cracked the system in a way that makes me wish I had thought of it when I graduated college.

If you're in IT, Gaming, art, or any other industry (I'm going to group all these as IT as it's quicker to type! Sorry artists...) that has a highly migratory work force you've probably experienced this.  You get a job offer that promises 1+ years of contract work with relocation required, or you wind up in a direct hire job working for a company that requires 70-100% travel.  Instead of renting apartments, breaking leases, or buying a house you'll never see how about getting a RV or trailer?

So instead of buying a house or renting an apartment, head out and buy a trailer, truck camper, or even an RV.  You'll have a up front cost but it will be lower than renting or buying a house, and in addition you'll never need to box up and move your stuff again!  Just pick up and move your home to the next area!

Lets cover the two types of jobs that are very common in the IT sphere especially for recent grads or newbies.  I'm going to cover specifics for the two types of jobs, then I'll cover the common ground between the two after.  You might be considering a contract over direct hire, but some of these tricks work in either method depending on how you contract.

Contract work:
The typical contract position I've been seeing a lot of lately is 6+ months, onsite required, no benefits or vacation time provided.  You'll be expected to be onsite within a period of time and rarely do you get enough time to find a good place to rent.  Instead of finding an apartment find a nearby rv park, Walmart, RV service center, or even national park.  If you're a single person and have a camper van or truck camper ask your employer if it's alright if you remain parked on late nights or overnight stays.  You can reduce what you spend per week by relocating your vehicle where it's free for you to park over night.  Walmart, Truck rest stops, and even some road side stops can be completely free to use.  Use an RV park or service center to empty your black tank every few days.

As for your hourly rate, work your relocation fee into your rate for that customer.  Set a standard flat rate for just your work over a period of 1 year.  Try to aim for a industry standard.  Standard Java is around $50 an hour, while specialized skills like PLM / SAP / or some middlewear applications can demand $100 an hour in some industries.  For a shorter contract raise that rate by a known percentage.  So for a 6 month contract raise it 10%, for 3 month raise it 20%.  Also take into consideration RV park expenses.  Take the daily expense, divide that by 8, then tag that into your rate.

Direct Hire work:
Many direct hire companies are essentially just a intermediary contract house.  You work for this company, get paid a standard salary with benefits, but you get less annually than you would working contract.  The strengths here is you are somewhat immune to fluxuations in the market for demand.  You'll remain hired even if work dries up, but you may be asked to train on other products to make you more marketable.  Many of these jobs require you to have a home base, but require travel.

In this type of situation take the following into consideration before accepting a job.

  1. If the company requires 100% travel, ask about corporate housing.  You might be able to get paid a little less, but have the company put you up in housing and provide you a rental car.  The amount you'll save far outweighs what little less you'll receive in compensation.  Consider this before looking for an RV.
  2. If your company is not willing or able to provide corporate housing then consider an RV.  As your company will cover your travel and repay your expenses consider the following:
    1. Establish a LLC to own your RV:  Form your own little holding company.
    2. Bill yourself a reasonable rate: As the RV is the property of your company you can bill yourself a reasonable rate for staying overnight.  Many companies have a policy for an agreed upon rate for staying with family.  They'll usually have no issue with paying that.  Or you can bill the "government rate" which comes out to about $98 a night.  You bill yourself, then submit the bill to your company.  You may need the ability to bill your credit card so you might need to add a square or other credit card method.  Many companies won't question lodging expenses that come in on the corporate card as long as they are within reason or even more affordable than other alternatives.
    3. Pay off your rig:  A brand new RV can cost $80k-$120k.  I've known contractors who by billing the $98 a night rate have paid off their rig over 4 years and their LLC makes a profit off of it now.
    4. Ask your family with permanent addresses if you can leave your "residence" set at their house.  Keep your drivers license there.  This can be very helpful if you live in a state with low taxes but work somewhere with high taxes.  As you're working as a traveler your taxes are at your state of residence.  This could also help with your automotive insurance and insurance on your RV/Trailer.

When picking a rig pick something you know you can handle. Remember you can always upgrade later, and you can start off affordably by buying used.  If you own a truck like a F150 your options are more open than if you own a small 4 cylinder car.  A V6 SUV is a good middle ground.  Pick something that has what you need to survive (remember a hotel will give you a bed, closet, TV, and bathroom and that's it).  A 22 foot trailer, or descent truck bed camper will have that.  As someone who travels frequently you'll find you don't use the pool or gym much at hotels.  That and the food at the built in restaurant usually leaves you wishing you had a kitchen to cook for yourself anyway.

I strongly recommend a trailer or truck camper over an RV. Mostly because finding someone to service a truck or SUV us relatively easy.  Finding someone to service a RV is not and rather expensive.  In addition once you've parked your camper you can unhook your tow vehicle for getting about.  As for the ecology of this you'll find it to be better than continually moving.  Think about it.  You generate waste when moving normally of plastic, boxes, etc.  Moving your trailer or RV means there is no packing up needed.  Just put things away and secure the rig before you pull out.  Yes you get lower fuel economy while driving with your rig, but you get worse with a uhaul and your car in tow.

Honestly as I look forward toward retirement I'd consider doing this.  You have much lower expenses and if you decide you want to work some more you can with little effort.  If things get stale you can easily pick up and move without the expense of moving.  If you're just heading into a career in Gaming, IT, Programming, Engineering, or similar consider this first.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Easy way to download video from streaming sites

For a long time I've never quite gotten why people would want to download video from streaming video sites to their local machine. Netflix has always added new content over time and it was more than enough per month to keep me on as a subscriber. Most sites also allow you to download videos for offline watching when you're on a plane or offline. Recent trips for work and a family vacation showed me exactly why you'd want this. While some sites like Netflix let you download videos, not all do. Also you can only watch the videos in the Netflix app, not move them over to a PC to watch on a bigger screen. In other scenarios you might not have unlimited data to stream video while on a trip. Or you're in your late model car with a infotainment system that will play video files for your kids but you need the files on a thumb drive. For years I've known of this product, but it wasn't until recently that I figured out I needed it. The product is called "PlayOn". You'll need to get the pay version as the free version won't download video. How this works is you install the software, and then plug in your various streaming service username and passwords into the "PlayOn Configuration" app. When you run the main application you'll be able to search through your various streaming services and "record" your videos. I say record and not download as this occurs in real time. A 30 minute video takes 30 minutes to grab. You're not going to download all of Netflix in a week, but you could grab the latest episodes of your favorite shows the night before a long flight or drive and copy them to your phone or a thumb drive. Like most things I'm sure there are people who abuse this software. You should be aware that your username and actual name are recorded at the beginning of everything you download. This should only be a problem for you if you were going to illegally share your recordings. If this sounds like something you're interested in here's the link to their site: