Author Archives: joel

About joel

Retired Higher Ed administrator, flyfisherman and geek

Universal remote control

When I did a Facebook post on this topic a couple days ago, I promised to write it up a bit more thoroughly. So, if you read the FB post, you can skip this, or not. 😉

The entertainment systems I’ve cobbled together over time have worked, but only with directions written and taped to the bottom of of the 4 remotes on the end table. Needless to say, it’s not been a recipe for marital harmony. Let’s just say that I have a higher tolerance for a multi-remote control system than my dear wife!

This year in early March, one of my sons (who is more of a geek than me) suggested after a visit that it was too complicated and he agreed with his mother. He showed me a high end version of a Logitech remote, but I just couldn’t hang with the $250 price for something I was sure would not work. Not much happened until I was headed to a conference for a few days…and it was made clear to me that something needed to be simplified!

So, when I returned I looked again at the Logitech remotes and saw that there was a simpler version without a touchscreen remote. I ordered the Harmony Companion, and it brought harmony to the house!

It truly works! I set up 5 different programs – one to set up for music streaming from Alexa, one for the TV (we use an LG TV, OTA programming, and a TiVo), one for AppleTV, and two for Roku, one to launch HBO Now, and one to launch Amazon Prime. I have a Chromecast also in the Denon receiver (actually, I have three of them all in different TVs), but never use it so no program yet for that.

Programming the remote involves a set of “activities,” which are multidevice sequences of actions to set the stage for the activity. You can control lights, etc as a part of an activity if you have compatible tech, but my Smartlife WiFi outlet sockets don’t work with it. It does apparently support and understand remote commands for just about any device with a remote control.

I did my setup on my iPad, and apparently that’s easier than the computer-based setup per the reviews. The UI allows you to select devices and actions as a part of the activity. The problem is that it doesn’t allow you to delete or move a step, though can add or modify a step. My TV sequence involved a bit of tweaking as when you turn on the TiVo and TV, the TV doesn’t sync to the HDMI input unless you do another source switch a few seconds later. So I had to turn on the TV, the receiver, the TiVo (with a different source), the delay several seconds (there is a delay command for just this type of situation), and then switch to the TiVo input. The iPad app crashed several times while I was doing the activity setup; it’s the weakest part of the system.

I also set up the Alexa skill and sync’d the accounts. This is another area that doesn’t provide as much control as I’d like. When you set it up, you get to choose keywords used in the invocation, but there’s no way to edit this after setup, at least that I’ve found. It also takes a few minutes for the accounts to sync. But it works! “Alexa, turn on the TV” does so, and “Alexa, turn on Tunes” sets up things for Alexa to use the receiver. With the TV and other such activities, you can also tell Alexa to “turn up the volume on the TV” and it will adjust the receiver volume setting.

The Companion remote has three activity buttons, shown as “music,” “TV,” and “movies” but using icons. You can short press or long press the button and that will give six activity invocations.

The remote talks to the base with Bluetooth, and the base emits IR/RF/Bluetooth to control devices. Per the directions, you can place the base with other components , and the IR reflects off the room and does not have to point to the targets.

So, this really does work. This particular version controls up to 8 devices. It sells for $100-$130 and has brought “harmony” to my house!

A day in the life of an EV

Well, not a day, but, with apologies to Solzhenitsyn (damn, I’m glad spell check jumped in here!), it gives me an excuse to extol the virtues of driving an EV. Don’t get me wrong, I like my Silverado, and it does a great job pulling the boat, hauling other trailers, hauling dogs, driving on the beach, and so forth…but I sure do wish GM made electric trucks! I didn’t have but one errand to run today, just a 2.5 mile (one way) trip to the dentist, but I sure do love to drive the Chevy Bolt. Heck, it’s not a Tesla in Ludicrous Mode, but press the sport button, push the accelerator, and you will zip you into traffic with the instantaneous torque only an EV can offer. Zip up to 45 mph, slow down to 35 in the EI business district, back to 45, then whip around the new roundabout (using one pedal driving with huge regen braking) and over to the dentist. Reverse it going back, and I used 1 kWh, about 9 cents, for the 5 miles…and fun to drive.

Need a new car? Do yourself a favor and check out an EV.

Another nice day with Clearwater trout

The first day of Daylight Savings Time means getting up early, more so when you have a two hour and 45 minute, 155 mile drive. A lot further than when this was only 15 minutes from the house, before we moved. My alarm went off at 5:15 so I could make coffee and get out the door to meet Sam at the EV charging station at Durham Regional Library, so I could get a charge on the Bolt while we fished (used 95 kWh for the round trip, so with 60 kWh battery, with temps in the 40s, I needed several hours of juice). Sam picked me up at 8:30, and we headed to Clearwater, for the TU-sponsored stocked winter stillwater trout fishery. It started very slow…only one guy (of 8 rods on the lake) was catching fish, and he caught several while I was watching. I asked him what he was using, and he was fishing a dry as a soft hackle fly, just below the surface. I did the same, and promptly caught a couple nice fish.

Sam was on the other side of the lake, so I walked around the lake to where Sam was fishing, and suggested we have lunch and debrief. We ate, and then went back to to casting stations where the action had been. He promptly caught a nice one!

We then figured out that olive wooly buggers were the ticket, and over the afternoon we each caught a dozen or so, big strong fish, 16-24″. It rained on and off during the day, but the fishing was good in the afternoon and that made for a great time. Good fellowship and lots of trout. A great way to spend a late winter day.

Electric dreams and clean beaches

What does a picture of a Lab fetching a frisbee from the surf have to do electric dreams? Just indulge me for a bit…we’ve been driving the Bolt for two and a half months now, and I’m more convinced than ever that EVs can work for the vast majority of families, particularly if you look at one as a local or “regional” car. Yes, we still have two internal combustion vehicles for the time being, but they are being used for special cases. I have a Chevy Silverado crew-cab pickup I use for hauling the boat to the ramp, and as our long range trip car. We’ll keep the truck for its special abilities. We also have the 2006 Chevy Equinox that Jan drives once per week to Mebane to visit her mother in assisted living, a 400 mile round trip, and we need this vehicle as long as she’s making that trip. For everything else, we drive the Chevy Bolt. We drive to Wilmington, to Greenville, to Jacksonville, to Beaufort, to Morehead, or just to Swansboro. Now that the weather has warmed, we’re getting 5 to 5.5 miles per kWh (up from 4ish mp/kWh in cold weather), for nearly a 300 mile range. Think about the percentage of your drives that fit a 125 to 150 mile circle. I’ll bet it’s pretty large. Need to go further? Keep a second car, or rent for trips. More EVs are coming to market with decent range and dropping prices. If you think about it, you could use an EV for most of your driving, too. Teslas are great if you can afford one, but if not, there are a growing number of options. Look at EVs. Ask your friends who have them. I’ll bet you can make it work, and it’s good for the planet…let’s make drilling for oil and gas a moot point, and keep our beaches clean…and that will keep that dog happy in the surf!

Chevy Bolt after one month

We bought our Bolt on December 12th, just over a moth ago, so I thought I’d take advantage of a lazy, cold Sunday to jot down a few thoughts.

First, overall, both Jan and I are quite pleased. We’ve put about 1400 miles on it. That’s more than we’ll usually drive in a month, which I’m guessing will be more like 1000 miles. It drives very well, and matches stated economy specs. We routinely get well over 4 miles per kWh on running around with trips that are for local (50-60 mile round trips) shopping or errands. We’ve driven from EI to the RTP area twice (175 miles each way), including freeway driving. Once, we overnighted, and then I drove it for a day trip to go fishing on January 13th. On these trips, we got 3.7 to 3.8 miles per kWh. However, it’s important to note that we tried not to exceed 65 mph, even in a 70 mph zone. Also, we ran the heat sparingly as this can reduce mileage by several percent. Instead, we used seat heaters and the heated steering wheel. The heater works very well, you just see the cost directly, since heat is a waste product in an internal combustion engine (ICE). By way of comparison, today we drove to Sam’s Club in Jacksonville, a 54.3 mile round trip, urban driving with about 20 miles at 55-60mph. Used 12 kWh for an average of 4.5 miles per kWh.

The Bolt is fun to drive on curvy back roads, since it has a very low center of gravity, great regenerative braking, and excellent acceleration. A key to good efficiency (higher miles per kWh) is to accelerate moderately from a stop and not use the 200hp engine to show off its capabilities.

A sidebar here on regenerative braking. While you have brake and accelerator pedals, there are two modes to drive an EV, traditional and “one-pedal.” In one pedal mode, it goes when you push down, and brakes (regenerating strongly) when you reduce pressure. This gives excellent control for sport driving and you almost never need to use the friction brake. For freeway driving, however, I shift to traditional mode, especially if I’m going to use cruise control.

The Bolt is roomy, though the seats are narrow. Frankly, if you have a big butt, you won’t like it. I’m 6’5″, 230 pounds, and I’m ok. But a stockier person might have issues. It’s roomy for 4 people, and can seat 5, and works fine for the granddaughter’s car seat. The hatchback-style trunk is good for groceries, and will even hold 2 Labrador retrievers for 3 hours, with the backseat folded down.

Our JuiceBox EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) works well. It’s a misnomer to call it a charger, technically, as the car contains the charger and the EVSE is a smart switch. One thing that was interesting is that in very cold weather low 20s and below, the car will consume power periodically to keep the battery pack warm. This is very evident in the charging logs from the JuiceBox. The opposite takes place in very warm weather, where it cools the battery. The heating process seems to be as much as 2 kWh every 4 to 6 hours. Obviously if you have the car in a garage this is mitigated. The JuiceBox provides the Bolt with its maximum of 7.6 kW input, for an effective rate of about 30 miles per hour. Remember this relates to your efficiency, so that at 3.7 miles per kWh it recharges 28 miles per hour, and at 4.5 miles per kWh, it charges 34 miles per hour.

I’ve just charged the car once at “station,” which in this case was a free charge at a library in Durham, with all other charges being at home at EI, or using the dryer plug in Chapel Hill (but that house is now sold, and we’ll be out in February) and Winterville. I have charging credentials with EVGo, ChargePoint, and Greenlots. I’ll use them at some point. Again the key is that charging an EV is not like going to a gas station and being back on the road in 10 minutes. You just have to think differently about refueling, with the ideal being an overnight stop with an EVSE.

However, again, the key is that an EV will do a heckuva lot of the things you do, and with an ICE 2nd vehicle or a rental as a backup, you can cover the other use cases.

Clearwater 2018

Sam and I met at Camp Clearwater for a day of trout fishing today. The local TU chapter puts 1,500 pounds of trout into the lake each year for a winter trout fishery (it’s too warm for them to reliably survive the summer). It was a cool, blustery day with temps dropping all day into the 40s on stiff northwest winds. However, that’s better than last weekend when the lake was frozen over!

We arrived at 9 (this is 9-5 fishing, with a TU lake warden in attendance) rigged up and started fishing. I tried a Chili Pepper, a copper colored wooly bugger. Sam used a black bugger. We went thru many flies and all around the lake with only one fish between us by lunch, a 10-inch largemouth I caught on a black bugger.

We ate lunch in the camp office, sitting by the heater. After lunch however, our luck changed. Sam and I each hooked several fish, all big fish, 16″ or better. I caught one that was easily 24″ long, and fat like a football. That one gave me quite a fight before Sam netted it.

We caught our fish on the Chili Pepper and small black buggers, exclusively.

Here’s a shot of Sam with a nice fish

It was a great day of fishing, catching and fellowship. Glad we have another day scheduled this season!

2017 EV sales continue to rise

Saw a good statistical summary of electric vehicle (EV) sales for 2017. Nearly 200,000 battery electric and plug in hybrid vehicles were sold in the US in 2017, up by 26% from 2016, and 1.6% of US sales in December. Estimates are that we’ll see sales of 300,000 in 2018, depending on the Tesla Model 3 rampup, and vehicles like the new Nissan Leaf, and the Chevy Bolt.

The EV is probably still not an “only car” for most folks, but as a second car, it will fill a lot of niches with current and emerging products.

EV chargers

Saw an interesting article on Level 2 and DC fast chargers, with a summary of chargers by state, here. I was interested to see both a good number of chargers in NC, as well as the ratio of DC chargers. The page says the total includes public and private chargers, as well as the Tesla network. What it doesn’t say and probably doesn’t include, are privately owned chargers but made available thru networks like PlugShare. We installed a JuiceBox Pro 40 (a Level 2 charger), which at 40 amps, is faster than many commercial Level 2 chargers. Like many other EV drivers, I’ve listed this on PlugShare in case anyone is in a bind and needs a charge. EV chargers are not as ubiquitous as gas stations, and are nowhere as quick, particularly the Level 2 chargers, but there are more out there than you might think.

Early reflections on the Bolt EV

We’ve had our Bolt 4 days now (we got Nightfall Gray, just as in this stock image) and so far, we are loving this car! Jan drove it home from Virginia Beach, where we brought it. That was a bit over 210 miles, and we were nervous about the range, so we stopped for a couple hours at a Chevy dealership along the way to load some more electrons. We realized, though, that we could have made it if we’d gone direct, the 238 mile advertised range seems to be realistic! We drove it around town some, maybe 25 miles, and then a round trip of about 160 miles to visit my dad for his birthday. Jan let me drive it on the return trip 😎 so I have some good behind -the-wheel time, too. I’ve put together some thoughts on our experiences so far below.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ON THE BOLT

The Bolt is a pleasure to drive. It’s quiet, solid and handles well. With the low center of gravity, coming from 1,000 pounds of battery in a nearly 4,000 pound car, it sticks to the road in curves. The biggest knocks are that GM skimped on what we often expect in the interior of a car, finishing the car with plastic rather than wood, basic carpet instead of plush, manual rather than electric seat adjustments, and so forth. Well, yeah, it doesn’t compare to the interior of my spiffy LTZ Silverado. But it’s comfortable, functional, and they put the money in the EV parts. I’ve read that GM pays LG $8,000 for the battery in each car. The infotainment center is great, with a big 10+ inch screen with CarPlay or Android Play. This works well. We have the basic audio system in our Bolt LT, rather than the Bose in the Premier edition, but it sounds fine. There is a plethora of information about the car’s operation, personalization, and configuration. Bluetooth calling works well, with good audio. It’s not luxury, but it’s functional, comfortable (I’m 6’5″ and can easily drive, and can sit in the back seat as long as the driver seat is not all the way back) and roomy. It’s a hatchback with 60/40 split back seats, and feels spacious on the inside, a good job with design.

RANGE

There a few caveats about range. Your driving and use of the car’s other systems all tap the same 60Kw battery pack. If you have a heavy foot, the Bolt will respond. It is rated at 200HP with 0-60 of 6.5 seconds. It will go if you need to pass or merge into traffic. It will also tell you, on a big display, how much energy your decisions cost you from your “tank” of latent power. EV’s (and hybrids) go further on the same power in stop and go driving than on the open road. The Bolt’s EPA rating of equivalent “MPG” is 128 city and 110 highway. We saw this effect. Also, something you might not think of, though, is that the heat (and A/C) will trim the range, by 5-10% depending on how you use it (observation and reading the documentation). The seat heaters and heated steering wheel don’t seem to have much impact. The infotainment center also draws some power, but that’s minimal. It’s the climate system that strongly impacts range. Clearly, this is only an issue if you were trying to maximize range. Range is directly proportional to the size of the battery pack.

CHARGING, STANDARDS, AND CONNECTORS

How, when and where to charge are tied closely to range. To understand this takes some background, which I will attempt to give. This is based off casual research before purchasing, and intensive, highly motivated research in the 4 days after signing the papers 😉. There are three levels of charging, called (so originally!) Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. Level 1 is with 120V standard outlets, and cars usually have built in charge control circuitry for this. The Bolt can charge at 8 or 12 amps on such outlets, using the included charging cable. This charges at about 3 miles per hour for 8 amps, and 4+ for 12 amps. This means 48-72 hours to fully charge the Bolt’s 60Kw battery. The amperage draw is managed through the UI of the infotainment system. Level 2 is with 240V circuits, at 16-40 amps. This can charge at 12-30 miles per hour, depending on current. I’m planning to install one of these Level 2 chargers at the house. It requires a dedicated 40-50 amp circuit and the charger unit itself. Level 3 is 480V, and can charge a battery the size of the bolt’s in about 2 hours. However, it’s not quite so simple in all cases. There are multiple standards and connectors. The J1772 connector is widely used for Level 2 chargers from many manufacturers, except Tesla. Level 2 connectors are what you find on many public, free chargers. These are typically 16 amp chargers, which would charge a small capacity EV quickly, but an extended range EV like the Bolt takes 18-20 hours on one of these to fully charge. Level 3 chargers are also different, with different plugs and no clear standard. Tesla, of course, has its own. Our Bolt has the DC fast charging option, which is a $750 add-on from the base vehicle. These chargers are not free, and typically require membership in a charger network.

CHARGER NETWORKS AND LOCATIONS

These networks provide access to and billing for chargers that are not free, including Level 3 and some Level 2. I’ve joined ChargePoint and EVgo with pay as you go plans. Their apps show charger locations and even availability of chargers. I’ll explore this more as we try some. There are a lot of chargers in parking decks, municipal parking lots, commercial parking lots, like malls, and so forth. Most Level 2 and most free. Also, car dealers selling EV’s often have a public freely available charger. Most Chevy dealers have them now, it seems. But remember that at Level 2 the J1772 standard rules, and you can charge a Chevy at a Nissan dealership and vice versa, for example. Tesla has a deal with Sheetz gas stations and is putting chargers at some of them, including their Level 3 supercharger. At Level 2, there is now a 3rd party adapter to let a J1772 vehicle use a Tesla charger, and Tesla has an adapter to go to J1772.

DRIVING PATTERNS

A lot of this comes down to the way you use the car. Where are going? How far? Are there chargers at your destination? Even if you don’t have a fast charger where you are going, you can plug into 120V if an outlet is available and get some miles, as the Level 1 charger is portable and rides with your car. If your car is at your house for 12 hours, even a Level 1 charger will put 50 miles on it. Traveling long distances is the bugaboo. You can’t do a 500 mile day with a Bolt unless you find a Level 3 charger for a quick charge. But lots of folks have cars that are not practical trip vehicles, and have another (my Silverado for example) or rent for a trip.

BOTTOM LINE

The Bolt is a practical EV. The price is right. Performance is great. It’s roomy enough for a big driver, and is a flexible hatchback design. Range is sufficient to drive 100 miles to a destination and come back on one charge. Don’t forget that scheduled maintenance on an EV is much lower, no oil changes, and very little periodic maintenance. There are a lot of driving use cases covered here. It won’t work for everyone, but it works for us. At $0.10 per Kw/hour for electricity, it takes $6 for a full charge to go 238 miles. And when we put solar on the house, as we plan to do in 2018, then driving at no fuel cost and no indirect emissions, either.

ChromeOS is still going strong

I’ve not written anything about ChromeOS since I retired. I was talking with my wife about Chromebooks recently, and that got me thinking about the state of ChromeOS. I did a quick bit of Googling and tried to brush off a few years of Chrome cobwebs. Interesting that Chromebook sales were well over 2 million in 2016 (more than Macs), and have taken a big chunk of the education marketplace, tho that’s unsurprising given the price, managability, longevity, and robustness.

Honestly, even though I’m still working part time in technology management, I’ve found I play with tech less and less in my spare time. I try to play more, fish more, travel more…but I think that fishing is still getting too small a slice of time 😉 . I’ve still got the same two Chromebooks, the Samsung and Acer mentioned here in this blog. We’ve used them on and off, but I’m amazed in some respects that these devices, from 2012 and 2013 respectively are still very viable and useable, and that the Chromebook specs (other than CPU speed) have not increased. The things that make a Chromebook useful (full browser, quick boot, malware resistance, etc.) are still viable in 2017. If someone just needs to browse and do email, it’s hard to beat a Chromebook and a basic internet connection.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Android apps on ChromeOS, but for that I will need to buy a new Chromebook 🙂