The black cloud over the Sunshine State’s solar panels.

So a couple background things related to this story.. One my family lives in Southwest Florida and was recently affected by Irma. They were lucky and only experienced wind damage but if they had gotten the storm surge that was forecasted it would have been devastating. I was down there for the weekend helping to clean up, re-plant palm trees, and do a lot of stucco patching.

Second my father and I are both electricians (one of our many career paths) so naturally this story came up in discussion. This was a story originally posted by the Miami New Times, the article implies that Florida Power & Light, FPL used their lobbying power within the state to make impossible for Florida residents to have what is called a grid independent system. Here is the quote & link they use as proof “Thanks to power-company rules, it’s impossible across Florida to simply buy a solar panel and power your individual home with it. You are instead legally mandated to connect your panels to your local electric grid. This is the way I was first introduced to the story. To be honest on first reading it seemed plausible to me. The articles prey on the inherent mistrust people have of corporations and their relationships with government. But Electrical systems can be a complex topic, more-so even when you are talking about residential solar installations. Terms like bidirectional metering and DC inversion throw off not just the general public but a large percentage of electricians. But astute readers will see the little difference between the statement by Miami New Times, and the one from ABC9.

What the New Times describes is that the state of Florida legally requires any solar installation you have to be a “grid coupled” or “grid tied” system which means you need DC to AC inverters and a bidirectional electric meter so excess power can be sold back to the grid. This can get expensive quickly because the 24vdc power produced by your solar panels is vastly different than the 120/208vac you get from the power company. I won’t try to explain AC theory here but say you tried to connect the two without the expensive inverter you would instantly do a lot of damage to your panels, your home and probably yourself. The inverter is required whenever you want to use solar electric to power any device that would otherwise need a standard wall outlet. Not only that but to have a grid tied system you need a special inverter along with a bi-directional electric meter that will essentially synchronize the timing of your power with that of the grid. The downside to this kind of system is that without even more expensive equipment (a transfer switch and a battery network) you cannot use this for emergency power. The upside is that you can now sell your solar power back to the power company and hopefully pay for all this equipment with the proceeds. Without that bidirectional meter and special grid-tied inverter the only one doing the paying is going to be you. So you see the sentence about it being impossible for you to simply buy a solar panel and power your home from it is a limitation of physics not the power company. This all takes special equipment that will make the cost of the panels seem like a drop in the bucket. There IS a cheap way but more on that later.

Now FPL requires that all auxiliary power systems be disconnected from the grid before line crews can work on the lines. The entire net metering guidelines can be read HERE. In this case it applies to solar but it is important to note that it would be just as true if we were referring to a gas generator or wind turbine or anything that could potentially back feed onto the grid and get people hurt. This should be obvious to most people but maybe the fact that I have done plenty of electrical work makes me sensitive to this point. Do you really want to kill the guy in his bucket truck outside your house who is trying to get you reconnected because you didn’t know an important detail? Of course not, and FPL rightly so does not leave it up to you. They require you to have equipment installed to protect the lineworkers not to mention your expensive inverters. So this other new piece of equipment is called an Automatic Transfer Switch and what it does is to monitor the incoming power from the grid for blackouts. When it senses one it automatically disconnects the line power and connects the emergency power, most will also do things like start up your generator and handle its operation because typically that is the application for ATS’s like these.

So say you want to have a grid tied system that will also function as an emergency power source, well ok, you asked for it. Let’s start listing expenses..

  1. The panels.. Roughly $300 each per 300Watts
  2. The inverters.. $2000 per 4000Watts
  3. The batteries.. $500 per 500 amp hours
  4. The battery chargers.. $300 each
  5. The battery charge controller.. $500-1000 (and if you think you don’t need one see the above price of batteries)
  6. The automatic transfer switch.. $700-1200
  7. The monitoring equipment.. $200-$800 (not strictly necessary but are you really going to cheap out after you’ve come this far?)

It adds up quick. You will be lucky if you can get a 5kw array for $20k in just equipment costs. Now say you do not want to have a grid tied system. If you read the FPL guidelines I linked to above you probably noted rule #5 which states..

“Operation of the renewable generation system, except for testing and inspection, prior to the new bi-directional meter being installed by FPL is strictly prohibited. Operating your renewable system without the bi-directional meter can result in an inaccurate meter reading causing your bill to increase.”

So no bi-directional meter = no grid independent systems right? Not so fast. Pay attention to the title of the document. “Customer-Owned Renewable Generation Grid Interconnections (FAC-6.065)” These are guidelines for grid interconnected systems. If you can prove that your installation has physically no chance of ever being connected to the grid and otherwise adheres to NFPA-70, the National Electric Code. What legal recourse does FPL have to enforce these rules on you? That would be like saying that FPL can dictate your battery powered solar patio lights. No connection to FPL = no legal recourse to tell you what to do with it. Just install an ATS that physically can only allow connection to the solar array or the grid, NOT both. Now guaranteed if you try to claim exception from these rules on these grounds you should be prepared to fight it in court. But as far as I see it FPL is a private corporation and can only dictate how you access and use its corporate assets. Again no connection = no grounds to sue… The thing is that no one ever does this because the cost of a home solar array is so high why would you ever want a system that cannot sell power back to the power company? The system would only ever generate power when you were in emergency mode.

So right about here you may be recalling the ABC7 article and thinking “wait a minute didn’t they say that the town would pull your CO? (Certificate of Occupancy) if you tried to go grid independent?” and you would be right it did say something to that effect but I want to make a point here on media spin. Let’s look at that quote a little bit closer.

“If Tarr were to stop paying his electric bill, he said Leesburg would shut off his power. City officials could also revoke his certificate of occupancy for not being hooked up to the system. “

Both statements are true. But they are not really related. Having your power shut off does not mean you are physically disconnected to the system. I would argue that the infrastructure still allows for power to be turned back on at any instance. Of course this is an argument that would likely need to be made in court. Something you likely cannot afford after the pricey solar installation but assuming you could afford to fight it I think there is a very good chance you could gain legal exemption from these rules. And once one person does so a legal precedent is set that would make it easier for other people to gain the same exemptions. That is simply how our system works.

Maybe you agree with these points maybe you don’t but if you are an average person most of these solutions are way out of your price range. Inverters and transfer switches then all the rules associated with grid interconnections are a big turn off to the whole idea. Likely you just want to charge your phone, laptop, and have some lighting. You could install a 24vdc power system in your house and keep it totally separate from all your other house wiring. You could charge car batteries directly from your solar panels and then use that power to control lights and other low voltage equipment. This is pretty standard in motor and modular homes. There is also a lot of low voltage lighting equipment around that would work perfectly for this kind of install. You are exempt from FPL’s interconnection guidelines for the same reason as above. No interconnection.

There are some gotcha’s here though. First of all as always everything needs to follow NFPA-70 to the letter. If you’re not an licensed electrician you should certainly have one doing it for you. Even long time electricians will have to read over the codebook again for non-standard installations like this. You will have to use what’s called Class 1 wiring practices because I doubt any of this power generation equipment will be marked as approved for Class 2 use (more lenient wiring rules.) There IS such a thing as a class 2 current limiter that would allow you to use the class 2 rules FYI but they are uncommon. Anyway you also should make sure that the 24v wiring is separate and clearly marked, this includes not using any kind of standard outlet that is not specifically made and marked for 24v use. Remember you will probably have to prove to an inspector that it is a clean code compliant installation and that inspector has every right to tell you it isn’t because he is the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) and just says so, and even if he does rubber stamp it if FPL wants to make a stink over it you could still find yourself in the sort of legal battle talked about above. But all that being said this has been done by people before in very clean and legal ways. Take a look at this install for example.

I don’t have a source for these photos so I have no idea where this was installed nor under what circumstances. Credit to you if this is your house though, I like it. These should be taken as loose examples of a clean residential low-voltage installation. So it is possible to have this sort of thing relatively cheap but if you insist on having your cake and eating it too I.E. a grid connected system capable of providing auxiliary power in emergencies. Prepare to shell out lots of cash.

Also it should be noted that the question of whether or not FPL is trying to screw over solar power users is not a flat out no. There was bill passed in Florida in 2016 that stated “Electricity consumers have the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” Sounds great right? problem is the second part of it has language that allows FPL to charge users with solar installations an additional premium “State and local govs shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety, and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do. (Emphasis added)” This is not totally unwarranted. The sun doesn’t shine 24/7 and when it doesn’t FPL is expected to pick up the slack. This can be expensive. Is it really expensive enough to warrant charging extra for having a Solar install? I have a feeling only FPL knows for sure.

Now disclaimers, you are legally responsible for your own property and the safety of everyone in it. Not me, you. Everything in this article is my opinion. I like to think it is a good opinion and it is based on many years of field experience but it is just that, an opinion. I hope this provides you all some insight in this topic but I in no way suggest you should read this article alone and run out and act on it without consulting other sources. Don’t take FPL’s word at face value, don’t take the media’s word at face value, and don’t take mine at face value. Have a great day.

The ABC’s of Sociopaths

Sorry I missed covering the last episode. I may do some retroactive reviews once the season is over but really it was a glorified clip show. Don’t get me wrong it was a good episode and when I say clip show essentially I mean a collection of short stories of which each had merit but it didn’t grab my attention hard enough to make me want to run out and write a review.

This episode on the other hand did. I’m not going to try to narrate the episode word for word but more focus on what I thought was the main theme, which in this case is sociopathy. You see in this episode Beth was forced to come to terms with the fact that more than likely she is just as much of a nihilistic sociopath as Rick is. But those are just words, they are labels and it takes people to apply meaning to words. So lets break down those words and try to dissect what they mean to the us. Nihilism means believing in nothing, literally nothing. What does that even mean you ask? good question it certainly opens up many existential cans of worms but more on that later, first I want to focus on sociopathy.

Sociopathy is defined as a person that cannot empathize with the suffering of other people. Essentially someone who cannot (or chooses not to) imagine themselves in the place of any other person who has a life worse than they do. I have heard figures as high as 10% of the population suffer from this to some extent. But that’s not true right? Rick is even more deserving of that label and I don’t even think he cares more about himself than (some) others. When Beth asks Rick flat out if she is an evil person he replies “worse.. you’re smart”. And I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. For instance imagine you are a scientist who is on the verge of creating fusion energy. If you complete your work successfully you will eliminate the need for fossil fuels entirely. Coal, Natural gas, Oil, all would become expensive relics as our power bills went from pennies per kilowatt to kilowatts per penny. Your work would not only change history but redefine human existence and may even be the difference between the entire species failing or continuing to exist. Now I would imagine you would be pretty hyper focused on your goal. You certainly are not going to spend your time volunteering at homeless shelters. You may even be a dick to anyone who distracts you from the big picture. Sure you could take the time to explain to every person you meet how vital your work is but even that is a distraction you cannot afford. I think that every person who some would label a sociopath believes this or some version of this in their own minds. To what extent it is true or not is up for interpretation but that raises the question who does the interpreting. Only you know enough about your daily efforts to know how important they may be, and you are likely to overestimate their importance. Other people can judge how you treat others but they will never know your justifications let alone know them well enough to judge if they are bullshit or not. Don’t get me wrong I am in no way defending people who engage in sociopathic behavior but essentially my point is that sociopathy shouldn’t be considered a binary yes or no kind of issue. It is in reality a spectrum disorder. Some people are a little bit sociopathic some are a lot. But we all fall somewhere on this spectrum. We have all been guilty at some time or another of thinking or acting selfishly. Rick undoubtedly cares very much about his children and grandchildren. But the fact that in his multiverse he has access to infinite quantities of each complicates the issue drastically. I think Rick does everything he can to take care of the family that he has in the universe he is currently in. Though he also knows better than to put himself in danger just to save any individual one of them. But even this comes with a degree of selfishness because there are also infinite Rick’s also. It’s not a simple issue to quantify, And I think this is why Rick refuses to try. He would rather not make a decision than make a wrong one.

Which brings me back to nihilism. One could easily say that Rick is a nihilist. Rick himself constantly tries to show this is true to whoever will listen. But to believe in nothing is not possible unless you’re currently brain-dead. The mere act of making a choice is a belief that it is the right one. So in reality nihilism is the futile effort to try to believe in nothing. An effort in which Rick continually fails. Rick cares about lots of things. Rick cares about his progeny. Rick cares about Unity. Rick cares about getting drunk. All these things count as something.

You see this is the problem with labels. Labels are a means for lazy people to quantify other people without putting in any effort. Very few people would ever label themselves as sociopathic or nihilistic, they are typically applied to you by other people who do not understand you and don’t care to. Does this mean that people never act in sociopathic or nihilistic ways? No of course not. But those are symptoms of bigger problems, not causes. To slap a label like this on someone is to write them off, and I think it is shitty to write people off. I am guilty of doing so just like anyone else. But that doesn’t make it right. If you know someone who acts this sort of way all I can tell you is to keep trying to reach them because there is clearly some inner pain they are hiding. Anyway, sorry if you thought this was a review when it actually turned into a massive digression. The episode was great. Go watch it and you will see for yourself. 😀

P.S. I don’t think Beth was cloned.

The $37,000 Rental.

Hi truck!!

This is my new truck, a 2017 Chevy Colorado. This year marks my 13th year as a Colorado owner, you see back in 2004 I bought a brand new 04 Colorado. It was my first new vehicle purchase ever and all in all it was a OK choice, I doubt I would have bought a second one if I didn’t think so. I paid $27,000 for it and it held up for me for the most part for 165,000 miles. Now there were a few notable exceptions to this, about 3 years into my ownership and right after the warranty expired my 4×4 transfer case blew up and was irreparable. It was a costly boo-boo and I was stuck with the tab. Then roughly 9 years into my ownership the 4×4 failed because of a broken solenoid thought I never found out for certain because I never actually fixed that issue. Fast forward to today, You may have noticed I paid another 10k for the same truck.. I know, I know.. I wasn’t thrilled about that part either. But there are some legitimate reasons for the increase. For one my new truck has a larger cab and more options. But more so because in the time between my two purchases the truck was totally redesigned. The Toyota Tacoma was crushing the Colorado on the market. It had more options and unfortunately was getting the reputation of being more reliable. Don’t forget we went through the GM bailout fiasco during this period. So GM had to find a way to rebrand itself and the Colorado went with it. Many of the former options became standard and many more were added. Not to mention the new Chevy MyLink entertainment system and thus we come to the point of this article.

Do I own this truck?

No really it is a serious question. I didn’t lease it. I DID partially finance it and you could conceivably say that the bank owns it. But for one they are not the organization I have a issue with here and two I really don’t think the law works that way. I financed the difference between my down payment and the amount owed I then purchased that vehicle myself and put said vehicle up as collateral. Now the bank has the title in their possession. I’m pretty certain my name is on that title while it is in the bank’s possession but really it’s irrelevant to the argument that will soon become clear. Even if their name is on the title in situ I would still argue that I own it as long as I keep up on payments and that the bank owns my remaining debt not the vehicle itself.

Get to the damned point already Jim!

OK, OK next couple sentences I promise. But first a couple questions.. So say for instance I was a mechanic and I was all excited to modify my new truck. I want to lift it, put on roll bars, huge tires, maybe even change the engine.. No. Scratch that, say that the engine is my first priority. I gut it immediately and throw in a V8 350 (assuming it will fit). Say I turn it into a first class rock crawler. I’m legally allowed to do all that right?
So why the hell do the rules change when the word engine is replaced with software? Can you really say that the vehicle’s software plays a more critical role in it’s safety than the engine? At best you could say that it is an irrelevant ‘apples to oranges’ kind of argument but that’s it. If I bought say a 1960’s Chevy I could verify that it is safe through my own checking. I could easily learn how the drive train operates. Take the engine apart. Verify the pistons and crankshaft operate smoothly. Verify that the valves all open and close without obstruction. Ect. Ect. Now please tell me how I verify that the code written on my rolling computer is not going to lock up mid operation? This may seem paranoid in the modern climate but try to understand that the next version of Excel takes years to develop. Fallout 4 took 3 years. 5 years for GTA5. Now think that your car’s software is pushed out the door in under a year… Yea, Seems like a lot pressing of an issue now doesn’t it. Point #1. check.

Secondly this truck operates with an always on 4G cellular connection tied directly into OnStar. I realize that OnStar is a subscription service and that someone could just make a dismissive comment that if you don’t want OnStar don’t pay for it. Simple logic, and I wish I lived in that world but things are just not that simple. The subscription layer of OnStar is the tip of the iceberg. An unsubscribed vehicle still transmits a ton of data. Like what? Well engine data, transmission data, 4×4 data, GPS data, the status of your seat belts, the current occupancy, really every scrap of data is recorded and saved in a database. It may seem extreme to save that all in one go but from a computer science viewpoint it is much easier to record everything and pick through it later. We all need to understand that this is all TEXT data. meaning the data from a few hundred vehicles could be maybe 10Gig? And assuming for a second that it is we are talking 100x that per terabyte drive. Storage is stupid cheap today. Google built Gmail on the assumption that data storage was literally free and it was a massive success. I’m serious, they literally went to their bean counters, told them to delete the storage cost line item and still made billions. Now I don’t necessarily think that GM want’s to do anything malicious with this data. I think they are caught up in the ‘big data’ trend and want to see how much they can improve their product. I respect that. The conflict of interest comes when government subpoena’s that data and GM hand’s it right over. Imagine you are accused of a crime and find out that you have been driving a rolling tracking device for years and the prosecution now had the record of everything you have done with your vehicle for a decade. No I’m not saying I plan on committing any crimes but from my viewpoint this is a violation of my constitutional right protecting me from illegal search and seizure.

I know the dismissive argument to that too. Some would say that if you’re doing nothing wrong you have nothing to hide. But I could write novels on how ridiculous of a concept this. Put simply privacy is a basic human right. Anyone who remembers the previous century will remember there have been volumes written about the dystopian implications of letting government and industry have access to all of your data. Now we are supposed to accept it as commonplace? I don’t remember when we had the public debate about if it is right or not to turn your personal vehicle into a tracking device. I don’t remember when we had the discussion about if it was right or not to have the details of who I spend time with, what I buy, where I go, all collected unbeknownst to me and contrary to my wishes. Try to remember that your ancestors fought wars to get you these rights and if you willingly hand them over you nor your children will ever see them again. This is a massive privacy invasion comparable to having a camera installed in your shower and all done under our noses. We need to make it clear to these companies that our data is our PROPERTY and collecting that data without our permission is THEFT. Unfortunately our technology presses forward and our laws drag from the rear. If we allow the theft of our information to be come commonplace then all is lost. We open the door to a 1984 esque dystopia, and once we hand over a right which has been previously fought for we never get it back. Never.
So that should be take as point #2.. point #3 was going to be about my right to modify my own vehicle and the disturbing trend of automakers to lock out firmware to all but the dealer’s mechanics in an effort to monopolize maintenance, but I’m sure you could extrapolate what I want to say about the topic based on my previous comments.

This post is already turning into a novel so time to wrap up. In summary I find the idea that I am supposed to trust that GM has sold me a product that is safe and unhackable simply unacceptable. Lump onto that my concerns about my data being stolen and.. yea, not cool GM. Don’t get me wrong I love the truck and I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise but it is going to take a lot of reading and work before I am 100% OK with how it’s ECM operates.

Which brings us finally to countermeasures. What can you the concerned reader do if you are in a similar situation? Well as far as the auditing is concerned there is no easy fix. I recommend this book called The Car Hackers Handbook from No Starch Press. Read it twice.

On the other hand if you are concerned about your data exfiltration I do have a semi-easy fix. You see all this communication between GM and the vehicle requires a radio, radio’s require antenna’s, and antenna’s can be cut. Do a little research and find the connecting line between the car’s ECM (on mine it is a separate communications module) and the cellular antenna. It will be a coaxial cable similar to your cable TV but probably a little thinner. Remove the cable at the ECM. Chances are it will screw on with an SMA connector. This will cut communication most of the time but if you park right under the cell tower it will still be able to phone home. To fix this you need to solder a 50 Ohm resistor onto a new SMA connector between the inner signal conductor and the outer ‘shield’ conductor. This will ensure that any radio signal is immediately brought to 0 volts.
With my truck I found out the whole assembly is somewhere behind the glove box so I’m yet to actually implement this but when I do I will be sure to post the details here. Okay that’s it, if you’re still here sorry for the huge post. and remember…

Freedom is only free when you give it away!!

 

“Star Trek: Discovery” Poised for Success – Or It Would Be, If …

Poor Star Trek Fans. I used to think fans of Firefly were the worst case of abuse by their show’s corporate owners. This tale makes me think twice.

For those that don’t know, A year or so before Discovery went into production a group of people who wanted to make a Star Trek fan film launched a kickstarter for a production called Axanar. These weren’t exactly normal fans. Many of them were heavily involved in the production of the 90’s Star Trek shows, TNG, Voyager, DS9, Enterprise. The Kickstarter made over half a million dollars. 6 times what they were asking for. So on one hand you have the fans who want a 90s style Star Trek show so badly they are willing to pay for it up front. On the other hand you have the production team of those shows ready and willing to start production.

Now what do you think CBS did about it? Did they ask the Axanar production team if they wanted to form a partnership? Did they ask them for a royalty payment? Nope. They spent over a year suing the fanbase and then produced a show nobody wanted.

That would be messed up enough on it’s own but here is the real kicker. You can’t even watch it. It’s not even going to be aired on TV yet they are using it to launch a Netflix style streaming service. Star Trek fans are going to be forced to pay a subscription to see a show they never asked for while the one they already paid for through kickstarter is stuck in the court system. Sorry CBS but network TV is failing, Your business model is increasingly irrelevant and this desperation move will only tare down your company that much sooner.


Star Trek: Discovery may be poised for success, but they are equally poised for calamity. Setting the quality of the show entirely … Continue reading

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