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We all like to complain about how Rogers (the local cable TV incumbant) likes to gouge their customers and tends to raise their rates at least once a year while tending to also lower the picture quality.  We also like to just sit on our couches and watch TV while doing so and that is about what our complaining amounts to.  My brother decided that with the switch from analog to digital over the air (OTA) TV broadcasts it was finally time to do something about this.  There is now an entire generation that doesn't really seem to know that there was a time when TV was received over the air using an antenna for FREE by most people.  Yes said picture tended to be a bit grainy and suffer from some ghosting but it didn't cost an arm and a leg.  Now with the switch to digital broadcasts the grainy and ghosting issues go away.  It either works or it doesn't.  As an added bonus what you actually get if it does work is actually higher quality than what you get over cable or satellite since they need to compress stuff in order to cram in as many channels as they can.  So back to my brother.  Being a geek he decided that he would analyze the local channels and use some free antenna modeling software to modify a popular design to improve reception of the channels we get around here.  After coming up with a design and doing some research on what materials might work to construct it he came to me for help actually turning the plan into reality.  Together we visited the local metal supermarket and Home Depot to pick up the required supplies and started work on two antennas (one for each of us).  We used 1/4" solid copper for the main elements and PVC pipe and fittings to build a frame to support the elements.  We built a jig to bend the copper and carefully measured out everything as per the design.  There was a lot of hmming and hawing over exactly how to mount things and what materials to use.  We ended up with aluminum mast posts since they won't rust and leave ugly stains on things.  We purchased commercial mounts (channel master) to attach the masts to our houses.  We also used channel master pre-amps in order to minimize signal loss from the long lengths of cable running down our tall houses.  In the end we managed to pull in all of the local channels with good solid signal strength.  While the total parts cost a few hundred dollars this is a one time fixed cost and will be paid for easily after a few months (cable was running around $70/month).  We manage to get most of the shows we used to watch but now in high def (HD) and we don't pay anything on a monthly basis anymore.  Not bad, not bad at all.


Finally after many years of saying we should get eavestroughing we bit the bullet and called "the man" to come and get us all outfitted.  In our many years of procrastinating it had become clear to us that when we did finally get our act together we would want to have rain barrels to help buffer the flow of water coming out of the system.  The theory with rain barrels is that by storing some of the water that would otherwise be trying to get into your nice dry basement and releasing it later you can both save money on water to water your plants and help keep your basement dry.  Win, win all around.  Right only problem is that for $100 to $200 per barrel (and we wanted four) it adds quite the cost to the project.  Also most of the barrels out there are ugly or flimsy or both.  So when we found out recently that you could get used barrels that look just like some of the better rain barrels they sell for dirt cheap we immediately jumped at the idea.  Apparently they transport olives in 55 gallon (~210 liter) food grade barrels with nice screw on lids.  Aside from a few stray olives and a bit of brine in the bottom they were quite clean and seem to be quite strong.


We came up with a basic design and parts list based on observations of other barrels.  The design involves a hole in the top for the water to enter the barrel with a two layer screen to keep debris, mosquitos, animals, kids, etc... out.  The fine mesh keeps the mosquitos and small debris out while the heavy screen underneath ensures that a squirrel / kid doesn't go right through the fine screen.  Add a spigot 6" or so from the bottom and an overflow hose near the top and that's it.


Parts list:

Used olive barrel $15.00

Solid brass spigot $20.00 (this is a big of splurge but won't ever break like the cheap plastic ones)

Sump pump hose kit $8.00

ABS fitting to attach sump pump hose with $3

Fine fiberglass mesh window screen $10 (enough for 4 barrels)

Heavy galvanized 1/2" mesh garden screen $10 (enough for 4 barrels)


Other items we used:

6 Nuts and bolts

6 Washers

Heavy duty metal snips



1/8" twist drill bit

1" spade drill bit

1 3/4" hole saw


The assembly process was pretty straight forward.  We started by giving the barrels a quick rinse.  While they dried out we brought the lids inside and drilled holes about 3/4" in from the inside edge evenly spaced around the lid.  (Note that the barrels seemed to come in two varieties: one with a one piece lid and the other with a two piece lid.  The two piece design is much simpler in that you don't need to cut a hole in the lid.)  We then cut out the heavy and fine screens to match the size of the lid.  The mesh is attached by holding in place (fine mesh on top, heavy on the bottom) and pushing the screws through the hole, and popping a washer and a nut on and tightening them up until snug.


We then drilled a 1" hole for the spigot 6" up from the bottom and a 1 3/4" hole about 6" down from the top for the overflow hose.  The spigot just screws in and has a washer and nut that secure it from the inside.  Having really long arms helps for this.  Otherwise you might have to lay the barrel on its side and crawl in.  The overflow assembly just screws on the same way but thankfully right near the top.  We've seen designs that have the overflow at the bottom and use a tube inside the barrel to prevent the water from draining until it reaches the desired level.  This sounded more leak prone and wouldn't work as easily to link multiple barrels for additional capacity.  The sump hose then just attaches to the overflow assembly and lets you direct the water far away from your foundation when (not if) the barrel gets full.  We ran a quick test (as it was already freezing at night) and found that a single barrel filled overnight with moderately heavy rainfall.



One of the big drawbacks to a lot of technology is that it requires batteries.  I think that there is a certain rule about batteries which states that they are always full when you check them but always empty when you go to actually use them.


One of the more often used battery powered devices in our home is the Gyration mouse in the kitchen.  It is on and off of its charging base dozens of times every day.  Over the course of a couple of years the batteries cease to function and we are left trying to remember all of the keyboard shortcuts to open and close windows and navigate around the screen (is it enter or space to click a link in a web browser?).


Last time this happened we were fortunate to have a spare handy since a family member had already been down the road of having their mouse die and needing to get a replacement.  After swapping out the old one I noticed that the battery pack said it was an NiMH battery.  This piqued my interest and I decided to take it apart to see what was inside.  As it turns out the battery pack is a multi-purpose plastic case with ordinary rechargeable AAA cells inside soldered together.  Lifting the cells out you could see the markings telling you how to install your own AAA cells in the case.  There were even plastic clips and such to hold springs in place so that they could use the same casing for non-rechargeable battery packs as well.  After seeing all of this I decided that next time the battery pack needed replacing instead of trying to track down a new one I would try my hand at building one from the old pack.


Well after a couple of years here we are with a dead battery pack.  Mary fluttered her eyelashes at me and off I went to the store to pickup some AAA NiMH rechargeable batteries.  I had originally intended to just solder the new batteries together and call it a day but upon seeing the little slots for springs again I decided that if I spent a little longer I could probably add the spring in and have a user-serviceable version which wouldn't require soldering next time it needed new batteries.  I proceeded to dig through the endless drawers of random small parts that I have in the basement and found some small springs and flat metal plates which I had carefully removed from some previously defunct battery powered device.  I soldered them together and slid them into the battery pack (noticed that I had done it all backward since the markings on the case don't match the polarity of the cells which had been in the case before - and redid it all).  I then popped the new cells in, installed the new battery pack in the mouse and slid it onto its charging base.  It worked!


Now next time the batteries need replacing it will be a simple matter of popping out the old ones and popping in some new ones.  In principle the same sort of thing ought to work for lots of "custom" battery packs.


Having a new baby in the house does all sorts of interesting things to you.  Of course there is the massive change in routine and general lack of sleep, but there is also a desire to know how your baby is at all times.  Having seen the fancy baby video monitor devices at the stores we had thought to ourselves "Hey that's cool I could see what's up without having to move".  The problem is that after reading some online reviews it was clear that not only do those things cost an arm and a leg and have somewhere around negative 10 minutes of battery life, but they broadcast your baby over the airwaves for anyone with a similar model device to see.


Oh well it was a nice thought...  But wait.  Why not try and build our own?


Supplies we would need:

  • Camera - A webcam should do the trick
  • Microphone (optional) - Since new computers seem to come with these we had a bunch lying around.
  • Means of broadcasting the signal - we used a laptop in this case since it is small and quiet (we don't want the noise of the computer to wake the baby)
  • Means of receiving the signal - Another computer somewhere else will do for this.
  • Some kind of software to act as a capture / broadcast server, as well as a client to view the video stream.  We started with VLC, the universal video program but due to issues with VLC not liking some of the webcam drivers we ended up switching to Windows Media Encoder.

VLC Setup

After lots of painful searching I found some settings which more or less worked for VLC.  Here are the basic steps if you want to give this a try:


So first things first download and install VLC on all of your computers (if it is not already on them).
On the system with the webcam run VLC.
Media => Open Capture Device
Select your webcam and microphone from the video and audio lists
Down at the bottom beside the Play button click on the little arrow and select Stream from the list which appears.
Check off HTTP and type your IP address.
In the Profile section:
Encapsulation: ASF/WMV
Video codec: Check the Video checkbox and set Codec to WMV2
Audio codec: Check the Audio checkbox and set Codec to MP3
Click the stream button

Client (the system(s) you want to view the stream from)

Run VLC.
Media => Open Network
Change the dropdown to HTTP
Type your IP address followed by colon 8080 and click play.

Windows Media Encoder

WME is a free addon to windows which allows you to capture and stream audio and video from your PC over the network.  While not as flexible as VLC is seems to be a little more polished (at least for streaming webcam video from a Windows based system).  Using WME is basically a point and click job.  To view the stream we found that we had to use Windows Media Player on the other end (figures).

The really neat thing here is that with this setup you can tweak settings to your heart's content and can view the stream from almost anywhere with almost any device that has network access. Grab your laptop / portable media device with WiFi and sit out on the deck enjoying the sun while having a clear view of what's going on in the baby's room.

Of course like any baby monitoring device, this is no substitute for proper parenting...


For those who think that their hamster should be put to work instead of just playing around all the time iRobot is apparently working on a version of the Roomba which can be driven by your skilled rodent. I think we'll stick to the computer based cleaning algorithm for the moment although I can see the leap to toddler driven devices to harness some of that endless energy.


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