Yesterday, my Crazy Circuits arrived in the mail. After dinner, the Little Girl (Sophie, just turned 7 years old) and I decided we would play with them.

I thought the first thing we would do is a simple LED circuit – just a battery going to an LED. Well, we barely had that done before she wanted to skip straight to something fun and useful, and much more complicated!

IMG_7302She decided that she wanted to make a traffic light! I had already been fiddling with one of the slide switches. Of course, it turns out I was trying to use it wrong. When I actually bothered to read the SUPER EASY INSTRUCTION CARD for the component, I realized it was a two-way switch, instead of just a plain make-or-break switch. Even better than that, the example on the reverse side of the switch card was A TRAFFIC LIGHT project!

But that traffic light only had two lights! I asked Sophie if that was OK. She said ‘No, real traffic lights have three colors, so we have to do that.’

It only took us a minute to realize that our kit had two slide switches in it, and by using both, the combination of switches would allow us to activate any of the three lights. Sophie choose one each of red, yellow, and green of the Lego block LEDs. We fed power from the positive side of the battery to the first switch. If the switch was up, it would route power to the red light. If it was down, it would route power to the second switch. That one was connected so that the up position would send power to the yellow light and down would route power to the green light.

We laid out all the components on the green Lego “circuit board” so we would know where to lay the traces we would make with the conductive tape. If something didn’t look right we just moved the component to where it would complete the circuit and make it easy to run the conductive tape. Once we were happy with our layout, we then put down the tape.

IMG_7558When I was originally explaining how we would design the circuit, Sophie didn’t quite understand. She asked if I could draw it out. So, I did, but I drew it as the electrical schematic. She understood that right away! Who knew that first-graders were so good with engineering diagrams!? I guess that’s one thing that I’ve learned as a parent so far is not to underestimate children.

Looking at what we designed, I also realized that it was starting to look like a really basic computer. At the core of computing is simply a bunch of switches – ones and zeros – depending on the combination of which are on, data can be stored, or something can be created like an image on an LCD television monitor. We had gone from just learning how to light up a single LED to COMPUTER SCIENCE in a span of less than ten minutes!

The conductive tape can be a little small to work with my big fingers, but I found that the laser-cut acrylic components which were included to connect to servos is the perfect thickness to use as a tool to press the conductive tape down between the bumps of the Lego board. The components fit well on the board, the trick is to not use TOO MUCH conductive tape. Just have the tape go over the top of the Lego bump to whatever hole is being used to make the connection to the Crazy Circuits component.

Once the Traffic Light was wired up, Sophie popped in the battery, and the light came on. (The one over her head AND the one on the circuit board!) It’s pretty cool when you can actually SEE those moments of learning!

IMG_7562Using a COMBINATION of the two switches will activate either the Red, the Yellow, or the Green light. All three use a common ground – the negative side of the LEDs all join together and are routed to the negative of the battery. (This is exactly how 12V power works in a car! It’s super common that if something electrical doesn’t work in a car, it’s often a bad connection to the negative ground!)

POLARITY is an important concept, and applies to both batteries and LEDs. The convention with Crazy Circuits is that the positive side is has a color, and the negative side is white. A bit like “Home and Away” sports team jerseys or Regular and Diet soft drink cans!
The colored markings helped Sophie make sure all the polarities were right for the circuit to function.

Sophie then realized that we had no OFF switch for our circuit. I asked her if real traffic lights had an OFF switch. She thought for a moment, and then said “No, they don’t, they’re always on.” When I asked her what would happen if the lights were out, her eyes got big and she exclaimed “All the cars would crash!”

(In a completely unrelated event, I once was driving at about dawn on a very early summer day. I had already driven through several round-a-bouts. It was only when I got to a traffic light that I realized that power for the entire town was still out from a thunderstorm the previous night! Round-a-bouts are designed to work even in a power failure.)

My daughter played with the switches, memorizing which positions activated which lights. Once she had that down pat, she decided we need to do something with it. She quickly improvised a game where she pretended to drive a car, but had to drive based on what I made the traffic light do. Pretty soon we were taking turns driving and operating the lights. We even had conversations on rules of the road, “Right-Hand Red”, round-a-bouts vs. traffic lights, and brought speed limits into the game.

In a bit of trickery, when it was my turn to operate the traffic light, I secretly swapped out the green LED for a blue LED. When she ran the red light, I quickly flipped the switch back and forth, alternative RED & BLUE, I make a police siren sound, pulled her over, and put her in jail! (She had to spend 30 seconds on the sofa.)

All together we spent well over an hour designing a project and playing with it. I can’t think of the last toy that she’s had that could hold her attention for that long.

At the end of all of that, I asked Sophie if she wanted to make a video, showing how her project worked. She said yes. I tried to keep it simple and let HER make the video. She told me just to do an introduction, and that then she would take over. I hit record on my smart phone, did the intro, and she took it from there. That’s the video at the top of this blog entry.

With the one electronic kit, we went from lighting up a single LED to learning about switches, computer science, Drivers’ Ed, civil engineering, car repair, law enforcement, freeform play, and even media production!

I’ll mark this one up as a parenting WIN!

Stay Crazy everybody!




Crazy Circuits Unboxing

by Ben N on November 15, 2017

I was pleasantly surprised today to get a package in the mail. When I shook it, it rattled just the same way that Legos do, but I knew that what was inside was electronics. Electronics which are as much fun to play with as Legos…

This package is from Brown Dog Gadgets, a local educational electronics company, which mostly deals in S.T.E.M. kit projects. I actually have a pretty old relationship with B.D.G., as I’ve known the owner, Josh Zimmerman, ever since we met in Chicago at the Instructables LIVE event. (That was the one where I drove my motorcycle right up the front steps of a downtown Chicago building!)

IMG_7290Being a fan of the company, I definitely wanted to get some of the Crazy Circuits components, and I pledged during the Kickstarter Campaign. The idea behind the Crazy Circuits system is that it’s an electronics set, which is compatible with, well, pretty much anything you can think of. Lots of the Brown Dog Gadget kits were already based on conductive tape, conductive thread, conductive dough and other user-friendly non-soldering options. Crazy Circuits is designed to work with all of those, but also has the spacing to snap right into place on Legos. On top of that, the micro-controller components are open source (using Arduino code) and include touch input sensors or headers for servo control.
In fact, pretty much all of Crazy Circuits is Open Source. There’s oodles of files uploaded on Github. Want to build your own NES video game controller? Just download the laser-cutter file and make it yourself!

The touch sensors on the Touch Board are capacitive. They work similar to a microwave oven control pad or a smart phone touch screen. One thing that’s neat about that is it means fewer wires. No more “one wire out, through a switch, another wire back to another pin”. Instead, touching a lump of dough, a piece of tin foil, or an alligator clip instantly activates a circuit. That’s great for hands-on activities and simplifies the circuits.

IMG_7292The Robotics Board instead includes header pins to match up with the wires going to some servos. Snap the board and servos onto some Legos, and BAM! You got a robot. I built a Lego robot a while back with the Little Girl, but now we can easily make one WITHOUT gobs of hot glue!

Besides common electrical components like LEDs, buttons, and switches, there’s some cool specialty parts as well. The tilt sensor works similar to the tilt switch on old-fashioned pinball machines. Great for making a project that’s shake activated! (Does anyone remember “Bop-It!”?) Another slick component is the Blick/Fade board. It’s a pre-programmed chip which makes LEDs either blink or fade, depending on which power connections are used on it. There’s even an alternating blink feature for a police light or railroad crossing type lighting effect.

Next, I’ll have to dig through our collection of Legos to see what I’ll want to work on. I might also want to get right into conductive sewing, perhaps making a light-up stocking cap for the winter.

Of course, I’ll keep you updated when I work on projects.
( EDIT: Here’s my daughter’s first project! )

Until next time, stay charged up!



Sensing Current for Solar

by Ben N on November 13, 2017

About a week or so ago, I started playing around with a DIY current sensor. The initial experiments seemed to work, so I took it out to the garage, and hooked it up to my grid-tie solar array.

I first removed the cover from my garage circuit breaker panel so that I could get to the actual wiring. Next, I clamped the CT (current transducer) onto one of the two HOT wires from my solar combiner box to the circuit breaker that feeds the solar power in to my garage. I’m using micro-inverters, so the power is already 240V AC. There’s no neutral used, and both legs have the same current flowing through them, so I can get an accurate measurement with just one CT.

I used some double-sided tape to stick my Arduino, breadboard, and servo onto a piece of cardboard. That way, I could just hang the whole unit on the wall near the breaker panel. For testing, the whole thing is just powered off a 5V USB battery pack.



So far, this project is based on concepts from the Open Energy Monitoring project. Take a look at their web page. There’s all sorts of great information there! This link will take you straight to the section on sensing current. LINK

In a nut-shell, the CT creates a small current proportional to however much current is traveling through the wire the CT is clamped around.

That current then effects the voltage of the circuit it’s connected to, based on the voltage supplied and resistance of that circuit. In this way, a large current gets converted to a low current and then into a low voltage which can be read by the Arduino. (For details of how this happens, please visit this page.)

Inside a micro-controller, it’s very easy to do a little math and then use that to output to the real world. In the tutorial I was following, the output is just using a USB cable to display data on a computer screen through the Arduino software. Once I had done that, I modified the code to instead move a servo to a position, based on the current measured. (I did that by essentially just cutting and pasting some code from a servo tutorial.)

The whole idea is to create data (the current sensed) and then be able to interact with the real world (position a pointer on a servo.) In this case, I’d like to make a simple “Speedometer” style physical display which would just show how much solar power I’m making.

The next step after that would be to use the data to interact with an electric car charging station (EVSE) or other power use that I would want to control, depending on how much solar power I have available. For example, I could have an electric car charging station which would allow the car to charge at full power, but have it charge more slowly when a cloud comes in front of the sun. That way, I would maximize my solar use yet NOT draw power from the grid for my car charging.

Anyways, I’m still just in the early stages of this monitoring system, but it’s pretty cool to learn how things work, and then figure out neat new ways to use them!

Until next time, stay charged up!


PS: To be technically accurate, at this point, I am simply measuring current. I’m really trying to figure out the POWER of my solar, which would be measured in Watts. Right now, I’m just doing some multiplication times 240V to get power. The finished version of this project will include a voltage sensor so that truly accurate power can be measured, as well as tracking which direction power is flowing. That aspect is important back at the meter to see if I’m importing energy from the grid or exporting to it.

PPS: Here’s the video I shot when I was first starting to play with this:




Solar REBATE Arrives!

by Ben N on September 11, 2017

I was pretty excited today. When I went to my mailbox, not only did I get my latest issue of HOME POWER magazine, I also got an envelope from Focus On Energy. Just above my name and address, I could make out the words “PAY TO THE ORDER OF”…

One major consideration of installing a photovoltaic (PV) solar electric system is the upfront costs. To help with those costs, and to encourage renewable energy production, the federal government, along with local governments and power utilities, offers financial incentives to help make renewable energy more affordable.

When I originally decided to install my own solar system, I estimated the cost to be around $10,000. Because I would be building a new garage, I was planning on wrapping the funding into the cost of the building through either a Home Equity Line of Credit or (what I actually did,) a new mortgage. That at least took out the sting of needing $10,000 up front! With the money from my loan, I was able to purchase the solar panels, the racking, all the other components, as well as things like the electric permit and hiring an electrician and roofer. (And because it’s a home mortgage, that also means that the interest on my loan is tax deductible. I also lowered my interest rated vs my previous loan.)

The Federal government offers a 30% tax incentive. That’s pretty straight-forward. It’s a one page form that I will fill out with this year’s income tax filing. It will give me a 30% tax credit on the cost of my system. Of course, I have to wait until April 15th for that!

IMG_5467As for state and local incentives in my area… Unfortunately, there are none. In fact, the State of Wisconsin hasn’t even passed the current budget (which is at least two months over-due!) The state also wants to add an EXTRA special tax just on electric and hybrid cars, rather than promote them though incentives or tax breaks! That only leaves Utility Incentives as the last funding source. In my area, Focus on Energy is a state-wide program through the various power utilities. The utilities need to provide a tiny percent of their profits as a fund to promote energy efficiency. In the past, this money has been used to reduce the cost of CFL and then LED light bulbs, provide a rebate for people turning in old appliances for newer, more efficient ones, and provides incentives for renewable energy.

Unfortunately, funding for this program has decreased the past several years. In fact, the money never even makes it to the end of the year. People in my area installing solar panels are advised to install them and apply for the rebate right away, as the cash often runs out by October or so. (EDIT: I checked, and BUSINESS incentives are already used up for 2017 as of Sept. 4th, 2017!) It’s also now required to submit TWO rounds of paperwork – one to reserve a rebate, and another to actually apply for it! We also never know if the program will be renewed for the next year!

In a nut-shell, Focus on Energy provides a rebate of 12%, up to a total of $2,000, for residential photovoltaic systems. My total system cost (including hiring labor,) was $10,590.48, so my rebate came to $1,270.86!

That’s an actual check written out to me – not a tax deduction or tax credit.


After subtracting the Focus on Energy Rebate AND then 30% federal tax credit, my total cost will be $6,523.73.
The faceplate value of my solar is 6240 watts. So, in the end, my total out of pocket cost will be $1.05 per watt installed. (Knowing what I know now, I could have done the system for EVEN LESS money!)

Estimates predict that my solar array will produce about $1,000 worth of electricity per year, so a simple calculation says that it will pay for itself in about 6 to 6.5 years. I’ve also crunched numbers several different ways including using electricity I make myself to power a vehicle instead of purchasing gasoline. Taking that into consideration, the simple economic R.O.I. can be as short as 3.5 years! Solar and Electric cars are a fantastic match! PV+EV for the win!

Do you want to install solar or other renewable energy? Make sure you check for what rebates are out there at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency web page:

Until next time, stay charged up! I’m going to the bank!



PS: I’ll also add one caveat for the Do-It-Yourselfer… Before I purchased any solar components, I contacted Focus on Energy to make sure I would be doing things correctly for the rebate. The rebate form is worded in such a way so as to encourage people to hire a company to install solar for them. The cost of that total bill from that single supplier is then submitted for the rebate. Because I did everything myself, I needed to make sure I kept a copy of every single receipt for every nut and bolt on the project. Even after submitting that paper-work, Focus on Energy nit-picked it to death. They questioned my numbers and requested additional information, which of course I provided…. about two months ago. And I hadn’t heard from them since…. Until actually getting my rebate check in the mail today! If you are a DIYer, make sure to keep good records!




St. Paul Energy Fair

by Ben N on September 11, 2017


We had a great time this last weekend at the NEW Energy Fair in St. Paul, Minnesota!

I’ve been going to the MREA (Midwest Renewable Energy Association) Fair in Custer, Wisconsin for about 10 years now. It’s always a great event, and something to look forward to.

This year, the MREA hosted the new fair at Harriet Island Park, just off the river in St. Paul. It was a beautiful venue, and has plenty of room for expansion. The weather was great – sunny and cool. Perfect weather for the solar panels that were powering all the electricity on the site! There were plenty of exhibitors including solar installers, composting toilets, tiny houses, a tool lending library, electric motorcycle kits, non-profits, and more. There were only a few food vendors, but I loved the solar-powered coffee-mobile!

At the other end of the park, we were hosting a Clean Car Show, which included some test drives. Cars there ranged from Teslas, BMW i3, Chevy Volt and Bolt, Electric Cooper Mini, and more! On Sunday, I even saw an electric scooter and had a great conversation with a fellow Mitsubishi iMiEV owner. For carpooling, an electric bus was available to bring people from the union depot down to the park.

Sunday is also when I gave my DIY SOLAR GARAGE presentation. I had a great crowd in the tent and tried to get out as much DIY solar information as I can. If you missed the presentation, or were there but want to know more, I made a slide-show-based video covering the topic. You can watch that RIGHT HERE, or on my YouTube page.

The new St. Paul Fair was a fantastic first time event. I look forward to going back next year!