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 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.