Posts Tagged House

My new Chinese laser cutter!

For my birthday, my entire family chipped-in and gave me most of the money to buy a (relatively) cheap laser cutter directly from China. I had seen several Hack-a-day articles about these machines, and I’ve got experience with 3D printers, so I thought it was something that I could handle. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

The path the slow boat from china took

The path the slow boat from china took

To begin with, I looked around on eBay and Alibaba. I noticed that 90% of the ~$1000 units are almost identical. There are occasional small differences such as pointing laser, whether it has a spring loaded “work clamp,” whether it has a raising-lowering bed, etc. I found one that claimed to have a larger bed than any other that I’d seen (mistake #1). I don’t know why I accepted that a machine that looked like every other machine out there would have magically increased the work size, but I did, and it doesn’t.

Because I was mentally set on this machine, I was willing to accept the shenanigans of the seller (mistake #2). The trouble began when their “free shipping to the USA” became $200. I thought “That’s kinda annoying, but not the end of the world.” The shipping charge was on par with other vendors. The next problem became that the $200 shipping was by boat, and F.O.B. (Mistake #3). Alibaba doesn’t support shipping by boat, and at this point the vendor and I agreed to leave the relative safety of Alibaba (Mistake #4). I requested a refund of my Escrow and it was granted.

A quick note about how Alibaba works, for the uninitiated. Alibaba is a marketplace, like eBay. Unlike eBay, however, Alibaba provides some additional protections to the buyer, and less so, the seller. When you purchase something from a vendor and make a payment you pay Alibaba directly, and that money is put into an Escrow account for the transaction. At this point, the Seller is assured that the money is there and they are guaranteed payment if they hold up their end of the deal. The seller, then, ships the product with an Alibaba approved carrier (like DHL, EMS, etc.). When the buyer receives the product and decides that it was accurately represented and meets expectation the seller is paid and the escrow is closed.

If you decide to leave Alibaba, it’s the wild, wild … east? The vendor really wanted to be paid by a wire transfer, which is the system that you see in spy movies. Bank account number, routing number, etc. The thing about a wire transfer is that there are NO protections. That money is gone, forever. If the vendor is feeling generous they may give it back if there’s a problem, but there are no systems in place for you to dispute it. There was no way I was going to go for that. I got them to agree to accept PayPal, which for all their faults does provide some buyer protections. Paypal makes their money by levying a surcharge on business transactions; the only way I got the vendor to agree to this was by paying the surcharge myself. In my mind, it was a worthwhile investment in insurance.

Ok, at this point I’ve paid the vendor and they’ve sent me vague information about when the ship will be leaving the Qingdao port. Then, one day I get an email from them about filing an ISF (10+2) form. I had no idea what this was, and I literally called the Port of Portland to ask them. They basically laughed at me. Apparently, the ISF is a form for a system that was introduced after the Sept. 11 collective mindless panic. Someone had the thought along the lines of “zomg, someone could put a bomb in a shipping container and blow up an entire city!” So, of course the government intervened and invented yet another complicated, expensive, process that can only really be done by a customs broker.

Now I need to find a customs broker. Off to Google… Whelp, no one has a ratings site for customs brokers. All my usual methods for deciding on a service provider fail. I find myself at the port of portland website and staring at a list of what seems like a hundred brokers. I literally choose one at random (mistake #5). I call their number and someone assures me that I’ve got plenty of time to file (Did I mention that you have to file the form three days before the ship leaves the last foreign port, and that failure to comply can be a $5000 fine?). I never hear from him again. Two days later I get a call at 3:00am from China. They’re calling to yell at me about the fact that my form hasn’t been filed and that I needed to do it right now. I calmly (lucky for them, my 1-year old wasn’t woken) explain to them that no one is awake or willing to take my calls at 3:00am. I’m not happy. The next morning I googled for “Customs broker portland oregon.” I choose the first link. My thinking is that google’s magic algorithms must know something more than random guessing. The new company is fast, responsive, and mostly a pleasure to work with.

Importing something substantial (I’m not sure what makes something substantial, but stay with me) is an expensive affair. The ISF form costs $35 to file. Great. Wait, I also have to become a customer of the brokerage company, $50. I need to have an ISF bond, $100. Don’t forget the customs bond premium, $45. Someone needs to enter the customs yard, $125. I haven’t even mentioned duty yet (this is what most people think of when importing), $26.50. By the way, any device that “emits radiation” has to be FDA accepted (they mean all radiation. Yes, I know that LEDs emit radiation, so do radios, you get my point), that’s another $35. So far were looking at about $400 in addition to my $200 shipping. Awesome.

You can see in the image above that the boat is going to Long Beach, California. Cool. I don’t live in California. The whole time I’ve been talking to them I’ve said Port of Portland perhaps a dozen times. I’m panicking a little. About two days before the boat is set to arrive in Long Beach, I get a call from a company at the Port of Long Beach. They were wondering when I would pay their fees. What? I wasn’t aware I had contracted with anyone at the Port of Long Beach. They had asked me about who my customs broker was. It seemed like this was the kind of thing that they could bill my customs broker for, and I had them do that. These guys charged another $160 of fees, including my favorite, the “Clean truck fee.”

Now, at this time (October 2014, and persisting now, into January 2015) there is a major bottleneck at the Port of Long Beach. My delivery was delayed a bit over a week because of this.

I was curious how I could get a shipment delivered to Long Beach, and have it go through customs in Portland. Apparently, it’s possible to move merchandise across the country that has not gone through customs. It just has to go to customs before it goes to the customer. That seems strange to me.

Anyway, the truck eventually got my package to Portland, and I drove up one day to get it (I had 2 days before I’d start getting charged warehouse fees). They put it on a forklift and surprisingly gracefully placed it in the back of my 4-runner.

All told, the cost for the machine was $700 + $200 shipping + $667 in customs fees. I feel a bit nauseous typing that out. Even more so when I add them and have to say that it was $1567 in total. Though, when I remember how much a decent laptop costs, I feel a little better. ūüôā

The rest of my laser-cutter adventures were documented in video. Please enjoy the YouTube playlist below:

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Emma’s Red Dresser

Katie and I needed to get a dresser/changing table for Emma.  We decided to find an antique dresser to redo rather than the pressed-wood pieces of crap you can buy today.  We found one at the Corvallis ARC that fit the bill nicely.  Unfortunately, I neglected to take photos of it before attacking it with the sander.  The following two photos are during the sanding process, though.

Starting to sand off the stain

Starting to sand off the stain

Some of the drawers before sanding

Some of the drawers before sanding

The stain and finish that they used was nasty to sand off.  When it got hot from the friction, it would melt, kinda, and gum up the sand paper.  Eventually, and after many sheets, we got it all off.  In the process, I bought a Ryobi Corner Cat which I like O.K.  I had to replace the velcro pad that holds the sand paper because it wore out.  Shipping took a bit, but the replacements were only a dollar or two.

Once I got all the stain off, I could assess the level of wear the dresser had accumulated over the years. ¬†In total, it wasn’t bad. ¬†It was pretty interesting to see how construction methods have changes over the years.

Slightly distressed corner

Slightly distressed corner

In getting ready to paint, I masked off the inside of the chest openings.  In this view, you can see the construction.  Lots of random sizes of lumber, everything is mortised, etc.

ready to paint the chest

ready to paint the chest

It took a ton of coats to adequately paint the dresser. ¬†It didn’t help that we did this at the height of summer, and it was HOT. ¬†The paint was practically drying as soon as it left the pail. ¬†This left a very poor finish, and honestly, I’m a bit disappointed in it.

The chest is painted

The chest is painted

Eventually, it got to a point that I could live with, and we reassembled everything. ¬†I chucked the knobs into the drill to sand the finish off. ¬†I’d like to eventually get some antique porcelain knobs. ¬†I think that would look really nice.

One extra thing we had to do, that I don’t have pictures of, is replace the drawer bottoms. ¬†Most of them were in really bad shape, and weren’t even square! ¬†I just bought some plywood at the store and had my friend Tom cut them to size on his table saw.

Painting and reassembling all finished

Painting and reassembling all finished

We’re all finished! ¬†Here’s the dresser in its new home, complete with changing pad. ¬†Hopefully, as Emma grows up, she’ll like and appreciate it!

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iPhone controlled TV Lift

Video of the iPhone TV Lift controller working!

Hardware

This was probably one of my most time consuming projects. ¬†Hopefully I can do some justice to the time and work spent through this post. ¬†I should probably begin by describing the whole system. ¬†First, the TV is lifted up & down by a “Lift Tech” lift. ¬†By the way, they get the prize for the most original company name ever. ¬†Their controller box has a port that allows home automation systems to control its operation. ¬†They did a really good job of making it extensible. ¬†You can control it in a variety of ways: short one pair for going up, another for going down; short a pair for down, open for up; etc. ¬†I had intended to use the first mode, but I think I fried a channel on my opto-isolator. ¬†I ended up using the second method because it only required one channel. ¬†Unfortunately that means I can only have the TV up, or down. ¬†I wasn’t too disappointed, though, because I don’t expect to want it any other way very often ūüėČ .

TV Lift controller box

TV Lift controller box

The board I designed to interface the TV Lift to the server was fun to design and build, even though it was prone to error. ¬†I had originally intended to use the Microchip ENC28J60 ethernet controller. I thought it’d be cool to have the iPhone app connect directly to the board’s ethernet controller and microcontroller. Unfortunately, I screwed up the interface from the ethernet controller (specifically the physical layer circuitry) and the magnetics. This interface is harder than it looks, trust me. I thankfully included a serial port on the board (which I had other plans for) and used that instead. This choice made the microcontroller software extremely simple. All it really has to do is wait for a ‘d’ character over the serial port and lower the TV, a ‘u’ character lifts the TV, and a ‘s’ character queries the controller for the current state. I’ve included an image of the schematic for the board, in case you are curious about my lofty intentions.

TV Lift Schematic

TV Lift Schematic

If you’re interested, the board I used on my reflow soldering toaster oven page is the TV Lift board. ¬†Incase you don’t want to go over there, here is a picture of it mostly finished up:

Controller board installed

Controller board installed

Using the RTS line for reset

Using the RTS line for reset

There is one more thing that I had to change. ¬†For some reason the controller board that I made crashes after a while. ¬†I have to use a ladder to reboot it (power-cycle). ¬†Hauling the ladder around is annoying, and I don’t like doing it. ¬†To allow myself to reboot it remotely, I added a diode from the MCLR line (reboot) of the microcontroller¬†to the RTS line of the serial port. ¬†The RTS line is used for modems from back in the day. ¬†Now I can use it to force MCLR low, to reboot the controller, if it’s “low” (-5 volts). ¬†It’s a hack, but what are you going to do?

Software

The software for this project is deceptively simple. ¬†The iPhone software basically connects to the server using a socket, and if the “up” button is pressed it sends a ‘u’ over the socket, and a ‘d’ if the down button is pressed. ¬†That’s it! ¬†Server software is almost identical, however it listens to the return of the serial port and expects my controller board to return a ‘U’ or a ‘D’ from the ‘u’ and ‘d’ command. ¬†If these are not received, the board is reset and the command is tried again.

Conslusion

Well, that’s all there is. ¬†I hope you’ve enjoyed it, I know I have. ¬†Please, feel free to ask any questions in the comments section!

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Weather Station Online!

I’ve finally gotten my home weather station online! ¬†I’m using a Oregon Scientific WMR918 system with¬†anemometer¬†(wind speed), wind direction, temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure sensors. ¬†Click here to access the current and recent readings, or the beta version of an integrated page (also available in the navigation bar below the blog title) and “read more” to find out how it works.

The WMR 918 has a serial port that sends-out all the data that it collects (and lightly processes). ¬†I have this signal going into my home server, which is running the open source wview.¬† Because my weather setup is a bit different than what is typical, I had to make some changes to the source code.¬† (probably the best part about open source!)¬† I guess most weather stations come with a “mushroom” sensor which is a thermohygrometer (temperature and humidity) that is encased in a radiation shield (so direct sunlight doesn’t affect the readings).¬† I don’t have one of those.¬† My outdoor temperature sensor is reported differently on the serial output.¬† The wview software was expecting a certain kind of data packet, and having never gotten it, it never initialized.¬† Once I changed the source code so that it ignored the difference I was all set. B.T.W: The thread about this process is on the wview google groups page.

I’ve gotten the data up in several personal weather aggregation services. I’ve decided that I don’t really like weather underground (way too cluttered), but I’m up on PWS (Personal Weather Stations), and APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System). APRS is a weird amateur radio thing. Basically, what it was designed to be is a way for small bits of digital data to be passed around so that, especially during search-and-rescue, operators can know where one another are. Over the years it has been expanded to include many interesting uses. One of which is the sharing of personal weather station observations. Eventually, NOAA even started using the data in their models. One of the many things I want to do, one of these days, is install a APRS node in my car. I know it is geeky to the max, but that is what I am.

Anyway, back to the point, everything works!¬† I hope you enjoy the fascinating (not really) weather trends from Philomath Oregon!¬† Oh, and hopefully soon I’ll have a handy widget that displays a digest of the current conditions in this sidebar.¬† But for now, feel free to check the current conditions page.

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House Construction Time-lapse movie

It’s been a while since my house was completed, but I’ve finally gotten around to finishing the video compilation. It’s a bit of a long video, but I think it’s pretty interesting. There is one frame per minute for over a year. I’ve removed all the time where there wasn’t active construction to try to keep it short. If you “read more” I have details about the construction of the outdoor camera housing, and mounting. Also, I talk a bit about the details of the way I captured the frames themselves.
I intend to add more details here when I get a chance to take some proper photos, specifically, I will add a section on the construction of the outdoor video camera housing one wiring.

System Schematic

Schematic of Time-lapse capture system

Schematic of Time-lapse capture system

I used SecuritySpy by BTV to capture the frames. ¬†This software was intended for businesses interested in “Loss prevention,” otherwise known as catching shoplifters. ¬†For that reason, it’s a little spendy and the features aren’t perfect, but it does work rather well, and it’s reliable. ¬†There are 2 primary features I was looking for: Storing a time-lapse video, and providing web access to the camera. ¬†Security Spy does provide these functions, and it let me set a schedule for beginning and stopping the recording for each day on a weekly schedule. ¬†Also, you can modify the settings over the web interface. ¬†I had some trouble with SecuritySpy crashing, and by contacting support they provided me with an AppleScript that monitored the application and restarted it.

The problem with daily recordings, however, is that they need to be combined. ¬†About once a week, I would download the videos for that week and remove the times the crew wasn’t there, and combine them in iMovie. ¬†Now that the project is over I could never imagine the pain doing all that work in would sitting would cause.

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