Peak Oil and Why Growth is Evil

Oil has no future. Really. Just look at this graph of oil discovery (borrowed from this excellent Peak Oil Overview). The graph shows oil discovery (in billions of barrels) per decade.

Now oil discoveries peaked at about 500 billion in the 1960’s, about the time I was born and started crawling towards anything electrical and driving my Mum crazy. World wide we use around 85 million barrels/day, or 30 billion a year. So when you read the next mainstream media article about a “billion barrel oil discovery” remember that 1 billion barrels is just 12 days world oil consumption.

So 30 billion barrels a year is 300 billion a decade. Now look at the graph above. In how many decades did we discover more than 300 billion barrels?

And what is this fixation with economic growth? Politicians seem to be telling us we are all doomed unless we constantly grow the economy. The worst thing about the financial crisis is that we might now get “growth”. growth Growth GROWTH!

The problem with x% growth is that it is exponential. That means we consume more and more every year. It goes to infinity real fast. More oil, more water, more people, more money, more debt. Just 5% growth means doubling every 14 years. One small oversight guys: nature is finite. A good example is yeast growing in a Petri dish. Nature always shuts down exponential growth. Always. Usually by killing everything in the Petri dish.

Economics is busted as it depends on the ultimate unsustainable practice – exponential growth.

Links

An earlier post on Peak Oil.

Open Hardware 3 Years On

In 2005 I started working with Asterisk on the Blackfin. This led to the Free Telephony Project, and the idea of using open hardware techniques for telephony. The idea of open hardware (people collaborating to build free hardware designs just like open software) was a big experiment, especially when it came to commercial products.

Back in 2006 I posted my initial ideas on Open Hardware. Much has happened since then. Many people and companies are now working on Blackfin Asterisk projects. New projects, and even businesses have spun out of the project. Coolest of all – open hardware products are now in volume production, as real world, commercial products like the IP04. People are buying and using these products – often in preference to products developed using traditional closed development models. Open hardware works!

Open Hardware in Business

As the idea of Open Hardware matures a few patterns seem to be shaking out. The form of open hardware distributions seems to be the schematic. Companies are largely keeping the PCB designs and other tooling information closed. This gives them some sort of protection against direct copies hurting their business. At least that is the perception – I actually think the PCB is a small part of the total business picture.

Directly cloning open hardware designs doesn’t seem to work as a business model. The prototype IP04 design (schematic and PCB) is entirely open – all the CAD files are free for anyone to use. In theory this means you can give these files to your local surface mount assembly line, ask them to build 100 IP04s for you, and be in the IP04 business. I get 1-2 emails/month from companies intending to do this.

However in practice you need the skills to find small hardware faults, an understanding of the design, experience in building and flashing the firmware, testing, QA, support. Like many valuable things in life, these skills must be acquired, and can’t be copied. You need that hacker mindset to understand how the beast works. The IP04 hardware and software is rather complicated so you really need the support of the community. This requires a community outlook. Those interested only in $ don’t share these values, lose patience and move on.

The real power of open hardware seems to be providing a baseline for your product development. Take the hardware and tweak it. Add a different line interface, more ports, less ports, hardware rather than software echo. Add your software application to the baseline build system. Code up your own build system.

Open Hardware, Closed Tools

Most people are developing their open hardware with closed source schematic/PCB CAD tools. Bit of a pity, but ultimately hackers will use the best tools for the job, open or closed. That is why many hackers use open source software – it’s just better. Hopefully this gap in CAD tool performance will be filled soon.

Open Hardware is Software

Curiously, the “open hardware” projects are dominated by software complexity. The effort involved in the fun stuff (soldering, schematic and PCB design) is dwarfed by the effort involved in the software, e.g. maintaining build systems, porting applications, testing. The majority of my time on this project has been spent on build system work, then software, then the actual hardware. This is part of the general trend of hardware functionality shifting to software. The vast complexity of the software means a lot of time needs to be spent managing it with configuration control and build systems.

Open Hardware is Hard to Grok

Just like Open Software in 1992, the concept of Open Hardware is hard to understand. The ground rules are still being worked out. Full points to companies like Atcom for overcoming these concerns and embracing open hardware.

Some memes that are particularly tough:

  1. If it’s open won’t people just copy my product? Well, this doesn’t seem to be a big problem in practice. Many other factors are required for a successful business, as discussed throughout this post. Value tends to shift to other parts of the business, and the advantages of sharing and community outweigh closed development and secret sauce.
  2. For the open source community, re-flashing commodity hardware (e.g. OpenWRT on a WRT54) is now common practice. However moving from this to open hardware takes a big shift in mindset. Here is the dirty little secret of the hardware game: hardware products are 95% software. The man hours invested something like OpenWRT or Asterisk are orders of magnitude greater than those put into developing the WRT54 hardware or a PCI telephony card. And yet open software communities wait nervously for the next commodity hardware box, only to find it doesn’t have the feature they require, or goes out of production, or the manufacturer won’t release the internal data, or it doesn’t have enough flash etc. In the mean time the manufacturers and chip set vendors are having a great time making money from using your open software in their products.
  3. Open hardware is not that hard. The truth is that a modest community effort can develop and bring into production a full custom open hardware device (designed exactly to your specification), and arrange to have it volume manufactured at a reasonable price. We have done exactly this with the IP04.

Extreme Open Hardware

Some of the radical uses of Open Hardware I had hoped for haven’t happened yet. I am particularly interested in seeing Open Hardware being used to help people in developing countries. For example new business models like IP04 assembly in Africa for local markets, or volume manufacture at cost price (give 20,000 people telephones for $500,000). The Mesh Potato is part of a fresh new project where we are using open hardware and software to help bring telephony the developing world.

IPO Opportunity

I do this work largely as a volunteer (although I derive a modest income from IP04 sales and contract work), so like many hackers I choose to work in areas that interest me. This year I have been shifting my focus to telephony for the developing world. I am not personally motivated by the business side. So the IP04, while very usable, still requires an understanding of the Linux command line and Asterisk conf file skills (although the GUIs are steadily improving).

There are several companies working with open hardware Blackfin Asterisk technology. So far I see companies that are good at manufacturing, some that are good at build systems, and fewer still that are good at software optimisation, hardware and DSP. A big opportunity exists for a company that can combine strong technical skills with solid marketing and business skills to produce a bug free, feature complete turn-key appliance product. This has proven surprisingly difficult to do – even with all of the hardware and software available in open form. To me this drives the lesson home that a business is much more than just the technology.

You know as a community we bring all of the above technical and business skills together. So the project as a whole is thriving, just no one person or company has a monopoly on the intellectual property and profits. And that, I put to you, is a good thing.

Open Hardware for Hackers

Call me a geek, but the greatest reward for me is a bunch of people soldering tigether their own uClinux Blackfin Asterisk boards at home, and bringing up their very own uClinux IP-PBX. There is nothing quite like seeing the root prompt come up on a Linux board you soldered together yourself, or hearing that phone handset ring for the first time. Open hardware gives the hacker the remarkable power to build IP-PBX products that took large teams to develop just a few years ago.

Links

  1. An introduction to Open Hardware, written as the Free Telephony Project was just starting.
  2. See the amazing range of hardware and software in the Free Telephony Family Tree.
  3. Steve Song’s thoughts on Open Hardware for the Developing world.

The Mesh Potato Part 1

In June 2008 I attended the Village Telco workshop in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town in June was rainy and cold, however the South African people were really friendly. While in South Africa I also attended the Wireless Africa workshop, however that’s another story for another post!

The Village Telco (and I quote) is an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit. We were in Cape Town to work out how to build this puppy.

Steve Song of the Shuttleworth Foundation pulled together a fascinating team of people from the development, VOIP, mesh networking, and business communities. The team was small (about 10 people) and very “hands on” in their outlook and skill sets. The breakfast and dinner conversations were fascinating, for example funny stories about broken down hotels in some developing countries, and sad stories about the poverty of others.

You can click here to put a face to all the names (thanks Steve).

I had never experienced a workshop quite like this before. Not sure if it was the team of people, the small size, or Steve’s leadership, but we really “fired”. I am generally allergic to meetings – in my previous day job I was infamous for avoiding, hating, and general bad behavior where meetings are concerned. However I managed to stay awake and even attentive through most of the 5 days the Village Telco workshop.

One of the outcomes was the decision to build a little box called the Mesh Potato.

The Mesh Potato in a nutshell

The Mesh Potato is a 802.11bg mesh router with a single FXS port. It is designed to provide telephony via VOIP while simultaneously facilitating a mesh cloud. It is an open hardware and open software design. It will run off a nominal 12VDC, from either a mains supply or solar PV system, and be priced in the range of currently available Wifi routers (sub US$100).

Key features:

  1. Runs B.A.T.M.A.N. mesh routing software, Asterisk, the Speex voice codec, and Oslec echo cancellation.
  2. The target application is mesh routed VOIP networks, in particular (but not limited to) developing communities. An analog phone connects to the potato via the FXS port. When you make a call you potato talks to the potato down the street which talks to the next potato, and eventually to the destination. The mesh network can be augmented via backbone links and connected to the rest of the world via VOIP gateways.
  3. No cell phone towers, no land lines, no big Telcos required. A local entrepreneur can roll out his own Village Telco system using a modest server and a bunch of Mesh Potatoes. Community owned telephony.
  4. The mesh network is self organising and healing, if a node goes down B.A.T.M.A.N automatically re-routes the calls.
  5. We are building custom hardware specifically for developing communities using open hardware and software principles. I would like to push the meme that we can develop custom open hardware devices – no need to accept whatever is available off the shelf. You see most of the work in any appliance is software, so the idea of relying on closed, proprietary, not quite right hardware is obsolete.
  6. The Mesh Potato is open. Really Open. Key goals are to minimise binary blobs, proprietary software and make the hardware open. This means the potato will probably be Atheros based, as we can use the madwifi open source WLAN driver. It also means Speex instead of g.729, and Oslec instead of a proprietary echo canceller. The hardware schematics (at least) will be available. The potato will be a mass produced in very high numbers, therefore the open community now has a chance to set standards, rather than have to play along with “standards” based on closed hardware and software.

For the curious, Steve describes the origins of the Mesh Potato name in this post.

The Shuttleworth Foundation has generously decided to fund the initial phases of the Mesh Potato Development. The Shuttleworth Foundation is involved in many worthwhile projects, such as the Freedom Toaster and kicking off Ubuntu. Potato development will be my main activity for the rest of 2008!

Project Plan

We have divided the project into 5 milestones, M0-M4. We start at 0 because we are geeks, just be thankful we didn’t used binary. We have largely completed the planning stage and have kicked off development. We hope to have prototype potato hardware in early 2009.

Currently, we are working on M1 – Proof of Concept. The idea is to use Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) hardware like a Ubiquity Nanostation 2 to develop a prototype that demonstrates all of the software components working together. We will develop many of the custom software components early in the project, using a mature hardware platform. Major software components will therefore be relatively mature when integrated into the prototype hardware, saving time and lowering overall risk.

Over the past few weeks I have been experimenting with OpenWRT on the Nanostation 2 – running test programs for Speex and Oslec and characterising the CPU load.

Atcom are very keen to work on the prototype hardware, and be the volume manufacturer for the Mesh Potato. Atcom have been pioneers in supporting Open Hardware products such as the IP04.

Hardware Architecture

Here is a mud-map of the hardware design:

One challenge is how to connect the FXS chipset to the Atheros SoC (glue logic in the figure above). The FXS chipsets require a TDM serial plus SPI bus. The TDM bus is typically a 2.048MHz serial bus that supplies one 8-bit speech sample every 125us (8kHz). The SPI bus is used for control and configuration of the FXS chip set (for example sensing off hook, switching the ringer on).

This glue logic was straight forward for the IP04 as the Blackfin CPU has a rich set of interfaces with good DMA support. The Atheros SoC is not quite as feature rich. It does have a SPI bus for talking to the SPI flash. This only has one chip select line however I figure some of the GPIOs could be used to gate access to other SPI devices.

So we need to build a TDM interface somehow. To reduce interrupt overhead and I-cache thrashing it would be nice if we can buffer 1-20ms of samples (8 to 160 8-bit samples) before we interrupt the Atheros SoC. This interface could be some logic or perhaps even a small micro-controller like a PIC. One other possibility is interfacing the TDM bus to the RS232 UART. The Atheros SoC does have a 16550 compatible UART with some sort of hardware FIFO, however we would need some tests to determine if the CPU overhead of using the UART is acceptable.

Join In

The Mesh Potato promises to be something very special – an open hardware/software, community designed WiFi mesh router with Asterisk and a FXS port. Boy, I’m out of breath after saying that. No wonder we just call it the Mesh Potato. The Village Telco concept that it supports could bring telephony to millions. Please feel free to join our community – by subscribing to the Village Telco Google Group.

WiSPCaR – Wifi Station Power Controller And Reporter

It’s amazing what you can do with a 70 cent computer. Actually it’s amazing that there are 70 cent computers! The PIC12F510 is a complete computer – flash program memory, RAM, GPIO pins, internal clock and two A/D converter inputs in a tiny 8 pin chip. All for just 70 cents (Qty 100) from Digikey!

I am using a PIC microcontroller to help Yahel from AirJaldi monitor remote Wifi stations. You see AirJaldi runs a network of Wifi stations (access points and backbone links) in Northern India. Some of these are rather remote, like sitting on top of a temple half way up a mountain.

They have several problems:

  1. Electricity may not be available, so they use solar panels with back up batteries. Even when mains is available, it is of varying quality (brown-outs, surges, and blackouts).
  2. If the router hangs, it may take days for some one to get out there and reset it.
  3. If a battery is dying, or a solar panel stops working, it would be nice to know before the system fails entirely.

So Yahel and I have have designed a small micro controller based device called WiSPCaR – Wifi Station Power Controller And Reporter.

Here is what is does:

  1. Measures voltage (5-60V) and current (0-5A) of the wifi station power supply.
  2. A Watchdog Timer resets the Wifi station if Wispcar does not receive a certain code every 3 minutes. To reset the Wifi station Wispcar shuts off the power for 5 seconds.
  3. Sleep function – a command line “sleepXXXX” sent to Wispcar will put the power supply to sleep for XXXX seconds. This can dramatically reduce the cost of the power supply (e.g. solar panel and battery) by cutting off power when not needed at night. Yahel suggested we could wake up the Wifi Station every 15 minutes, look around for any traffic, then put it back to sleep again if it’s quiet. This way emergency late-night traffic could still get through.
  4. Current consumption (estimated) will be around 10mA, so Wispcar will not affect battery life or dimensioning of the power system. Most of this (8mA) is in the 5V regulator needed for Wispcar, the actual PIC draws only 0.25mA!
  5. We would like to run Wispcar from 8-60VDC, to cater for power supply systems like Power Over Ethernet (PoE) which are nominally 48V, down to solar power systems with nearly flat batteries.

In practice the Wifi station consists a router (like a WRT54G or Mikrotik board). They generally have some sort of RS232 (console) port available, although you may need to solder a few wires to the motherboard to get to it. Another alternative is Ethernet, however this requires a fancier micro controller, pushing the Bill of Materials (BOM) cost up significantly.

So Wispcar connects to the RS232 port of the router. Every 1 second Wispcar send lines like this:
040 029 032 004 000 0 000 w
040 029 032 003 000 0 000 w
040 029 032 002 000 0 000 w

Which means:
Vsense
| Isense
| | Last char received (ASCII)
| | | Last char received (decimal)
| | | | Watchdog timeout counter
| | | | | Watchdog fire counter
| | | | | | Sleep state machine state
| | | | | | | Sleep timeout counter
| | | | | | | |
040 031 032 012 000 0 000 w---reason for last restart
b - Wispcar (re)booted
w - watchdog timer fired
s - we went to sleep

This information can be parsed by the router, logged, emailed off the the Network Operations Centre (NOC) etc. After a few seconds we get something like:
040 029 032 004 000 0 000 w
040 029 032 003 000 0 000 w
040 029 032 002 000 0 000 w
040 029 032 001 000 0 000 w
040 008 032 000 005 0 000 w
040 008 032 000 004 0 000 w
040 008 032 000 003 0 000 w

You can see the watchdog count down to zero, and cut off the power (dropping the current to near zero). The voltage and current readings are 8 bit numbers from the PIC A/D converter. You need to scale them to get the actual Volts and Amps. Here is a plot of the A/D converter output code against actual measured current:

Status

The breadboarded prototype has been running for several days without incident, controlling power to a dummy load (20 ohm, 5W resistors).

Next, I will build a soldered version and set it up with a solar powered Wifi station in my back yard. The software is largely complete with all 4 functions working.

We have set up a Wispcar SVN repository containing the software, schematic, and some documentation.

The Wispcar source code is all in assembler. This wasn’t too hard until I started writing string handling functions (to make the PIC parse the sleepXXX command)! Any PIC gurus out there – pls feel free to suggest improvements!

Lots more to do – for example we need to test Wispcar with “dirty power”, make sure it keeps working with voltage spikes, lightning etc.

Neat features

  1. Yahel suggested we don’t use line drivers for RS232 between the router and the PIC, just 3V3 levels.
  2. Software UART implemented in PIC assembler.
  3. 31 cent high-side current sensor based on this design.
  4. The power switch is designed to be “normally closed”, so that if the PIC hangs power will continue to be supplied to the Wifi station.
  5. Very Cheap – parts cost of around $2 (Qty 100 from Digikey) – ideal for the developing world.
  6. Wispcar can be built using through-hole parts, and for a circuit so simple even a PCB is optional. It could be locally assembled by anyone with a soldering iron, maybe even creating a micro-business in developing world communities who need community Wifi.

Thanks

Thanks to Tim Ansell (aka Mithro) for supplying me with his PIC collection and programmer.

Solar Electricity

In early February, my long awaited grid connect PV solar panels were installed by the Solar Shop. Installation took only about half a day. The frames were cut on site, and an electrician wired up the inverter and by 2pm I was getting free electricity from the sun!

Here are the guys at work:

Here is a picture of the installed PV system. In the foreground is my ancient (but now effective) evaporative air conditioner. In the middle left you can see two paler panels – they are the solar hot water system, which is also working great. Free hot water, and my gas bill has been decimated.

In South Australia we have a big rebate for Solar PV installation (about $8k), so the system cost me $20k – $8k = $12k installed. The $8k rebate holds for smaller systems, for example a 1kW system is $13k – $8k = around $5k installed. However I have recently heard of some damn good deals – like 1kW systems for $2-3k (after the rebate) when people get together and group buy.

Our PV system has now been running for 3 months. My wife and I love it. Our state (South Australia) is about to introduce a new feed in tariff, where they pay us twice the going rate for energy we feed into the grid. With this new tarrif I estimate our Electricity bills will soon be about $0. They were approximately $2,000/year 12 months ago, as explained in my post on halving my electricity and gas bills.

However it’s not just an issue of economics. It’s just plain smarter to be using renewable technology rather than relying on dirty, non renewable fossil fuels. Feels great too, making my own electricity. I mean, when you think about it, non-renewable means it won’t last. It will stop one day. Maybe soon in some parts of the world. Gas, oil, uranium, coal – all transient technology that will be history in my children’s life time.

Grid Connect Solar – How does it Work?

For a while I got to see my old school electricity meter spin backwards.

Then they replaced it with a new electronic export/import meter. During summer I was actually using about the same as I was making over the course of a day, as the we are now drifting towards winter we are generating about half of our daily power.

The system is rated at 2kW but the peak I see on the inverter panel is 1700W. Not sure why. The Solar Shop guys estimated about 9kWh/day average over the year, which seems about right. It was peaking at 13 kWh/day in February and is now down to about 8-9 on a sunny day, maybe 5kWh if it’s cloudy or raining.

The blue box is the inverter. It converts the roughly 300V DC from the PV panels to 240VAC that is synced up to the grid current. Now here is the clever bit. So clever that no one can tell me how it’s done. First it supplies power to our house. Any excess is exported to the grid. If the PV system is not making enough electricity, it imports the balance from the grid. So the grid is like a big battery.

The bit I don’t understand is how it actually makes this export/import happen. Let me explain with a simple electrical model. Imagine the grid as a big battery with a voltage Vg, and an impedance Zg. My PV system has a voltage Vs and impedance Zs. My house is the load impedance Zl, which is time varying.

Assume its a bright sunny day and my wife and kids aren’t home. The PV system is generating more electricity than the house is using. Lets say we are generating 1500W and the house is using 500W. Some how the PV system is supplying exactly 500W to the house and the balance (1000W) to the grid. Somehow the inverter must fiddle it’s voltage and impedance dynamically such that this happens. Thats the bit I don’t understand. For example if Vs and Vg are fixed at 240V, and Zs=Zg then the current supplied to the load will be shared by the solar system and the grid. But somehow the system fiddles it so that the house first uses 500W of the solar (zero W from the grid), then exports the balance back to the grid.

For current to flow back into the grid I guess Vs must be slightly greater than Vg. The inverter must fix it’s output phase to exactly match the grid. Perhaps it makes it’s output voltage a little higher than the grid to facilitate flow of current back into the grid. I dunno – can some one explain this to me please? I have asked all the solar and electricity company people but they can’t explain it to me.
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Air-Stream Kilkenny

For the past week I have been sitting on my roof with a towel over my head:

Well actually I have been setting up an Air-Stream Access Point (AP) at my house. The towel blocks out enough sunlight so I can see my laptop screen.

Air-stream is a community wireless network that covers much of Adelaide, the city of 1 million people where I live. The map below shows the Air-Stream nodes covering the city. For scale, the map is around 50km from north to south. The geography is favorable for wireless as the Adelaide Hills (which run along the eastern edge of the city) overlook the suburbs which are located on a flat plain. So a wireless radio in the hills often has direct line of sight to the rest of the city. The low population density of Adelaide means the Air-stream network is quite spaced out – there are many long (10km ) links between nodes compared to community networks in European cities.

After some initial stumbling of Air-Stream signals I decided to invest in some router hardware from Wifi Extreme:

  1. Mikrotik Routerboard RB333
  2. Ubiquiti XR2 600mW mini-PCI wireless card
  3. Atheros AR5212A 100mW mini-PCI wireless card
  4. 8dBi Omni Antenna
  5. 15dB directional antenna
  6. UP85 Box, cables, POE injector, power supply

The 600mW radio drives the Omni antenna, so people can access my AP. The 100mW radio connects to the directional antenna for the back haul link to the rest of the network. Both radios are configured for 2.4GHz 801.11b. Air-stream uses BGP for routing.

Here is a picture of the router hardware, and some pictures of the installation on my roof:

Setting up Mikrotik Routers for WEP

Wifi configuration is a new area to me so I relied heavily on the Air-stream community (especially Daniel) to help me set up the AP. Thanks guys!

Configuring the Mikrotik router for WEP took a while to work out. It comes with a nice Windows GUI (that you download from the router) called Winbox. The same features can also be accessed via a command line Terminal interface.

Here is a short How-To on setting up WEP on the Mikrotik RB333 using Winbox. From the Wireless menu click on the Security Profile Tab and click on the profile your wish to use (profile1 in my case). In the mode box select “static keys required”:

Then click on the “static keys” tab and from the Key 0 menu select “40bit wep” and enter your WEP key in the adjacent 0x box:

Note that the Miktotik router software can only accept hex keys. I converted my ASCII WEP key by copying what my Linux box did with the ASCII key:
root# iwconfig eth1 essid Air-Stream-Kilkenny key s:mykey
root# iwconfig
eth1
IEEE 802.11b ESSID:"Air-Stream-Kilkenny"
Mode:Managed Frequency:2.417 GHz
Access Point: 00:15:6D:63:A0:45
Bit Rate:11 Mb/s Tx-Power:13 dBm
Retry limit:15 RTS thr:off Fragment thr:off
Encryption key:6D79-6B65-79 Security mode:open

So 6D79-6B65-79 is the equivalent of the ASCII WEP key “mykey”.

Network Diagram and IP Alias

Here a netwiork diagram of the Access Point (AP) showing the various subnets and devices attached:

Clients to connect to the AP via wlan1 and their traffic is routed traffic over the Air-Stream network. My AP connects to the rest of the Air-Stream network via wlan1. In this case the 15dB directional antenna connects to the Omni antenna of another AP located about 10km away. In some cases dedicated and/or redundant links exists for the back haul.

The ether1 interface is connected to my LAN, which runs a 192.168.1.0/24 subnet. Daniel showed me a neat trick – IP Aliasing. This allows devices configured for the 192.168.1.0/24 subnet to simultaneously communicate on the 10.104.0.0 subnet using the same Ethernet card and physical LAN:
# ifconfig eth0:1 10.104.0.3 netmask 255.255.255.224
# route add -net 10.96.0.0/11 gw 10.104.0.1

Tweaks, Site Survey and Further Work

Once we had the AP connected to the Air-stream network, Daniel could login and tweak the configuration a little. We started at a throughput of 125 kB/sec, and brought it up to 250 kB/sec after tweaking the channel and power levels of either end of wlan2 back haul link. About 700 KB/sec should be possible with a better antenna. But it’s a good start, and useful for my experiments.

I performed a basic site survey by associating an OLPC laptop to my AP and driving around the neighborhood. Roughly 500m range with the laptop sitting on the dashboard of my car (non line of sight). I have also had a report of stumbling my AP from 12km away with a good antenna mounted on a mast.

Things to do:

  1. Connect a couple of IP04s over the Air-Stream network and test voice quality.
  2. Experiment with ad-hoc connections all over the city to simulate the Village Telco network. It took me about a week of messing around (and lots of help) to set up a basic long distance wireless connection. For the Village Telco concept it would be great if a semi-literate, non geeky person can set up a VOIP over Wifi node. How easy can we make this connecting to a Wifi network? Can we reduce the time and expertise required so that anyone can do it? I have a few ideas in this area that I will explore over the next few weeks.

The Village Telco – VOIP over Community Wifi

Many people in the world can’t pick up a telephone and make a phone call. This needs to be fixed. Open hardware and software are the key.

Imagine an IP08 low power IP-PBX connected to a WRT54 type router, with an antenna, 5-10W solar panel, and a backup battery. The IP08 connects to 8 analog telephones, just like the photos in this post showing the IP04 deployment at Fantsuam. The wireless side meshes with similar nodes to generate a community telco network. Gateways distributed around the network connect the calls to PSTN and GSM networks. Business models built around the network to fund hardware, provide income, and promote viral growth of the Village Telco network.

Several people are planning such networks, the best description so far has been from Steve Song on his Village Telco blog post. There has also been a great ongoing discussion on the Wireless Africa group. There is even a role model – Rael Lissoos who is building a VOIP over Wifi business called Dabba in Orange Farm, a township about an hour south of Johannesburg. Steve has written a great introduction to Dabba on his blog.

Some novel features of the Village Telco concept are:

  • Community owned and operated.
  • Much lower capital and running costs than GSM or traditional fixed networks.
  • One of the biggest problems (electricity) can be solved by the low power consumption of the IP04 (3W plus a few watts for the router).
  • Inter operate with and extend existing GSM/PSTN networks, enhancing communications and providing revenue for incumbent telcos.
  • Low R&D costs by leveraging commodity hardware, open hardware, and open software.
  • Voice first: Voice is the killer app, especially where literacy levels are low. However a nice side effect of the Village Telco network is an IP backbone.

There are some other novel possibilities. The Free Telephony Project has shown that it is possible to build and put into volume production sophisticated hardware products using community development models. Rather than relying on existing commodity hardware we could develop and build our own custom “products”, for example an IP-phone or ATA with integrated long distance Wifi that includes enough flash/RAM to run sophisticated mesh routing software. We can choose to design open hardware products to run our open software.

Personally, I like the idea of mixing “old school” analog and VOIP technology. For example I think the humble analog telephone has several advantages over a SIP phone. It is cheap ($2 in some developing countries), and requires no local power supply (power comes down the line). It is reliable, readily available, and requires no configuration. So I see some merit in say IP08 type-devices distributing multiple analog lines throughout a community, rather than SIP or Wifi handsets for every user.

Other possibilities are a desktop SIP phone that has integrated Wifi, or a “wireless ATA” – a small box with a Wifi Antenna and a FXS port to plug an analog phone into.

I am very keen to help develop the Village Telco concept in 2008, as part of a team including people like Alberto and Louise from IT 46, Steve Song, the people on the Wireless Africa group, the Meraka Institute and the IDRC .

Here are some of my plans:

  1. Connect to the Air-stream community Wifi mesh network in my home town and get some experience in VOIP over community mesh Wifi networks.
  2. Explore ways of making Village Telco nodes “plug and play”. Currently you need to be an embedded Linux/Asterisk/Wireless guru to install an IP04 WRT54 type node. What we need is a system that will find the Wifi net, mesh with it, and allocate phone numbers automatically. End users should get “dial tone out of the box”. The end user should be able to apply power and start making phone calls.
  3. Explore business models. This is essential for viral growth. The guy in the village must be able to make a living out of the Village Telco. What is the best business model to do this? What software (e.g. billing systems, calling card software, remote maintenance, GUIs) do we need to add to the system to make this happen?
  4. Explore Open Hardware solutions: For example prototyping a low costs Wifi ATA (imagine an open hardware Meraki with a FXS port), and working out how to integrate with GSM.

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Building an Electric Car Part 1

I feel a little out of depth in this project. I am the kind of guy who can design and build a computer but the last time I worked on cars was 20 years ago, and usually resulted in towing the mess to a mechanic who would shake his head, sigh, and then fix it for me.

Electrically, I am OK with digital logic and low level analog but death to anything over 5V and 1A. Electric cars run on something like 144V and over 300A.

So here I am doing an Electric Vehicle (EV) conversion!

The idea is to take a regular car, pull out the petrol engine and fuel system, exhaust etc, and replace it with a electric motor and lots of batteries. I will focus on my conversion, and talk about a few things that I have discovered as an EV learner that might be useful to others. As well as a rant or two and the usual digressions. But I digress (already)……

Details of my EV Conversion

I am converting a 1991 Daihatsu Charade. A similar car was the first (and probably last) new car that my wife and I ever bought, and we were rather attached to it until we sold it a few years back. They are popular targets for EV conversion in Australia, so it was an easy choice for us. The Charade weighs 780 kg in ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) configuration, I figure it will be around 1000 kg as an EV. I am estimating a range of 50 km.

Most of our driving is home-shop-daycare-home so we will be able to charge at home during the day between trips. Our trips are rarely longer than 10km, mostly 1.5 persons (adult plus toddler), and where I live in Adelaide is very flat. Overall an ideal scenario for an EV.

Anyway, back to the conversion. Many years ago, George and Michael from Electric Vehicle Motors converted a Charade just like mine:

So I am roughly following their template (similar batteries and motor). George and Michael have been very helpful with advice and bringing me up to speed on EV conversions. Thanks guys!

Major Components

  • Car: I looked for a good clean car with a nice straight body but was unconcerned about the ICE condition. I want this to be a car that I will be happy to drive for the next 10 years. Bought a 1991 Daihatsu Charade as it was small, light, and my wife and I owned one a few years ago and really liked it. ($2,000)
  • Electric Motor: Advanced DC X91-4001 6.7 inch motor. ($1,900)
  • Controller: Curtis 1231C-860196-144v 500A. ($2,100)
  • Batteries: Much dithering here. Looked into various combinations including the new Lithiums but eventually settled on 12 Optima Group 31 Yellow Tops ($5,300). I figured Lithiums were going to cost me > $12,000 with a special BMS (Battery Management System), charger, and on balance I felt there is still some risk. Will consider Lithiums in a few years time when the technology has matured. George has had nearly 10 years from his yellow tops with a simple BMS which is kinda remarkable for lead acid batteries. There batteries are only USD$220 in the US, but I paid AUD$440 which sucks but what can I do? You can’t easily air freight 300kg worth of batteries. Sigh. A nice feature of the Yellow Tops is that they are sealed, so I think I can mount them inside the car without the special ventilation systems required by wet cells. I think I can also mount them sideways, which will help squeezing them into the car.
  • Adapter Plate: Nathan from Convert Ur Car is handling the machining involved in getting my gearbox to interface with the electric motor. Nathan has also been very helpful with advice and tips for my conversion – thanks Nathan. ($1,500)
  • Charger: I am taking the adventurous step of designing my own charger. This is a little scary due to the power involved – common EV chargers are rated at 2kW. That’s around 15A at 144V. My idea is to develop a low cost open hardware charger design that anyone is free to copy. To avoid battery damage, charging systems must take care not to over (or under) charge any batteries in the pack. The design I am working on will be powered off a relatively low voltage supply (like 2-3 rewound microwave oven or arc welding transformers delivering 48VDC at around 50A) to reduce the risks posed by high voltages. I will then build 12 little chargers that will charge each battery separately. These will use floating-output microcontroller-based DC-DC converters to efficiently charge each battery at around 14V at 10-15A. More on this in a later blog post.

There are also a bunch of smaller components like a contactor, cable, vacuum pump, uprated springs etc. Still working on them.

Estimated Specs

  • Range: I have 12 x 12V Yellow Tops which are rated at 75AH each. However from the data sheet the 1 hour rating is 60AH. This gives me 144 x 60 = 8.64 kWh of energy. George’s Charade gets 8 km/kWh, so I can expect a range of 8.64 x 8 = 69 km. However it’s not a good idea to completely discharge the batteries, so at say 80% depth-of-discharge (DOD) I can expect 0.8 x 69 = 55km range.
  • Weight: The empty weight of the Charade in ICE configuration is 780kg. I estimate that the ICE motor and related components (exhaust, fuel system etc) weigh about 160kg. My batteries weigh 27kg each, and the electric motor 40 kg. Plus add 30kg for cables, controller, battery mounting hardware etc. So the estimated weight is 780 – 160 (12 x 27) 40 30 = 1014 kg. The GVM of the Charade is 1240kg, so I may lose 2-3 people from the cars rating when I get it “blessed” by the Department of Transport (in Australia we need to allow 82 kg per person). Most of our driving is one adult plus one toddler so we can live with that.
  • Clutch: After much debate and discussion with my brains trust I decided to keep the clutch. I figure no harm in having it in, although it means the adapter plate machining costs a little more. EVs don’t really need a clutch (n.b. the motor is off at traffic lights), but I thought it would be useful as an extra safety feature and would make the car less strange to drive for my wife.
  • Running Costs: We currently do around 300 km a week in our 6 cylinder family car, which costs us perhaps $65 per week in petrol, plus maybe $1,500 each year for servicing and repairs. The EV uses around 1 kWh per 8 km travelled, so that’s 300/8 = 37.5 kWh of electricity per week. If we assume the charger is 70% efficient, that is 53.6 kWh from the outlet. My electricity costs $0.15/kWh which means just $8 a week in “fuel”! To be fair, the battery replacement costs must be factored into the running costs, however battery life is an unknown for me at present. Servicing costs for EVs are virtually nil – just brakes and tyres every few years. Think about it – all your cars servicing revolves around the ICE: oil, spark plugs, most repairs. All gone with an EV!

Progress to Date

I started working on my EV project in September 2007, and have averaged a few hours a week in between other projects and some travel. Actually a lot of my time has been spent reading up on EVs, talking to knowledgeable EV people, and planning my conversion.

Progress so far:

  • I have pulled out most of the ICE parts. This was an interesting puzzle, especially working out how to get the engine out. Like a puzzle with a zillion wires and connectors. I needed to tilt the engine to hoist it out from the top, to prevent it fouling with the side of the car.
  • The adaptor plate/gearbox machining has been completed and is being shipped back to me. Next step is to install the gearbox and electric motor so I can work out where and how I will mount the batteries in the front.
  • After some thought I now have a good idea how to mount the batteries in the rear, time to start making the brackets.
  • All of the major parts have been ordered and delivered.
  • I have a plan for the charger, and have started simulating the design using SPICE.
  • I have contacted the Department of Transport to make sure I am on the right track to get my EV “blessed” by them and therefore street legal (and insurable) in South Australia.

Most of the EV parts have now arrived, here is a picture of a few:

Notice the difference in size between the old ICE and it’s replacement – the electric motor! The electric motor doesn’t put out quite as much peak HP, however all it’s torque is developed at stall, so I am expecting similar performance off the line.

All of those batteries weigh about 320kg and store about the same amount of energy as 5 litres (1 gallon) of petrol. Makes you wonder. We pump oil out of the ground and burn this precious precious resource just as fast as we can, without a thought as to how wonderful and irreplaceable it is. Pure, concentrated energy. What the hell are our grand kids going to say to us when it’s all gone?

Hmm oily foot prints leading from the garage. Who’s been stepping on my gearbox oil?

Ah HA – my assistant mechanic Mikey (age 2)!

Thanks

Many people have been kindly helping me come up to speed on EVs. They have been very generous with their time and I really appreciate it. Thanks to Bruno (my local mechanic), Nathan from Convert Ur Car, Michael & George from Electric Vehicle Motors, Rod from Strath Steam, and Shaun who’s Electric Echo site has been a great resource for me.

Resources

In South Australia you need to read and comply with Information Bulletin 74. I obtained my copy by emailing the Department of Transport. I can’t find it on-line however I did find a very similar document called NCOP 14 from other Australian sites. So it looks like all the Australian states have similar requirements, which is a good thing.

Shaun’s Electric Echo conversion, one of the best journals of an EV conversion. Every time I get stuck on some detail – I check Shauns’s journal!

Strath Steam EV conversion, located about 80km from me in lovely Victor Harbour. Also a good resource, a couple of small car conversions discussed. A step down in size from my Charade (600kg ICE vehicles), using 72V systems, which makes them a little easier and cheaper to build. I am now thinking I should have perhaps gone this way for my first EV.

Electric Vehicle Motors have been very helpful with advice, and supply of a motor for my Charade.
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Halving My Gas and Electricity Bills

I want an energy efficient house. However I don’t want to move or build from scratch. So I have decided to see what I can do with my 80 year old double-brick house here in Suburban Adelaide, South Australia. This post talks about the steps I have taken over the last 3 months to roughly halve my gas and electricity bills.

Electricity Audit

I once worked with a guy whose mantra was “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. So the first step was to audit my electricity use with this $40 power meter from Jaycar:

You plug this puppy in line with an appliance to get voltage, current, and most importantly the power in Watts. It can also add up the power used over time to give you the total energy used in kWh. This is really useful when the power used by the appliance varies. For example a fridge motor starts and stops over the course of a day.

So I wandered around the house for a few days, irritating my family while I plugged the power meter into various appliances and working up the results in a power audit spreadsheet (here is the power audit spreadsheet in Excel format).

Some appliances (like the air conditioner and stove) were directly wired in and couldn’t be tested using the power meter. So I worked out how to measure power from the household electricity meter. I have a really ancient one like this:

The more electricity used, the faster the ring spins. On my meter is says that every 400 revolutions is 1 kWh. So if it rotates 400 times in one hour, then I must be using an average power of 1kW. A little maths and I worked out that the instantaneous power in Watts is given by P=9000/T where T is the number of seconds it takes for the ring to revolve once. For example as I write this the ring is taking about 18 seconds to turn which means the house is using 500W. With two TVs and a few PCs running, that is about right.

To measure stuff like the air conditioner I would first make sure loads like the fridge/pool were switched off (I didn’t want them switching on by themselves half way through my measurement). It also helps to have no one in the house, as the electricity jumps up and down all the when people (especially kids) are in the house. Then I would look at the power before and after the appliance was switched on, and subtract the two measurements.

One interesting test was to switch off everything. You see I wanted to make sure there were no “phantom” load sucking power that I didn’t know about, like a suspect alarm system or IR sensor light. Switching everything off (i.e. using no electricity) was really hard – just try it! I had to chase all the kids out of the house (to avoid TVs, lights being switched on and off), and run around the house switching off the fridge, my server etc. All that was left was a few clocks (too much effort to reset) plus stuff that was permanently wired in (like IR sensor lights). The minimum was about 70W. Not zero, but about what I expected.

Electricity Audit Results

Anyway, back to the power audit results. There were some shockers. For example my sons desktop PC uses more energy off (20 hours off at 28 Watts/hr) than on (4 hours on at 91 Watts/hr). It uses more power off than my laptop does on!

Standby power was also a big problem for the older appliances like TVs and VCRs. Some of the newer DVD players were much better, drawing 0W when off.

The effect of 24 hours is interesting. Just wasting 20 W/hr adds up to nearly 500Whr/day (180 kWh/year)! Add that up across several appliances and it really starts to stack up.

There were also some pleasant surprises. Before starting the audit I was sure that my server would be the main power culprit, however combined with my DSL modem and a hub it only uses about 20W. This I totally have Linux to thank, it runs a powerful server on a 10 year old P133 PC. It’s a file server (SAMBA/NFS for both Windows and Linux machines), print server, DHCP server, firewall, SSH server for remote login, runs a small web server. All on an ancient P133 with 64M of RAM.

Reducing Electricity

OK, so here are the steps I took to increase electrical energy efficiency:

  • Conduct an Energy Audit to sniff out the culprits. Many surprises here, both good and bad.
  • Used a Floatron to dramatically lower pool energy requirements.
  • Switching off at the wall standby power loads at night, like TVs and PCs. Grumble. I wish there was a box that could do this for me, or that beeped in my kids ears when they forget.
  • Swapped out nasty incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent (CFLs).
  • Swapped out nasty halogen downlights for LED downlights.
  • Encouraged the use of laptops (20W) rather than desktops (90W).
  • Where possible use my laptop on mains rather than battery power, as I have read the charging/discharge cycle is only about 50% efficient
  • Placed my home office equipment on a separate power board than can be switched off at night, while leaving my server running. Previously I just left everything on.
  • Promised my 9 year old son an extra $1/week if he remembers to switch his PC off at the wall every day. Good training, teaches him “the value of energy”. I figure that energy efficiency is going to be a much bigger issue in his life than mine.

Most of these changes cost me very little, they mostly paid for themselves by the next power bill.

When you start to look around it’s amazing what you find. In my family room I have two light fittings which had 5 60W lights each. That’s 600W total for one room! The funny thing was that with the dark walls in that room the light still wasn’t any good for reading. Now I have a pedestal lamp with a single 11W CFL – it’s direct lighting actually makes reading easier than the previous 600W of indirect light.

In the kitchen I replaced 4 nasty 60W Halogen downlights with 3W(!) LED downlights:

The LED versions aren’t quite as bright, and my wife Rosemary wasn’t very happy with them at first. However we are now quite used to them. Compared to CFLs they were expensive at $30 each, but I figure the payback is a little over 1 year. Thats one good thing about working out the numbers with something like a power audit, you can make educated decisions on where it is a good idea to spend money.

Also, I have to admit there is just a good feeling about being efficient. Not everything in life reduces to economic, dollar based decisions like payback period. Sometimes it just has to feel right. That’s enough.

Hacking my House – Insulation and Air Conditioning

To attack the gas consumption we had a hard look at our insulation and air conditioning options.

In August 2006 my wife Rosemary was shivering through our vicious Australian winter and suggested we get a reverse cycle (heat pump) type air conditioner. Actually in Australia we are blessed with fairly mild winters (it rarely gets to freezing). However as a result building codes are lax, and most houses have single glazed windows and poor insulation. During a winters day when it’s 15C outside, it’s often 15C inside. I have several Norwegian and Canadian friends say that their coldest winters have been in Australia!

The current, socially accepted solution, is to bolt a massive reverse cycle ducted air conditioner onto the energy sieves we call houses. In winter they heat, in summer they cool. These air conditioners can draw up to 8kW and often require a 3 phase power connection to the house. When I step outside on a summers day I can hear them roaring all over the neighborhood. Our electricity companies are creaking under the load, especially in summer, as more and more are being retrofitted to older homes like mine.

Our house (which is gas heated) was unpleasantly cold in winter. In summer it was too hot, our old evaporative air conditioner just wasn’t cutting it. So we asked for a few quotes on reverse cycle air conditioning. About $15,000 plus the cost of a three phase connection. Plus I figured significant ongoing electricity bills. Running 8kW means $1.20/hour and rising each year as electricity costs go up. Ouch.

So I decided as a first step to look at our insulation. No point pumping all that heat into/out of the house if the insulation was just going to let it all leak out again. Sure enough, our insulation was shot, so I arranged to have new insulation put in.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt bad about a big reverse cycle air conditioner. So I decided to upgrade our evaporative unit, by getting new ducting (the ducting was ripped) with a high insulation standard. We have mainly dry heat here in Adelaide, so evaporative is fine most of the time, and it draws between 500 and 1000W, a fraction of a heat pump.

After reading about household heat loss, I realised that my standard, single glazed windows were a big problem. Swapping to double glazed windows would be a big job (new frames in all windows) so after some research I decided to install some special laminated glass called Pilkington Comfort Glass that has insulation properties almost as good as double glazing.

Curiously, a few people I discussed this with thought I was wasting my money. Why not, they suggested, install some nice looking new window frames for the same money? I figure this is evolution at work, these people will be naturally selected out of the population if we ever face energy shortages.

Results – House 2.0

We installed our new insulation and windows in August (end of our winter). That day we switched off our gas heating and it wasn’t needed again. Normally we would still be using it (off and on) until October. So we are far more comfortable and using less energy. Nice.

We experienced the first warm weather in November; a week of 30C plus. I only needed to switch on the (evaporative) air conditioner at the end of this week, and then only right at the end of the day for a few hours. This is amazing – last year we had the air con running all day in weeks like that. When I walk outside I can hear the roar of air conditioners (big nasty reverse cycle heat pumps) all over the neighborhood. At night we open up the house to capture the “cool” night air inside. Then in the morning we shut the doors. The only problem we noticed is that the air inside gets a little stuffy. So we have started using a couple of fans, just to give the cool air some movement. Ceiling fans would be perfect I think.

Since then we have had several weeks of 40C weather. The inside temperature hasn’t been above 25C, although on the hotter days we run the evaporative air conditioner most of the day, on a moderate power setting. Last year, before the house 2.0 upgrade, even at full power the air con just wasn’t up to it.

We just received our latest electricity and gas bills. Electricity dropped from $509 to $272, and gas from $413 to $168. Gas usually drops this time of year, so the true test will be next winter. However it’s still the lowest gas bill we have had in years.

Negawatts

Energy efficiency, or Negawatts can be considered a really cheap, easily available new power source equivalent to at least halve our current energy consumption. Low hanging fruit. Much smarter than building new power stations, and lowers the bar for converting across to renewables.

Next Steps

I am working on some related projects:

  • We have just had a solar hot water system installed. This should drop the gas bill even further, as we get almost all of our water heated by the sun now. Totally makes sense in a country like Australia.
  • We are getting a 2 kW grid-connect solar electric PV system installed.
  • I am recycling a small car into a Electric Vehicle (EV)! Totally out of my depth on this one (it’s very mechanical) but slowly making progress.

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Aquaponics

While reading about Peak Oil I stumbled across a way of growing large amounts of food in small areas (enough to feed your family in the area of a small back yard). The system is called Aquaponics. The idea is that you have two tanks, a grow bed and a fish tank. The water from the fish tank is pumped over the grow bed, then returns to the fish tank via gravity.

Here is the design for small system from the Backyard Aquaponics site:

The fish are little fertiliser machines. They take food, and output nitrogen rich fertiliser. This gets pumped onto the grow bed where bacteria break down the fish waste into nitrogen compounds. The plants just love these compounds and grow like mad, cleaning the water at the same time. A very neat little system – you get rapid growth of plants and fish. It’s a protein/vegetable machine. With no artificial (i.e. derived from oil) fertilisers. I have seen claims of 50kg of fish and 200kg of vegetables from backyard systems over 6 months, which I figure is enough food to supplement (or feed entirely) a typical family.

Now I am pretty geeky and have never grown a thing in my life. I am much more comfortable with silicon and solder than dirt and water. However aquaponics interests me for a couple of reasons:

  1. If the Peak Oilers are right and transport and hence food costs increase dramatically, then knowing how to grow some of your own food could be a very useful skill to have in a few years.
  2. I am intrigued by the possibility of efficient food production for the developing world.
  3. It has the right sort of complexity to interest me, i.e. I get to mess with pumps, and dream about solar powering the whole thing. I also like the idea of the symbiotic system, lack of waste and efficient use of water.

Inputs are water, a little fish food (I understand you can grow your own worms if you want), sunlight and electricity for the pump. The electricity bit I don’t like. I would love to go solar on this, and work out exactly how much water flow I really need. In a developing world situation is it easy to imagine a hand or bike powered pump, or even in a pinch a bucket.

So I bought an aquaponics DVD and book and decided to have a go. Of course I wanted to go full-throttle on this and build a large system but wifely approval was not forthcoming so I scrounged a small, skunk-works type project for about $75:

  • small 1200 litre/hr 15W pond water pump ($40). Probably too big for what I need.
  • 10 goldfish ($20) (2 have gone to fishy heaven so I have 8 left).
  • 1 tomato and 1 chili plant seedling ($10).
  • old ornamental pond ($0).
  • empty plant pot ($0).
  • gravel from driveway ($0).
  • fish food ($5), half gone after about 10 weeks.

To complicate matters I am a notoriously fussy eater and don’t actually like fruit and vegetables much! So I planted all the stuff I do like to make a pasta sauce: tomatos, chili, and garlic! I would have also liked to plant potatoes and onions but I am not sure if those sort of vegetables work in aquaponics systems.

My goldfish are not for eating (unless you are a neighbourhood cat), just to provide nutrients for free. Here is my system:

This is about 8 weeks after starting. The large plant on the left is the tomato and was just peeking over the top of the pot when I planted it. The pot sits on some bricks in the middle of the pond. A small pump supplies water to a plastic pipe laid on top of the pot with a bunch of holes punched in it. The water trickles down the rocks in the pot to the pond.

Here is a top view:

The pump is under the water at the bottom left, you can see the electricity cable running to it. The fish get all excited when they see me, as they think it’s lunch time. They really do recognise me BTW. It’s nice to be wanted.

Just when I thought I was getting into the groove of this gardening caper I suffered a biological warfare attack. Nope, it wasn’t Saddam, or even Osama, but some caterpillars having a party on my beloved tomato plant:

There was some low level nibbling for a few weeks then in the space of just two days half my bloody leaves were gone! It took me a while to work out the problem, but I bought some spray from the local gardening shop and after a good spray I noticed a big fat green caterpillar wriggling in the water. Apparently they can’t swim. Too bad.

I also noticed some of the little yellow tomato flowers dropping into the water. This is bad news as it’s these flowers that turn into tomatos. A bit of Googling showed that this can happen when tomatos get too much nitrogen. Now it just so happened that I had started feeding the fishies twice a day, as I had thought the now-larger plants would need more nutrients. So I have now backed off to just one feed a day and the latest crop of little flowers are staying put.

Some relatives who know something about gardening have also suggested I prune the tomato plant, this focuses growth on the tomatos rather than unnecessary branches.

Some lessons learned:

  • If the pump gets blocked, you can get into big trouble quickly, e.g. my tomato plant went all droopy within hours. If you have a high stocking density of fish I understand their oxygen levels could also drop quickly which could lead to disaster.
  • The pond water is crystal clear; my experience with fish ponds is they usually go quite green. So the systems seems to be cleaning the water quite nicely.
  • A large scale system could be made really cheaply. The two tanks could be holes in the ground (one slightly above the other to provide gravity return) with cement or plastic lining. Fish breed for free. The rest is labour.

Aquaponics uses small amounts of water compared to regular agriculture. I use about 1-2 buckets a week (4-8l), not much compared to what I imagine would be regular watering of these plants if they were planted in soil. When you think about it, normal watering of crops is grossly inefficient. When you spray the water around you maximise it’s surface area, almost guaranteeing most of it evaporates before it can get to the plant.

You see I live in the state of South Australia, which is the driest state in the one of the driest countries in the world. We also have serious water supply problems, persistent droughts, and the climate change is making that much worse. So low water consumption is a very good thing.

It’s kinda cool to see the growth in action, little flowers turn into baby tomatoes and I have countless green chilis. The garlic plants spang from single cloves that I just pushed a few cm under the rocks, it was amazing to see little green shoots emerge a few days later! I also enjoy messing with the system every day, it gets me out of the home office and into the back yard. I would really like to build a larger system, with say 20 eating-fish, and a solar powered pump system. However my wife is afraid we won’t eat all the food it produces. Maybe a project for 2008.

Links

Backyard Aquaponics

Apology

I recently had to restore this blog from a backup and unfortunately lost the two comments from the original version of this post.