How To Build a Microgrid

A microgrid is a relatively small power grid which takes electricity from a source, stores it for use, and distributes it to devices. This can range from the size of a town to a neighborhood to a single home. The principles are the same.

Based on this definition, chances are you already have one or more microgrids in your life. In a way, your car is like a microgrid. It generates power, stores it, and then distributes it to devices like cell phones which plug into it. RVs and tiny homes area also good examples of microgrids.

Step One: Sizing Your Grid

The first step is to determine how much power your grid needs to deliver. A single home will typically draw an average of approximately 1,000 watts. But then again. An air conditioner can easily draw at least that much. If you’re not sure how much power you need, check out this helpful article on estimating power requirements before you continue.

Step Two: Picking Power Sources

There are two broad categories of power sources for microgrids; renewable and non-renewable. Renewable is typically going to be more expensive initially and much cheaper in the long-run. Non-renewable is often cheaper initially but more expensive in the long run.

The most important thing to consider is how much power you need. The math gets a little complex, but a good rule of thumb is that you should never plan to use more than half of your capacity. If you calculate that you need 1,000 watts, then you need your grid to be capable of producing at least double to triple that amount. There are two big factors at play here. Power ratings are typically given in terms of the root mean square of the actual draw. This is a sort of logarithmic average which means the actual requirements can jump momentarily well outside the official number.

The other related issue is inductive loads. Things like fans, air conditioners, refrigerators, and stereo equipment will often draw 300-400% of their rated wattage while they are spinning their moving parts up to speed. That 100 watt mini fridge will likely draw 300-400 watts just for a moment while it’s starting up. The effect of this is that when you first flip the switch and turn your grid on, it can experience much higher demand than you may have estimated. If this amount is too high, the breakers will simply trip  and the grid will shut back off. Any momentary interruption in power can lead to everything on your grid drawing very high current when the power is restored, multiplying your troubles. So make sure to plan for more capacity than you think you will need.

Non-Renewable Sources Of Electricity

The classic example of a nonrenewable power source for a microgrid is the generator. Getting a generator is typically a good place to start, as renewable sources can often face periods where little to no power will be generated. In those moments, a generator can help fill the power gap.

 

Probably the most popular generator in the microgrid community is the Honda eu2200i. This generator is very quiet and very reliable. It can put out 2200 watts as the name suggests. They can also be daisy chained to add more power, though 2200 watts is more than enough power for most homes or RVs, and likely enough for a small community of campers at an event like Burning Man.

 

This little guy is very popular as a white-label product. Many stores like Harbor Freight and Home Depot will sell these under different brand names. It puts out 1,000 watts. I found one of these for just $50 with a two year warranty and I’ve gotten years of use out of it. I primarily use this to power my DJ gear when I do parade floats or off-grid events. This would be perfect for many smaller microgrids such as a single RV/camper at an event like Burning Man. In a pinch, it could easily serve as a perfect emergency backup option for a medium sized set up.

Renewable Sources Of Electricity

The cheapest and most popular example of a renewable source of electricity today is solar photovoltaic or “solar panels.” Before the current trade war, and presumably afterwards, decades of solar power can be had for just $1/watt. This is much cheaper than the cost of a generator, considering ongoing fuel prices. Today, you can typically buy solar panels for about $1.50/watt. But this price will likely go back down once our current economic situation is resolved. Even with this price jump, solar is still the cheapest source of electricity today, though sunlight can not always be counted on.

Here is an example of the type of deal that can be found today on solar panels. Amazon is selling these 100 watt solar panels for about $136 each. This is much cheaper electricity than going the generator route. If you wanted to go 100% solar instead of the 2200 watt generator I linked to above, you would need to spend $2997.44 on panels. This is equivalent to the cost of using that generator for just a few weeks. It’s a no brainer. BUT, you will likely need to make enough power to compensate for dark periods or augment your solar power with a backup generator in case of cloudy days.

Wind power is another excellent option. Wind gets mixed reviews but my understanding is that it can be very reliable and very long-lasting. For approximately the same price as solar, you can get the same amount of power. Each of these turbines produce 1200 watts. A pair of them produces more power than the popular generators linked to above.

Keep in mind solar power depends on ideal conditions with the sunlight and wind power depends on ideal conditions with the wind. These are both excellent power sources but there will always be darkness and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. The key is proper storage and having a backup generator.

Step Three: Storing Power

There are two main approaches to the topic of power storage in the context of microgrids; lead-acid and lithium.

Lead acid batteries often seem like a simpler solution. Simply hook them together and hook up a charger and inverter and you’ve got 120 volts! The problem is that in practice, these batteries can take days to recharge and you can only safely use up to half of their capacity (assuming they are deep cycle and not standard lead acid) before they start to take damage and fail. In the best case scenario, these batteries will only get a few hundred charge cycles before they fail. My advice is not to use lead acid batteries.

Lithium batteries charge very quickly and hold lots of power. These are the batteries in your cell phone and laptop. There are tons of great, simple products which solve the power storage problem using lithium batteries. On the small scale, there are USB battery packs. On the larger scale there are Yetis and the many cheap duplicates available online. These will all recharge from many sources and provide power as needed. This is the best way to store power in a microgrid in my opinion.

The Yeti GoalZero 3000 Lithium is a perfect example. This simple box will recharge from solar panels, generators, a standard plug-in, a car, anything. And it stores 3,000 watts for your microgrid. Then you can plug your devices, RV, or even your house into it. These boxes also come in smaller wattages, all the way down to 400 watts which is what I use for my personal microgrid at burning man.

There are many cheap duplicate products for the Yeto GoalZero line of lithium batteries. This is the one I use. It stores 370 watts which it can accept from solar panels, generators, a car, a plug-in, anything. Then it provides that power through USB and a 120 volt outlet. This is an excellent option for a small camping set up or essentially anyone who isn’t trying to refrigerate anything. In my case, this battery pack allows me to charge my phone over a hundred times, inflate my mattress, and run lights in my tent as well as christmas lights around my tent while camping for over a week at burning man.

If you visit the amazon page for this battery pack, you will see there are hundreds of very similar products, all of which will cheaply solve the storage problem using lithium batteries which recharge quickly and provide lots of power when you need it.

Example 1

 I’m going to a music festival and I just need to recharge my phone and laptop a couple times during the trip.

Easy! Get a USB solar panel and a USB battery pack. This will provide you with more than enough electricity for your needs! I have linked to the ones I have. You could probably go with smaller options than these suggestions depending on your needs.

Example 2

I have a yurt (or a shiftpod) and simply want to run an air conditioner for a while to cool it down at night, while also recharging my phone and laptop. I’m tired of running it off of a generator. It takes too much gas and its not sustainable!

A small air conditioner like this one will be more than enough to cool a space this size. For cooling a space with less than 300 square feet, a 5,000-10,000 BTU air conditioner will be sufficient. The rule is that your air conditioner will need about 1/10 the BTUs in watts while running, and double that amount when starting up. The air conditioner I linked to above is rated at 8,000 BTUs, so it needs 800 watts while running and 1600 while starting up.

This is a perfect job for a Yeti GoalZero 1000. This battery pack will allow the generator to start up and run for about an hour on a single charge. This should be plenty of time to cool down a space this size depending on the materials the shelter is made of. Alternatively, the Yeti GoalZero 3000 will run the air conditioner for almost four hours on a single charge.

You can use solar to recharge your battery pack during the day. Nine solar panels will do the trick. Assuming you use the ones I recommended, you can connect them to the Yeti in sets of three, using these adapters.

Example 3

I need to provide power to a medium-sized community of 150 people at burning man. Each person is limited to ten watts of usage. (They can only use LED lights or charge small devices.) We have a generator which we usually use, but we want to use some solar to take a bite out of our fuel costs.

Solar is the way to go! 150 people limited to ten watts each is just 1500 watts. I would pick up a Yeti GoalZero 1000 for $1300 (or under $1,000 at Costco). This can put out 1500 continuous watts, and double that during surges. This should more than meet your needs, but you could go with a larger battery like a Yeti GoalZero 3000 if you want to be extra comfortable. The larger one has the added benefit of wifi monitoring, so you can monitor power consumption and watts available from the comfort of your tent.

To charge this lithium battery pack, you can use 9 100w solar panels at $136 each for a total cost of $1224.  This is likely plenty of power to refill the battery, but you will still have your generator to fill any gap due to darkness or over-use. If you wanted to increase the amount of power your community can use, simply build two or three of these solar microgrids.

You can plug your existing distribution system into this battery pack and you’ll be up and running.

This would have a total cost of about $2,224 and eliminate most future fuel costs. If you end up needing to use the generator to meet demand, simply add a few more panels next time. This estimate does not include hardware related to mounting the panels and connections between the panels and the Yeti.

This solution likely breaks even in the first year.

DIY: Raspberry Pi NAS

In this tutorial, I will demonstrate how to configure a Raspberry Pi NAS.  Network Attached Storage (Also known as Network Accessible Storage or a NAS) essentially creates a shared folder on your local network which lets all your computers and devices access the files stored there.

You will need a Raspberry Pi. I am using a Raspberry Pi Zero W with the iUniker case, but this tutorial should work for any Raspberry Pi, including the Raspberry Pi 3B and the case is only for aesthetic purposes. You will also need a Micro SD card for the operating system. I am using a Sandisk 16gb Micro SD Card. Lastly, you will need some kind of storage such as a USB external hard drive. I am using a WD Ultra 2Tb.

During the setup process, you will also need an HDMI cord as well as a USB mouse and keyboard. The Raspberry Pi Zero W that I bought came with an adapter from Mini-HDMI to regular HDMI, but I picked up a Mini-HDMI to standard HDMI cord to use instead which you will see in the photos. Either way works the same. If you are using the Raspberry Pi Zero W like me, you will need a usb hub as there are not enough ports to plug all these things in at the same time. The Raspberry Pi Zero W kit that I bought also came with a USB-OTG cable to adapt USB-A cords to the micro-USB ports on the Raspberry Pi Zero W.

Create The Boot Drive

The first step is to download Raspbian from the Raspberry Pi website.

In order to write the image file to the Micro SD card, we need to use a free tool called Win32 Disk Imager.

Simply open it, select the Raspbian image file, select the Micro SD card, click write, and you’re done.

Make sure to eject the card properly before removing it from your computer since everything on it is sensitive and important.

Hook Everything Up

Now it’s time to insert the card into the Raspberry Pi. Next, connect the mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Then, connect the USB hard drive, and lastly connect the power.

Once it’s all connected, it should look something like this…

Software Configuration

The Pi will boot up and ask you to configure a password and connect to wifi.

Next, click on the menu in the top corner and find the configuration app under preferences. Click over to the interfaces tab and enable SSH and VNC. This will allow you to remote in later if you need to and avoid hooking the Pi back up to a mouse, keyboard, and screen.

You should probably set a static IP for your Pi, so that it isn’t moving around on the network and confusing the other devices. This step is optional but recommended. It will be different with every router. There are two ways to do this. You can configure a static IP on the Pi which has become a complex process, or you can configure it on your router. I would recommend searching online for a guide for your specific router. Again, this step is optional.

This next part is done in the command line interface. You can do this via SSH from another machine with a free tool like Putty, or you can do it by logging into the Pi and clicking the terminal button at the top. This is probably the simpler method.

Start with this command to make sure everything is up to date. It could take quite some time depending on how recently the Raspbian image we used was updated on the website.

apt-get update && apt-get upgrade && apt-get dist upgrade

We will need to install a few packages in order to set the Pi up as a NAS as well as for security, debugging, and monitoring purposes;

apt-get install fail2ban nload screenfetch samba samba-common-bin

Now edit the Samba configuration file;

sudo nano /etc/samba/smb.conf

Find the line that says “;wins support = no” and change it to “wins support = yes”

Then find the line that says workgroup and change it to your workgroup name. Press CTRL+X to exit and then Y to save.

Set Up Sharing

First we need to find the path of our USB drive. This part is simple. Just type;

df -h

You will see something like this…

In my case, the bottom line shows the path “/media/pi/CJ-2TB.” This is the name of the USB drive I plugged into the Pi. You can see there are 203 free gigabytes. This is definitely the correct drive.

Go back to the samba configuration file;

sudo nano /etc/samba/smb.conf

Paste the following at the end. Change the path and title to match your shared drive. Press CTRL+X to exit and then Y to save, just like before.

[CJ-2TB]
comment=Raspberry Pi Share
path=/media/pi/CJ-2TB
browseable=Yes
writeable=Yes
only guest=no
create mask=0777
directory mask=0777
public=no

Now we just need to create a user account for this shared folder. This can be anything, but it simplifies things to use the same username as the login…

sudo smbpasswd -a pi

You will be prompted to create a password. This can be the same or different from your main password.

That’s It!

Congratulations, you have a Raspberry Pi NAS!

Micro Grids and Burning Man

Elon Musk famously came up with the idea for Solar City while at burning man, observing the ubiquitous microgrids which power the temporary city. Every home should work this way, he reasoned. At Burning Man, each city block has many microgrids. They range from very small to very large, and they take many forms. There are also several online communities devoted to discussing issues related to these microgrids at Burning Man.

Incidentally, nearly a hundred billion dollars of venture and philanthropic funds are slated to be poured into the development of microgrids to electrify the developing world in the coming decades. Throughout human civilization, we are seeing a rise of microgrids taking over the work traditionally done (or not done) by larger civic grids. Building civic grids which power large areas is enormously expensive and very technically complex. Many governments in the developing world are not able to do this. Maybe people simply choose to manage their own resources and live off grid, more sustainably. There are any number of reasons why a microgrid is the best solution to power needs in many situations.

Burning Man offers a unique and valuable testing ground for this technology which fosters innovative solutions for this important problem facing humans everywhere. I have an interesting perspective on each of the three types of microgrids I will explain in this post.

What Is a Microgrid?

I like this definition from Wikipedia;

A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources and loads that normally operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional wide area synchronous grid (macrogrid), but can also disconnect to “island mode” — and function autonomously as physical or economic conditions dictate.

In this way, a microgrid can effectively integrate various sources of distributed generation, especially renewable energy sources, and can supply emergency power, changing between island and connected modes.

For our purposes, I will define a microgrid as a system for powering multiple devices which may use batteries to temporarily store electricity, and which can draw power from many types of sources including generators, solar panels, or other grids. We will see that this definition allows us to consider lots of interesting examples.

The Neighborhood-Scale Microgrid

At Burning Man, I camp with Comfort & Joy. At Comfort & Joy, we have an area approximately the size of a city block where over 150 people live throughout the Burning Man event. We are also visited by many thousands of people who participate in our events and community spaces. We have a relatively complex challenge with our microgrid. We need to power many large performance art projects, a gym, several event and community spaces, instant-hot showers, and a full commercial kitchen.  This is no small feat!

The infrastructure is pretty straightforward. A large 20kw diesel generator is the primary power source. This runs to several spider boxes which distribute the power around the camp through standard extension cords. Each tent has power running directly to it.

Most Burning Man camps have microgrids which work in much the same way. Some camps have many RVs which need higher loads and more spider boxes to distribute power, but other than that, this layout is essentially the standard format for the neighborhood-scale microgrid, both at Burning Man and the world outside.

In the future, the biggest potential improvement would be adding batteries and a renewable energy source such as wind or solar. This would replace the diesel generator as the primary source of power. It would mean becoming less reliant on polluting fossil fuels, and less reliant on the generator as a large single point of failure. Many camps are already using hybrid-diesel/solar microgrids like this.

The Home-Scale Microgrid

Comfort and Joy is an example of a camp with a microgrid about the size of a city block. What this means is that I have a tent with all my stuff inside, and an extension cord running out to our neighborhood-scale microgrid. I plug into that to get power. In turn, I use that power for my devices, costumes, lights, to inflate my mattress, etc. This is an example of a home-scale microgrid (or in this case tent or RV).

Many camps are less organized, and have no neighborhood-scale microgrid for campers to plug into. In those cases, each tent or RV will often have a generator, wind turbine, or a few solar panels to provide power. This power is usually stored in batteries, and then used for the home’s needs. This is analogous to off-grid tiny homes or cabins. In fact, many tiny homes make the trek to Burning Man already including their own home-scale microgrid.

Storing electricity is a challenging problem. Most people will try to use lead-acid batteries such as car batteries or deep cycle batteries. These have many disadvantages. Setting them up and using them is technically complex and often counter-intuitive, especially if the microgrid is using more than one battery. Lead-acid batteries will also require almost a day of solid charging to get to full capacity. This just isn’t possible if your power source is solar or a generator. Both will always face interruptions due to dust, leaving your system uncharged.

A better way of storing electricity is with lithium batteries. These are the same types of batteries found in cell phones and laptops. They charge very quickly and provide a much simpler solution to the problem. The downside is that they can be slightly more expensive, but luckily there is a whole industry around products that solve this problem. The big player is Yet with its GoalZero Lithium battery packs.  Products like this make home-scale microgrids a cinch. Lithium battery packs like this will accept power from essentially any source: solar panels, generators, standard electrical outlets, or car cigarette lighters. They store a lot of power very quickly. Then they let you use it via USB ports, standard electrical outlets, or even via cigarette adapters. These products are a very good solution to the power storage problem. In fact, I plan to run my entire burn this year off of one of these without using any source of power such as generator or solar.

Keep in mind there are tons of cheap, excellent alternatives to GoalZero products. Pictured below is the one I am using, the Poweradd ChargerCenterⅡ 370Wh. It is essentially exactly the same as the Yeti GoalZero Lithium 400, but less than half the price. It still has a standard 120 volt outlet, plus USB ports, and it can still accept power from essentially any source: generator, solar panels, or car cigarette adapter. I am using USB-powered christmas lights for interior lighting in the tent. This box on a single charge can power those lights for the entire event while also recharging my cell phone (camera) hundreds of times. I’ll also use this to power some small speakers for BMIR radio and Spotify.

Using USB Is MUCH Better Than Using 120 Volt

Any time we step power up to 120 volts, there is waste. In fact, there is a lot. I the past, I brought a charged car battery to Burning Man which I hooked up to a cigarette lighter socket. I used normal car accessories for all my needs. I even had an inverter to get 120 volts, but mostly I stuck to cigarette and USB connections. Plugging my cell phone charger into an inverter running off of a battery was enormously wasteful. The power savings is huge if you stay at 12 volts instead of going up to 120 volts and then back down to USB through a phone charger or something like that. Just run a car charger straight off the battery!

USB-powered versions of many common electronics are available and they use less power. An essentially identical string of LED christmas lights which plugs into the wall will use a lot more power than one that plugs into USB. More on that in the next section.

The Mobile Microgrid

At Burning Man, every person simply must have a bike. The city is vast. There just is no way to get around without a bike. Because of many hazards at night, everyone is required to cover themselves and their bikes in lights. This prevents many types of dangerous accidents, but it also poses a problem. My first burn, I brought a bunch of Ikea AA-powered Christmas light strands. These worked great, but I went through a half-dozen AAs each day. This is very wasteful, and there is a simple alternative.

You guessed it, USB! This is an amazing and far superior solution to using AA batteries. A simple solar battery pack turns your bike into a mobile microgrid. Just one strand of $7 USB-powered Christmas lights is very bright and can run for weeks off of a battery pack like this. I ended up using two strands just for fun. Having all this power available on your bike also means you can add other cool accessories like bluetooth speakers or plasma balls and of course it can also recharge your devices. A USB-powered microgrid on a bike is more sustainable, more flexible, and less stressful than trying to swap out moopy batteries several times a night.

My Gear List For Burning Man 2018

This year, I have changed almost all my gear. For the first time, I have my own complete microgrid and a double-tent. I also replaced almost all non-rechargeable devices. This year, my burn will be far more sustainable and very low stress. My gear list makes all that possible.

Home Sweet Home v2

Having a double tent was a major priority in order to delay morning sun and heat from reaching me as I desperately struggle to sleep in. I also wanted to maximize my energy independence and improve over my previous

Big Tent: This provides shade and shelter from the elements. Everything but my bike goes inside. It is secured by rebar wit tennis balls on the ends of each for safety.

Smaller Tent:  This is a smaller tent made of dark material which fits snugly around the mattress. It goes inside the larger tent. This small tent provides a dark space for sleeping which is protected from dust and slows the heat from getting to the sleeper.

Self-Inflating Mattress: This is SO handy. Last burn, I had one that needs to be inflated by hand. At some point, it got a slow leak which required constant work to keep it inflated. Eventually we just gave up and slept on the ground. Never again! Just flip the switch and it’s back to 100%!

Two Coolers: These were on sale for just $15 a piece. Each one holds 72 cans!

Two Chairs: I can’t find a similar deal today, but when I bought these two fold-up camping chairs, they were $5 each!

One Cot/ Couch: I got this for free, and I think it will make a great couch or guest bed.

USB String Lights: For energy efficient indoor illumination. These are pretty bright and can run off of a power bank for the entire burn.

Power Source: I have my own microgrid inside the tent running off of this power bank. It can supply almost 400 watt hours which should be far more than I need for the entire burn. It is comparable to the Yeti 400 Lithium which is more than double the price.

For food, I picked up a bunch of meals ready to eat including all of these.

Breakfast:

Lunch/ Dinner:

My Bike v2

I decided to try to get rid of as many battery-using devices as I could. The solution seemed obvious; USB!

Roadmaster 26: This is the same model bike I took to the last burn. They have proven very versatile and reliable. And they go back to Walmart after!

USB Bike Lights: Two strings of these lights run to a dust-proof power bank in the basket. This is able to run the lights for weeks on a single charge, and it recharges via built in solar panel. This technically makes the bike a microgrid in its own right!

Shelf: I added this shelf to the back of the roadmaster. It allows a milk crate to rest comfortable on the back. This makes it a lot easier to bring beer and snacks around with me on the playa.

Front Basket: I added this basket to the front of the bike. While the back basket is great for food and drinks, the front is great for thinks like the power bank, the lock, spare tubes, tools, etc. You don’t want to find yourself in need of these things and not have them handy!

Other Accessories: I found a kit for under $20 at Walmart which contained a lock, pump, bicycle bottle, headlamp, tail light, and a bell. These kinds of kits are usually available and well worth the $20.

School Workflow: Triple Full-Time

For the last year, I have been a student who consistently takes at least a double to triple full-time workload. I am not superman, but I do have a 4.0 GPA. I also spend a great deal of my time traveling and having vacations and adventures.

All of this has been an intensely complex effort, but several simple tools have made all the difference.

Three tools in particular have dramatically improved my ability to accomplish this enormous undertaking.

Rate My Professor

I hear a lot of criticism of this platform, and a lot of it is probably true, but it has never steered me wrong. I have a simple rule; I will not take any class where the professor has less than a 4/5 rating.

As we will see, this makes all the difference.

LMS

These days, every college is going to require their teachers to use a learning management system. Any decent professor is going to be able to understand and properly implement their LMS. Canvas has been great, though it’s not perfect. Probably most any modern LMS will work for my system.

An LMS is very helpful but not necessarily critical to managing a large workload.

Organizing The Data

I start by making a bookmarks folder for the semester. Then I put a link in it for each class. The links go to the grades section of each class. This way, I will skip pointless details and go straight to a list of any incomplete assignments whenever I check on a class.

Time Management

Now that it is easy to see all the tasks which I will need to complete, it’s time to put them all in one place. I start by creating an appointment in my calendar every monday morning called “Check for Coursework.”

A good rule of thumb is to start with the first week, and see how long it takes to go through all the classes and find assignments. I usually spend about an hour or two checking every class for any assignments and then entering everything. Once you know how long that will take you, create a recurring calendar event each week for this purpose.

Each class will also require some fairly consistent amount of time to complete all its coursework. I usually assume about two hours per class per week for completing assignments.

It is absolutely critical that time is set aside for each class. Problems and distractions are going to come up. If I ever need to move my coursework time to later in the week, I know how long it’s going to take and whether that’s going to be possible because I have created a block of time for each class.  Here’s what an average week this summer looks like;

In grey is all my classes and the time set aside for completing assignments.

In blue, my personal plans and events I’m going to.

In yellow, tasks I need to complete which are not at a specific time.

In red, I have time set aside for sleep. This is another important thing to remember. Getting enough sleep every night is critical to performing on this level. You’re no good to yourself or anybody else if you’re half asleep.

Triage

Maybe the most important step in my process is creating a fresh to-do list every week for school. I love Trello for this purpose, a great recommendation from Pieter Levels. It’s a great, free tool that lets you make to-do lists. It also features integration with IFTTT which will be super handy in a few minutes.

It’s Monday morning so this is what my Trello board looks like…

 

The first column is titled with the date on which the week starts. The second column contains anything I need to finish today. The third column contains any school tasks which I have not completed yet, but which need to be done this week.

In the past, I would go through all my classes and create entries in Trello for anything I need to finish this week. Then, I will use that time I blocked off in my calendar to work on each class until everything is done.

BUT THERE’S A MAGICAL SHORTCUT!

IFTTT

I love IFTTT. I use it for tons of home automation and other fun projects. But it’s not all fun and games. In this case, it can put all my coursework into my todo list for me!

The Canvas LMS is what both of my colleges are using right now, and it has a feature which most LMS will probably have. It gives you a URL which lets you add your assignment due-dates to your calendar. I added this URL to my Google Calendar, and then connected Trello and Google Calendar to IFTTT. Then it was as simple as creating this applet which automatically adds anything in that calendar to Trello as a new item in my “School” list. Here are the settings I used:

To summarize, any time any of my professors at either college creates an assignment, it is automatically inserted into my school to-do list on Trello.

Note that I left the “Description” field blank because it adds a lot of unnecessary extra information. I just want the name of the assignment and the due date.

With this incredible automation in place, I spend my coursework time on Mondays simply cleaning up complex assignment names and putting things in order of how I want to complete them. Here’s what my Trello board looks like after this process…

Final Thoughts

With these tools in place, I am able to take double and triple full-time workloads without worrying about missing things or whether I will have time to complete the work. I already know exactly how much time I will need and when that time fits into my week. I know everything that’s due and I rank it in order of when I want to get it done.

Probably a lot of the inspiration for this process came from reading Tim Ferriss, Pieter Levels, and others on similar processes for maximizing impact while minimizing work at startups.

It’s funny to me how much of our time we spend worrying about the workload instead of actually doing the work. When you eliminate that anxiety by building a foolproof structure around your work, it’s easy to maximize what you can get done.

Micro-Gigs

Today in America and across much of the world, there exist predatory lending institutions which are happy to give short-term loans at high interest rates to essentially anyone. The most common and obvious example is the payday loan. If you drive through “the wrong part of town,” you will see these on at least as many corners as there are convenience stores of cafes. They are everywhere and they are delighted to give short-term high-interest loans of a couple-hundred dollars to literally anyone regardless of the person’s credit or personal history.

I read an article about how bad these places are for their customers and for civilization, and it made me think of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

What if it was possible to reliably beat predatory interest rates with smart investments? This idea could turn these predatory loans into widely available venture funding for small-scale projects like the ones Chris Guillebeau describes in his book. I call this idea, the micro-gig rather than Guillebeau’s term micro-business because this isn’t necessarily a business. The idea is to beat the predatory loan, not necessarily to build something sustainable that you want to keep doing in the long-term. I have always enjoyed projects more than businesses. It’s easy to pick projects up and set them down when you get bored. This makes the process a lot more interesting.

The biggest challenge is the timeline. In California, a payday loan of $300 gets you $245 cash but you only have a couple weeks to pay it back. This means that a successful project needs to generate a 20% return in a very short time. Luckily, this is actually relatively easy. Those levels of returns are much harder with larger dollar amounts than they are with these smaller amounts.

Here are a few initial ideas…

Flipping

There are huge online communities dedicated to the art of flipping. This means buying something and then immediately selling it for a profit. Personally, I have had great success with flipping.

It is super easy to find trendy things like Ikea furniture for very cheap and then sell it for more. Several times, I’ve been able to sell Ikea furniture for more than I paid for it new, even months or years later. This is especially true if you check out Ikea’s As-Is section where you can regularly find floor models and returns that are half-off. It’s super easy to flip these for their regular price or even more within a short time.

Another easy type of product is consumer electronics. I have found expensive and perfectly functional consumer electronics at thrift stores for just a dollar or two, then flipped them for a hundred times that. An easy example is Apple products.

Flipping: Appraisal

It is critical to know you can get a return before buying something to flip. Local sales through sites like Craigslist are usually going to give you the best return, but don’t forget ebay. This makes appraisal easy because you can check ebay for sold listings.

Here’s a true example from my flipping experience. I saw an Apple bluetooth keyboard with magic mouse at a thrift store for $5. I tested it on my phone to make sure it was working. Then I checked ebay’s sold listings for that device. They were going for close to a hundred dollars in “fair” condition. It was a no brainer! I bought it and flipped in the same weekend on Craigslist. About twenty minutes of work earned me $120.

Flipping: Just In Time

Another great tactic is using just in time inventory and specializing in a particular item. For example, I could work towards getting really good at selling “my amazon alexa that I never use.” Voice assistants regularly go for as much as half-off on ebay. So if I expect to sell it quickly, I might buy one to keep on hand. Once I start getting offers, I might buy a few more. As long as I can sell them at the same rate that I am buying them, my profits will continue to increase. If sales slow down, all I have to do is stop ordering them off ebay and wait to sell through my inventory.

Sell Food To Drunk People

When I had my cafe in Chico, I had an idea. I borrowed a push cart and food warmer from a dorm and ordered a bunch of pizzas. I got 30 day terms, so I didn’t have to pay for the pizzas until a month later. I spent no money to do this. When the pizzas came, I wrapped each slice in aluminum foil and put them  in the warmer on the cart. I had no trouble selling as much pizza as I could fit in the warmer, at 400% markup. I expanded to offer bottled water and energy drinks. People loved it, and it didn’t cost me anything.

Thinking back to this, I am reminded of how many people I see selling “homemade” tamales out of their trunk outside the bars downtown. I can’t help but wonder if these are actually coming from those enormous bags of tamales that Costco sells for just a few dollars. How many other bulk food items could you sell out of a trunk for more than you paid for them?

Hundreds of percent of markup is expected and normal with food products, especially when the customers are drunk people. Those ten dollar salads at Starbucks cost less than a dollar to make.

Arbitrage

In many cases, companies have online sales with crazy low prices. So flip it before you buy it. I have often listed things for sale on Craigslist which I haven’t even bought yet. If someone wants it, I will buy it and then sell it to them for a nice markup.

There are great online communities dedicated to things like extreme couponing or general frugality which can help you find these amazing deals. Selling before you buy, or at the same time is called arbitrage. And it’s a huge part of price-equalization in every industry and market from foreign exchange to retail. Cash in!

Outsource It

Get someone else to do the work for you once you sell the product. Why do you think infomercials need eight weeks to deliver their products? Because they don’t manufacture the products until after they’ve been paid for. This is called just in time manufacturing, and though it is technically illegal, it is standard practice in the industry. This idea is very much in the vein of The Four Hour Work Week. Author Tim Ferriss would argue you should test any business idea this way.

There are so many examples you could do in your own town without needing to invest anything. Find a business where employees aren’t wearing branded shirts and sell the manager a batch. Then go order them from a local shop. They don’t want to pay up front? That’s fine. You know where to get a quick loan for a few hundred dollars.

Final Thoughts

All of these micro-gig ideas I’ve discussed here are basically foolproof, with very minimal risk. There are lots of other ideas with slightly higher risk and more potential rewards. I would love to hear about related ideas that are working for people, or feedback about the ones I’ve mentioned here.

Drop me a line at chris.j.trowbridge@gmail.com.

Startup 12: Smart Mailer

SmartMailer.io

I built a tool very similar to this one as an experiment to see how much money I could bring in to a previous workplace by sending automated emails based on various criteria. The answer turned out to be millions and millions of dollars. This was a very exciting surprise which largely led to the direction I decided to go with my career and my choice to quit that job and get my MBA so I can get funding and start a large project around this idea.

It would be very easy to accidentally use this product in a way which violates laws all over the world. You MUST research the legal requirements in your jurisdiction before using any part of this product, and make sure you have unambiguous and clear consent as required by law before sending any emails to anyone.

I accept no responsibility for the misuse of this code, accidental or deliberate by anyone.

That Time I Found Millions of Dollars Under The Cushion…

Lots of businesses have lots of data. They may not know how to access the data or how to analyze it, or even that it could be valuable to analyze it, but businesses keep track of things like what customers buy and when. They keep track of things like how frequently a customer uses their services. They keep track of things like which products have particular behaviors and lifecycles.

They can’t help but keep track of these things. The question if whether it is possible to extract value from this data.

You’re Customers Are Getting Older.

Customers age. In business terms, this sometimes means that a customer has not been seen in a while or has not purchased any products for some time. A previous employer of mine had all the contact information for these people, but no free labor to perform outreach.

The answer was obvious. Send all of those people an email every few months, automatically. And it worked spectacularly. The percentage of customers who disappeared each month dropped right away, and kept dropping as more and more customers converted for new services.

Your Product’s Are Getting Older.

Lots of products have life cycles. Nothing lasts forever. If it did, there wouldn’t be opportunities for businesses. Analyzing past customer data and behavior can illuminate likely durations after the purchase of particular products when a customer may need another product.

Maybe it’s the same thing they bought before. Maybe some kind of tuneup. Maybe it’s something complementary. Find those patterns and determine when it’s the right time to remind the customer that you’re thinking about them, and don’t be afraid to send them a coupon. I literally wrote an automated email for one such pattern which simply said, “We’re thinking of you. Here’s a coupon.” It was one of the most successful campaigns we ever tried.

At my last workplace, this larger strategy of analyzing trends and incentivizing them when they’re coming up brought in tens of thousands of dollars a month in new revenue at absolutely no cost whatsoever. You write the queries and emails once and then they send automatically every day.

Your Employees Are Imperfect.

Employees make mistakes. Sometimes they try to cheat and steal. It can be easy to find these kinds of things in the data and automatically alert supervisors so they can look into it. This saves an enormous amount unnecessary oversight and regular inspections and investigations to make sure procedures are followed correctly. Simply write a query which finds the problem, and then have it send an email to a manager.

This simple concept eliminated multiple entire management positions at my last workplace and allowed those managers to work on more important things like growing sales and developing the team.

 

The Future

There are a lot of exciting directions this product can go in the future. This concept within my various projects has been under constant development for almost five years in one form or another. I am very excited to be able to share this concept as a product and to give others the opportunity to find the missing millions under the cushions like I did.

Startup 11: PHP TTS Webhooks

Smart Homes Are Pretty Great

I have very much jumped on the bandwagon with smart home products. I have smart lights, a smart fan, a virtual assistant in every room; mine is a very smart house. I have also gotten very into IFTTT and related functional services which integrate with these smart devices to make them even smarter and more interconnected.

Example; my lights turn red at sunset automatically each day. This is actually a very exciting and new possibility which confers enormous health benefits. With cheap commodity products and running no servers or custom hardware or software, I can easily create triggers in IFTTT which pull the sunset time from weather services automatically, and then toggle my lights to red exactly at sunset each day. (Hopefully it goes without saying that sunset is at a different time each day.) Imagine trying to do this a decade ago. It would have been ridiculously complex. Just look at my Arduino smart plug project for example, where I do it from relative scratch.

A Problem

There is one thing that still is not possible with any of the popular virtual assistants and smart home devices such as Google Home or Amazon Echo.

I can talk to Google Home or Amazon Echo all day, and they are happy to acknowledge me and do whatever I ask of them. But there is absolutely no way to make them reach out to me in response to some external trigger.

Example; my Ring Doorbell detects motion in the front yard, and I have my phone on silent. I will not know until I next check my phone that motion was detected. There is absolutely no built-in way to make my army of virtual assistants notify me of something like this. I could buy Ring’s official plug-in chime (which I did) but this should not be necessary when I already have little computers in every room which should be able to just talk to me. Thinking about this problem gave me lots of other interesting ideas about things I would like to be notified about. For example problems at work, time-sensitive emails from teachers, or any number of potentially important issues.

A Solution

I have a whole box of Raspberry Pi’s from old projects. With one simple command, I can make them say anything I want. I just need to install Say;

sudo apt-get install say

Then I created a simple PHP script which accepts webhooks and calls the say command. This is a little complicated to set up, but I have included all the directions on the Github page.

There is also a beta feature which saves the speech as an mp3 file, then casts it to the virtual assistants around the house. This means I can use IFTTT or other functional-paradigm cloud services to trigger my virtual assistants to speak to me based on external commands. It does mean I have to run a single piece of hardware; the Raspberry Pi. But I had to struggle to remember where I even plugged it in. It’s hard to notice.

There are all kinds of exciting directions this project can go in the future. There is no reason it shouldn’t be able to cast tv shows or movies from my NAS for example. The potential of this product is very exciting. I look forward to future versions, and I think this is one of the few cases where the product will outlive my Levels Challenge.

Startup 10: Astria

Astria represents an exciting new version completely from scratch of a web application framework I initially started over a decade ago. Astria manages database connections and allows rapid development of data-driven applications. It is very easy to create large and complex databases which Astria can serve as a simple JSON API, or as a complete managed web-based GUI featuring OAuth or Email authentication of users.

Astria also manages large sets of complex teams with equally complex permission structures and allows complex tracking and analysis of user behavior.

I have built simple websites in Astria, and even a complex front-end to a legacy CRM product for a multi-million dollar tech company which serves dozens of users and manages all daily operations for that company.

Perhaps the most exciting part about Astria is that it is exceptionally efficient and designed to scale indefinitely. It requires very little resources even under enormous workloads. It is also designed from the ground-up for sharding and distributed workloads. One server or one-hundred servers running Astria can balance any theoretical number of users and requests seamlessly.

Astria also makes it very easy to develop and deploy quality assurance tools such as outbound survey calls and emails. This feature is in operation at the tech company I mentioned.

A last point is the simplicity of marketing automation. I am spinning this part of the product off into another product which an upcoming post will detail. With Astria, is is trivially easy to run a query on a cron job to qualify a list of destinations for a dynamically generated email. This feature has created millions of dollars in revenue for businesses using this ability of the framework. Imagine all the types of customers you could send an email to automatically without needing to think about it. For example, “We haven’t seen you in six months. How are things?” The same can be done for the one year mark, and so on. This feature can also be used for internal development. For example, the system can automatically email users as well as their managers when particular types of behavior are detected. This can save time and money, and keep employees honest.

Astria is an incredibly powerful and versatile tool which can empower, protect companies as well as passively generating millions of dollars in revenue. Check it out and let me know if you are interested in contributing to this ongoing project!