Tuesday, December 25, 2007

mythtv and 720p HD screen

This morning a nice Sharp 32" Aquos 720p screen was found near the fireplace. What a surprise. I hooked it up with analog VGA, since I don't have a DVI-HDMI cable here. The TV doesn't come up in wide screen format automatically (somewhat to my surprise).

Things I did to make mythtv work with this setup:

  • enable "de-interlace video" in mythfrontend setup (otherwise videos recorded from broadcast TV are unwatchable due to interlacing artifacts).
  • in xorg.conf turn off the special settings I added for analog TV out (don't need that anymore)
  • in xorg.conf add the 720p metamodes settings as described in the mythtv wiki

Well, the latter seems to have no effect, I guess my Nvidia driver is too old. I set the modes to 1280x720, and still the TV would only use 1024x768. After some headscratching and navigating the TV menus I found an option to adjust the input signal. It offered me to force the input to 1360x768. Done. Looks pretty darn good now.

After reading the manual (who reads manuals anyways?) I found out that apparently, the analog signal for 1360x768 and 1024x768 can't be differentiated automatically. Go figure...

Also, in order for mythtv to use the available screen real estate when playing SD videos, one needs to change the aspect ratio using the W key (or set it permanently in the player settings). I found that 'Fill' gives me the best picture with the least amount of distortion. Of course this will chop off some at the top and bottom of the picture, and heads/faces are slightly cropped. Particularly visible with shows like '24' which include lots of head shots.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

mdadm: /dev/hdb1 is too small: 0K

I finally added a second disk to grumpy so that I can complete the raid1 setup for my mythtv media archive.

I partitioned the disk to match exactly the first disk. On the first pass, the big media partition ended up a few blocks short, even though the disks have exactly the same number of blocks. I specified everything in cylinders, so that should have come up with exactly the same result. When I wiped the partition table and tried again, I adjusted the partition types only after creating all the partitions and verifying that they all line up. Then I changed the partition types for the raid partitions to fd and it all was correct. I have screwed up something the first time around, or changing the partition type to fd does something to the amount of available blocks on the disk. Anyways...

Next, I added the new media partition to the existing half of the array and let it rip.

mdadm --add /dev/md0 /dev/sdb6

Took three hours and completed just fine.

Next I want to make the root partition a raid1, too. The process should be rather simple:

  • create one half of the mirror on the new disk
  • create file system
  • cpio root partition data over to new root partition
  • reboot, manually set root to new partition
  • change partition id on old root partition
  • set up that partition as second half of root md

I ran into problems with the first step already. First, I interpreted the parameters to the --create option of mdadm wrong, and got an error message that there are not enough devices specified, even though I listed "/dev/hdb1" and "missing". The trick is --auto=yes still needs a md device name pattern (you need --auto to create the md device node in udev), like so:

grumpy:~# mdadm --create --auto=yes /dev/md1 -l 1 --raid-devices 2 -v /dev/hdb1 missing
mdadm: /dev/hdb1 is too small: 0K
mdadm: create aborted

Now, what is that?

I'm following the man page, it matches various examples what people do I found on the Internet. But no dice. Finally, this blog set me on the right track. I wrote the partition table, but the kernel didn't properly update it in memory, so I'm in this strange halfway state. It works for using hdb6 as mirror, but not for creating a new mirror on hdb1. fdisk confirms the problem:

grumpy:~# fdisk /dev/hdb

The number of cylinders for this disk is set to 60801.
There is nothing wrong with that, but this is larger than 1024,
and could in certain setups cause problems with:
1) software that runs at boot time (e.g., old versions of LILO)
2) booting and partitioning software from other OSs

Command (m for help): p

Disk /dev/hdb: 500.1 GB, 500107862016 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 60801 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes

Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/hdb1 1 851 6835626 fd Linux raid autodetect
/dev/hdb2 852 60801 481548375 5 Extended
/dev/hdb5 852 1032 1453851 82 Linux swap / Solaris
/dev/hdb6 1033 60801 480094461 fd Linux raid autodetect

Command (m for help): w
The partition table has been altered!

Calling ioctl() to re-read partition table.

WARNING: Re-reading the partition table failed with error 16: Device or resource busy.
The kernel still uses the old table.
The new table will be used at the next reboot.
Syncing disks.

Alright. Reboot coming up right when the kids are done watching "Der rosarote Panther".

After the reboot I get:

grumpy:~# mdadm --create --auto=yes /dev/md1 -l 1 --raid-devices 2 -v /dev/hdb1 missing
mdadm: size set to 6835520K
mdadm: array /dev/md1 started.
grumpy:~# cat /proc/mdstat
Personalities : [raid1]
md1 : active raid1 hdb1[0]
6835520 blocks [2/1] [U_]

md0 : active raid1 hda6[0] hdb6[1]
480094336 blocks [2/2] [UU]

unused devices:

Sweet! Works like a charm.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Furniture Frustrations

I'm visiting my parents in Germany at the moment and stopped by one of the larger local furniture retailers. We are looking for a replacement dining table and chairs, as well as a couch table for the living room and have much trouble finding anything in California.

US furniture is either poorly made, ridiculously expensive, or doesn't have even hints of modern design. Many times all three apply.

As I was walking through Moebel Hofmeister I grew more and more frustrated. Where in most US furniture stores I have a choice of 3 or 4 couch tables, they had dozens to choose from in all kinds of styles and price ranges.
Where in the US I have a choice of 10 - 15 dining tables (on a good day), they had a whole floor full of dining arrangements, tables and chairs.

I left the store after an hours or so utterly frustrated. Anyone know any halfway decent furniture stores in the SF Bay Area or at least California?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Layout Stats for Emsingen & Talheim - not so useful

I might have mentioned this elsewhere before, I really like Joe Fugate's Siskiyou Railfan Web site. He gave a talk a while ago about layout design analysis.

I wonder how this works for Emsingen & Talheim...

Room Size:
I'm working with 2.20 x 2.40 m, which is 7.2 x 7.8 ft = 56 square feet

Layout Area:
I have roughly 1.05 x 1.10 m of space in the lower left corner (12 sq ft), so the layout covers 44 sq ft.

In other words, the layout will fill 78% of the available space, which is quite a bit. However, since I'm planing an access hatch in the area of the lake, I think I should be fine.

Number of Turnouts:
I have 24 regular turnouts, 3 three-way switches, and 2 double-slips, that makes a total of 31 turnout equivalents.

Track Length:
~82 ft (24m) of visible track, ~75 ft (22m) of hidden track. It's that much hidden track mostly because of the long ramp to hidden staging and hidden staging itself. A total track length of 157 ft roughly equates enough space for 314 HO box cars (2 cars/foot).

Mainline Track:
22 cars in staging yard, 112 cars in main level tunnel and visible track. Total: 134 cars

Passing track:
4 cars in Talheim, 5 cars + 16 cars in Emsingen. Total: 25 cars

Storage Track:
3 cars in Talheim, 9 cars in Emsingen. Total: 12 cars

Service Track:
14 cars in Emsingen. Total: 14 cars

Staging Track:
120 cars to/from staging yard, including loop + staging tracks. Total: 120 cars

Connecting Track:
314 - 134 - 25 - 12 - 14 - 120 = 9

Passing Sidings: 3

Passing Train Length: 16/8/4 (longest/average/shortest)

Staging Tracks: 3

Staging Train Length: 24/21/16 (longest/average/shortest)

All those numbers now may yield some interesting stats:

Maximum Number of Cars: 112 = (storage + passing/2 + staging) * 0.8

Using the regular formula I get 112 cars on this layout. That's clearly too much, and comes from the fact that I counted the hidden main line track into staging as staging track. A more accurate number on my layout would be to only count the loop and the actual staging tracks, and don't include the ramp:
((24 + 24 + 16 + 8) + 12 + 12 ) * 0.8 = 76 cars

Number of Cars Moved in an operating cycle: 71 (staging * 2 + passing + connecting) * 0.4

Trains: 9

What can I learn from this? Nothing really. This was an interesting exercise, but I think that due to the nature of this layout, the formulas don't fit well, and the final outcome is not nearly as useful as I thought it might be when I started this.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Timesaver

I've been reading for a while about micro- and mini-layouts in Carl Carendt's Micro Layout Scrapbook. Micro-layouts are not larger than 4 square feet. It's amazing what some people manage to squeeze in this little space.

A theme that comes up fairly regularly is how to have operational fun with such small layouts. Obviously, there is not nearly enough space to let trains run in a circle (unless you choose to build a "pizza style" layout). Furthermore, a layout that largely consists of a circle is really boring and one quickly looses interest. A solution is the world of railroad puzzles, often reproducing switching/shunting problems. The two classic examples are Inglenook sidings and the Timesaver. In both cases the trick is to solve a switching puzzle with very limited space.

I used my old "Bauspielbahn" to build this version of the Timesaver.

The track is HO Fleischmann Modellgleis. All switches are operated manually. Due to the size of the Bauspielbahn trains, the effect is as if the track is actually narrow gauge.

This is obviously a work in progress and so far I spent only a few hours on building this. Tatjana is having a lot of fun with operating the locomotive and shunting cars, while Pascal is not quite convinced.


Ich lese seit einiger Zeit in Carl Carendts Micro Layout Scrapbook ueber Mikro- und Minianlagen. Mikroanlagen haben eine Flaeche von nur 4 Fuss im Quadrat. Es ist erstaunlich was manche Leute in so wenig Platz quetschen.

Ein Thema dass immer wieder aufkommt, ist wie man auf so kleinen Raum richtig Betrieb haben kann. Offensichtlich ist das zu wenig Platz um Zuege im Kreis fahren zu lassen (ausser man waehlt eine Anlage im "Pizzastil"). Darueberhinaus, ist es auf Dauer sehr langweilig einem Zug zuzuschauen, der nur im Kreis faehrt. Eine Loesung fuer dieses Problem sind Eisenbahnpuzzles, bei denen oft Rangierprobleme geloest werden muessen. Klassische Beispiele sind Inglenook sidings und der Timesaver. In beiden Beispielen liegt der Spass darin, eine Rangieraufgabe in sehr beschraenktem Platz zu loesen.

Ich habe meine alte Bauspielbahn genommen um diese Version des Timesaver zu bauen.
Gleismaterial ist HO Fleischmann Modellgleis. Alle Weichen werden von Hand gestellt. Durch die Groesse der Bauspielbahnzuege, wirkt das Gleis wie Schmalspur.

Offensichtlich, bin ich mit dieser Anlage noch nicht fertig. Bisher habe ich nur ein paar Stunden daran gearbeitet (und gespielt). Tatjana hat einen Riesenspass mit der Lokomitve zu fahren und Wagen zu rangieren, Pascal ist noch nicht so ganz ueberzeugt.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Installing a dryer circuit

I spent parts of the last couple weekends installing a new 120/240 dryer circuit in my garage. When we bought the house there was only a very old gas dryer. Here are my notes and lessons learned.

Dryers need a 30amp circuit, which translates to an AWG #10 wire. The national electric code requires 4-wire installations for new circuits. The proper socket is 14-30. I used Schedule 40 PVC piping to run the circuit from the corner of the garage to the back of the panel. I used separate THHN wires (black and red for phase, white for neutral, green for ground) inside the pipe, and a 4-wire Romex cable from the junction box through the wall to the panel.

Pulling the wires through the piping is tricky and requires two people. In order to make it through and around the bends, remove an inch or two from the wire insulation and hook a cable through the hole at the end of the fishing tape, all nicely tied up with plenty of electrical tape. One person pulls the fishing tape, one person feeds the cables at the other end of the pipe. For Schedule 40 PVC the NEC requires at most 4 bends between pull locations.

It's a very good idea to get an electrician for the actual hookup in the panel, and installation of the breaker. Well worth the money.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Taco Town!

I just can't stop laughing every time I watch this...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

5.6 quake on the Calaveras Fault

After last year's micro earthquake, we just had a real one.

No damage, but it was quite loud as the house rattled and ached. You could see the walls of our house rock and sway a little bit. The quake felt more like a 4.0 in our house and the shake map seems to confirm that, too. We had no damage, or moved items in cupboards or drawers, nor any cracks as far as I can tell.

Update (Oct. 31 2007, 16:04):

Aftershocks in the 1.5-2 range happened pretty much continously since yesterday. We just had another 3.7 jolt. Lasted only a few seconds this time, though, contrary to the almost 30 seconds yesterday.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The day the routers died ...

The send off from the RIPE 55 conference in Amsterdam ...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Emsingen & Talheim updated

It's been a month since the last status update on Emsingen & Talheim. Here is the current state of things.

PDFs: upper levels - lower levels

As you can see quite a bit has changed. In Emsingen, the station building moved to the north-side of the tracks. I added a 4th track that services the new engine maintenance facility. I managed to squeeze in a 3 loco roundhouse, as well as minimal facilities for steam engines. The main station tracks extend into the curve on the west side to provide longer track for passing or crossing trains. The facility is build partially over the lower end of the ramp coming down the mountain.

Passenger service in Talheim got scaled back substantially. It now is a really small stop with a couple industries, next to a small lake.

I added more landscaping features, including more structure of the mountain in the south, tunnels, a creek (with waterfall near the west end), bridges and the lake.

I changed the exit from staging so that trains can access either ramp towards Emsingen straight from staging. Either by going straight south through the tunnel, or via part of the tunnel loop on the main level then on around the mountain. Since staging is much more useful now, I scrapped the tunnel siding.

Im letzten Monat hat sich einiges getan wie man leicht sehen kann. Das Bahnhofsgebaeude von Emsingen ist auf die Nordseite der Gleise umgezogen und Emsingen Dorf habe ich durch ein Betriebswerk ersetzt. Ein kleiner dreistaendiger Lokschuppen, sowie Betriebsanlagen fuer Dampfloks habe ich in den vefuegbaren Platz quetschen koennen. Die Durchgangsgleise sind nun nochmal etwas laenger fuer Ueberholungen und Zugkreuzungen.

Passagierbetrieb im Bahnhof Talheim ist nun um einiges zurueckgestutzt. Die oertliche Industrie hat ein paar Gleisanschluesse mehr.

Ich habe die Landschaft weiter ausgestaltet. Berge, Tunnel, ein Bach mit See und Wasserfall, sowie die zugehorigen Bruecken.

Von der Ausfahrt des Schattenbahnhofs koennen Zuege nun in beide Richtungen nach Emsingen fahren. Entweder geradeaus nach Sueden durch den langen Tunnel, oder den kurzen Tunnel um den Berg herum. Da der Schattenbahnhof nun sinnvoller zu benutzen ist, habe ich das zweite Tunnelgleis unter Emsingen eliminiert.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Model railroads as a hobby?

I usually get odd looks when I say I'm planning to build a train room. Here's a typical conversation:

- "uh, a train room?"
me: yes, a train room. you know, model trains and such
- "Ah! I see for the kids!"
me: no. for me

From there it usually degenerates into frowns, odd looks, or this sad expression on faces that tell you people think whether I'm right in my mind. I don't mind.

I admit I've been bit by the train bug as a kid, a long, long time ago. I like the sheer massive power of a freight train passing through a station at full speed, as I'm waiting for my train to arrive. The shaking of the ground. The air pressure changes as the train passes through. The noise. The rumbling and clickering of wheels on track joints.

Having a father who built a train layout as I was really small helped, too. I think, the first layout was on our dining room table for a few weeks around Christmas. Or maybe my father moved the table, so we can still eat, while the train is set up. I don't remember much from what the layout looked like, all I know is it was magic.

Not long after that my father started work on a real layout. The arrangement was similar to the plan in this previous post, but instead of a double track mainline is was single track only. I don't remember much of this layout anymore, with the exception of the water manor in one of the corners, but I know he added that only later.

He built the bigger layout when I was maybe 12 years old. I did a lot of cabling and added details like a railroad crossing with functional warning lights, triggered by photo sensors.

So, there are lots of memories, but also much more.

Building a model railroad involves a lot wood working. Most notably the benchwork and supports for tracks and landscaping features. Then there is the electrical work. Making sure everything runs flawlessy.
All of this already requires a lot coordination, especially if you space is tight and you have certain ideas how the railroad should operate.

But wait there is more. In order to keep operating the railroad interesting the tracks on the layout need to make sense, without overloading the layout. There needs to be a purpose to each track. Most of the knowledge for this comes from railroad history and how services were run, factories received and generated freight, or operations in stations worked.

But wait there is more. It needs to be pretty to look at. Landscaping, grade separation, villages, cities, industrial areas, all need to be modeled. Bridges, retaining walls. Signals in stations. One can go into any level of detailing. People in yards, on station platforms, luggage carts, freight facilities, detailing of factories, warehouses, station interiors, ...

But wait there is more. Many locomotive or car models as they come from the manufacturer look fairly bland and freshly washed. Trains are often dirty. There is plenty opportunity to weather or "super" model.

But wait there is more. You can go for really realistic landscaping, proper looking trees, bushes, or grass. How does grass grow along a train track? What about the color of ballast? Once you start looking into this, it more and more becomes an art form, similar to painting. Color becomes important, as well as lighting, to make a model look realistic.

But wait there is more. I mentioned electrical before. You can build all kinds of automation and effects into a layout. Block control to automatically control trains. Monitoring of whether a track is in use or not. Speed modules to properly slow down a train when it looses power (i.e. is supposed to stop in front of a signal), or slowly gain speed. Digital systems often do that, but you can do that with analog, too.

But wait there is more. Since you built a railroad for operation, you should also run it. Invite friends over and have an "operating session". You can go as detailed as putting together an actual schedule with waybills, train consists, etc. and then run your model like a real railroad. Larger layouts can require 5 people to operate, plus a dispatcher who organizes the sequence of trains. A small one like the one I'm planning can probably keep two people busy for a couple hours.

So, in the end what you really are doing here is a create a world, and control everything that is going on in that world. It needs to make sense. It needs to look good, and function well. That's the challenge. Running the trains is the icing on the cake.

Ich werde oft schief angeschaut, wenn ich sage, dass ich ein Zimmer fuer die Eisenbahn baue. Hier ist eine typische Unterhaltung:

- "Ein Eisenbahnzimmer?"
ich: Ja, Modelleisenbahn und so
- "Ach so, fuer die Kinder..."
ich: Nein, fuer mich.

Ich sehe dann regelmaessig Schulterzucken, komische Seitenblicke, oder diesen traurigen Gesichtsausdruck, wenn Leute meinen ich waere nicht mehr ganz dicht im Kopf. Ist ok, stoert micht nicht.

Ich gebe zu, ich entdeckte meine Liebe zu Eisenbahnen als Kind, vor langer, langer Zeit. Ich mag die rohe Energie eines Gueterzugs, der mit voller Geschwindigkeit durch den Bahnhof faehrt, waehrend ich auf meinen Zug warte. Wie die Erde wackelt. Wie der Luftdruck sich veraendert. Der Krach. Das Rumpeln und Klackern der Raeder an den Schienenstoessen.

Es hilft, dass mein Vater eine Anlage aufgebaut hat als ich klein war. Ich glaube, die erste Anlage war auf unserem Esszimmertisch fuer ein paar Wochen um Weihnachten. Oder vielleicht hat er den Tisch auch verschoben, so dass wir trotz Zuegen noch essen konnten. Ich kann nicht mehr erinnern wie die Anlage aussah. Es war wir Magie.

Bald darauf begann mein Vater eine richtige Anlage zu bauen. Der Gleisplan war aehnlich zu dem in einem frueheren Posting, aber anstatt der zweigleisigen Hauptstrecke war der aeussere Kreis nur eingleisig. Ich kann mich nicht an viel erinnern, mit Ausnahme des Wasserschlosses, aber ich weiss, er fuegte das erst spaeter hinzu.

Er baute die groessere Anlage als ich vielleicht 12 Jahre alt war. Ich verlegte viele Kabel und baute viele Details wie zum Beispiel einen Bahnuebergang mit funktionierenden Warnlichtern die von Lichtschranken ausloest wurden.

Es gibt also viele Erinnerungen, aber das Hobby bietet noch viel mehr.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


When I was a child my father built a quite elaborate Maerklin layout. I do remember the many, many hours running cables under layout (yes, I must have gotten the bug from there somewhere). Here it is:

Deutschland Layout (PDF)

It's a two layer layout mounted on a plywood board (actually 3, it can be taken apart). The double-track main line starts at the station, wraps around the layout, through a tunnel, to the upper level, where it runs above itself, splits on the right hand side of the layout to go around a small mountain, meets again, and comes back down into the station. Xtrkcad calculates the longer grade is 1:30, and the shorter grade is 1:48, assuming a layer separation of 12cm.

There is a smaller loop on the lower layer, as well as freight and car storage in the middle. A bridge runs over the freight area forming a reversing loop opposite to the one in the freight area. I created the layout plan from memory, so it might slightly be off, but most of the track arrangements and station track lengths should be correct.

Happy Birthday!

The nice thing about this layout is that you can have a lot going on at the same time. There are 4 independent circuits (3 loops, plus switching), and another 4 circuits in the same arrangement via catenary. The layout is all analog operation and easily supports independent operation of 5 trains. One on the inner loop, two in each direction on the main line, plus switching operations. It's great to just sit back and watch trains. Also, operationally, the two reversing loops allow fluent change of direction of whole trains. Station tracks are secured with working signalling, so you can stop traffic on the main line to get a train from the inner loop to the outer track of the main line.

Given that there is so much track on this layout, there is not much space left for landscaping or prototypical operation. I did add a small engine terminal (near the storage tracks), as well as a passing track on the main line (not included in the plan linked above).

It was a lot of fun to create this track plan. Not only because it brought up fond memories of my childhood, but also to put into perspective what I'm going to be doing on my layout. I now know that a grade of 1:48 will be very steep, and even 1:30 presents quite some work to the locomotives. On a 1:48 grade trains will speed up substantially when going downhill, especially when giving them enough juice to make it up the long grade without problems (remember this is all analog operation). I remember how a train shoots into the station as it comes off the downhill grade, and will most likely derail if you try to send it onto other station tracks without slowing it down.

I know also have a better idea about track lengths for the stations in my layout, and what it will look like with the train lengths I have mind. This is especially helpful as I won't have any of the rolling stock or track here in the US for a while.

Als ich ein Kind war, baute mein Vater eine recht grosse Modellbahnanlange. Ich erinnere mich noch an die vielen, vielen Stunden, die ich unter der Anlage mit Kabelziehen verbracht habe.

Die Anlage hat zwei Ebenen und ist auf einer Sperrholzplatte aufgebaut (eigentlich 3 Platten, sie ist auseinandernehmbar). Die Hauptstrecke beginnt a Bahnhof, fuehrt entlang der Anlagenkante durch einen Tunnel zur oberen Ebene, wo sie oberhalb des Bahnhofs liegt, teilt sich zur Umfahrung des Bergs, und kommt wieder zum Bahnhof zurueck. Xtrkcad berechnet fuer die lange Rampe eine Steigung von 1:30, und die kurze Rampe 1:48, unter der Annahme eines Hoehenunterschieds von 12cm.

Auf der unteren Ebene ist ein kleinerer Kreis, sowie Fracht und Abstellgleise in der Mitte. Eine Bruecke fuehrt ueber die Frachtanlagen und bildet die Gegenschleife zu der Schleife im Bahnhof unten. Ich habe den Gleisplan aus dem Gedaechtnis konstruiert. Die Anordung der Gleise und Gleislaengen sollte korrekt sein, kleinere Abweichungen zum Original sind moeglich.

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag.

Das Gute an dieser Anlage ist dass hier richtig was los ist. Sie hat 4 unabhaengige Stromkreise (3 Kreise, und Rangierbetrieb), und 4 weitere Stromkreise ueber Oberleitung. Die Anlage ist komplett analog gesteuert und erlaubt problemlos den gleichzeitigen Betrieb mit 5 Zuegen. Einer auf dem inneren Kreis, je zwei in jede Richtung auf der Hauptstrecke, zusatzlich noch Rangierfahrten. Man kann sich zuruecklehnen und den Zuegen zuschauen. Betrieblich machen es die zwei Kehrschleifen leicht ganze Zuege ohne Stop umzudrehen. Alle Bahnhofsgleise und Kreuzungen sind mit Signalen gesichert. Um einen Zug vom inneren Kreis auf die Hauptstrecke zu schicken, braucht man einfach nur den Verkehr auf der Hauptstrecke zu stoppen.

Dadurch dass so viele Gleise auf der Anlage sind, ist natuerlich nicht mehr viel Platz fuer Landschaft oder vorbildgerechten Betrieb uebrig. Ich habe ein kleines Betriebswerk (in der Naehe vom Gueterbahnhof) gebaut, sowie eine Ueberholgleis auf der Hauptstrecke (im Plan oben nicht eingezeichnet).

Es hat viel Spass gemacht den Gleisplan zu zeichnen. Er weckte nicht nur Erinnerungen aus meiner Kindheit, sondern dient auch als Referenz fuer meine eigene Anlage. Ich weiss jetzt dass eine Steigung mit 1:48 sehr steil sein wird. Selbst 1:30 fordert die Lokomotiven. Mit 1:48 Gefaelle werden Zuege deutlich schneller, vor allem wenn sie genug Strom kriegen um die Steigung problemlos zu bewaeltigen (der Betrieb ist analog!). Ich kann mich gut daran erinnern wie ein Zug nach dem Gefaelle in den Bahnhof schiesst und mit Sicherheit entgleist, wenn er auf eine anderes Bahnhofsgleis fahren soll.

Ich habe jetzt auch ein besseres Gefuehl fuer Gleislaengen, und wie der optische Eindruck auf meiner Anlage sein wird. Das ist besonders hilfreich weil ich fuer einige Zeit weder Fahrmaterial noch Schienen hier in Kalifornien haben werde.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Emsingen & Talheim, take 2

Over the last couple week I made some edits to Emsingen & Talheim.

Downloads: Visible track (PDF) Hidden track (PDF)
--> Deutsche Uebersetzung

Obviously I added station and industry buildings, as well as a prototype for Emsingen village, along with streets. I'm not quite sure how to model the area between Emsingen village and Talheim station. Emsingen village will be mounted on a movable platform with vertical drawer rails, so that I can move it up if I need to access the far corner of the layout.

The basic layout stayed the same compared to take 1, but there are various edits in details. Talheim along the west edge of the layout is on the main level, while Emsingen station on the north half of the layout is on the upper level. Hidden staging runs under Talheim on the lower level.

The Emsingen freight area got a new track arrangement that allows for more interesting operation of spotting cars, as well as longer track and more realistic road alignment. Also, the station passing tracks became longer by using a curved switch on the West side of the station. Drawback of that arrangement is that I can no longer add an uncoupler near the west end of the station.

I made use of some extra space by adding a curved switch in the hidden trackage on the main level and extended the ramp to hidden staging all the way to the West side of the layout. That way I can keep the grade below 3% and even make the staging tracks longer since I can now loop down all the way to the south end of the layout before. Note how the ramp to staging is almost directly under the ramp from Emsingen station East to Talheim station South. This allows me to share supports, save space, but also makes construction harder since those tracks need to align fairly closely and I won't be able to build Emsingen station until the lower and the main levels are completed.

Operations-wise there will be one powerpack for the main line track, as well as one power pack each for the stations and hidden staging. That's 4 power packs. The main line track in each station can be switched between the station and the main line power packs to allow for proper switching operation within each station.

Im planning to install catenary everywhere with exception of the industry tracks (another 4 power packs). While we still have plenty of the old Maerklin catenary wire that needs to be bent around the curves, I'm most likely going to use the more realistic newer Maerklin catenary (or maybe even Sommerfeld, if I'm crazy enough) in visible areas of the layout, while the old catenary will be used in the tunnel sections and staging to make as much use of existing material as possible. The tunnel tracks will have catenary installed from the beginning.

Oh, and yes, any of the above is at least 6-9 months out, since the room I'm going to put this all in doesn't even exist yet...

Deutsche Uebersetzung:

In den letzten paar Wochen habe ich den Anlagenplan noch etwas verfeinert.

Offensichtlich habe ich die Bahnhoefe und Industrieanlagen hinzugefuegt, sowie einen ersten Entwurf des Dorfes Emsingen mit groben Strassenverlauf. Ich bin mir nicht so ganz sicher wie ich den Bereich zwischen Emsingen und dem Bahnhof Talheim modellieren werde. Emsingen Dorf wird auf einer Platte gebaut sein, die auf Teleskopstangen (Schubladenschienen!) nach oben fahren kann, so dass ich wenn noetig in die hintere Ecke der Anlage reichen kann.

Der Gleisplan ist im Groben gleich geblieben (siehe Versuch 1), diverse Details haben sich geaendert. Talheim ist an der Westkante der Anlage auf der mittleren Ebene, waehrend Emsingen die noerdliche Haelfte der Anlage einnimmt. Der Schattenbahnhof ist auf der unteren Ebene unter Talheim angeordnet.

Die Gueterverladung in Emsingen bekam ein neues Gleislayout mit dem man interessanter rangieren kann, sowie mehr Gleislaenge hat und einen realistischeren Strassenverlauf erlaubt. Durch Einbau einer Bogenweiche auf der Westseite des Bahnhofs wurde das Ueberholgleis laenger. Nachteil dieser Anordnung ist dass ich nun keinen Entkuppler mehr dort unterbringen kann.

Auf der mittleren Ebene habe ich verfuegbaren Platz verweden und unter Verwendung einer Bogenweiche im Tunnel die Rampe zum Schattenbahnhof deutlich verlaengert. Dadurch ist die Steiungen unter 3% und die Gleise im Schattenbahnhof wurden auch laenger weil ich nun die Kurve bis ans Suedende der Anlage ausholen kann. Die Rampe von Emsingen West nach Talheim Sued ist fast genau ueber der Rampe zum Schattenbahnhof. Dadurch spare ich Platz, kann Traeger teilen, und mach mir den Bau schwerer weil die Gleise richtig zum Liegen kommen muessen, ich aber den Bahnhof in Emsingen erst nach Bau der unteren und mittleren Ebenen einbauen kann.

Betrieblich werde ich einen Trafo fuer die durchgehende Strecke verwenden, sowie jewils einen Trafo fuer jeden Bahnhof und den Schattebahnhof. 4 Trafos. Das Durchgangsgleis in den Bahnhoefen kann fuer Rangierfahrten von Streckentrafo auf Bahnhofstrafo umgeschaltet werden.

Ich habe vor ueberall Oberleitung zu installieren, mit Ausnahme der Industriegleise (nochmal 4 Trafos). Obwohl wir einiges an alter Maerklinoberleitung haben, die ueber Kurven gebogen werden mus, werde ich fuer die sichtbaren Bereiche der Anlage wohl eher die realistischer neue Maerklinoberleitung verwenden (oder Sommerfeld, wenn ich dafuer verrueckt genug bin), und die alte Oberleitung nur im Tunnel und Schattenbahnhof um soviel existierendes Material wie moeglich weiter zu verwenden. Tunnelgleise werden von Anfang an Oberleitung montiert haben.

Ach ja, all dies wird fruehstens in 6-9 Monaten was werden, da das Zimmer wo das alles reimkommt noch gar nicht existiert...

A different way on beautifying your home...

Forget family photos, or classic paintings over your fireplace. We were discussing for a while how to add a bit more umph to the family room, especially how liven up the area around the fireplace. Christoph had this idea, and I think it worked out very nicely. Ths kids had plenty of fun making it, too.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Emsingen & Talheim

This is a variation of the original Emsingen layout.

Basically a (mostly) single track main arranged in a twisted loop.
I kept the main station on the upper level with a freight facility and angled at 30degrees. I dropped the single track "mountain route" as well as the upper level reversing loop.

The main line now loops around the Emsingen station on a steady downgrade and emerges in the south-east corner making its way to the Talheim branch station. North of Talheim the main enters a tunnel which doubles as a small staging area. Within the tunnel (and part of the Talheim branch) is a reversing loop. From hidden staging the line climbs around a mountain ridge in a wide loop to the South, back up to the east side of the Emsingen station.

The track layout of both Emsingen and Talheim is very preliminary.

The good news about this layout is that it actually functions reasonably well in 4.5sqm. It's definitely a good base to continue to work from.

Landscaping-wise, the north end around Emsingen could be a small down or even a bit more urban, with the south end being rather rural and forested. Talheim could be the station of a small village (not modelled) with some light industry and freight needs near the tracks. There could be a small creek or lake in the valley south of Emsingen, east of Talheim. Actually, in that same place an access hatch is needed to be able to work on landscaping in the north-east corner, as well as deal with "traffic problems".

What's wrong about this layout?

Both stations are not operationally interesting, or prototypical enough to make this layout entertaining. Talheim is very basic with only one industrial spur. Emsingen is too squeezed in.

I approached this layout making Emsingen the main station, but due to how the tracks end up, I'm having trouble finding good excuses or space for industry or passenger traffic.

Talheim has more track length in the station, but due to landscaping constraints, not much options to develop to the East. The mountain, and the line climbing back up to Emsingen, need to be somewhat believable. To the West sit the operators, and I don't want to skimp on that space either. I currently can fit two chairs in there which is just about enough. Might be able to take a small section of "air" just West of the tunnel entrance and add another industrial freight delivery option.

Not pictured above is the "basement" level with more staging capacity, and an opposing reversing loop accessed via the second tunnel track below Emsingen. Having that second reversing loop allows me to turn around trains without decoupling or non-protoypical backing up through the only loop, as well as more space for storing complete trains.

With some imaginative engineering when placing the room walls (well, basically pushing them out as much as possible into the surrounding garage), I could squeeze out roughly an additional 20cm on both sides. This would allow for a few neat options...

I could run part of the main (from Emsingen West to Talheim South) as double-track, or...

I could make the north loop around Emsingen wider, add more landscaping and industry/city, making this part of the layout more believable, or ...

I could make more use of wider curves, use some more flextrack in places where wider radi would look good (basically most curves that swoop from the back to the front of the layout), as well as provide more space for landscaping, or ...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Installing DSL splitter in phone box

The phone wiring in my house is fairly ... adventurous. Obviously, various previous owners added to the existing cabling by running new cables, as well as extending from one jack to somewhere else. There doesn't appear to be any ryhme or reason to where you might find a phone jack. My master bedroom has 4 jacks nailed to the baseboard in various locations. Three of those jacks are even on the same phone line.

All this crazy wiring is adding echo effects that are less than helpful for DSL. DSL, like any digital signal, likes sharp edges and not blurry, echoy, line noise. Less outlets should translate to higher DSL speeds, because the digital signal is not as much degraded. Also, every jack that shares the line with the DSL signal, needs to have one of those DSL filter pigtail thingies plugged in, which tend to look ugly or be great toys, depending on who you ask. All good arguments for trying to install a DSL splitter as close as possible to the phone network hand-off point also known as demarcation point or "demarc". On the right is a typical phone network termination box as installed by Pacific Bell/SBC/AT&T for a while now. On the left is the original box from when the house was constructed.

The neat thing about these new boxes is that they have a RJ11 jack for your phone handset for each line, so it's easy to determine whether a problem is due to inside wiring or a problem for the phone company. There is some space in the customer accessible, lower half of the box where I'm going to put the DSL splitter.

Here is the splitter I'm using. It came with the house, i.e. the previous owner used splitters wherever they needed to terminate the DSL wiring. I'm not quite following the logic behind that, but oh well, easy enough, I didn't have to go out and get a splitter. It has a RJ12 jack on one side for the line to the phone company, and two RJ12 jacks on the other side, one for the DSL line, and one filtered for the phone line.

Here's everything put together. As you can see there is some space, but not a whole lot. Actually, it's quite tight. I didn't take a photo of my final arrangement, where I moved the splitter to the left half of the box in order to be able to close it reasonably weather tight. We'll see how this goes. If it becomes a problem, I'll place the splitter in the old phone wiring box, but so far it looks and works just fine.

When I moved in I measured DSL line speed according to Broadband Reports at 4.2MBit/s down and just over 600 up. With the splitter in the phone box, I now reliably get 4.9 MBit/s down and still around 600 up. Depending on the remote site, time of day, etc. some test sites even gave me 5MBit/s down.

Best Pizza Ever!

Toronado's is a very nice beer bar with huge selection of beer on tap. Lots of friendly people, too. The guys at the bar carded Christoph. It was hilarious to watch as they tried to figure out his German identity card.

Next door, however, is Mythic Pizza. I would have never put a foot in that joint, but the guys behind the counter at Toronado's recommended it wholeheartedly. Ok, so we tried. The slices are less than so-so, but if you are willing to wait 10 minutes for a real pizza you get the most awesome pizza I had so far on the West Coast. Yes, Toronado's beer might have helped, as did the time of night, but still...

Christoph had a most yummy straight Peperoni pizza, while I went for a Onion/Spinach/Feta Calzone. The dough has a nice crust, not too soft, not too hard, with a flavour of its own. The toppings are plentyful with quite a bit of cheese. Neither one of us managed to finish the "small" pizza we ordered. We took it home, and ate more the next morning. It still tasted good. The sign of an excellent pizza.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Installing Structured Wiring Center

It always kind of bugged me that my basic infrastructure was ... not very infrastructury.

For the new house I decidced I do this right. First off, get a wiring panel for the network wiring. At Home Depot I found a nice metal case from Leviton (SMC="structured media center"). Leviton is selling various plugin pieces that use the specially spaced holes in the case, and allow to pack the various parts (phone, switch, dsl splitter, cat5 jacks, etc.) very tightly. However, their stuff is ridiculously expensive (e.g. a no-name 10/100 hub with the special mounting bracket for the SMC, was $29 at Home Depot). No thanks.

Since most of my equipment doesn't have mounting braces or holes anyways, I mounted only the CAT5e patch panel for the home wiring directly into the case. The rest is mounted on a wodden half inch backing board using regular angle brackets and plenty of zip ties. Looks a little bit odd, but is very functional.

The case of course as a nice front cover as well. I mounted the wireless access point outside the case so that it doesn't inhibit reception. I have excellent connectivity throughout the house. As the various computer locations in the house become permanent, the number of wires running into the patch panel will go up...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Meinsingen in 4.5 sqm

Meinsingen is my third attempt at squeezing a halfway interesting HO layout in 4.5 square meters, and the first that made it far enough to post here.

It's an "along the wall", two-level layout with hidden staging with reversing loop under the top left corner (not visible in the PDF). Contrary to other layouts I made so far, the operator is located in an aisle and surrounded by the layout. A single track runs along all 4 walls of the room and crosses the entrance on a removable bridge.

The main station of the town of Meinsingen is located in the middle of the room, dual-connected to the run-around track (so that trains can change direction), and represents the terminus of a rural branch line. North of the station is the small town/residential area of Meinsingen. To the West is a light industrial area with a few sidings, industries, and loading dock/ramp. There are minimal engine maintenance facilities in Meinsingen. Just enough to maintain the yard engine stationed here.
Traffic destined for Meinsingen consists of passenger trains and short freight locals that need to spot cars to the various industries, pick up cars and then leave again.
The part of the run-around track in the Northwest corner could be hidden behind trees. A tunnel would look tacky here, unless I spend much more space on a proper hill.

The Southwest corner is hills and a valley, maybe a small river or creek.

In the Southeast corner is the small station of Teilingen in the middle of the woods, with the branch to hidden staging. There is also opportunity for train meets here.

The scenery remains forested along the East side and over some meadows or maybe fields in the northeast corner, we are back at the outskirts of Meinsingen.

Operationally, I'm not too happy with this layout. Every train that comes out of staging has to cross the bridge along the door.

In order to get back into staging, each train either has to change direction in Teilingen (including potentially moving the engine to the other end of the train, or enter the Meinsingen station. In Meinsingen either the engine runs around the cars, or the cars are taken over by another engine. In order to turn around, steam engines need to back out of Meinsingen to the West, take the main line to the North side, then back up again into the station.

Spotting cars and operations within the Meinsingen station is not too bad, though, as long as the trains consist only of 4-5 2 axle cars, or at most 2 D-Zug cars. The station tracks only allow for short trains < ~40-60 cm.

Overall, there are too many compromises here to make this worthwhile in HO.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Our next house ...

A nice oceanfront property for sale in Carmel.

US Customs scrutinizing laptops

While browsing I found this blog about an experience when crossing the border into the US.

I'm baffled. Those customs folks are not looking for terrorism files (which I would kind of understand), but illegal porn. Also, apparently customs as the right to seize and inspect your laptop at will.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Oh SJC, I love thou

I spent the last 1.5 hours on the observation platform at Terminal C of SJC reading the paper. It's the only spot in this airport that is both outside and not ripe with Diesel exhaust. After finding out that Alaska 477 is (yet again) delayed, I tried catching a standby on the (also yet again) delayed Alaska 89 to Seattle. Contrary to last time the strategy backfired this time. All seats were taken and I got to enjoy the airport a bit longer.

In my rush to get to the gate counter, I accidentally left my rolling bag at the security checkpoint. ... and only noticed it as I just went back out of the secure area on my way to the observation deck. Thankfully, security here is a bit slow and didn't notice the unattended baggage until I came back asking for it.
AlaskaAir has (almost) their own security checkpoint that is in that weird corner of Terminal C with little to no services. At least the one and only restaurant there (Togo's) stays open to 9pm now. They used to close at 7pm which was really annoying, when you are booked on the 9:35 flight and forgot to take something to eat, or were thirsty.

Oh well, 477 should start boarding in another 15-20 minutes, so I should get on my way through security now....

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Emsingen is a goner

Arrgh! Remeasurement of the future train room revealed that I was working with 2 ft to much in length. The room is actually only 7.5 x 6ft. Also, the potential space in the garage turns out to be only 7.5 x 7ft unless I make access to the water heater really hard. Either one will make realization of the Emsingen layout impossible. I have to scale back and start over.

I really do want a loop, but it shouldn't look like a loop. I might not have the space to do a loop satisfactorily.

Bummer. I have to go back and review what I really want from this. Some ideas...

- Along the wall setup with a twisted, twice-around loop. Getting in and out of the room might be a challenge...

- A two level setup. The lower level, partially visible with continous traffic, and branch to a dead end station on the upper level with facilities. This way I don't need as many ramps that take up space and I could squeeze in some landscaping.

- A multi-level setup in out-and-back configuration. Dead-end main station with facilities on top level, a small way station with industry on middle level, a hidden turn-around loop with some staging on lower level. Neat. Possible? I have to try...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Wow. 100 posts. When I started this, I didn't expect I would write about all the stuff I ended up writing about. Funny how things turn out sometimes.

More Living Room

Started with the accent wall in the living room and Christoph cleaned up the fireplace mantel.

The accent wall is kinda scary.

Mind you, the white beam in front of me is about 6 meters (~18 ft) up in the air, the ladder I'm standing on is wedged between that beam and the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms and quite wobbly. It's ok ... as long as I don't move.

I spent the afternoon at Home Depot getting more stuff, ranch-style shutters, kitchen faucet and the wiring center for the data cabling. That will be fun, too. Let's see if I get to that before I go to Seattle again next week.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Living Room & Spa

Today we painted the living room. Quite a big job. Primer and 2 layer of paint. Christoph did a very good job helping. Left to do are the fireplace mantel, base boards and the wall to the kitchen which will be in a different color than the rest of the room. However, it already looks awesome.

After a very good dinner courteously of Patricia we retired to the freshly cleaned spa (Sundance '97 Calypso) for the first time. Pascal was entertaining the neighborhood. Given how much fun he had, he was easily heard all over the place...

One thing to mention, however, is the power usage of that thing. When I turned on the heater the wheel on the power meter went crazy. I've never seen a meter rotate that fast. We turned on the solar power system (though we are not supposed to, since PG&E didn't come out yet), but it didn't help much, even with solar production of almost 3kW. Based on amperage ratings the spa consumed easily 8kW or more, just for heating...

I learned today that Pergo changed their program multiple times over the last 8 years and there is zero chance we will be able to match the installed Pergo laminate floor in the family room, where we currently have 30% Pergo and the rest carpet. The options are to replace all of the flooring and install new laminate that somewhat matches what we have in the kitchen, or replace just the carpet. We are likely going the "replace everything" route. Even though it's more expensive, the laminate area is just a tad too small when the table is pulled out for full size, and it gets annoying quickly. That's a project for in a few months.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Vacation ... sort of

I'm taking this week off from work to work on various projects in and around the house. Saturday morning was a lost cause, running errands and a 2 hour visit at the Home Depot, including getting carpet on order. Tuesday a guy will come out to measure it all out. I also picked up another set of shutters for the bedroom windows. Turns out that 68 inch (shutter width) is shorter than 70 inch (window opening). Gosh, where did I leave my glasses when measuring this? Sigh. I tried, and it does look a bit tacky if the blinds don't cover the full width of the window opening. I see another trip to Home Depot on the horizon.

At least I finished Patricia's workstation in the master bed room today, and organized all the moving boxes still stored in the garage (a lot of boxes). At least all the boxes are now accessible in case we need something.

The workstation is built into a closet. A small top shelf, a 1/2 inch laminated pine board accross the full width of the closet. I recycled the keyboard drawer from our IVAR shelving unit we had in the old place and mounted it under the new board. We don't have closet doors on most closet in the house anyways, and the Asbestos guys removed the rails from the ceiling as they scraped off the popcorn plaster before we moved in. With the new carpet the setup will look really nice. I've set up babybaer to connect via the wireless bridge for now until I run Ethernet throughout the house.

Finally, I removed lots of nails and screws from the walls downstairs and drained the spa, so we can clean it. Took only 3 hours, during which I moved the garden hose regularly, so all of the lawn gets some water.

Monday, July 30, 2007

This weekend

Mowed the lawn. Again. I still have to find the right setting on the mower, so that the grass is not too long or too short ...

Painted the master bedroom. All of it. I came to love these 6m high cathredal ceilings. I set the ladder height so that I can comfortably reach up into the edge where wall and ceiling meet. Starting in the right hand corner, and work to the left (I'm right-handed), I first painted the corner with the brush (make sure it has lots of paint), then use the roller to paint the remaining area above the top of the ladder, as well as the area to the right as far to the right and down as I can/need to reach. Move the ladder an arm's length to the left. Repeat until opposite wall is reached. This method worked quite well and with a little bit care left only minor scratch marks on the wall that are easily painted over. I could paint down far enough that I could reach the lower edge of the paint easily from the floor. We'll do this again this coming weekend when we paint the living and family rooms.

I also did some odds and ends, saw the solar system peak at 3kW generated power, and was impressed by our neighbor building an office in their garage by himself. Nice wood frame construction, he can even extend the heating ducts into the room, so has it nice and warm in the winter. There is some spave in our garage to do something similar (just no daylight) as a train room. It would be twice as big as the current train room. Tempting. Very tempting.
The servers could go in there as well (just need venting to the garage). It would be much easier space-wise, for the layout, the operator(s) and visitors. As an added benefit, the upstairs room could serve it's purpose as storage room. We could put all of our books there, put in the IVAR with lots and lots of storage space, instead of trying to wedge this into the garage, which is a questionable place to store books to start with...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Emsingen with K track

Recent reading material makes me wanting to go a tad more realistic on my layout. It's small enough that I won't be building on this thing forever. Maerklin offers the more prototypical K track which doesn't look as toyish as the C-track, or old-school like M track.
However, I do want to reuse as much of the existing material as possible, so I modified the layout to have the visible track use K track and the hidden staging area use M track. Here is the result (click the image for a PDF version).

The main difference between K and M tracks is that K track doesn't have switches with 30cm radius. It only has the 42.5cm radius switches that connect the parallel track between R1 and R2. I think, the layout looks a bit more elegant. The 30cm radius switches are a bit clumsy.
The other difference is that the switches are shorter than the regular raster of 18cm, so I need to use slightly different pieces when putting it all together.

The biggest difference caused by the lack of R30 switches is the Steintal station. I had to put the side track on the north side of the station and while at it extended it a bit. There was no way to keep it the way I had it on the south-side of the station since it would collide with trains entering and leaving the hidden staging area in the tunnel below.
North of Steintal the track now goes up on an embankment on it's way to cross over the main track, visually separating the Emsingen station from the Steintal village.

I also slightly adjusted the trackage in the Emsingen freight area and in the operations facility, and gained back a bit of space for landscaping.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Joe Fugate's Siskiyou Line

An amazing layout, lots of detailed comments about model railroading, and a scenery clinic that aims to build really realistic looking scenery with lots and lots of very useful tips and tricks.

After reading the scenery clinic I decided that is exactly how I'm going to build the scenery on my layout. When I get to that...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Solar Step 3: Cabling & Inverter

Today the solar system setup was completed.

The rails holding the solar panels got cut so they don't protude far out on the sides. If you look closely you can see the cable piping on the roof between the panels on the top row. The panels are connected to a Xantrex GT3.3 inverter.

The silver pipe on the right carries the cabling from the roof to the inverter. The inverter converts the generated DC power to 240V AC, which is then fed to the main electrical panel on the left. There is a disconnect switch in the inverter that takes the inverter offline from the panels if needed. Fuses in the panel connect the inverter to the power grid (right above to the big yellow "solar backfeed" sticker).

We are generating power. While the system is rated at 3.9kW DC (22 * 180W/panel), due to inefficiencies of the panels and inverter, as well cable resistance, we can expect ~3kW AC peak production on very sunny days. The picture was taken late in the early evening with the sun already pretty low. The system still generated over 900W which was enough to spin the electric meter wheel backwards.

The city building inspectors will come by in the next few days to review the work. Afterwards, PG&E will replace the old electric meter with a TOU meter (TOU="time of use") and switch us to tariff E7. With TOU, electricity used during high demand times is more expensive than during low demand times, e.g. day vs. night. However, we also get compensated at the higher daily rate when we feed power back into the grid. Conveniently, the sun shines the brightest during high-demand times ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Solar Step 2: Install Panels

Today SolarCity delivered and installed the PV panels. They are actually bigger than I expected.

These are Evergreen ES-180 panels. That little black cable is where they will connect the power lines to the inverter. The panels went up on the roof, installed on the rails, ...

... and there we have it, the installation is almost complete.

Now all that is left is run the cables to the inverter and connect everything to the main service panel. They'll do that tomorrow.

Seagate hard drives error count

My brand-spanking new Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 and 7200.10 hard-drives are giving me grief with smartmontools:

Jul 24 21:30:05 chef smartd[2627]: Device: /dev/hda, SMART Prefailure Attribute: 1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate changed from 107 to 106
Jul 24 21:30:05 chef smartd[2627]: Device: /dev/hda, SMART Usage Attribute: 195 Hardware_ECC_Recovered changed from 58 to 59
Jul 24 21:30:06 chef smartd[2627]: Device: /dev/hdc, SMART Prefailure Attribute: 1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate changed from 111 to 106
Jul 24 21:30:06 chef smartd[2627]: Device: /dev/hdc, SMART Usage Attribute: 190 Unknown_Attribute changed from 66 to 67
Jul 24 21:30:06 chef smartd[2627]: Device: /dev/hdc, SMART Usage Attribute: 195 Hardware_ECC_Recovered changed from 66 to 64

oooh, I don't like the sight of this. smartctl -a /dev/hda shows millions of sector errors and ECC recovered entries. However, these drives are brand-new and shouldn't be showing such problems. What is going on? After some searching, it turns out that apparently Seagate is exporting any weak reads in the SMART attribute that other manufacturers only report unrecoverable errors with.

Ars Technica has a fairly good explanation in the forums.

That makes me less jittery, but I'll add monitoring for the Unrecoverable_Sectors attribute...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Solar Step 1: Rails installed

SolarCity came out today and installed the support rails for the solar panels. They put them up much higher on the roof than I expected. That's ok, the higher they are, the more exposure they have, and therefore less possibility for unwanted shading by surrounding trees. Even though they are really up high, they rails are not visible from the street.

There will be 3 rows of solar panels, each supported by two rails. I'm very curious how this all will look tomorrow.

busy weekend

Mowed the lawn. That went faster than I expected. There might even be photos some time soon. One trip to OSH, one trip to Home Depot. Fixed doors: Main entrance door, so it actually latches when you close it, and the side-yard door so it swings fully open when you try to open it. Set up Tatjana's bed. Took much longer than expected. Hooked up dryer in the old house, so we can use it until we get a dryer installed in the new house.

Ran a RugDoctor across carpet downstairs. It looked great while the carpet was still wet. The carpet is excrutiatingly dirty, even after having it professionally cleaned. As the carpet dried, it became evident that the RugDoctor not only sucked dirt out of the carpet, but also spread it. I've never seen this before when we used these machines in other places. The carpet near the sliding door, at the kitchen entrance, and near the main entrance looks very crappy now. The rest is just barely acceptable. We decided to replace not only the carpet in the Master Bedroom, but all carpet downstairs. I didn't like that green carpet that much to start with, but given how dirty it is, it has to go soon. After this cleaning, at least the kids (and Franziska) no longer have dirty feet just from walking around downstairs...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Punctured Sprinkler Pipe

I had the most fun installing these solar powered lights in our front yard on Friday. Really easy. Use the holes left from a similar installation by the previous owner, hammer in the spikes, attach the light. Done.

So I thought.

Friday evening as the sprinklers came on around the house, when the program got to the front yard, instead of the usual "sweeeeeesh", it made "blub blub blub blub". Hmmmm, I look out the window and sure enough there's water bubbled out the front lawn and running down the driveway to the street.

In the morning I dug up the hole and found this:

The spike of the solar light had neatly punctured the piping for the sprinklers. I considered various repair options, from replacing the pipe to wrapping some duct tape around the pipe where the hole was. This incident was a good motivation for a trip to OSH where I picked up among other things a Snap-Fix repair clamp from KBI and some PVC cement (the blue kind for water piping, not the one for electrical conduit, which I'll need for one of the next projects). The clamp consists of two halves that snap together and, with the cement, form a tight seal.

Pascal was most impressed with my artful color arrangement.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The things that need to get done ...

Master Bedroom:
- paint all walls and baseboards
- oil wardrobe
- new carpet
- set up wardrobe
- build Patricia's computer corner
- 2x RJ45 100BaseT network drop

Living Room:
- reduce count of boxes to zero
- paint all walls and baseboards
- find and set up new closet for games
- 2x RJ45 100BaseT network drop

- paint all walls and baseboards
- set up book shelf

Family Room:
- paint all walls and baseboards

- paint all walls
- paint cabinets and cabinet doors

Upstairs hallway:
- paint all walls and baseboards

- remove existing shelfing
- paint all walls and baseboards

- reduce count of boxes to minimum
- make washer operational with hot water
- install 240V/30A outlet for dryer
- buy and clothes dryer
- set up computer rack
- communications:
- DSL splitter in demarc box
- set up structured wiring center
- route phone/network lines through wiring center

- make spa operational
- review outside lighting
- check sprinkler control panel
- solar PV system installation

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


We moved to the new house. Finally. It was time. It's great. So much work to do. I see myself the next few months painting, cabling, redoing whatever I can come up with. And maybe, eventually, even start working in the train room.

What's on my mind these days? Changing my address all over the place. The DSL move from SpeakEasy to Sonic.net was surprisingly uneventful. I canceled the SpeakEasy contract on Monday, transferred the phone line on Thursday to the new address, Friday a tech came out because the line didn't work. When he was done he said there is a short in the internal wiring, and he disconnected that branch for now (fine by me). Turns out he was right. A stripped cable in one of the bedrooms at two wires touch each other. Easy fix. He also mentioned that DSL should already be active. I didn't get around to check this out until Sunday and indeed, the line was active, IPs and everything set up. Sold as 3-6MBit/s down, 768kBit/s up, I get 4.2/626 actual throughput. That's pretty darn good.

Moving cable service from my old place to the new one proved to be REALLY hard. Actually, it's still not moved. The first time I tried to schedule it 10 days ago. Comcast's Web site didn't work at the time. The next time I tried it last Tuesday, the Web site worked, I got through the order to a chat session where a "customer service representative" is supposed to confirm my order. Instead of a confirmation I got, "My systems don't work right now. Try again later. Goodbye." and he left the chat. Wow.
Friday I tried again (with the excellent help of "linksys" wireless access that a helpful neighbor installed and left wide open...). Got through the Web site, set up an installation date (3 days into the future for disconnection, 5 days into the future for connection at the new place. What? are you guys nuts? The frigging phone company can move a line in 3 hours...). Then I got to the chat session, chatted with a rep, he confirmed my order (yay!), but then, "for security purposes what are the last 4 digits of your Social Security Number?" (Say what? *sigh* ok, gave them) ... "that doesn't match what's in my database here" (well, thinking more about this, of course not, when Patricia ordered the cable setup she didn't know my number, and why does the cable company need my Social in order to deliver _TV_ programming to my house?) ok, just try 9999 I bet my Social is not in your database. "I'm sorry, you have to come to a local office" (WHAT???) Never mind, I'll call the 800 number. "They will say the same thing".
WHAT THE HELL??? I have to go to a local Comcast office to prove that I am who I am, so they can move TV programming from my old house to my new house? That is insane. And we are paying $50/month for this nonsense. Suddenly, DirecTV sounds like a good alternative.

The only reason why I want to stick with Comcast is for analog basic cable, so I can exercise the dual-tuner capability of my PVR500 tuner card.

I'm very, very annoyed about the incompentence of this company and its utter unwillingness to take customer service seriously. Bah. If only this idiots didn't had a monopoly on the market.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Just say No to Google

This is a so good I can't ignore it.

Just Say "No" to Google.

Form your own opinion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Save Internet Radio

They day of silence is in full swing. Radio Paradise is playing a recording of jungle sounds. Neat. but I'd prefer music. SaveNetRadio.org has plenty of information and contact information for your member of congress.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

N scale sites

A vast amount of information about N scale is at nscale.net. One forum post brought me to Aligator Lines which describes in vast detail the construction of a N scale layout.

Uncouplers in scale

In order to make the N layout a bit more interesting than just having a train run around in a circle, I want to allow for basic switching operations, and maybe even come up with switching games (hey, I have to spend my non-existing time somehow :-) For that I preferably need an engine that can uncouple remotely (doesn't seem to exist), or I need to place uncouplers in strategic places of the layout.

I'm used to Maerklin-style HO electro-mechanical uncoupler tracks. An electro-magnet pushes up a plastic bar that in turn pushes up an element of the coupler and reliably uncouples the cars, especially if the couplers have some slack. This is what I'm planning to use in the train room HO layout.

Things are different in N. First off there are multiple kinds of couplers accross manufacturers. The most popular ones are Microtrains style knuckle couplers (mostly US), and Arnold style square couplers (mostly Europe). The Microtrains style couplers come in several variations by various manufacturers, but are generally compatible with each other. They are elegant and look pretty similar to prototypical US style center couplers. The Arnold style couplers are big square brackets and don't look prototypical at all.

The N layout is going to be built with US material, so I'll use knuckle couplers. I was surprised to see no uncoupler tracks in the various track listings. Instead, people seem to rely on permanent magnets placed between the rails. There are many articles on the Internet describing how annoying that is, and how electromagnets are better. Well, duh. Who wants their trains to decouple as they are passing through a station, just because there happens to be a permanent magnet and a momentary slow-down of the train causes the couplers go slack enough, so that the perma-magent can uncouple half of the train? Bah. No permanent magnets for me.

This article describes how to modify cheap HOn3 electro-magnetic uncouplers and knuckle couplers on rolling stock to reliably uncouple on demand.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Changes in Emsingen 6

Some fine-tuning of the Emsingen layout.

Upper levels (PDF)

Lower levels (PDF)

(If you have trouble accessing these PDFs, right click the link, select Save as ... to download them to your computer. Or use a real browser, i.e. not Internet Explorer)

I re-arranged the switches in the main station starting with the east end where I added a cross-over from track 1 to track 3. Now I can reach all destination tracks (freight station loop & tracks 1-3) from either track of the incoming main line. At the west end of the station I replaced the switch with a double-slip crossing and extended track 3 to make up for the length lost at the other end of the station. Unfortunately this clashed with the street connection to the tank storage. Bummer. Might be able to model a stub road depending on space available

The freight station loop got re-aligned so that the tracks line up with the new switch situation. I'm not happy with how the freight tracks are now laid out. I did some experiments and switching cars now requires much more use of track 1, since there is no way for the engine to get to the other end of the set of cars to be switched without going through track 1.

The maintenance facility got realigned as well, and equipped with a water tower and coal facility. I squeezed in a maintenance shed, too. That might not stay. It's really tight.

Finally, the station on the hill got a passing/siding track. The idea is to allow for two way operation on this segment, and/or "Stueckgut" freight to the village. I might think of a small industry that fits in with the theme. I'd love to extend the inner track of the curve to the east, make it a real freight track, but the down ramp to the hidden staging yard is in the way. This is not a problem if I change the orientation of the switches and place the station on the northwest side of the hill. However, in that case it visually becomes part of the main station.

Speaking of which. I lowered all of staging to -14cm. That should leave ~3.5cm clearance for the underpass west of the station, if I squeeze a little bit with headroom in that area, as well as add a little bit headroom for the 5 finger crane in case of problems in the lower level.


We had the popcorn ceiling in the new house tested for asbestos, and the report came back with 1-5% of Chrysotile. Interestingly, the opinions on the Internet differ substantially, whether this is a carcinogenic variant of asbestos or not.

"Chrysotile, a mineral used for asbestos, is not a human carcinogen and no etiology link has been found for chrysotile exposure[1]. Every human and animal study showing asbestos etiology is associated with amphibole fiber asbestos, and there is evidence showing pure chrysotile etiology. However, some chrysolite ore deposits do contain amphibole fiber asbestos such as tremolite, crocidolite and actinolite. Amphibole asbestos minerals have hard, needle-like fibers that penetrate into the lung tissue by piercing the walls of the alveoli. Since the body cannot dissolve or dispose of the amphibole fibers they cause a scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, or cause a cancer of the lining (pleura) of the lung, called mesothelioma. Chrysotile fibers, on the other hand, are dissolved or otherwise expelled by the body."

That's encouraging.

However, another site says:

"Intensive inhalation of long and thin asbestos fibers over a considerable time period can induce pulmonary deseases such as asbestosis and lung cancers, as well as pleural diseases such as plaques, fibrosis, and mesothelioma. Such health hazards have drastically reduced the use of chrysotile, which is strictly regulated by law in western countries. See also Respiratory system disorders." (http://www.answers.com/topic/chrysotile)

Here is a comment from the harmless faction of the spectrum:

"Chrysotile is the dominant form of asbestos by far, and in the home it is generally harmless although asbestos workers must beware of lung disease due to chronic overexposure to the fine airborne fibers of powdered asbestos."

I.e. unless you are a worker exposed to Chrysotile, you are ok.

Finally, I found the URL of the Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center. This article illustrates some of the background, politics, lobbying and industrial influence behind the scenes. Excellent article.

Removing ceilings with asbestos is seriously expensive.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Emsingen 2

This is an improvement on the alternative layout I posted a few days ago. I named this layout Emsingen (since the trains are so "emsig" busy running around).

Here are the plans:

Upper levels (PDF)

Lower level (PDF)

Changes from the previous incarnation:

I added landscaping. All green sections indicate graded grass (e.g. along the road bed, hills, separation between grades, etc.). I put those generally in areas where I have sufficient room to model a nice grass slope. All brown sections indicate rock formations (e.g. around some tunnel portals). I added rock walls in the north-east corner to provide an explanation for the tight curves, and in the south-east corner to hide the track inside the hill without having to resort to retaining walls. The landscaping also hopefully illustrates better how the northwest track is going to disappear down towards the hidden station.

Along the north side of the freight yard I added a brick retaining wall to support the upper level track.

I also added streets around the station and the freight yard. Note how the access road to the station crosses under the tracks. The village on the mountain is modelled out and has a small station.

To have more purpose for track 3, I added a small oil storage facility off track 3.

Trackwise, I eliminated the helix and replaced it with a generous loop. This was possible by moving the cross-over switch that was originally in the east tunnel to the west-end of the station. Not having the helix will make this much easier to build and actually substantially smoothes out the grades. Throughout the layout grades are <= 1:30, with exception of the upramp on the north side of the freight area which runs at a grade of 1:35. Still not too bad.

In order to keep enough room for the underpass, the tracks on the lower layer are sloping down from the hidden station to the front and then back up again. There is a short side track on the lower level that is accessible just above the controls to easily add cars and locomotives to the operation.

I also rearranged the tracks of the hidden station for maximum length.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Layout Design SIG

There actually exists a "Layout Design Special Interest Group". Some in-depth critique of one rather big layout, there are much more critiques of layouts in the Critiques category. Some of them with insane amount of detail.

They also have an excellent primer on how to plan, build, and run model train layouts. Nice.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Original

I just noticed that I didn't include the actual layout when I was blabbering about how small the train room is going to be.

Here it is:

visible track: This includes the main station, the spur line into the mountains, freight and maintenance, some hidden ramps, as well as the double-track main line on the south side

hidden track: This is mostly the hidden station and ramps to get there.

The layout is dominated by the main station, it's freight yard and small maintenance facility. Tracks number 1 and 2 are the through tracks on the double-track main line. Track 3 is where trains to the rural mountain station arrive and leave. There are extension sides on either end of track 3 to allow for more interesting yard operation. The main line loops in the big curve on the west side of the station area around some short tracks for the maintenance facility on a 1:30 downgrade to tunnels under the hill in the south-east corner. Between the station and this main line track is light industry with a freight service track. A road bridges over the main line in the south and connects to the freight yard, too.

The spur line travels from track 3 on a step 1:50 grade across a bridge to another tunnel in the south-east mountain and makes its way along the eastern edge to a small rural station in the North.

The road leads under the spur line bridge and the main tracks to the station building. An interesting feature of this layout is the round pond that actually is a hidden hatch to access remote corners in the North-East.

The switch in the north-west corner leads to a loop track hidden in the northern mountain that connects to the western extension of track 2 (the loop track is shown on the page with hidden trackage).

In order to avoid steep grades on the ramps and allow clearances the tracks in the hidden station are set at a grade of 1:35 rising about 3 cm from north to south. The north-east corner of the hidden station is 17 cm below the main station. The curve in the west rises with the same grade as the respective visible curve of the main line.

An alternative layout

I can't sleep... so I spent more time with an alternative layout.

Here is the layout:

The visible parts: The main station, mountain track, freight and servicing area

The hidden parts: Mainly the ramps and the hidden station

The theme is a station at the end of a dual-track main line coming from East. At the south-west end of the station, the two single track lines split: One line takes a gentle slope down and escapes out of sight to the hidden station. The track is hidden behind the dam of the other line climbing a 1:40 grade along the north side (to get over the station tracks on the east side), swings around a mountain on a gentle 1:30 downgrade and disappears in a tunnel to reappear again as part of the two-track main line (I had to cheat somewhere to close the loop).

Note the track loop built into the freight area north of the station building. The freight area has a depot and loading ramp, as well as a judicious amount of uncouplers. Nearby is the main station building with platforms for travellers. There will be a few additional buildings, and a road that crosses under the tracks to the south. There might be enough clearance between the tracks on the north side to let the road continue, but there is a lot of track in the way, so I'd likely just let the road end at the station. The city that belongs to the station is not included in the layout and located to the south-west where we (sadly) need to leave space for the operator.

At the south-east side of the station a small locomotive maintainance and service area is ready to refuel engines with coal, sand, and whatever else is needed. This is also the home of the yard engine. In order to get from the maintenance area to the freight facility the yard engine needs to zig-zag accross the main line.

On the mountain in the south-east is the scene of a small village in southern Germany, complete with church and houses. In general, the landscaping and style of the buildings would be as found in the North Black Forest in southern Germany. The village has a small stop with station building on the mountain line that is served by the occasional "Schienenbus".

The inside of the mountain houses a helix that brings one track of the main line down to the hidden station. Because of clearance requirements and how the track ended up, the lower level is 19cm below the station level. In general I'm working with 11cm clearance between track levels. The track in the helix has a grade of 1:40, more than I wanted but there is just not enough space. Even though it's not consistently marked this way the lower level is of course completely invisible from the top.

The hidden station is accessed via the helix, as well as the single-track line mentioned earlier which gently slopes down mostly hidden from sight along the edge of the layout. The hidden station is built around another loop of track that works opposite from the surface one, so depending on the direction they are traveling, trains can change direction using the loops without the need to back up. The hidden station can hold 4 trains of moderate length.

The area in the lower left corner (south-east) is for the operator and guests. It measures roughly 120 by 60 centimeters. Just enough space for the controls and a stool.

The one thing I really like about this layout is that a lot of track is visible (contrary to my crazy digging action mentioned earlier), there's good opportunity for landscaping and watching trains as they go by. This is also a good play layout with the two reversing loops, the station, maintenance and freight facilities.

Friday, June 01, 2007

title company

We signed all the papers for the new house today. 90 minutes of initials, and signing your name. After 30 minutes, my signatures looked like a wild jungle of crooked lines.
The final stack of paperwork is 1 inch thick. All that's left to do is deposit a cashiers check with our down payment and out of pocket expenses by next Wednesday 3pm and escrow will close Friday.

Curiously, I'm not that excited. The whole morning has been quite anti-climactic. Loan docs arrived late and were revised again halfway through the sitting for clerical errors. I was a bit tired and annoyed.

I think it will be different by the time we move in. I'm really looking forward to taking over the house, painting (ok, not as much), moving in, unpacking, decorating, deciding what goes where, doing small repairs, ... and living there.

But first I'm taking off for a week in Seattle again. The next week the new roof will be installed. This will be fun. The HOA architecture committee conditionally approved the reroof, but I need to provide a sample of the material, and they are holding the approval until we legally own the house. Yay. More red tape...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Model train, IKEA coffee table and the best woman of them all

The best woman of them all suggested a while ago to build a small model train inside a coffee table in the living room, once we do have a living room that is big enough to do that. I am continously surprised by the ideas she comes up with.

I started considering how to do this. Magiker seems to be a good choice. Not too expensive, glass top, sufficient space between glass and shelf to do something interesting. 65x125cm useable space is too small for HO, even for a simple loop. But it's big enough for a small N scale layout. The sides need to be closed off, painted to match the rest of the table, to keep out hands of curious children. The best woman of them all requested I also properly landscape the inside of the table (well, duh of course). So far, so good.

Today, we talked about it again, and the best woman of them all was yearning for a desert setup instead. Sand, small stones, and cacti under glass. Similar to what we've seen a few years ago in a hotel lobby in Los Cabos. "How about doing both?", I blurted out. She looked at me. Smiled. And said, "... that's a great idea. Let's do that!"

I'm just happy to be married to the best woman of them all.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

HO Layout in a small room

In our new house we have a small storage room that I'm planning to convert to my train room (and also run the server computers there). The room is 167x283cm. Enough space to set up a new layout of our Maerklin HO trains, but it's all very, very tight. I discovered a free track layout tool XTrkCad from sillub.com that works on Linux (and Windows, too). It's definitely dated by today's standards and compared to currnent tools available for Windows, but gets basic planning job done.

The theme I'd like to build is a small station at a double-track mainline with some side-tracks and engine maintenance facilities and a single track spur line that goes steep into the mountains. At the end of that line is a small rural station with a little freight and passenger traffic. I also definitely want a hidden storage area for trains. To make things a bit more interesting I figured I set the station at a 15% angle diagonally accross the available space.

The problems start with the fact that a 180 degree curve double-track is 105cm wide, so that leaves at most 55 cm on the side of the layout for the operator that does need to fit into the room as well.
In order to avoid too steep grades, I don't want to go above 1:40 on the main line (i.e.4 cm elevation gain on 1 m of track). That means my grades need to be at least 250cm long to get 10-11cm clearance. That is almost the full length of the room. Taken together it became clear very quickly that I need to pay very close attention to grades and clearances along the track, as well as use every centimeter of track I can get for elevation gain. This is going to be one heck of a mountainous layout.

The railroad builders of the railroads accross the Alps or the Sierra Nevada must have felt similarly...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Homeowners Association and Architectural Review

Oh the joy of Homeowners Associations (also know as "HOA"). They keep the appearance of the neighborhood uniform, no-one can endlessy repair cars on the sidewalk, deal with neighborhood complaints, enforce the rules and can do a good job of maintaining property values. They also maintain common facilities or landscaping. I really enjoy the pool, mature trees and landscaped grounds around our townhouse.
HOA's also can be a pain to work with if you are doing something a bit out of the ordinary. And you have to follow the architectural review process if you are making any changes to the outside appearance of the house that are visible either from the street, or from any of your neighbor's lots.

The association we are moving into seems to be particularly anal about enforcing their rules. On the other hand the neighborhood looks really good.

I will need to deal with the architectural review committee very soon, as we want to have the roof on the new house replaced before we move in, as well as install solar power as soon as is practical.

How much do you like YOUR realtor?

Talking to friends (and experiencing it ourselves), people are seldomly 100% happy with their agent. There is just too much at stake and you are obsessing over details that are important to you. Your agent might have slightly different priorities than you. In a perfect world, your agent is picking up on the vibe and delivers what you want.

Most full-time agents are probably sufficiently experienced and well-versed in the legal details involved with buying a house. Still, personal chemistry is really important, but how do you find the agent that is perfect for you?

Invite several agents and have them present their plan on how they would market your house, why you should choose them, and what they think are comparable homes to yours. The main objective here is not what they say, but how you feel about them as a person. Do they come across as slick or slimy? Honest or personable? Genuinely concerned about your priorities? You will work with those folks very closely for a few months, so listen to your gut. Listen closely. Clarify things that don't make sense to you.

There is a vast difference between an agent that says "I can sell your home!" and one that says "What is important to you?" Some agents are very aggressive how they market your home, some take a more laid-back approach. Some do an open house for you every weekend, others see them as a waste of time.

Bottom-line: Make sure you are compatible. If you are having a really good conversation over the proposal and the numbers end up in just about the right ball-park, you're in the right place.

What about commissions?

Clearly understand how the seller/buyer agent commissions work. Look at both the overall commission, but also the split between buying and selling agent. Apparently, it's customary to pay 3% to each agent, but I haven't met an agent here that actually proposed the full 6% of the sales price. The highest commission I ran accross while putting my house on the market was 5% (2% for selling agent, 3% for buying agent). This can vary dramatically from location to location. In some areas a 2.5% split is common. Sometimes selling agents take a very small commission for themselves, and pay 2.5-3% to a buying agent, resulting in a lower overall commission for you.