Weather, Transfer Switch, Misc. Stuff and The Great Solar System Build

This is what I woke up to the other morning. Sigh… It’s March. It should be getting warmer out. Instead we get this???

The weather here in Wisconsin can get interesting, to say the least. Mostly it’s fairly pleasant up here, but sometimes things get weird. Like blizzards in May. Or the Great Frog Storm of 1956. (That one was scary.) This winter has been remarkably mild with very little snow. Well very little snow until now. I think we got more snow in the first 2 weeks in March than we did during the rest of the winter combined. Now we’re under a storm warning for tomorrow and could get another 5 – 8 inches of snow. Sigh…

But let’s get on with this. I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to me rambling along. I know I do. (Looks at calendar… Well no, it seems I don’t have better things to do. Never mind.)

I thought I was done talking about solar and power systems and all of that for a while. I should have known better because here we go again. That transfer switch I was talking about last time is now installed and working. The kit had everything necessary and installing it is pretty simple. It took maybe an hour to install the whole thing. (Do I really need to include the disclaimer telling you not to go fiddling around with your house’s electrical service because you can get killed if you don’t know what you’re doing?)

Circuit tracers aren’t hugely expensive, this is the one I have and it sells for about $50. If you have kids they make great circuit tracers. “DAD! What did you do??? The Playstation shut down and I didn’t save my game!!!”

It took some time to track down what breakers powered what. A variety of electricians have been in that panel fiddling with things in the years we’ve lived here and not all of them were careful about labeling what they hooked to what, it seems. I was upset by that because these guys are supposed to be professionals. You don’t just shove a new breaker into a panel, hook it to something and leave it unlabeled. Or, even worse, change an existing circuit and then not note down what was changed. I ended up spending a good hour with a circuit tracer running around the house testing outlets and lights before I could even start installing the transfer switch. Fortunately only two or three were mislabeled but that was still concerning. I got out my little label making thingie to make nice, neat labels, only to find my label making thingie didn’t work. (Yeah, it’s been one of those weeks so far. The label maker, the mislabeled circuits, a crimping tool designed to crimp MP4 connectors doesn’t actually crimp things…)

With the transfer switch set up I can change between grid power and the Blutetti with just the flip of a switch. And the transfer switch doesn’t care where it gets power from so I can plug in either the Bluetti or our big Generac gas powered generator.

Planning and Research Problems

If you’ve been following this discussion that started with the Bluetti solar generator thing you know MrsGF and I have decided to put in a relatively large solar power system that can handle much of our electrical needs. We aren’t going “off grid” as they call it because with the weather we get here in Wisconsin it would be difficult, even impossible, to rely on solar for all of our electrical needs. But we could make a significant dent in our electric bill if we manage to pull this off.

But there are problems.

Now we could do something like look at some of the “plug ‘n play” systems from Bluetti, Ecoflow, Generac and others but all of those have serious issues. When it comes to the solar generator people like Bluetti and Ecoflow, the problem is that while they have some pretty nice systems that are fairly easy to install that can handle almost the whole house, you’re locked into those companies for the entire lifetime of the system. You can only use their batteries, their accessories, their adaptors, etc. If something goes wrong with the system the only thing you can do is pack the whole thing up and ship it back to the company which will, maybe, you hope, fix it and maybe, you hope, actually ship it back to you and that it will actually work when it arrives. And that will take weeks at least, maybe even months. And during that time your entire solar energy system is shut down. And let’s be honest, all of the systems from those companies are breathtakingly overpriced when you look at what you actually get for your money.

There are problems with the big brand names like Generac and Tesla as well. Once again you’re at the mercy of a single vendor for all of your equipment. You might be lucky and be in an area that is served by an installer/dealer who can help you when something goes wrong, and something will go wrong eventually, but even so you’re still tied to a single vendor for everything. And even worse, the systems from these companies are eye wateringly expensive for what you get.

And then there are the problems with almost all of the commercial “solar contractors” out there.

If your goal is to gain some independence from the grid you aren’t going to get it from most of the commercial solar contractors out there. What most of them are selling are systems intended to generate power that is sold directly back to the utility, not to make you independent from the grid. They have little, if any, battery backup capability. And with a system like that you are entirely at the mercy of the utility company. They could decide tomorrow to change the rates, add in bogus “connection fees”, even shut you down entirely.

So if you want a system that gives you some independence from the grid, that doesn’t lock you into a single vendor who could very well disappear tomorrow, want to do it as economically as possible, and want a system that is relatively easy to repair when things go wrong, you’re pretty much stuck with trying to build it yourself.

Which brings me to…

The Great Solar System Build

Oh, brother, talk about hyperbole. Sheesh…

Over the next few weeks (or months, because I’m not only lazy I am also a procrastinator of the first order) I’m going to document in excruciating and incredibly boring detail our efforts to build a reasonably large home solar power system from the ground up, complete with system specifications and why we chose those specifications, the search for equipment, dealing with various vendors, issues with wiring and building codes, etc, etc, etc.

For those of you who find this kind of thing eye wateringly boring, well, you have my sympathy. So posts about the solar system will be prominently labeled with a GSSB tag in the title so you can skip those parts and just drop in to look at photos or read the other nonsense I babble about here.

New Email, Solar Panels, Last Bluetti Article

My AC200Max with a B300, 3,000Wh expansion battery

I want to do one last article about the Bluetti AC200Max before I move on to other things. I’ve been doing a lot of research into solar power systems, have my own solar power system up now, well, sort of, and I wanted to talk about trying to use one of these in an off-grid situation.

First, though, has a new email address. It is If you have questions or comments about any of the stuff you see here or even suggestions for future articles you can reach me at that address.

Now let’s get on with what I hope will be the last Bluetti article for a while. I’ve tested this thing with one B300 3KWh expansion battery (you can add two of them) and it’s handled everything I’ve thrown at it. It is working exactly as advertised and I’m very pleased with it. With the extra cost B300 ($2,300) battery it now has 5KWh of power. Preliminary testing indicates that it could keep the furnace going for at least 24 hours, maybe as long as 36 hours. And it will keep our sump pumps going for 2 – 4 hours in heavy spring rains depending on weather conditions.

But one thing I didn’t talk about much was recharging this beast. 5 KWh is a hell of a lot of energy to pump into a battery pack and eventually this thing has to be recharged. That’s where I start to run into what could be potential bottlenecks for some people, especially someone trying to use this as their primary power supply in an off-grid situation.

It comes standard with a big AC charging brick that will put 450W into this unit to recharge it. That’s a lot, but this is also a massive battery which means it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to fill it up from empty. With my system it would take the AC charger alone more than 11 hours to fully recharge it. If I had the 2nd battery pack for a total of 8KWh it would take almost 18 hours to do a full charge. Frankly I think that’s woefully inadequate.

Now I could fudge and fiddle around. The B300 battery has its own AC charging port.I could get a second AC charger and dump another 450W into the battery independently of the AC200Max to get a total 0f 900W AC charging. That would bring the charge time for my 5KWh system down to about five and a half hours.

But they call these things “solar generators”. Where the hell is the solar part of all of this?

Well you generally don’t get the part that actually makes it a solar generator, the solar panels. Those are an extra cost option. Companies like Jackery and Bluetti will gladly sell you their own branded portable folding solar panels. For a price. A really, really big price. Generally two or three times what it would cost you to get the same wattage in generic panels you bought off Amazon or somewhere. Here’s an example.

Bluetti will sell you this:

That’s the PV350. It’s a folding panel intended for temporary use. It folds up into a nice neat package, gives you up to 350 watts of power to dump into your Bluetti, and from all the reviews I’ve seen of it, it is very, very nice.

But dear lord, that price!!! $850 for only 350 watts of power? Seriously? And I’d need two of these things because with just one of them it would take 15 hours to recharge my system. It’s winter here in Wisconsin. The days are short, the sun is low in the sky. We often have clouds. With just one of these panels it would take something like three days to fully charge my system in the winter. And that’s if I wasn’t using the system to power something. Even with two of these panels it would take me more than a day to recharge because I only get about 5-6 hours of usable sunlight a day this time of year.

So I did some shopping around and a great deal of research and finally came up with these:

That’s a set of 4, 100W panels from a company called HQST. So I could get two four panel sets for a total of 800 watts for $550, or I could get two PV350 for a total of 700W for $1,700.

Guess what I bought? Damn right. I may be crazy but I’m not stupid.

Yes, I know that’s only six. There’s a reason why I could only hook up six at first. Read on to find out what I ran into.

And the panels themselves are actually really nice. They’re well made, sturdy, small enough and light enough to be easy to handle. And best of all, they work pretty much exactly as the company claims they do. And I now have all 8 of them outside leaning up against the south side of my garage all hooked up and feeding power into the basement.

Hooking up solar panels is about as easy as it gets. Most of them come equipped with MP4 connectors that just snap together. It’s pretty much impossible to wire them wrong. They just daisy chain together in series, plug in the cable to go to the basement. The AC200Max comes with a pigtail that has MP4 connectors on one end to go to the solar panels, and a T90 connector on the other that plugs into the AC2ooMax. And that’s all there was to it. It took me less than half an hour to set up six panels, hook them together, run a cable into the basement, plug it into the Bluetti and start sucking up all that yummy free solar power.

Well, sort of. I ran into some limitations which kept me from using all 8 panels, but let me tell you about the realities of solar power first of all.

The first thing I learned is that I will almost never get the maximum rated power out of those solar panels. Oh, they don’t lie when they give you those numbers. But you need to remember that those ratings are done in a laboratory under ideal conditions. Conditions that you will almost never see out in the real world. Especially not in Wisconsin. In February. I had 600W of panels out there but the maximum I was getting out of them was about 400W, and that was only for a couple of hours around midday.

Still, the system was working. I tried running my office/radio shack/mad scientist’s lab in the basement off the Bluetti and feeding it power from the solar panels and it worked quite well. By about 9:30 in the morning those six panels were producing enough power to run my little office, about 240W, that would gradually go up during the day, peaking at midday around 400+ watts in perfect weather, then dwindle until about 3 when power production shrank to under 100W. I was running my office entirely off those panels alone for about 3 or four hours in good weather.

Why Only Six Panels

Okay, let’s deal with that situation. The AC200Max has a built in solar charge controller. It is rated at up to 900W, 145V, 15A. Those are the maximum numbers it can handle. If you exceed those inputs by more than a small amount either the system just won’t use the extra or, even worse, the charger will just shut down to protect itself.

So now we need to do some math. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt. Much.

My panels were hooked in series, like in this diagram below.

It’s quick, it’s simple, and it works well. But as you can see from the diagram when panels are hooked together in series the voltage of each panel you add to the string is added to the voltage previous panels, and eventually you get to a voltage that the charge controller can’t handle.

My HQST panels have an open circuit voltage of 21.6. Six panels in series gives me a voltage of 129.6. The AC200max can handle 145V so that’s just fine. But if I add a seventh panel? 129.6+21.6=151.2. And 151V is over the 145V limit. So I can’t have more than 6 of these panels in series without going over the limit.

So how can I stuff more watts into this beastie without going over that limit? This is where parallel wiring comes along. Here’s another diagram for you to look at.

When connected in parallel, the amperage of each panel adds up, while the voltage stays the same. My panels have an amp rating of 5.5. So I could put two panels in parallel and remain under the 15A max rating of the Bluetti. In effect I’d have a single 200W panel producing just 21.6V at 11A, well within the Bluetti’s limitations.

So I started doodling and came up with this.

I’d create 4 banks of two panels each connected in parallel. Each bank would have 21.6V and 11A. Then I’d connect all 4 banks in series. That would give me all 800 watts they could produce, I’d have a voltage of 86.4, and my amperage would be 11. Of course I didn’t have the right connectors to do that and I’d need some extra cable so it was off to Amazon and a few more bucks and a couple of days later that stuff arrived and I spent a half hour or so switching from series wiring to my parallel/series sketch, hooked everything up this morning.

Then the moment of truth came. I crossed my fingers, held my breath and plugged it into the Bluetti and… And it worked? Wait, it actually worked???

Yeah. It worked. I was getting about 80V, the amperage looked good and the watts coming in… Well okay I was only getting 80W but it was 7:30 in the morning and the panels were still mostly in shadow. By 9:30 they were making 300W and by noon I was getting between 650 – 700 watts! Damn, it works!

As I said before my conditions here for solar are far from ideal, so seeing those 800W of panels peaking at 700 watts at midday was very satisfying.

And on the charging side of things? If I were drawing no power at all from the Bluetti and could get a consistent 700W solar input I could charge my 5Kwh system in a bit over 7 hours, which isn’t … Well I was going to say it isn’t bad, and I suppose it isn’t absolutely horrible but I only get useable sunlight here for about 5 – 6 hours a day this time of year, so it would take me more than a day to recharge this thing.

The Problems With Going Off Grid

Now let’s talk about going off grid. If you start scrounging around on YouTube and places like that you’ll run into videos from people who claim you can use the AC200Max like mine to go off-grid, using it as your primary source of power to run a small house or cabin or whatever, and replenishing the power you use entirely with solar. I have the Bluetti with 5KWh of power stored in it. I have all those solar panels. Why not try to run part of the house off grid and see what happens? So I’ve been experimenting with running my office/radio shack/mad scientist’s lab off the AC200Max and keeping it charged with just solar. And I’ll tell you right up front that it ain’t gonna work. I’m sorry, but it isn’t. At least not in the real world. Not without having to resort to some kind of additional power inputs from either the traditional grid or a backup generator of some sort. The numbers just don’t work. I knew that even before I started the experiment but I decided to try it anyway just to get some real world experience with the system.

My office uses about 270W of power as long as I’m not using my laser engraver or other energy hog piece of equipment. Just to keep things simple let’s round that up to 300W. That means that if I run my office for 10 hours I’d use 3,000Wh, with 2,000Wh remaining in the Bluetti.

So it’s the morning of the next day. I need to recover that 3KWh of energy I used the previous day. I have 800W of solar power but that only peaks at about 700W. But that’s not too bad. 7ooW of solar going into the system would recover that 3KWh in a bit over 4 hours. Great.

Well, no, not so great. First of all I only get those 700 watts for an hour or maybe two, during midday. The rest of the time I’m getting much less than that.

Second, I’m still running my office off that system. I’m not going to shut down for 4 hours to recharge the batteries. So even as I’m trying to recharge it, I’m drawing 270W. Even if I were getting 700W of power out of the panels, I only have a net gain of 430W. Recovering 3,000Wh with an input of only 430W gives a time of about 7 hours.

And I only get about 5 hours of usable sunlight a day this time of year.

And that’s with a load of only 270W. If you’re trying to use this system as your primary source of power running a furnace, refrigerator, some lights, etc. you’re going to be drawing considerably more than that.

So as I said, the numbers just don’t add up. This time of year, with the conditions I have here, with the amount of daylight I have here, I am never, ever, going to be able to get ahead with the amount of energy my solar system puts out. Even if I could max out my solar and put together a system that would pump the 900W maximum into the Bluetti it wouldn’t work. That would give me a net gain of 630W, and I’d get 3KWh out of the system in about 5 hours. But that’s assuming I’d get all 900W for that entire 5 hour period. And I won’t. Not even close. Not in Wisconsin, in February. With the standard solar charging system in the Bluetti I simply cannot dump enough power into it, fast enough, to get ahead.

Is there a way I can fudge things? Well, yeah. Sort of. The B300 expansion battery has its own solar charger built into it. Granted it is a pathetically wimpy one, only able to handle 200W. Trying to charge a 3KWh battery with 20oW is sort of like trying to fill a bathtub with a teacup, but it’s better than nothing. And if I’d add that into the 900W theoretical max I could dump into the AC200Max: 900 + 200 = 1,100W. 1,100 – 270 = 830. I’d now have a net gain of 830W. That gets us down to a bit less than 4 hours to recharge my system.

Now I’m finally seeing some numbers that almost make sense. Well, in July. In February I only have 5 hours of usable sun and I’m not going to get anywhere near peak production so I’m still going to be running at a net loss most of the day.

Bluetti will sell you a gadget they call a DC charge enhancer for $200. That would let me dump up to another 500W of solar into the AC200Max through its AC charging port. I build myself a third solar panel system, this one with 500W. I plug that into the charge enhancer, and that plugs into the AC charging port of the AC200Max giving me another 500W. 900 into the AC200 +200 going into the B300 battery +500 going into the charge enhancer = 1,600. 1600 minus my power consumption, 270W gives me a net gain of 1,330W. Now I’m looking at recovering those 3,000W in about two and a half hours.

Now, finally, I’m seeing numbers that would let me get ahead of the game. Peak solar production is only for around 2 hours at midday. But that, together with producing a bit more solar than I’m consuming the rest of the 5-6 hours of useable daylight I have, might get me to the break even point or even a bit better.

But only at the cost of building two additional solar panel systems, that $200 DC charge enhancer, cables, connectors, etc. But it should work.

Well until you get a day like today where we have solid cloud cover and my 800 watts of solar panels are putting out a whopping 80 watts of power.

So could you go off grid with the AC200Max and a couple of the expansion batteries? Uh, well, maybe? If your total power consumption was less than about 5KWh or so per day, and if you max out solar production by building extra solar arrays and adding in the DC charge enhancer and if you had perfect weather conditions to max out solar production.

But out here in the real world? No. Not without having to resort to some kind of alternative power source like a gas generator to help along in bad weather or help to cover unexpected power demands.

This particular system is great at what it is intended for, which is being a relatively short term power replacement during grid failures or to provide power for an RV or camper. It is not intended for use as an off grid system, long term, primary power system.

One more bit about solar power systems before I shut down this discussion and get back to more important things like fiddling around with gardens and photography and plants or wood and stuff.

Bluetti, Ecoflow and a few other companies make absolutely massive power systems that are intended to provide power for almost an entire home for lengthy periods of time. Some of them offer up to 18KWh. Eighteen thousand watt hours of power. If you really want to go off grid should you consider one of those?

Frankly, no. Those massive beasts look tempting, even will give you true 240V split phase systems. But the prices are just as massive as the battery packs. We’re getting up into price ranges and amounts of power where you should be seriously considering contacting a professional solar system contractor. A fully loaded AC500 system from Bluetti is going to be pushing $15,000, and that’s without a solar system to keep it fed.

And here’s another thing to consider. There’s no reason why you couldn’t save yourself a lot of money and build your own. LiFePo batteries have really come down in price. You can get a 2KWh or larger LiFePo battery for less than $700. You can get inverters that will handle a heck of a lot more than the 2,000W version in my AC200Max. You can get solar charge controllers to handle just about any configuration of solar panels and batteries you can build. And you can put it together with all off the shelf parts. And you can do it for a heck of a lot less than these plug ‘n play systems from Ecoflow, Bluetti and the others.

I’m seriously considering doing just that, covering the south facing garage roof with a couple of kilowatts of solar panels, putting a bank of LiFePo batteries in, getting a big inverter, and setting up a separate power panel in the basement to feed selected circuits in the house.

Well, maybe. I keep forgetting how lazy I am…

Bluetti AC200Max Update: This Time It’s All Good!

So, I have good news, and I have good news. Very good for a change.

First, regarding Bluetti customer service: Not only did I get a positive response from the company’s regular customer service department that was actually helpful, this morning I got an email from an actual engineer at the company to discuss specifics about the problems I encountered. As noted before the voltage fluctuation problem went away by itself but they’re concerned about that light flickering and wanted specific information about the brand, model and other details about that light so they could look into it. That’s not a big issue though because I believe the problem is related to that particular model light and that one only. All the others I tested had no problems. I suspect it is an issue with the design of that light fixture.

So that makes me feel a lot better when it comes to customer service.

My solar panels arrived! I ordered 4, 100W panels from a company called HQST mainly because they were very cheap. And it turns out that not only were they very cheap, they’re very good as well. It took me all of about 10 minutes to set them up leaning against the backside of the garage, one of them shaded by that stupid bush out there. And at the moment I’m getting almost 300 watts out of them (hooked in series) If I didn’t have that one panel being partly shaded and had them at the right angle relative to the sun I’d be getting close to the full 400 watts out of them. So I’m enormously pleased with that too.

Right now I’m getting between 250 – 300 watts out of ’em. We have some intermittent high, thin clouds that shade them out a bit which is why there is the fluctuation in output. I’m drawing 190W in the office at the moment running my laptop with 2 monitors, stereo speakers and a few other things, so the panels are making about 100W more than what I’m consuming here in the office.

I tried dual charging the AC200 as well, charging with the AC200Max’s AC charger and the solar panels and it was happily sucking down about 750 – 800 watts from both sources at the same time.

So I am enormously pleased. (Squeals like small child)

Bluetti Review Update

So far so good, but there have been some curious issues so I thought I’d throw this out there quick.

I was looking at the thing sitting there the other day and I said to myself, Self, it’s kind of silly having that $2,000 box sitting there doing nothing possibly for months waiting for a power failure. You should do something with it.

So I did. I took my entire radioshack/office/mad scientist lab off-grid with it. Well, sort of off-grid. My solar panels haven’t arrived yet so I still have to charge the AC200MAX off the grid but I wanted to see if it would work, and yes, it did. Quite well, with a couple of glitches.

Making the switch over was simple because all of my sensitive electronics are all plugged into UPS systems that include meters that tell me many things about the power coming into them, brown out protection, surge protection, etc. (I very strongly urge people to always, always keep their electronic equipment plugged into one of these instead of plugging directly into the mains. I lost a very expensive gaming computer due to multiple brownouts/power surges during a storm a couple of years ago. These things aren’t cheap but they can keep you from losing thousands of dollars of equipment.)

So I unplugged the UPSs from the wall and plugged them into the Bluetti and, well, everything just worked just fine.

Then I noticed that the meter on one of the UPSs was showing the voltage coming out of the Bluetti was shifting +- 2 volts, about 118 VAC to 120VAC. That was curious.

Something odd going on with the inverter in the AC200? Bad plug on it maybe?

I switched the flickering UPS to a different plug on the Bluetti. Did the same thing. I plugged it into the wall outlet. It showed a stead 119V.


I got out my meters and started checking things. My Fluke definitely showed that the AC coming out of the Bluetti was shifting +- 2 volts.

Now I should point out that a volt or two fluctuation in the current coming into my house from the grid happens rather often. In fact the electrical service coming into the house can go from a high 0f 122V to a low of 110V during the day.

That bothered me, though. I put the scope on the Bluetti and it showed the AC coming out was at a virtually perfect 60 Hertz sine wave, so that was okay.

I shut everything down. I started up the Bluetti again and the voltage fluctuation was still there. I did a ‘restore to factory defaults’ on the device and restarted it and tried it again. The fluctuation was still there.

And then later it just went away. I ran my entire office/lab/radioshack off it for two days, and the power fluctuations just went away. Why? No idea. Did it just need to, oh, stabilize somehow, to ‘burn in’? No idea. All I know is that all day yesterday the voltage coming out of the Buetti was an almost perfect 119V.

Then there was the light issue. I replaced the overhead fluorescent lights in there with LED versions a year or two ago. They give better light and use a fraction of the energy. I plugged one of those into the Bluetti and it flickered rapidly. Sigh…

I got out the meter again and expected to see the voltage fluctuation had gotten worse, but the meters were showing a solid 119V. I put the scope on it again. A perfect sine wave. Okay, now what was going on?

I plugged in a different LED light. That one worked perfectly. I scrounged up several more LED lights. All of them worked fine. Only my overhead tube lights flickered. As far as I can tell the problem is only with that specific light and no others.


Now let’s talk about radio. I’m an amateur radio operator as you probably know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. Solar power systems and these battery inverters can be troublesome when it comes to causing RFI (radio frequency interference). So I was anticipating some problems, and I found them. This is what the scope on my Kenwood TS-990 shows when I’m running it off the Bluetti.

See those vertical lines? Those are not supposed to be there. They represent spikes of radio interference that appear at regular intervals throughout almost the entire HF range.

Now if you’re an amateur radio operator and that image up there just sent you into a panic, it isn’t as bad as it looks. At least not in my particular case. Yes, those spikes are nasty, but with my particular AP200Max none of those spikes appear in any of the amateur radio bands. Whether that will be the case with other units I don’t know. But in my case the situation is tolerable.

There is some more or less generic RFI coming off the thing that seems, in my case anyway, to be concentrated on 40 meters. 30M was completely clear, no RFI at all. 20M was decent, 17, 15, 12, 10 meters were all good. On 40 there was some significant RFI but not enough to prevent me from operating. And engaging the noise blanker on the transceiver knocked a lot of that out.

What the RFI situation will be like once I hook in the solar panels, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But if necessary I could run my whole radioshack off the Bluetti with very few problems.

I did send a complaint in to Bluetti describing the issues I had with the light flickering, the voltage fluctuations and the RFI issues, including that photo up there showing the RFI problem. I got a canned response back that they would respond within 48 hours, so we’ll see.

Overall the test running my office/radioshack was successful. I discovered that I actually use surprisingly little energy in there. Typically less than 300W, which rather surprised me because that’s including a gaming laptop, two monitors, the Kenwood TS-990, big stereo speakers and a few other goodies. I didn’t try running larger loads like my soldering equipment, the 3D printer or the laser engraver. And, of course, when actually transmitting with the TS-990 the wattage went up considerably.

Coming Up

I have 4, 100W solar panels coming that should be here by the end of the month. I picked the cheapest ones I could find and I’m not expecting much out of them, but it should be enough to be able to test charging the Bluetti off solar. Well, if we ever get sunlight, that is. My eventual goal is to get semi-permanent solar panels up on the garage roof, as much of it as I can afford and fit up there. The roof faces straight south and it is already at nearly the perfect angle, and that location should provide me with solar through almost the entire day now that the trees around the garage are gone. I’d like to get at least 800 – 1,200 watts of solar up there this year.

The other thing I did was buy one of the expansion batteries for the AC200Max, the 3,000Wh one. That should be here by the end of the month as well That will push the capacity of the system to up over 5,000 watt hours. So watch for a review of that in the near future.

Comments and questions are always welcome!

A Look At The Bluetti AC200MAX Portable Power Station

I want to talk about how to keep the lights on when the grid fails, something a lot of people were thinking about when that major winter storm rolled over much of the United States during the holidays and then when another hammered California and the southern part of the country, leaving millions of people without power, and sometimes even trapped in their homes.

This is going to be a two part series. I’m going to talk about the AC200MAX first because there are several people waiting for the review of this device. The second part is going to talk about these portable power systems in general, why you might want one, and most importantly how to determine how to properly size it to suit your needs without wasting money and, even worse, getting mislead by the advertising.

These things are often mislabeled “solar generators”, but they are neither solar nor generators. If you buy the almost always optional solar panels to recharge these devices you could make the argument they’re solar generators I suppose. But these devices by themselves are really energy storage devices. Basically they’re a big box of batteries.

Bluetti has been around for a few years now and its PPSs (portable power stations) are generally rated well in reviews and so far my experience with the one in the photo above has been completely positive.

The model I picked, the AC200MAX has a capacity of 2048 watt hours, and it can handle a maximum sustained load of 2,000 watts, and can handle brief surges in demand of up to 4,000 watts. It has a built in inverter that converts the batteries DC power to 120VAC. There are four standard 120 VAC plugs on the front. It also has a 30 Amp 120V NEMA TT-30 connector typically seen in RVs that would let it power an entire RV.

If you have a device that needs power, AC or DC, the Bluetti has enough plug ins of various types to handle just about anything you might need.

It also has a variety of DC power ports including USB-A 5V 3A, two USB A 18W ports, a 100W USB-C port, a DC 12V 10A cigarette lighter type plug in port, a DC 12V 30 Amp port, and as if that wasn’t enough, there are two wireless 15W charging pads for cellphones on the top of the box.

Basically this thing has just about every kind of power plug I’ve ever heard of. All of the outputs have overload and short circuit protection. And no, I did not test that. I’m not about to deliberately short circuit a device that cost me almost two grand just to see if the protection actually works.

The two top connector are for the optional additional battery packs that can be added to give the unit a capacity of up to about 8,500 Wh. The blue cap covers the plug for optional solar panels. The lower right is the connector for the 500 watt AC charger that comes with the unit.

On the lower left side of the unit are there are two connectors to hook up optional external battery packs. Up to two optional battery modules, either a 2048Wh ($1,300) or 3072Wh ($2,200) battery packs can be added to the unit to that can give it a total capacity of more than 8,000 Wh. And that, folks, is a hell of a lot of energy to be packed into that small of a space.

Also on the left side of the unit are the charging ports. You have several options here too for charging. The unit can be charged by, well, just about anything. It comes with a 500 watt charger for topping off the AC200 from the grid and it will charge up the unit reasonably quickly. The single AC charger will replenish the AC200MAX in about 5 – 6 hours.

There is also a DC input port intended for use with an optional solar charging system. There is a solar charge controller built into the AC200. That port can also be used to recharge the unit from a car with an optional cable (I’m not sure how long that would take but at least it’s an available option).

If that’s not enough options for you and you need to recharge the AC200 even faster, you can pick up a second 500 watt charger and with an optional cable charge the unit with two chargers at once, one plugged into the solar charging port. Or you can charge it at the same time from a solar panel system and the AC charger.

If you plan on getting solar panels for recharging the device it can handle up to 145V and 15.2 Amps maximum without the need for an external charge controller.

The manual claims you can recharge this thing by plugging a cable into a car’s cigarette lighter. Considering those things only put out about 120 watts, be prepared to wait a while to do a recharge. But still it’s an interesting feature that might be useful.

Physically, this thing is a beast. It is as large and heavy as my Yamaha 2KW gasoline powered inverter. It weighs in at about 60lbs, and the physical dimensions are around 17″ X 11″ X 15″. At 60 pounds you aren’t going to be casually carrying this thing around. If you end up getting the optional expansion battery packs this thing is going to be seriously heavy. But the weight and size is typical for portable power stations with this capacity.

Oh, and I should talk about the batteries. This unit uses LiFePO4 batteries. The manufacturer claims that after 3,500 charge cycles the batteries should still retain about 80% of their original capacity. That means you could recharge this thing every day for 10 years and still have 80% capacity left.

The touch screen is easy to read. In the “home” screen it shows the basic status of the unit. Here you can see that the AC outlets are turned on and that something is drawing 368 watts of energy, and it has 99% capacity left in the battery. It was running the house’s natural gas furnace when this photo was taken.

Now we come to the control systems. Just left of the screen is a big ON button. Push that and after a moment it will boot up and the color touch screen turns on. The screen not only displays all of the information you need, it is the primary control system for the unit.

Before you can use it you have to specifically turn on the DC and/or AC power systems to make the plugs “live”. But once you do that it’s ready to go and all you need to do is plug in whatever devices or appliances you need to power.

Other information is also available on various screens including load statistics, the ability to switch the system to handle European or Japanese electrical devices which use a different power system, and a few other goodies.

And there is a free app you can get for your phone that allows you to monitor what the Bluetti is doing. It is Bluetooth only, the device has no WiFi capabilities, so the range is limited. I was able to keep in touch with the Bluetti with my phone anywhere I was in the house, garage and even much of my backyard.

How well does it work?

If you thought all of the above was boring, you’re going to find the actual in-use evaluation of the Bluetti even more dull. It just works exactly as specified by the manufacturer. No drama, no problems, no issues, nothing. It just did everything it was supposed to do without any problems at all.

The primary use for mine is to provide backup power for two essential systems in the house, our gas furnace and our sump pumps. So that’s what I’ve been testing it on.

A gas furnace doesn’t use a lot of electricity, just enough to keep the thermostat system operating, which is minimal, and, of course, the blower fans. The actual heating is done by the combustion of natural gas. A natural gas furnace doesn’t use a great deal of electricity, generally in the 350 – 700 watt range. The electronic igniter that actually lights the gas uses some electricity of course. Rather a lot, in fact, but it works for such a short period of time that it isn’t that important.

My furnace was already set up to be used with our backup generator so I didn’t have to do any additional electrical work to make it possible to power the furnace alone. All I have to do was turn off the furnace, plug in a single electrical cable to switch from grid power to the Bluetti, and turn the furnace back on again.

Sidenote: I am going to give the usual disclaimer here. Consult with a licensed electrician before trying to make any modifications to your house’s electrical systems. Yes, I know house wiring isn’t that difficult to deal with, but unless you know what you’re doing you can end up in serious trouble or even dead if you screw something up. Then there is the legal issues to consider. A lot of jurisdictions require a licensed electrician to make any significant changes to a home’s electrical systems. There are also issues when it comes to your home owner’s insurance. If there is a fire in your home and subsequent investigation reveals that the home had electrical modifications that did not meet building codes or that were not performed by a licensed electrician the insurance company may refuse to cover the damage.

So, how did the Bluetti work while powering the furnace? Exactly as I expected it would. It handled the furnace easily with no issues at all. As my research indicated, the furnace required about 350 – 550 watts during operation. The wide range there is because this model furnace has a variable speed blower fan.

After 3 hours running the furnace the Bluetti still had 78% capacity left.

Once you know how much power a device draws, figuring out how long a battery system will run that device is pretty simple. The Bluetti has a bit more than 2,000 watt hour capacity so it should be able to run a device that needs, on average, about 400 watts, for about 5 hours. But that’s assuming that the device will be running all the time, and the furnace isn’t running constantly. The fans only run when the furnace’s burner is actually in use. On the day I did this test after 3 hours of operating the furnace the Bluetti still had 78% capacity, far better than I had anticipated.

So in actual testing, with those particular weather conditions, with the thermostat set at 67F degrees, the Bluetti should have been able to keep the furnace operating for around 12 hours.

Those numbers are under a specific set of conditions that could change quickly, of course. The weather was relatively mild with outdoor temperatures about 30F and very little wind. During colder weather and higher winds the furnace would run more often and for longer periods of time in order to maintain the temperature in the house. That, of course, would deplete the Bluetti more quickly.

The other intended use for the Bluetti is to keep the sump pumps going. We had part of the basement flood because of a sump pump failure here some years ago and we do not want to go through that again. I now have a backup pump on the shelf along with all of the tools and plumbing parts I need, and I changed the whole system so I can swap out a pump in just a few minutes. But in case of a power failure that isn’t going to do me any good. And since power failures often happen during storms when we’re getting heavy rain, they can happen at the worst possible time when we need the pumps the most.

Sump pumps require considerably more power than the furnace. The pumps I have require about 700 watts to run, but they run only intermittently. In addition to that load, there is a significant surge current when the pump first starts up, with can hit 1,300 watts for a few seconds.

I picked the capacity of the Bluetti specifically so it could, hopefully, handle both sump pumps at the same time. It can handle a current demand of up to 2,000 watts, sustained and the pumps together would take about 1,400. The PPS can handle a surge demand of over 4,000 watts. In a worst case scenario the two pumps might start at exactly the same time so there would be a momentary surge demand of about 2,600 watts. So it should be able to handle both pumps, at the same time, even if both pumps start at the same time.

I did test the Bluetti running the pumps. I already knew that because of the surge load and increased power requirements I would get much less actual runtime on the pumps than I would with the furnace. And I was a bit anxious about it being to able to run both pumps at the same time, especially if both started at exactly the same time. I’m pleased to report that it was able to handle both pumps with no problems. The Bluetti’s internal cooling fans did come on while running the pumps, but that was expected and normal.

During an actual rainstorm situation the Bluetti wouldn’t be able to keep both pumps running for more than an hour or so I estimate, but that’s all I need from it. I want it to give me some breathing room, carry the load for a while until I have a chance to get one of the gasoline generators running. My big Generac is cranky and hard to start sometimes, and even my little 2KW Yamaha inverter takes a while to get set up in a good location outside and run a cable down to the basement.

Could it run both of the pumps and the furnace at the same time? Well, maybe? That would be pushing the Bluetti to its full capacity, though. Theoretically it could. Total sustained demand running all three at the same time would be about 1,900 watts, maybe a bit more, really close to it’s top limit of 2,000 watts sustained load, and in a worst case scenario where both pumps and the furnace would start up at exactly the same time the surge load would be pushing the theoretical limits of the device’s maximum surge capacity.

Hopefully that won’t be necessary to deal with. Usually during the heating season the pumps don’t run at all. They’re generally only needed in the spring, summer and fall, and then only when we have a significant rain event.

Now, what about recharging this thing? At the moment I’m using the grid powered 500 watt charger that came with the unit. Bluetti will sell you solar panels that are capable of recharging this unit in a reasonable amount of time, but there are problems with that system. First it’s expensive, Buetti’s system will cost you $800+ for enough capacity. And even worse, these are portable, non-weather proof and not intended to be left outside. They can’t be left up in rain or snow. That’s not what I’m looking for. I want to set up a solar charging system that will be more or less a permanent installation that I don’t need to worry about. I’m still looking into that. I’ll probably set something up this spring when I can get outside to work.

So let’s sum everything up. The Bluetti AC200MAX is a very well made piece of equipment, it works exactly as advertised. I’ve encountered no problems at all with it during testing. It has met and even exceeded my expectations all the way around and I am very pleased with it. Yes, it’s heavy and awkward to lug around but so is any PPS with this capacity. It just plain works, and works well.


This thing ain’t cheap, and this may be a deal breaker for a lot of people. The Bluetti model I’ve been talking about cost me, including taxes, $2,000. That’s a heck of a lot of money, especially when you can get a gasoline powered generator with the same capacity or even more for a quarter of that price. So before you buy one of these you need to consider all of your options and what your needs are.

In our case here, we feel it was worth the money even though we have gasoline powered generators. The Bluetti takes some of the panic out of the situation. If necessary it could keep the essentials, the furnace and pumps, running long enough to give me a chance to get one of the gas generators set up and running. And I was also thinking of MrsGF if I didn’t happen to be home when there was a power failure. There’s no way she could get the big Generac set up and running by herself and there’s a good chance she couldn’t get the little 2KW Yamaha running either. With the Bluetti all she has to do is turn it on and plug in some electrical cords and she has some time to figure out what to do. And she would have some, oh, buffer time, let’s call it, to possibly get out the little Yamaha generator and get it running to take over if the outage lasts more than a couple of hours.

Long Term Plans

I’m looking into a solar panel system to keep it charged but at this point I don’t know what that is going to be. I want something that can be semi-permanently mounted on the roof of the garage where it is out of the way and I don’t need to worry about it. I’m looking for a system that would give me a minimum of 800 – 1,000 watts and that would be easily expandable because I’m seriously considering trying to make at least some of the household independent of the grid, not for any particular reason but just because I want to.

I’m considering getting another PPS, not necessarily another Bluetti, and using that as the primary power source to run my entire combined office, radio shack, electronics work area, charged by solar panels on the roof and/or on the south facing wall of the garage. How far that project will go depends on how ambitious I get and what my budget looks like.

Comments and questions are always welcome.

Will Alexa Go Away?

I was promised a lot of things when I was a kid back in the 60s. I was told that I would have my own personal robot to serve me lunch. I was, they told me, going to be able to take a vacation on the moon or maybe even Mars. I was told I would have my very own flying car. I was told I would be able to fly from Chicago to Sydney Australia in an hour. I was told I’d have a talking computer that would understand human speech.

Only one of those things actually came true in my lifetime, the talking/listening computer that is generically called a “personal home assistant”, or specifically the Amazon Echo (often called Alexa after its wake word) and Google’s Assistant (sometimes referred to as Nest). I’m going to focus on the Echo because that’s the one I’m most familiar with.

These things are everywhere. Amazon has sold somewhere around 200+ million of these things. I think they sold about 70 million of them last year alone, and if sales trends continue it’s predicted the company will sell 130 million of them in 2025 alone. I know a lot of people don’t like them and are even suspicious of them. I mean we live in a world now where some poor woman ended up finding a photograph of herself sitting on a toilet that was taken by her vacuum cleaner ending up on the internet. But the fact remains that there are millions of these things out there and millions of people love them and even have come to depend on them for important reasons.

But there is a huge problem with the Echo and the others out there, and that is cost. Amazon sells these things at cost to keep the price down, and they are losing an absolute fortune. The company is losing billions of dollars on the Echo devices. The problem is that they require a massive and extremely expensive behind the scenes infrastructure to work. The devices themselves are, frankly, stupid. What makes them work are massive server farms, huge buildings packed with computers that do the actual work associated with operating these things. And Amazon hasn’t come up with a way to pay for any of it.

When the Echo program was conceived of, it was going to be a marketing tool. The Echo was going to be an advertising device and ordering system. It would remind you to buy coffee or dish soap or laundry detergent and you’d use the Echo to order more and things like that. Only it didn’t work out that way. In order to get people to accept these things into their homes Amazon had to make the a hell of a lot more useful than that. And they did too good of a job of it. They’re used as personal calendars, reminder devices, communications devices, entertainment devices, give reminders to take medication, play cooking videos, play fart noises, tell bad jokes.

And Amazon makes pretty much nothing off any of that.

Amazon makes huge amounts of money, true, but not even that company can afford to keep this going when it is losing literally billions of dollars on the project. The company has been laying off people working on the Echo devices and trying other cost cutting measures, but it’s losing billions and none of that is going to solve that problem.

I suspect Amazon would dearly love to shut down the whole program, but that would be a PR disaster. Despite the fact that a lot of people look at the devices with suspicion, a lot of people love the things, use them every day, and often use them in ways that help improve their health and safety. If Amazon were to just shut the whole thing down it would anger millions of people.

So what is the solution? Hey, don’t look at me.

Change is Good

When I start to get bored I start thinking about things and fiddling with things and you never know what I’m going to come up with. Once the weather got colder and I couldn’t get out in the gardens or on the bike I retreated to my little mad scientists laboratory down in the basement and started tinkering and thinking. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it keeps me out of MrsGF’s hair and keeps me from hanging around on street corners selling unlicensed cats. What emerged from this brainstorm was the Wowbagger 2000.

Sidenote: Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged was a minor character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. His self appointed task was to insult every single person in the entire universe, in alphabetical order.

The Wowbagger 2000 is an insulting robot. It will, when fully developed, home in on a specific target, someone who deserves to be insulted, someone like, oh, Elon Musk, for example. I’m thinking of sending him the prototype when it’s finished. It will follow them around and at the most potentially embarrassing time, like when one is on the phone with one’s boss or mother in law or something, make snide, cutting remarks about the person’s physical appearance, mental capacity and/or family history. I figure the world needs something like this very badly. Unfortunately my Kickstarter campaign has resulted in a total investment of twelve cents and something that looks like a bit of fossilized chewing gum from the Milwaukee public transit system, so my budget for this project is severely limited.

I almost immediately ran into problems. Normally with a little project like this I’d reach for a Raspeberry Pi computer. These are very small, rather powerful Linux based computers that are extremely useful for little projects like this. I used to get a RaspPi for about $40. Not any more. When I went looking for one they were going for $250, and there was no way I was going to enrich the profiteering scalpers who trying to scam people. So I looked for a possible alternative and came up with the Arduino.

This is where the “change is good” thing comes in. Arduinos have been around for ages but they always seemed to be a bit limited in their abilities and inconvenient to work with. And they aren’t really computers.

Well, okay so technically they are computers, but I mean they aren’t designed to be used like you would use a desktop, laptop or even a RaspPi. Technically it is a microcontroller. It has lots and lots of addressable pins that can be used to control other things. to read data from sensors and things like that. They’re great for projects like robotics and remote sensing platforms like weather stations and things like that. Including a lot of stuff I used to use the RaspPi computers for.

And did I mention they were cheap? They are very, very cheap. I can pick up an Arduino Mega clone for around $15 and even the genuine Italian made ones aren’t all that much more. The cheapest RaspPi I can find is going for about $130. So, $130 compared to $15? Guess which one I bought.

Yeah, right. Well, bought more than one. I got about 8 of the things laying around now but never mind that.

I am now wishing I’d started tinkering with these things a long, long time ago. Yes, they can be awkward to work with. Yes, they are fairly limited when it comes to things like built in memory, speed and convenience. Yes, I need to write the code on a separate computer and download it. Yes, I have to write code in a variation of C++, a language which is, frankly, an abomination on the face of the Earth.

But my goodness they’re fun to play with.

Oh, and I should mention that because they are very popular, very cheap, and have been around for a very long time, there are a tone of add ons available for them that are very fun indeed. And cheap. Very cheap. I can pick up a full color, 3″ touch screen video display, with an SD card reader, for $15??? Seriously?

So I’ve been locked up in my lab (MrsGF lets me out for lunch) fiddling with these things and breadboarding things and puttering around and keeping the nice delivery companies in business shipping me resistors and capacitors and servomotors and stepper motors and even resorting to actually learning stuff.

And the result is…

Yes, the Wowbagger 2000 lives! With a full color touch screen for the display and user input. And it actually works????

Yeah, it works <evil grin>

Ham Radio Stuff: Its Alive!

It’s Alive! (Cue evil laughter)

Way back in October we had a nasty thunderstorm roll through here that did some damage here. My much patched and cobbled together OCFD (off center fed dipole) antenna had come down again, my Gap Titan vertical had some minor damage to some of the vertical elements. All of my radio equipment was just fine but the storm did take out my primary computer down in the office/shop/radio shack/mad scientist lab. It’s power supply couldn’t deal with the rapidly fluctuating voltage fluctuations that included brown outs, surges and complete blackouts. We had a dozen or more of those in the space of just a few minutes. It didn’t actually start on fire but it sure did smell funny. And I lost two large capacity external hard drives as well. Fortunately all that data was backed up.

That computer was already giving some odd errors that seemed to indicate that the SSD was having problems and that the main memory might be going bad, so I already had a new replacement computer set up on the other workbench ready to go. I set up the new computer, started replacing all of the software that had been installed on the old one, got two new 10 TB external hard drives to replace the ones that had been lost, copied all my data back to those from the RAID array on the iMac up in the main office, recovered all of my photos from “the cloud” where they are backed up (they’re also backed up to two small, portable 1TB hard drives that are only connected to the system for backups. I don’t want to risk losing thousands of photos so I have a triple backup system, the cloud, plus two separate external hard drives. That may be paranoid but I know one person who lost all of her family photos and videos, all of the images of her kids, her late parents, everything. Ever since that happened to her I’ve been paranoid about backing up everything.).

Then I looked at my radio gear and, well, dear lord, what a mess. Everything was hooked up in haphazard fashion, cables were running everywhere, most of them unlabeled, it was almost impossible to reach the physical controls of the transceiver or anything else. I decided all of it needed to be torn down and set up to make it neater and easier to work with. So I took everything apart, cleared off the space on the bench where I was going to set it all back up and…

Well, thanks to procrastination, sheer laziness, and getting involved in other things for a time, it’s only just now, months later, that I have everything back up. A week ago we had some really nice weather with temps up around 60 so I spent the entire day outside fiddling with antennas. I got the vertical straightened out, mostly. I took down what was left of my old OCFD antenna and spent a large part of the afternoon climbing about 20 feet up two different trees to anchor the end points of the new OCFD (A Buckmaster that I picked up somewhere.) Then was up the ladder at the end of the garage to hang the massive balun that’s used to feed the antenna. That’s up at the peak of the garage roof. Good thing MrsGF wasn’t around that day or she’d have freaked seeing me up those trees and that ladder…

To make a long story a bit less long, here’s what the new setup looks like.

The wiring has been straightened out, I can actually reach all of the controls I need to reach. I finally have space to put my iambic paddle, that’s the chrome thing in front of the speaker with the red paddle like things on it. It’s used for sending morse code (CW). I have the Palstar tuner sitting up on an old monitor stand bolted to the bench, the amplifier is perched on a stand above the transceiver where I can reach it easily. Everything is now arranged so I can operate everything easily.

Then there was the software… These days it seems computers are everywhere and amateur radio is no different. A lot of what we do in amateur radio is now intimately linked to computers of one type or another.

The most important bit of software for me is Ham Radio Deluxe. Yes, I know, once upon a time I was not pleased with HRD and I made that fact known in posts here in the past. There was even a nasty scandal involving a one or more persons in customer support that I will not get into. That’s all changed. In the last few years HRD has worked very, very hard to fix the problems with the software and to improve customer support and HRD has become my primary piece of software not only for running the transceiver but also for logging contacts and operating in digital modes like PSK.

Downloading, installing and setting up HRD only took a few minutes. But then there was the question of the log of the contacts I’d made in the past. I lost the contact log I’d been keeping in HRD when the computer blew and, of course, I had neglected to make a backup. QRZ to the rescue. I’d had HRD set up to send all of my contact information to my log on Downloading my log from QRZ and importing it into HRD only took a few minutes.

Getting some of the other software working was considerably more difficult but eventually I got all that working as well and I was back on the air.

I still have one issue I need to deal with and that’s Logbook of the World, LOTW. That’s the ARRL’s system of confirming contacts with other amateur radio operators. I log all of my contacts to QRZ.COM, eQSL, and LOTW. Those are ways of confirming to other amateur radio operators that a contact has actually been made. Personally I don’t care if I get a confirmation or not. But some people do because they’re trying to get certificates for specific achievements like having made contacts in all 50 states, or for various contests and things like that, and those contacts are confirmed by some service like LOTW or EQSL. One of the neat things HRD does is it will automatically upload contacts I make to all three services without me having to mess around with it. EQSL and QRZ both work just fine, but LOTW is a different story. It just doesn’t work and the error messages I’ve been getting don’t tell me exactly what the problem is. Until I can figure that out logging to LOTW is not going to be used. And since I don’t use it personally and don’t really like it in the first place, getting it working is going to be a low priority item.

Anyway, the system is back up and running and working. I even made a couple of contacts in North Carolina as soon as I had the antennas finished.

Review: LaserPecker Pro. But the most important question is, Can It Engrave A Banana?

Laserpecker Pro set up and ready to go, without the protective shields in place

So it was time to replace my old laser engraver. That’s it over there on the right. And what’s replacing it is the one in the lead photo, the Laserpecker. The one over on the right is a more or less generic style engraver made in China that hit the consumer market a few years ago, often at ridiculously cheap prices. They were complicated machines, usually based on cheap CNC machines with the cutter replaced with a laser. There were rails and stepper motors and drive belts and complicated mechanical systems in addition to the controls needed to run the laser itself. As you can tell from looking at the two photos, the Laserpecker is much, much different. It doesn’t ride on rails, there are no stepper motors or belts. In fact it doesn’t move at all. It is entirely motionless during the entire engraving process. The only thing that moves is the laser. Here’s a quick video review I found on Youtube that will show you exactly how it works.

Now everything he says in that video is true, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt. He’s going through this so fast that he has no time to tell you about some of the issues you have to deal with if you get one of these. And there is some misleading information floating around out there about the LP that needs to be cleared up as well

Let’s look at the hardware first, and start with different models and prices. What the reviewer up there is showing is the standard Laserpecker which is selling for around $250 or so right now. It includes the LP itself, the tripod, a ruler to measure distance, a small power supply, and a pair of safety glasses. There are apparently three other versions. The only difference between them is that they come with more accessories, the most expensive of which is the focusing stand like the one shown in my photo at the start of this review.

The first ‘step up’ so to speak includes that stand, and more than doubles the price from around $250 to about $530. Why so much for a stand? It isn’t just a stand. In addition to getting rid of the awkward tripod that stand has some nifty electronics in it. It connects to the LP and when combined with the laser it eliminates the need to carefully measure the distance between the LP and the object being engraved. Just touch a button and it raises or lowers itself to the proper height to focus the laser.

The next option up adds a set of glass shields, edged in magnets, that clip together to form a folding safety screen to protect your eyes from the laser. Those are the panels over there on the left. You can also get just the safety shield from LP. Should you? Yeah, probably you should. Lasers and eyes don’t get along very well. You need some kind of eye protection when using any laser device. The panels are convenient, easy to set up, fold up flat for storage, and can be configured to work around just about any shaped object. And you can leave one corner open for a fume extractor, something you also absolutely need. I’ll talk about that a bit later.

The next level up only adds a storage case to hold all of the various parts which, of course, you don’t need at all.

The “pro deluxe” model that I got came with these 3 boxes

I got what was labeled the “pro deluxe” model in the ad when I bought it, which includes the same laser head as shown in that video up there, the automatic focusing stand and the shields. Also included were the power supply, which is a tiny power pack with a USB connector in it and a cable with a USB C connector on the other end to go to the stand. The stand then connects to the LP itself with a short cord. There was also a set of safety glasses, simple instructions and some bits a paper that apparently you’re supposed to engrave for some reason.

Let’s talk about specifications. The LP uses a 405nm, 5 watt, blue violet laser with a specified lifetime of 10,000 hours. So the laser is fairly typical of laser engravers in this category. You aren’t going to be using this to burn through metal or anything else for that matter except paper and thin cardboard. It isn’t made for that. It’s an engraver. Period.

The included power supply is tiny, hardly the size of a small phone charger. It puts out 5 volts and is rated for 2 amps which, well, it isn’t a lot, really. I was rather surprised to find a laser engraver that ran at that low of an amperage. In some of the ads I’ve seen them running this thing from one of those little “power bank” battery packages that lets you recharge a cell phone.

The LP does handle fine details better than my old laser did.

The LP can do an engraving of up to 100 x 100 mm in size, or about 4 x 4 inches. Now that is smaller than the area that can be covered by some other engravers, but the size really isn’t an issue here. The LP is aimed at hobbyists, crafters and woodworkers who are probably working on small projects. Basically people like me who need to do the occasional company logo or piece of artwork to embellish a project. That 4×4 size isn’t going to be a problem for people like us. Most of the engravings I do are half that size or less. And you’ll want to keep engraving size small because larger ones take a long, long time. Almost all of the videos I’ve seen promoting the LP (and to be fair other laser engravers as well) drastically speed up the video and make it look like an engraving that really took an hour or more only took a few seconds.

The LP itself is a very simple looking little round box. That’s it in the photo over there on the right. That’s the entire thing, except for the stand. There are no moving parts, no rails, no motors, no drive belts. That’s it. Unlike my old engraver, the LP has no moving parts at all. The only thing that moves is the laser beam itself. It either attaches to the tripod with a screw or it sits in a cutout on the top of the stand if you opt for that. It’s about as simple as it gets, really.

Lasers are, of course, light, and in order to get the sharpest beam possible they need to be focused just like you need to focus the lens of your camera to get the sharpest image. With my old engraver this was done by adjusting a lens. But there is no lens with the LP, it is fixed focus. The LP has to be around 8″ away from the object being engraved or the laser won’t be properly focused. They include a ruler to make it easier to measure. If you’re working with the tripod you need to adjust the feet and use the ruler to get the measurement right. It can be a bit fiddly but working with just the tripod isn’t really a problem.

If the LP seems like something you are interested in, I strongly recommend you get the bare bones version that comes with just the laser head, tripod, power supply and safety glasses. You absolutely do not need the autofocusing stand. Now that I have the thing I wish I hadn’t bought the stand. Yes, it makes it a bit easier to set the height properly and it is pretty slick. But I’ve had some problems with the auto focusing stand that I’ll come to in just a bit. And in any case, it adds $200 to the price of the Laserpecker. I really don’t think it’s worth the money. Fiddling with the tripod is a minor nuisance, but once you do it a few times and have some practice with setting it up and getting the distance right it’s not that hard to do.

The other optional accessory that comes with the Laserpecker Pro Deluxe version that I got is the safety shield. That’s it below.

This shield is really slick. It’s made up of 4 glass panels made of a material designed to protect your eyes from the laser. Those metal strips along the edges are magnets. The whole thing just clips together. You can move the panels around, adjust the shape, leave one corner open for venting, etc. It is very, very handy and I like it a lot. Those 4 panels are available separately and sell for $90 at the moment. Now that may sound like a lot of money but actually it isn’t that bad. Protective glass panels for lasers are expensive if you want to build your own. At least the good ones are. When compared to high quality protective shielding panels available elsewhere, these are actually pretty inexpensive. You could get along without these, but remember that the LP is designed to be easily carried around and used anywhere. Quite possibly with other people present. Do you have protective glasses for everyone in the room when you’re using the thing? If not you need some kind of shielding, and these do the job. IMO the $90 price is worth it.

Now let’s look at the auto focusing stand. At first I liked it a lot, but as I’ve used it more I’ve come to think that going for the “Pro” package that included it was a waste of $200.

That’s it up there, and it is very, very nice. (Or so I thought at first.) Well it had better be nice considering it costs almost as much as the Laserpecker itself. It is undeniably very well made. But the more I worked with it the less I liked it and now I think it isn’t worth the money.

As I said it is very well made. Fit and finish is absolutely flawless. Obviously a lot of very high end engineering went into designing and building this thing.

Instead of plugging the power pack into the Laserpecker, the power pack is plugged into a connector on the stand, and a short cable then goes from the stand to the LP itself. Up on the top are 3 buttons. The two left buttons move it up and down. The right button starts the autofocusing sequence. It activates the LP’s laser to put a spot on an object below and then moves up or down automatically until it is properly focused. And it works pretty well.

No, let me correct that. It works pretty well when it wants to. Here’s the biggest problem I’ve run into with this thing. Sometimes it just – just stops when I engage the autofocus mode. It will begin the process, start to move the stand up or down, and then everything, the stand, the laser, all of it, shuts down completely and won’t restart unless I unplug it, wait about 10 seconds and then plug it in again. Here’s a video showing it doing just that.

It starts doing the focus routine, begins to lower into position, and then just shuts down completely. All the lights turn off, fan turns off, it and the Laserpecker itself shuts down. All of it is completely dead until I unplug it and plug it back in again. I have no idea why. It doesn’t do it all the time. Shortly before this happened in the video I used autofocus on a variety of different sized objects and it worked every time. Then I unplugged the unit, moved it to the other workbench, started making the video and bam, it died again. I suspected the problem might be that the power supply is too wimpy to handle the load of running both the laser and the motors of the focusing mechanism at the same time. One of the advantages of being a packrat like me is that I have all kinds of stuff laying around so I found a 5V 3A power supply and tried that. And it did exactly the same thing. A bit later I tried it again and guess what? Autofocus worked just fine. Then the next day it went through the shutdown thing again. Sigh…

The other problem is that fan up there next to the buttons. It shouldn’t be there at all. It serves no useful purpose except to blow the smoke generated by the laser all over your house. Smoke and fumes are a serious issue with these things. They can produce a lot of it depending on the material being engraved. Lasers work, after all, by burning. Smoke of any kind is not healthy to breathe. And when burning and melting various plastics and other materials some of the fumes given off can be downright toxic. Plus there is the significant risk of setting off the smoke detectors in your house, apartment or workshop. You absolutely, positively must have some kind of smoke/fume extraction system when you’re working with these things. That’s mine below. It’s home made and may look a bit crude but it works quite well.

There is a 4 inch flexible dryer vent pipe going to a piece of scrap plywood cut to fit the window opening just above my workbench. The pipe is caulked to that hole. At the other end is a ducted fan I picked up off Amazon for $27. I’ve been using it for some time and it works very well for things like smoke from lasers, fumes from soldering, etc. But that stupid and utterly useless fan on the top of the LP’s stand makes things more difficult. My extractor is trying to draw smoke across horizontally while that fan up top is trying to blow it up towards the ceiling so unless I get my pipe right up close to the object being engraved it doesn’t work very well. If I keep using the stand I’m going to cut the power going to that fan and possibly build some kind of container for it to make extracting the smoke easier.

They want $135 for this. A box with a 5V fan in it. $135! Seriously.

So why is that fan there at all? Cooling? Nope. The laser doesn’t need cooling. The bare bones LP works just fine without any fan at all. And the fan’s in the wrong place to cool anything in any case. From what I’ve been able to discover, once upon a time LP was going to offer some kind of filter that would sit on top of the stand and the fan was going to pull smoke from the laser up through there. Only there doesn’t seem to actually be any such filtration system for sale on the LP website. At least not one that works with that dopey fan. There is a sort of an attempt at some kind of filtration system, but that’s an entirely different system that is a complete enclosure that won’t work with the stand at all. And while there’s a fan in that little box over there, there don’t seem to be any actual filters in it. It seems to just suck the smoke up and blow it out a vent in the side.

Here it is making one of the discs make with my shop logo that get attached to bowls and other projects that roll out of here.

Let’s get to the important part, though. Is it any good as a laser engraver?

The answer is that it is quite good. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do, engrave stuff, and it does it well. That’s the disc the machine was engraving in the video and it turned out pretty well. It takes about 4 minutes to do one of those with is actual a bit faster than my old engraver was. And the resolution is better.

I’ve done quite a few engravings with it, mostly on wood, and all of them have turned out very well once I got the settings dialed in properly. Most of these lasers have setting to adjust the power the laser uses expressed as a percentage, from 100% being full power, to lower power settings. Also a ‘depth’ setting which actually is how long (I think) the laser remains in one spot before moving on. The ‘deeper’ the setting the slower the laser goes. Sometimes it takes some fiddling with the settings before you get the settings right for the material you’re working with.

People are always asking if you can engrave curved surfaces and the answer to that is sort of? It depends on how severe the curve is because a laser has to be properly focused in order to work well. But as you can see from the logo engraved on the bowl over on the left it handles curved surfaces reasonably well.

It does fine detail well also. I haven’t experimented to see just how small I can shrink down an image before it loses definition, but I suspect the LP will handle that pretty well also.

So that covers the hardware. Now we come to the software that drives the whole system.

The Laserpecker runs on proprietary software available only for Android and iOS devices. In other words it runs only on cell phones and tablets. There is no software for the Laserpecker 1 for PCs of any flavor. There is software for PCs to control the Laserpecker 2 but that is an entirely different machine that doesn’t seem to be available yet. It is not compatible with any other software.

The program can be rather clumsy and awkward to use at times and I don’t like the user interface at all, but that’s personal preference. The software does work well to control the LP but there is certainly room for improvement.

You download it from whichever app store you use (Apple or Google) and then you have to go through a registration process in order to get an unlock code that will let you actually use the LP. This took longer than it should have. I spent half an hour fiddling around with this thing. It took at least six or seven attempts before it finally sent me the the unlock code via email. Why does it need to be “unlocked” in the first place? I bought the thing, the software will only work with the Laserpecker hardware, what the hell do you need to unlock it for?

You then need to enter a pin number (they call it a password) which the software will ask you for repeatedly. Now I can understand needing a pin number because you wouldn’t want your eight year old to start messing around with this so it does need some security.

Then you can get ready to start lasering stuff. First you need to turn the LP on and connect the software to it via Bluetooth. That was painless and fast.

The Examples takes you to a library of a few dozen cutesy little black and white drawings you can engrave.

The Creation option takes you to a very simplistic editor that lets you enter text to engrave or do some doodling on the screen with your fingertip. Photoshop it ain’t. The text option is useful, but the drawing app is, IMO, completely useless for producing anything useful. Even a professional artist would have trouble using that thing to make something that didn’t look like a child’s bad doodle.

And if you look at that screen shot over there you’ll see the software has given it a name, filename8.bmp. This implies that the software is going to be saving that drawing somewhere and you’ll be able to use it again. Don’t worry about someone ever seeing your alleged attempt at artwork and causing your family to disown you in shame or anything like that. It doesn’t. Save it, I mean. As far as I can tell that file goes absolutely nowhere. At least nowhere I could find. It doesn’t save it on my phone, doesn’t save it to my iCould, doesn’t save it to my photo library. It just vanishes after the engraving is done.

That brings me to the two biggest problems with the software.

The ads for the LP imply that you can import .jpg, .bmp, .png and other graphics files into the software. It also implies that you can even import gcode files. Only you can’t. The only thing the software has access to for import options is the photo library on your phone or tablet. You can import an existing photo from your phone’s photo library, and that is it. Nothing else. If you want to use an image you found somewhere, use artwork you’ve created yourself, etc. the only way you can import it into the software is to take a picture of it with your phone and then import that photo from your photo library and use the programs bare bones editor to crop it and adjust some visual parameters before you engrave it.

And once you’ve done the engraving, all the work you did importing that photo, cropping it, etc. just vanishes into thin air because the software has no provision for saving any of it. So when I do something like create a logo for a business or just some artwork I’ve done in Photoshop, the only way I can get it into the LP software is to take a photo of my computer screen and import that from my photo library, fiddle around cropping it and adjusting the few parameters the software lets me change, and then do the engraving. And then the next time I want to do that same engraving, I have to start all over again. Grrrrr….

The rest of the software is pretty basic but it gets the job done. Once you’re ready to engrave something you go to a screen that lets you select power level, depth of burn, the number of repeats necessary, the usual stuff associated with using a laser engraver. And then send it to the Laserpecker to actually do the engraving.

There is an option to select various materials that are being engraved which then sets the power levels, etc. automatically based on the material. Those presets generally aren’t very useful. The single best way to set the various parameters is to take a piece of scrap material and try that first and adjust the parameters manually to get the best look.

So let’s sum this all up.

The Laserpecker itself, that little round box, is a great piece of equipment that works quite well. The relatively small size of the engraving it can do, 100mm x 100mm isn’t going to be much of an issue for most of us. It just does a good job all the way around.

The software isn’t the best and has some serious drawbacks, but it does work and you can work around the drawbacks.

Considering the bare bones version of the Laserpecker sells for $250 or so, the price is pretty darned good for this thing.

The accessories that come with the “Pro” version, well, that’s a different story. The autofocusing stand is neat, but it costs darn near as much as the Laserpecker itself and I don’t think it’s worth the money. And as I noted earlier I had problems with it just shutting down and making me reboot the whole thing when trying to use it.

The clip together shields are neat and genuinely useful, but you don’t need to go for the “pro” version to get them. You can buy them separately for $90 if you want to get them.

The device is completely portable. You can set it up anywhere. The laser head can be adjusted on the tripod so it can engrave vertical surfaces or things at an angle if you get it adjusted properly. It can even run off one of those power banks that are used to recharge phones as long as it can provide 5V at 2 amps.

It isn’t the fastest thing in the world but none of the laser engravers in this price range are. Doing that 2 inch disc with the shop’s logo on it takes about 4 minutes, which is pretty reasonable. But some of the test engravings I’ve done took half an hour or more. It depends on the size of the engraving and the settings of the laser. It’s at least as fast as my old engraver.

Smoke and fumes can be a serious issue, but that’s true for all laser engravers. Using this thing for extended periods of time without proper venting will set off smoke detectors and possibly give off dangerous fumes. But that’s true of all laser engravers.

Remember this thing is not a toy! It is a potentially dangerous device that can cause some serious problems if it is not used properly.

Now, the most important question of all. Can it engrave a banana?

Yes, it can.

If you’re in the market for an inexpensive laser engraver, definitely give the Laserpecker a look. But stick with the $250 bare bones version. You definitely do not need the over priced autofocusing stand. The glass shields at $90 are something you should consider as well.

Now you’ll see promotions for the Laserpecker 2 floating around out there, and it looks really, really nice. But it doesn’t actually seem to exist yet. At least not for the average consumer. If you want to buy one you’re looking at a delivery date of at least December of 2022, almost a year away. But that being said the LP2 looks really interesting. Interesting enough and possibly useful enough that in a year or so I might look into getting one of those. But for the time being I like my little LP1 and I’m quite satisfied with it.

Cake Plate, Air Filters, Schrodinger’s Microwave, Farmers Shafted Again

Egads, it’s been a while since I did one of these, isn’t it? This time of year as the weather gets colder it’s tempting to just hunker down in my warm radio room and play with radios and computers and stuff instead of doing something useful. But stuff has been getting done, things have been going on and, well, let’s start at the beginning.

I should point out that I hate the color rendition on iPhone cameras. The real life colors of that platter up there are much richer, much deeper, and considerably darker. I don’t know what’s going on with that camera, but colors look washed out, pale, harsh, even cartoonish sometimes, especially with indoor photos.

I don’t know if I mentioned the plate before, and I’m too lazy to go back through the archives to check, but I got MrsGF’s cake plate done finally. It’s hard to judge size in these photos so to give you an idea of size the top plate is about 11″ across and it stands about 5″ high. It’s made of ambrosia maple, finished with shellac and carnauba wax so it’s a food safe surface. I think it turned out reasonably well.

The base and spindle are made out of packing material. I ordered a bunch of wood from a company called Green Valley Wood Products and the wood didn’t quite fit into the box so they chucked in some rough cut pieces of wood as packing material that turned out to be some rather nice ambrosia maple once I cleaned it up. The stuff didn’t look like it was very good at first but I trimmed it up on the bandsaw and discovered there was enough there to make the base and spindle.

I should probably have mentioned Green Valley before. I’ve bought several hundred bucks worth of wood from these guys over the past few months and it has all been excellent quality and the prices are reasonable. Anyway, here’s a shameless plug – If you’re looking for wood, check out Green Valley Wood Products, Brazil IN. I don’t get free wood or get paid by them or anything like that, I just like the quality of their wood, shipping times are reasonable and the prices are fair.

The new air filtration system seems to be doing it’s job quite well. As you can see from the dirt on the filter up there it’s pulling stuff out of the air. It’s hard for me to tell exactly how well it’s working because I don’t have any way of testing particulate content in the air around here, but it seems there is a lot less dust through the whole house since I started using it.

Even with the new filter system I still use this thing. I figure running both of them can’t hurt.

Is it any better than something like this Rube Goldberg thing over there on the left? Heck, I don’t know. Taping a furnace filter to a box fan does help pull stuff out of the air, but how effective it really is… Well, judging from the amount of dust I saw in the rest of the basement when I was doing things like this, it doesn’t work all that well. The volume of air being moved through this thing isn’t anywhere near as great as what the Shopfox thing pulls through its system. At a rough guess I’d say the Shopfox moves 5 times as much air through its filters as the box fan does. That’s just a rough guess, of course, based on the air movement I feel. I don’t have any way to actually measure CFM.

Let’s see, what else? Ah, how could I forget about the Schrodinger’s microwave fiasco? I call it Schrodinger’s microwave because it seems to both exist and not exist, at the same time.

Handy hint: Don’t buy a black microwave. It may look cool in the display room or online, but in real life trying to keep it clean is a major pain in the neck.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Last year we had to buy a new microwave oven. We ended up getting a Maytag, the one in the photo over there on the right. And it’s a very nice microwave. A bit pricey, but it’s well made and works very well indeed. We really like the thing. The problem is that this model doesn’t seem to actually exist.

We needed to replace the filters in this thing. MrsGF went out on the internet and started scrounging around looking for replacement filters. And couldn’t find any. In fact, she couldn’t even find this oven.

You’re kidding, said I. You must have typed the model number in wrong or overlooked something. Ah, said she, if you’re so smart, you go try to find it. Okay, said I, I will.

She was right. None of the parts vendors on Amazon list this model. None of the parts vendors outside of Amazon list this model. I went directly to Maytag. Maytag itself didn’t have this model in its database. Apparently we bought a microwave that doesn’t actually exist???

I took a closer look at the tag with the manufacturing data on it, including the date it was made and…

Well, that was interesting. Apparently this oven was manufactured three months after we bought it. Okay… Well, I ruled out the possibility that somehow this thing slipped through some crack in the spacetime continuum from some alternate universe or that the guy who actually installed it was Dr. Who or that it was some kind of quantum oven that both existed and didn’t exist at the same time. So what was going on? Some kind of counterfeit perhaps? It does happen. There are companies out there that gleefully rip off name brand manufacturers all the time. But that didn’t make sense. This thing is extremely good quality. Everything about it is rock solid, made to perfect tolerances, made of high quality materials, the fit and finish is flawless, it works beautifully. If this thing is a counterfeit they’re making products of better quality than most of the name brand stuff out there. So that didn’t make any sense.

Anyway, eventually I did find a filter, but by searching on the filter dimensions instead of models or brands. The one I found was actually for a Whirlpool. Of course it is entirely possible that this is a Whirlpool, or, rather, made by some OEM in China that makes ovens for two or more different companies and the only difference between them is the brand name. That kind of thing happens all the time in most industries. The name you see on the product isn’t the company that actually made it. Heck, the Ford truck I had many years ago was actually made in Canada by Mazda.

Farmers Getting Screwed Again?

Yeah, it seems so. Here’s the deal – Farmers who sold their milk to the now bankrupt Dean Foods are getting letters from lawyers demanding the farmers repay the money they were paid for milk they shipped to Dean during the “preference period” of the bankruptcy. Supposedly these parasites can go back 90 days and demand the farmers repay the money Dean paid them. Will the farmers then get their milk back or something? Of course not. Is it ethical? Good lord no! Ethically speaking this is flat out extortion. Is this legal? Apparently it is. It’s called a Trustee Avoidance Claim. But in actual fact most, if not all of the farmers who dealt with Dean who are receiving demands like this qualify for an exemption and can avoid having to repay anything. But the trustees, of course, hope the farmers don’t know this and will just cough up the money. As Roger McEowen of Washburn University said,  “These are extortion letters, there’s no other way to put it. They’re seeing what they can get.”

But if you get one of these letters, you’re going to have to get your own lawyer to respond properly, so you’re going to have to foot the bill for that. Still, hiring a lawyer is going to cost a lot less than having to potentially repay tens of thousands of dollars to these parasites.

And on that rant, let’s wrap this up.