Dec 05

Keeping Warm – with Corn

The warm spell is definately over with highs now in the 20′s and the bees are nicely tucked away in their hives. The front that brought an end to the heat wave came in with a roar with wind gusts I believe near 50 mph. I ended up having to check all my hives and replace telescoping covers which had blown off the hives and landed 20 feet away in some cases. As I was coming home from work I wasn’t dressed appropriately and between the standing water soaking my shoes and gale force winds below freezing, it wasn’t pleasent.Quadra-Fire Sante Fe

So it made for a good weekend to sit by the fire and do on overdue computer work. We actually installed a Quadra-Fire pellet and corn stove in both the home and at my wife’s business to help cut down on fuel costs (our furnace runs on fuel oil). Of course it helps that we live in an area where corn is plentiful and we can buy it directly from the farmer.
Overall my wife and I both love the stone. It isn’t enough to heat the whole house; mainly because the heat isn’t distributed well because of the floor plan. It has automatic start and can be hooked to a thermostat so it can be left on when you aren’t at home. It can use a direct vent strait out the wall with a 3″ID double wall pipe making installation a breese (and you get to play with power tools!). It has very minimal power requirements to run the blowers and electric start so it can be plugged into any 120v outlet. It generates a bit of smoke when starting, but is virtuly smokeless once started and the exaust is cool enough to put your hand in. It does need daily cleaning (especially if you run corn or a mix of corn and pellets that is required for auto starting), but it typically only takes about a minute and has several pulls built in to clean the various parts. The top and sides get warm, but not too hot to touch. In fact several of our cats love sleeping on it while it is on. Overall it is quite well thought out and we wouldn’t trade it in, however:

I do have a few complaints and suggestions:

  1. The corners of the soot drawer (underneath the unit to catch and remove the ashes) are not tight or sealed. This means soot leaks out and forms a small pile at the botton front corners of the unit. I’m not sure why the corners couldn’t be welded or simply sealed with a heat resistant sealant as several parts inside the unit already are. (It just seems cheap and a big oversight in an otherwise nicely designed stove).
  2. The unit comes with a can of paint to touch up scraches and a small scraper to break up clinkers and scrape the fire pot. It’s a small thing, but very nice to have included. However, I’m surprised Quadra-Fire stops there and doesn’t also include a 99 cent cheap 1″ paint brush to clean the soot. (I bought one myself).
  3. It does come with a thermostat, but it’s a cheap bimetal mechanical model. I would have appreciated a cheap digital thermostat with a stove that costs a couple thousand dollars. I purchased one locally for $20 retail.
  4. The 3 speeds is a very nice feature and a big selling point in my opinion. However, I was surprised that the only way to control the speeds is via a switch in the back of the unit. There are no contacts available so that it could be controlled by a remote switch or even a dual stage thermostat that could turn the speed up when the room is colder. Such thermostats are readily available (typically for heat pumps) but could be used with the stove if only the connections were available. The switch that is built in unfortunately is part of a sealed speed control unit with a ‘warrantee void if removed’ seal. So unless one wants to void the warrantee, you cant use a remote switch or multiple-state thermostat.
  5. The speed of the feed mechanism is controlled by a plate inside the hopper where the fuel is. It’s located such that it’s nearly on the bottom so the hopper has to be mostly empty to adjust the feed which is inconvenient. We also found that with our two units, the plate had to be adjusted significantly different for the two units to work properly. On the stove at home it needed to be adjusted all the way down or the feed rate was too high (the fire was too high), yet the same model we have at work wouldn’t maintain a fire at all unless the plate was raised to increase the feed rate. It seems to me that the feed rate between units with feed control plates set identically don’t end up with the same feed rate. It would be nice if the rate could be controlled electronically by a simple knob located inside the unit. It would also be good if there was a feed rate ajust for each of the 3 speeds as we have found that a different feed rate is optimal for each speed. (We had originally set the feed rate when on low and it ended up being too fast for the medium speed setting. Now we have it set well for the medium speed, but it tends to be a bit slow (bit still useable) on low).
That may sound like a lot of complains, but we still are very happy with the stove and think it offered a better value than the other stoves we looked at.
One optional item I’d like to see avaliable for the stove is a hopper extender to increase the capacity of the hopper. I think it would be a simple matter to have an extender consisting of a cast iron top (identical to the one already on the unit), sides to match and sit inside the ridge on the existing top and a sloped bottom to feed the fuel into the existing opening. The cast iron lid could be removed and simply used on the extender.

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    Dec 01

    Heat Wave

    It’s been in the high 50′s and low 60′s for more than a week now, with lows that often didn’t get below 50. It’s the kind of warm spell you would kill for in mid March that brings the Silver Maple’s into bloom and gives the bees a huge jump start in spring. The kind of day you just want to sit under the maple trees and listen to them literally hum with excitement of the bees. But these above normal temperatures in December bring more concern than anything else. It means the bees are much more active then they normally would be this time of year and that means they are using more of their winter stores, something that is not in good shape after the poor flow this summer and fall. It also means robbing.

    I noticed one hive this past Tuesday at home that had considerably more activity than the others and sure enough, the activity was robbing. A quick peek under the cover told me it was too late for this hive. Chances are that since this hive was too weak to defend it self, it would not have survived the winter anyways. Still It’s depressing to see.

    As of last night though the warm spell was over. It ended with lots of rain and now is in the 40′s and is very windy. We still have been fortunate not to get the snow and freezing rain other parts of the country have had.

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    Nov 22

    Another Honey Stick Machine

    I recently was informed of another Honey Stick Machine it is on the market. It is not automatic, but sounds like it may work a bit faster than how I’ve currently been filling straws. It consists of a special pump that is made special in india that fills the straws with raw, unheated honey and special trasy that hold 14 straws for sealing. The gentleman selling them says that with two people he can fill and seal 1000 straws per hour.

    The machine costs $1000 and is available from Dunbar Honey Farm, Jerry Dunbar, 586-770-9953. I do not know if that price includes the sealer or not (I’m assuming he uses an impulse sealer as I do). If anyone gets to see this machine or has one, please let me know what you think of it.

    Update: The gentleman who is offering this machin says he knows the the person who purchased the Patent for the Sticky Machine and that that it isn’t being produced yet because he has been unable to get the design to work. This seems to confirm the rumors I’ve heard elsewhere. Dissapointing as I would have loved to save all the time and money of designing my own. I had some hope that the Sticky Machine would soon be on the market again as I have know some people who have seen the Sticky Machine’s Inventer with a working version of the machine, but it appears it won’t be any time soon.

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    Nov 15

    Honey Stick Machine – Part 3

    IR Detector TransistorI’ve already covered the outputs required from the Phidgets Controller in previous articles. But you can’t forget the inputs. While the Honey Stick machine could be setup to simply run on timings when to do what, and assume that each task is done correctly, it would be prone to problems if anything varried. Even differences in the thickness or temperature of the honey would cause problems. Thus I intend to include quite a few input sensors to make the machine smart enough to adapt to most situations. These inputs will include:

    1. Temperature of the straw sealing heating elements. Temperature when melting the plastic ends is critical to getting a good seal. Too low a temperature won’t seal the straw, and too high will melt though and leave a hole. While this could be controlled by a simple thermostat, it’s easier to adjust on the fly if the computer knows what the temperature is. Plus, sine the Phidget’s USB interface has plenty of inputs, it costs a fraction of the amount that a dedicated controller would cost.
    2. Temperature of the honey. My honey stick machine will include a heater for the honey (or other syrup) to keep it flowing well. We don’t want to overheat or even pasterize the honey (my customers perfer raw honey), but it flows much better at 90 degrees than at room temperature (which may only be in the 60s at my house in the winter). It may also give the computer an idea of how fast the honey should be flowing so as to adjust timing of filling cycle.
    3. IR Emitter and Detector pairs. These will basically function like the safey eye on your garage door. When the beam is broken, something is in the way. In this case it will either be a straw or honey. We will have 4 such pairs to determin if there are straw in the bin, in the filler holder, if there is honey in the feed line (or if we have run out of honey), and if the honey has filled the straw. I expect the positioning of this last sensor to be critical to get repeatability without having to clean the heating elements constantly. Too much honey in the straw and the honey will leak out everywhere, too little and it will leave air bubles and burn though the straw. (Less time/heat is required to seal an empty straw vs. a straw with honey at the sealing location)
    4. Current Sensor to determine if the pump is running. This wouldn’t seem necessary as the computer is telling the pump when to turn on, but the pump we have chosen has overrides that may cause it to turn off without the computers knowlege. Thus I think it would be usefull to have this additional input. It may prove to be unnecessary in actual use (the pump may never turn off on it’s own), but I will include this circuit in the prototype.

    That pretty much fills up all 8 of the Phidgets analog inputs, and fortunately I can’t think of anything else I need to monitor at this point. I will take advantage of several of the Phidget’s digital inputs as well to add features like a ‘kill switch’, power switch, start button, etc. so that it could basically be run without looking at the computer screen (once all the bugs get worked out). The Phidget’s also has 8 of these digital on/off inputs, more than I can think of a use for right now.

    Status Update: I have ordered and received most of the electronics parts that I think I’ll need. I’ll begin wireing and testing circuits possibly later this week if time allows. I do plan on building them in modules and not just one big circuit so that it will be relatively easy to adjust for the final machine.

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    Nov 09

    Honey Stick Machine, Part 2b

    One other problem using the Phidgets USB interface is that it simply doesn’t not have enough outputs to control all the devices I want to control. We could simply use a second USB interface, but in the interest of minimizing cost I’m trying a different method. Instead I will use the following circuit to control 8 devices using only 4 outputs of the USB interface. It is a relatively simple circuit that can be built with 6 off the shelf 7400 series TTL ICs. It also could easily be expanded so that 5 USB interface outputs control 16 separate devices. (and theoretically up to 128 devices using all 8 outputs of the USB interface) The D-type flip flops are positive edge devices.

    4 Input to 8 Output driver

    One Input to this circuit determines what state the selected output should be in, and the 3 selector inputs determine which of the outputs should be set. In operation the state should be selected first, then the selector inputs should be sent. One significant outstanding issue is if the outputs from the USB interface change simultaneously or not. If they do not then the circuit may inadvertantly change the state of other outputs on the way to changing the desired out. If this turns out to be the case then an input latch and delay will be required to ensure the inputs arrive at the same time. I won’t be able to determine which case is true until I can breadboard and test the circuit.
    Another inherent limitation of this circuit is that the 8 outputs can only be changed one at a time and could effect timeing. In most cases this isn’t a problem, but for the solenoids and other devices that need to be more responsive I’ll use one of the remaining 4 outputs of the USB interface.

    I should note, that after working out the above, I ran into the specs for the 74LS259 8-bit addressable latch and it appears that it could replace the entire circuit above. It may however suffer from the same problem as the above cicuit and may require the inputs be latched and timed so the output is as expected.

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    Nov 03

    Honey Stick Machine, The Manual Version

    Making honey sticks (or maple syrup) sticks is a straitforward and simple process. The basic steps involve filling a straw with honey and then sealing both ends. The difficulty arises in actually getting the honey into the straw and doing it efficently (so that the time it takes to make them isn’t more than the value of the honey stick itself).Plastic Syringe

    Initally to see if they could be simply made, a sort of proof of concept, and so that we could make some as samples we used a large plastic syringe (pictured to the right) from US Plastics. The tip did need modified slightly to fit inside a standard drinking straw (available from any resturaunt supply store). The tip can be molded by heating it and molding it carefully with your fingers, being careful not to burn yourself. It does work reasonably well if the honey is warm, though is not really suitable for making large numbers because it needs to be refilled every dozen honey sticks, is relatively slow and can be quite a strain on the hand.
    Impulse Sealer

    Sealing the ends or the straw is a simple task using an impulse sealer (left). Again these are available from US Plastics, on ebay and from many other retailers. The heat is easy to adjust with the knob on the front of the sealer. You will need to adjust it by trial and error until you get a good seal. Do not adjust it by using an empty straw. You will quickly find that it needs far less heat to seal an empty straw than a honey filled straw. (I should also note here that the impulse sealer is also very usefull for sealing plastic bags and even making pollen patties, so it is usefull for more than just making honey sticks.)
    Stainless Steel Tank

    Making honey sticks in larger numbers requires a better setup for filling the honey sticks however. Instead of using a heated honey tank, hand pump and manifold that holds several straws, we have used a simple stainless steel pressure tank. This tank (right) is a surplus tank originally used for holding premixed soda (or pop). Mine was purchased on ebay. Honey is placed in the tank and an air compressor is attached to pressurize the tank to 90psi. The straws are then filled using a simple valve with a brass nozzle. It does work better if the honey is warm, though I do not like heating up the honey as much as other systems do and have found this system works resonably well at 90 degrees. Before we start the tank is placed in our honey warmer, but during use it’s placed in a 5 gallon bucket with a band heater to keep it warm (sold for heating up honey buckets by Mann Lake and others).

    To make it easier to fill many straws at once, a plastic or wooden bar with holes (and split down the middle) is used to hold a dozen straws at once. This makes it relatively easy to fill and seal several at a time (below). It does make a bit of a mess, hence the newspaper for easy cleanup, but does not make as near the mess as the plastic syringe. Once sealed the straws ends can be cut close to the seal and washed in warm water to make the finished product. With practice you can get to the point where many of the straws are sealed very close to the end and don’t need cut.

    Filling Honey Straws Sealing Honey Straws

    I am building an automated honey stick machine as it’s simply getting to take too much time when making honey sticks by the 1000. But if you are looking to make some as samples, or even several hundred at a time, the above works pretty well with considerably less expense than a commercially available system.

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    Nov 01

    Honey Stick Machine, Part 2a

    Some of the outputs of the Phidgets USB interface will be used to drive AC voltage. For these I’ll simply use a solid state AC/DC relay because it provides reliability and isolation from the AC line. Plus it’s much cheaper than building your own circuit unless more than an Amp or so needs switched.

    The rest of the outputs will be used to drive solenoids using a MOSFET solenoid driver as pictured below. The MOSFET driver was chosen simply because I was concerned about the somewhat limited mechanical life of the relays in a transistor relay driver.

    MOSFET solenoid driver

    MOSFET Solenoid Driver: This is a very simple circuit and is repeated for each of the solinoid or other DC devices we wish to control with the Phidget USB interface. It accepts a digital 5 volt input and can drive a significant amount of voltage and current depending on your selection of MOSFET. I have added a LED to the circuit as well to indicate the state, after all… the most important part of a fancy machine is a lot of blinking lights.

    R2 is a a 1M Ohm resistor intended to drain the voltage on the input when it goes to 0 and speeds up the switching speed (as the MOSFET gate can act as a capacitor. R1 should be sized to limit the current though the LED, with a typical LED with a 1.7 voltage drop and 20mA current rating , R1 = (V – 1.7)/ 0.02. Or 515 Ohms at 12V or 1115 Ohms at 24V, etc. (round up to the nearest resistor).

    Phidgets recommends D1 be a 1N4148 diode, which is a high speed 200mA 100V diode. Due to some of the currents I will need to be switching, I’ll be using a 1Amp or better version instead.

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    Oct 26

    Honey Stick Machine, Part 2

    SolenoidAs previously mentioned, I intend to use the Phidgets 8/8/8 USB interface and a computer to control the honey stick machine. Before I get too much into the actual mechanical design, I need to define the steps involved and all the output’s and inputs required.

    First the outputs…. I intend to use solenoids for most of the moving parts of the device. They seem to be more readily available than the pnumatic cylinders used in the Sticky machine, and for me at least, I’m much more familiary with the electronics with my electrical background. Plus, with a rated life of 2,000,000 cycles they should be reliable enough. I originally intended to drive them with simple transitor driven relays, and even designed the driver circuit, but I was concerned with the mechanical rating of only 100,000 cycles on the relays. This may sound like a lot, but with a machine in the $3000 price range, if it needed replaced every 100,000 honey sticks, it would cost 3 cents per stick just for the machine cost alone, or around $132 per 5 gallon bucket of honey processed, nearly the price of just sending the honey to someone else to fill (at $175). So to minimized the cost per stick, I’ve opted to use mosfet solenoid drivers, and solid state relays for the AC devices (the pump, etc.) which should reduce the cost of operation by a factor of 10 or more.
    The outputs are as follows:

    1. Straw feeder, drops the next straw into the machine (solenoid)
    2. Straw ejector, kicks out the filled straw from the machine (solenoid)
    3. Clamp, holds the straw while in the machine (solenoid)
    4. Filler nozzel, moves the filler nozzel into place (solenoid)
    5. End positioner, effectively clamps the straw horizontally while filling (solenoid)
    6. Right sealer (solenoid)
    7. Left sealer (solenoid)
    8. Honey pump (120V AC pump, AC relay)
    9. optional – Honey heater (AC relay)
    10. optional – right sealer heater (AC relay)
    11. optional – left sealer heater (AC relay)
    12. not used

    Of course one should note that more than 8 outputs allowed by the USB driver are proposed. While we could do without the heater relays, it would be nice to control everything from the computer and I’m not quite sure what I’ll run into once I get into the guts of the machine so an extra output is good.

    Demultiplextor and driver circuits are to follow in the next post….

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    Oct 24

    Honey Stick Machine, Part 1

    As I mentioned in a previous post, I am attempting to build my own automated honey stick machine. After making observations making hundreds of honey sticks using a manual method, and studing the machine the use to be on the market, I’ve decided to take a bit different approach. Of course any automated honey stick machine will follow the same basic steps, dispensing a straw, filling then sealing it; But I’m hoping the different approach will solve a few problems (and solve the biggest problem – the fact I don’t have one!)

    Phidget InterfaceKit 8/8/8 Instead of a embedded controller, I’ve deciced to go with a USB interface to the computer, then simply program the computer to drive the machine. I’ve chosen the Phidgets Interface 8/8/8 as the USB interface (pictured to the right). It’s capable of driving 8 binary outputs as well as accepting 8 binary and 8 analog inputs. It’s also pretty easy to program in many different languages on both unix and windows machines. I will likely use Visual Basic as I’m very familiary with it. The only limitation that may be a problem is that it may be possible that more than 8 outputs are needed for controling solinoids, pumps, etc. However, instead of purchasing a second interface I intend to use to 3 to 8 decoder and a latch to turn on and off some of the outputs one at a time.

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    Oct 23

    Philips Invents the Cardboard DVD

    Philips Cardboard DVDI recently purchased a pack of 15 DVD for use at work. They were Philips 4x DVD+R (I no longer have the model number as the package’s sleeve went strait in the trash). It contained 15 ordinary looking DVDs and one ordinary looking cardboard disk (pictured to the right). However on closer inspection the cardboard disk is the most extrodinary thing I’ve seen in quite some time in the removable media market.

    The small print on the cardboard disk reads “Before using this disk in a 2.4x DVD+R data drive, you need to check how to get the required firmware upgrade. Full details can be found on the banderole”

    Unfortunately I have already disposed of the sleeve (banderole) so I have no instructions where to get drivers so I can use this cardboard disk in my DVD drive. I can only speculate at this time how fast or how much data this cardboard DVD may hold. The language on the disk is a bit confusing. Does it hold 15 DVD’s worth of information at 4.7 GB each, or just a total of 4.7 GB?

    Trying the cardboard DVD in my DVD writer at work didn’t work and I’ve been unable to locate any newer drivers that the ones I currently have. Perhaps Philips is keeping this new driver under wraps while they seek a patent on this new (and probably very cheap) DVD.

    Cardboard DVD Instructions

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