Archive of ‘Home Automation’ category

Buyer’s guide: fax machines

Just 7 years ago the average price paid for a home fax machine was $600. Today, you can purchase one for half that, and the machines are becoming almost as common in the kitchen as they are in the office. Most new models have eliminated old annoyances (no more disconnecting if you accidentally answer a “fax call” from another phone in the house). Even the less expensive thermal (rolled) paper models double as copiers and now commonly boast deluxe functions, such as automatic paper cutters and built-in answering machines. The more expensive plain-paper machines, preferred by some because printouts don’t roll up or fade over time, have dropped in price from over $1,000 to under $500.

How We Chose

We examined 18 thermal (rolled) paper and plain-paper fax machines, ranging in price from around $250 to $750. Our engineers faxed and copied pages that displayed a variety of images, including typed and handwritten works, geometric shapes, and magazine photographs. Each printout was judged for charity, sharpness, and legibility. Those with added capabilities (answering machines, computer printers, scanners) were subjected to additional tests.

Features to Look for

  • AUTO-REMOTE ACTIVATION: Automatically senses and receives an incoming fax, even if you inadvertently answer the phone from elsewhere in the house when a fax is trying to come through. Machines without this feature require you to quickly punch in a code to keep from being disconnected.
  • BUILT-IN ANSWERING MACHINE: Provides a simpler and more foolproof setup process than hooking up the fax to a separate answering machine. Current models have digital (tapeless) designs that operate quickly and silently.
  • COPIER: Makes photocopies of an original document. This feature is found on all fax machines.
  • DISTINCTIVE-RING DETECTION: Lets you program the fax machine to answer only calls with a special ring–if your phone company offers an optional service that assigns a second number on your existing line with a different-sounding ring. This service is cheaper than getting a second phone line just for faxing.
  • ENLARGED/REDUCED COPY: Can shrink or enlarge the original document when copying.
  • MEMORY DIAL: Lets you store frequently called numbers for quick retrieval.
  • MULTICOPY CAPABILITY: Allows you to make several copies of the original in just one step.
  • OUT-OF-PAPER MEMORY: Stores information when unable to print; memorized faxes will automatically print when paper or ink is refilled. The number of pages stored may vary, depending on the mix of text and graphics.
  • PAPER ANTICURL: Designed to reduce the curling tendency of rolled paper.
  • PAPER CUTTER: Automatically cuts rolled paper to the right length after each page is printed.
  • PRESCAN: Quickly “reads” and stores each page into memory, then faxes at an accelerated speed.
  • SHEET FEEDER: Automatically feeds a stack of sheets, one page at a time, into the sending or copying section of the machine.

Even with air conditioning you need a whole-house fan

When I installed central air conditioning a few years ago, I could hardly wait to get rid of my 20-inch window fan. At that time, air conditioning cost less than a dollar a day, and the fan was nothing more than a nuisance.

But by last summer, my air-conditioning costs had nearly quadrupled. I began thinking about that slightly ugly and somewhat noisy fan, remembering how I had managed to cool my house with it on moderately hot days at a negligible operating cost. Right now, similar window fans cost up to $180. But for a little more money I found a better way to cut the cost of keeping cool: a whole-house fan.

I installed a fan in the ceiling of my central hallway, and began trial-and-error experiments with the airflow in my house (see drawing). After I developed a good ventilation scheme, I was able to get along without central air conditioning for all but a few days last summer. Depending on your house and climate, you too may be able to take care of most or all of your cooling needs this way. Whole-house fans are designed for easy installation and operation. Here’s how they work:

Ceiling exhaust fans draw air up through the house and push it out through attic gables or eave openings. For the fan to operate properly, you must open some windows, and perhaps exterior doors. Obviously, all hall doors must be ajar. Deciding which windows to open and fine-tuning your plan may take some time, but it will pay off in efficiency and comfort. One word of caution: You may be tempted to open doors and windows in a cool basement, but it’s more effective to bring air in through first-floor windows. And if you live in an area where radon is a concern, it’s especially important to circulate fresh outside air.

Early in the morning, when the house is cool, close your windows and doors. Keep blinds and shades drawn, to reflect sunlight. It takes time for heat to penetrate the walls and ceilings of your house. Outdoors, it’s usually warmest about 3 p.m., but the indoor peak generally occurs between 5 and 6 p.m. Wait until the outside temperature in the shade falls below the indoor temperature, then open your windows and turn on your fan.

As the fan pulls cool air into your house, it dramatically lowers the air temperature in the attic, which can reach 150 degrees F or so without air movement. The fan provides almost instantaneous relief because moving air feels about seven degrees cooler than static air. Makers of whole-house fans say–and I found it to be true–that the fans have limited usefulness when the outdoor temperature rises above 85 degrees F. That’s because most people are comfortable with air temperatures of 78 degrees or less.

Last summer I resorted to my central air only on the few days when temperatures reached the 90s and low 100s and humidity was high. Even then, I first ran the fan at full speed to purge hot air from the attic before starting the air conditioner. As soon as the outside temperature dropped in the evening, I switched back to the fan.

It’s difficult to compare last summer’s cooling costs with those of earlier years, because the weather was unusual in my area–with wide hot-cool swings and a shorter-than-normal hot spell. But I do know that when I run the ceiling fan, I am paying for only 1/3 horsepower. The air conditioner, combined with its fan and the furnace blower, is rated at three horsepower. So the fan’s operating cost is about 1/10 that of air conditioning. I expect to recover its cost in power savings within a couple of years.

My 30-inch variable-speed fan from Sears cost about $280. Smaller whole-house fans are available for as little as $100. The fan blades are direct- or belt-driven, with diameters of 20 to 42 inches. The motors are about 1/4 to 3/4 hp. Some are single-speed; others have two speeds or variable speeds. The fans can move anywhere from 3,000 to 17,000 cubic feet of air per minute.

The most popular fans are 24- and30-inch units, used in 1,200- and 1,700-square-foot houses, respectively. Airflow for these fans is 3,600 to 5,700 cubic feet per minute. Check fan specifications to find out which size you’ll need. When in doubt, choose the larger, higher-volume fan.

You can use a whole-house fan in a two-story house, too, but you should choose a fan based on the total square footage of both floors. Ideally, the fan should be centrally located in the upstairs hallway. One maker has this two-story tip: Keep the upstairs windows closed until evening, pulling all the air through the lower windows. When you retire, close the downstairs windows and open the others.

You may want to add accessories to your fan. I spent about $60 for a thermostat, an insulated winter cover, and a “firestat’–a safety device that shuts off the fan at 204 degrees F. In a fire, a running fan could act like a blast furnace. The fire stat also has a kill switch to shut down the fan when you are working around it. Never work near a powered fan.

My unit also has an automatic temperature control that shuts down the fan when the house cools to a selected temperature, but the fan must be manually started. The reason? To make you remember to open enough doors and windows to provide the minimum air intake specified for your fan. If you don’t furnish an adequate air supply, your fan may draw gases from the flues of fireplaces, furnaces, or water heaters inside your house.

Heat-pump clothes dryer

At the Nyle Corp. in Bangor, Maine, there are a half-dozen prototype electric clothes dryers that claim some impressive attributes:

  • They are not vented, so they can be put nearly anywhere.
  • They run on 110-volt circuits; most electric dryers require 220 volts.
  • They circulate a larger volume of more humid air; thus they are gentler to fabrics and reduce static cling.
  • The cabinets are insulated, which makes the machines very quiet.
  • Best of all, they use one-third the energy of a standard electric dryer.

What are these machines? “Basically they are dehumidifiers,” explains Donald Lewis, president of Nyle and holder of the relevant patents. He explains: “Using a refrigeration cycle similar to what is used in a heat pump, we cool the air and condense out the water. The latent heat removed in condensing the water we immediately put back into the air. In addition, we constantly add heat from the compressor. And while most clothes dryers vent about five thousand cubic feet of air per drying cycle, we don’t vent any air, so the temperature keeps rising.”

Just as a heat pump in most climates will heat a house more efficiently than will electric-resistance elements, a heat-pump (or dehumidifying) clothes dryer will burn less energy to dry clothes. The diagram and caption give the details.

Nyle based the clothes-dryer design on much bigger machines.

“We make commercial lumber- and leather-drying systems and food dehydrators,” says Lewis. Looking for ways to expand the business, he decided the technology could be used in a residential clothes dryer. So he applied for and got a $90,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant (from the Inventions Program in the Office of Energy Utilization) to build the prototypes.

“There have been heat-pump dryers on the market in Europe,” Lewis points out, “but they’ve never been popular because they take a long time to dry a load of clothes.” That’s because they don’t get very hot.

Like most refrigeration systems, they are engineered to work within a narrow temperature range. Lewis explains: If the system is optimized to work at relatively low air temperatures, then as the temperature gets higher all the refrigerant inside the evaporator coil will boil and turn to gas without absorbing enough heat from the passing air to drop it to its dew point and condense out some water vapor. For this reason the European dryers have a top temperature of about 125 degrees F.

On the other hand, if the system is optimized to work at a relatively high air temperature, then at the beginning of the cycle when the temperature is low, the evaporator would chill the air so much that the coil would freeze. Lewis’s solution is to send only part of the air over the evaporator and to vary the percentage in response to changing temperature. So when the air contains fewer Btu, a greater volume of air is delivered. Conversely, when it contains more Btu, the quantity of air is reduced.

The dryer can use either automatic dampers (as shown) or a variable-speed fan at the evaporator coil to alter the airflow pattern. It operates efficiently within a temperature range of 60 to 160 degrees F, Lewis claims.

David Mello, the DOE invention coordinator who supervised the agency’s grant to Nyle, speaks highly of the heat-pump dryer. “It’s a fine product and makes a lot of sense for a lot of good reasons,” he notes. “Refrigeration systems are among the most trouble-free machines we have: You plug them in and they work. Except for the fact that it uses a chlorofluorocarbon,” Mello goes on, “the Nyle dryer really doesn’t seem to have a down side.” (Chlorofluorocarbons are implicated in the destruction of Earth’s protective ozone, but the dryers can be engineered to use whatever replacement fluids are developed, according to Lewis.)

Nyle had arranged for an offshore manufacturer to make the dryers, but economic problems in the country sank the deal. Now new negotiations are in progress.

A heat-pump dryer will sell for around $800, Lewis predicts, about twice the price of a conventional dryer. “People would have to pay more for them at first,” Mello concurs. “But if they ever caught on, the guys making the conventional kind would be hard pressed to compete.”

Blow dry

We began designing hair dryers back before the gun style was introduced, even before the development of the bonnet with the plastic belt hitch that helped you dry your hair and vacuum at the same time. In fact, we started out before the concept of towel drying, at a time when people dried their hair by sticking their heads out the window. Since then we’ve been allowed to design 1,139 models, both in and out of the sanatorium.

The first dryer we produced had a broad handle and a soft, feminine look, and, in fact, we needed only three attempts before we came up with “Myra,” the hair dryer shaped like a voluptuous woman. Our company, Mr. Dry, didn’t like where the hot air blew out, and when we refused to change it they had us put away.

After the treatments we designed a dryer with a different concept much more sedate and, well, psychotropic. In, fact, it was a hair dryer that looked like a giant Thorazine capsule, because, well, that was all we thought about in those days. It was cordless and had a cylinder that was half red and half clear, with white stuff inside. We ran into mechanical difficulties when the hot air blew inward and melted all the wiring.

When we got out, we decided, Damn it, let’s have a little fun. People are supposed to enjoy themselves while drying their hair, and we’re going to help them. In a frenzy we went to Macy’s and smashed all the hair dryers on the floor, and after Mr. Dry paid the bail we came up with a new model. Look, the brush element snaps on and off. And the comb element, see, you can snap that on and off too, and it also has a removable roller element. The handle snaps off too, and so does the motor.

After the Macy’s incident Mr. Dry decided that we should lie low for a while in a place like India, so they shipped us off with only our Japanese watch and told us to come back with some new designs.

Not one person we met during our stay in Calcutta had ever used a hair dryer, but they did have this marvelous philosophy where you sit around all day and think about just one thing or a sound or a word.

We thought about hair dryers not sometimes, but every minute of every day until they notified us of the hearing. The result was Essence of Hair Dryer. Of all the 4.5 billion people on this planet, we were chosen by God to create the ultimate hair dryer, and I’m telling you, this one is a beauty. Look at it–it’s simple yet it has a lot of detail. Look at the way the nozzle attaches to the body. It screws on like a light bulb. And the on/ off switch isn’t cluttered with a lot of confusing speeds like low, medium, and high. The switch is simple and direct on, off.

The day we returned from India, the judge ordered us to the home. They were very nice to us there, and to keep us quiet they gave us their entire collection of cardboard tubes from paper towels, mostly, and toilet tissue. Despite the treatments, we soon realized that the tubes reminded us of blow dryers. We liked playing with them, and the doctors encouraged us to pretend that we were drying our own hair, and they kept asking us how our mother felt about personal hair-care products. We began to feel and to relate in ways we had never dreamed of–if you reversed two tubes and had the air blow into your sleeve, what would that do? What if you took two small, three medium, and four large tubes and connected them to a lawn mower could you style your hair and cut grass at the same time? The ideas obsessed us until we arrived at the final product: a hair dryer that was nothing but different-sized paper tubes. It was a dryer we fell in love with. It was a dryer we wanted to do illicit things with. And in the end it was a dryer that spoke to us. That was when they took it away. Mr. Dry told us it sold very well in the stores, and that made up for every minute of the electroshock therapy.

After they found out that the electroshock had destroyed half of our brain cells, Mr. Dry thought we should design a dryer that expressed our sense of fun at having the mind of a six-year-old again. So we fashioned a dryer that was nonintellectual, illiterate, and, in the words of the television commercial, “fit for an idiot.” The excitement of youth shows in what we called it–“Baby Blow,” the little one, the one that leaves your hair wet no matter how long you stand there holding it to your head. We’ve projected the feeling of youth right through to the picture on the package a picture of a man drooling.

We find that people are very sensitive about their personal hair-care products and in particular that they want to have an enormous emotional high when grooming. For them it’s not just a matter of fixing the hair. It’s plugging into the cultural voltage of a whole generation.

Sometimes when we think about our accomplishments, we have to step back and say, “We have not created Truth or Beauty or even disposable neckties.” But let us not forget that we have created the Mr. Dry 901 and that people respond to it on a daily basis. And we know that how well the dryer works doesn’t matter, as long as it brings a little style into the home.