Archive: July, 2013

High tech heat and cool

Often I get stumped for things that are technology related. I read technology news daily, I work with information systems daily. Still there are common pieces of our lives that we use without thinking which are advanced and help us in some way. I realized that the new thermostat at our house is electronic with circuits and chips and fits this category.

We had a digital thermostat for years that an Affordable local company installed for us. This heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) controller provided us with a clear view of the current temperature and the temperature we desired. It’s strange to call a thermostat a control system, but it is an accurate description.

Our digital HVAC controller served us well. It was easy to use with up and down arrows, heat/cool and auto/on switches. Being the geek that I am, I kept thinking there has to be a better and more advanced way to control our system. This began my searching across the Internet and talking to friends about how to make our HVAC better.

My search led me to one conclusion – programmable thermostats save money – set the time and day of week with different schedules and have the heat or air conditioning maintain different temperatures. For example during the night you don’t need as much heat since you are sleeping under covers. Also, you do not need to keep your house as cool while you are at work during the summer.

One day I was perusing the clearance aisle of a department store and I saw a programmable thermostat by Honeywell for $30. I did not think it could be programmable because it was priced so low, but I picked it up and read the packaging. Sure enough, this controller is programmable with up to 4 different settings/times and is made by a reputable company.

I bought my new HVAC controller and headed home with plans of grand savings on our energy bills. Having never installed a thermostat before I read over the instructions carefully and realized that installation is quite easy. Pay attention to the colored wires and you should be able to accomplish this task in 40 minutes or so from opening the package to programming your new thermostat. Sometimes we are at home during the ‘leave’ scheduled time for holidays and other reasons so we turn the heat up a few degrees, but otherwise the preset temperatures keep us plenty warm and cool. You can even turn it off so that you use no energy on a nice spring day.

In our first full month of being upgraded, we have saved $30. That doesn’t sound like much, but it paid for the thermostat and it will now save us money for the rest of its life span. To give you an idea, $30 is a 15% savings off our average power bill.

Some of you may be thinking ‘there is no way my old thermostat wiring can work with a new fancy thing like this’ and you might be right. Standard wiring hasn’t changed much over the years. If you have doubts, have a professional install the new controller. If your savings are like mine, it should pay for itself in a couple of months since they run $100 average.

If you want to go very high tech, you could purchase a Nest ( learning thermostat ($200 at I am trying to convince my wife to get one. It ‘learns’ what temperatures you like to keep, when you are at home, awake, etc. and then programs itself to be as efficient as possible. It can also be set from your phone, tablet, or laptop. There are two versions available – first and second generation. If you have special needs such as a heat pump, dehumidifier, etc. then the second generation is probably for you.

Do you have experiences with HVAC controllers? Let me know at or on Twitter @DanVoyles.

Tweets from 2013-07-30

How much speed do you need online?

This is an older article originally printed in the Register-News.


Last week I explained some information about speeds that you can get at your home, and some suppliers of broadband Internet for home users. So, hopefully you understand a little about speeds and where you can get broadband (even in rural areas from or AT&T DSL).

With that explanation out of the way, we will attempt to decide how much speed you actually need. The first consideration will be what your PC can handle (last week). The second consideration however will be what you actually do online.

Many people believe that they need the fastest possible connection to the Internet to get the most out of their computer. ISPs love everyone who thinks that because the more bandwidth (speed) you pay for, the more money the ISP makes. Fortunately for us, most people will not need the outrageously priced top-end packages that providers supply.

For those who do Internet surfing, and basic emailing, the 1Mb speeds should be more than enough. This speed will easily allow you to surf Facebook, watch a little YouTube video, and check your email with no issues. If this describes you and you are able to downgrade your service without penalties, try it out and see if it works for you. This is not recommended if you have multiple computers in your home.

If you tend to watch television shows on your PC, I would strongly suggest a connection closer to the 5Mb range. This speed will enable light surfing on 2 to 3 computers or some show watching from one PC with light surfing from another. This is the speed I have at home, and it works just fine for everything I do and my kids playing Flash (lots of bandwidth) games on the main PC. If I try to listen to online music or watch while they are playing their games, I do notice some slowdown, so please keep that in mind.

The next step (using Chater’s speeds as steps) is a 10Mb speed connection. This speed should be more than ample to handle 2 computers streaming video or audio from the Internet, and light surfing from another PC. Also, this speed should be excellent for streaming movies (from Netflix for example) to your home TV while also surfing from another PC.

The final speed I have used is Charter’s 20Mb service. This speed is priced higher than the others, obviously, since it is significantly more bandwidth. This package, in my opinion, is only needed by people who will definitely be streaming movies from the Internet, watching television shows, streaming audio, and using multiple computers on their home network. This speed is faster than most websites will serve (deliver) information to your computer.

Why would you need more speed than sites use to send to you? Put simply, you don’t unless you have multiple PCs or do a lot of ‘streaming’ (movies, music, etc.) into your network. I cannot think of any reason one or two PCs would need this speed on a daily basis. I am more than willing to accept correction however if any of you readers can think of a valid reason.

These examples and suggestions are only my opinion. I have used all of these speeds at one point, and the suggestions are my opinions based on the experiences that I have had in my use. If you would like a breakdown of the data used by certain media, I can provide them.

Tweets from 2013-07-29

Redbox, Blockbuster, and Netflix – oh my!

This is an older article which originally appeared in the Register-News.


There are several different methods out there people use to consume movies and television programs. I believe that we have tried them all in my household at one time or another. Each has its own positive and negative aspects. I will attempt to describe each of the big three and offer my opinions about which is best.

I will begin with Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster has been around for quite some time, and was primarily a big player in the video store era of rentals. Today, however, Blockbuster has moved into the online streaming and rent-by-mail arena. Blockbuster’s streaming service is per-download, and the prices range from free to $3.00+.

We used the Blockbuster rent-by-mail service for about two years and found it to be quite fast at turnaround times. We could mail a movie back on Monday and have our next movie by Wednesday most of the time. I say most of the time because Blockbuster began ‘throttling’ our rentals once we started watching and mailing back about 2 movies per week. Once they started throttling our rentals, I decided to cancel the service. In my opinion, it is not fair to withhold service simply because a customer is using it effectively.

The online rent-by-mail service was very nice when we could exchange the movies in the local store for a free rental. That made the service much better, especially if we wanted to see a movie not available in the rent-by-mail service. Now, Blockbuster allows up to 5 of these exchanges per month. Not a bad deal in my opinion if you are lucky enough to have a store nearby.

Netflix is a service that we currently subscribe to in our home. There are several tiers of service to choose from at Netflix.  These range from a $4.99 plan with two rentals per month by mail and no streaming, to a $27.99 per month plan that includes 4 rentals at one time and unlimited streaming to computers and TV.

Our family currently uses the 2 DVDs at a time plan with unlimited streaming at $14.99/month. The streaming video is very handy since our Blu-ray player has Netflix available within the menu. Our children enjoy the streaming of many children’s titles, and I enjoy quite a few of the television show seasons that are available to watch.

Netflix is nice for their streaming library and convenience factor. Unfortunately, my experience with their rent-by-mail service has been lackluster. Generally I have seen 3 or more day turnaround time when we send a DVD back to them. Also, Netflix is up to 28 days behind video stores in getting new releases due to distribution agreements. Video stores pay more for their DVDs to have a ‘window’ of time before on-demand and rent-by-mail services are allowed to rent some titles. This has led me to try Redbox.

Redbox is somewhat unique in that it is basically a movie vending machine. With the Redbox service, I gave them my name, email (for receipts and promotions), and then used my credit card to rent the movies I wanted for $1 each. Yes, $1 each.

In my experience, reserving online with Redbox has not worked yet, but I only tried it one time. Since my failed online reservation we have used Redbox twice with no issues.  Redbox kiosks (machines) use an easy to read touchscreen to let you pick your movies (Blu-ray and DVD) and check out. When checking out, you must use a credit card or a bank card with a credit card logo.

The movies come out of a small slot on the side, and when you return them (by 9pm the next day) they slide back in one at a time the same way. Redbox allows you to return the rentals to any of their machines anywhere within the United States. This could come in handy for people flying who want something to watch in-flight, but it also means I can return my rentals to any of the four locations in Mount Vernon.

Unfortunately the machine is slow to spit out or take in the DVDs. This is not fun when the weather is 22 degrees outside. However, the machines are not unbearably slow when you consider an arm is taking your DVD, moving it to or from the slot, and putting it back or spitting it out.

Given all of these services and my experiences with them, I have to say that for us the Netflix ‘streaming only’ option at $7.99/month and renting from Redbox will be the way to go. This will save us $7 per month unless we want to go rent a new release, and even then we can rent up to 7 and still be ‘even’ with what we are paying now. If something comes out that Redbox can’t rent immediately, then we can always go to the local video store and rent the title there.