Archive for the ‘Green gadgets’ category

ChargeSpot – wireless charging for your phone

January 5th, 2015

ChargeSpot - Surface

In December I attended Construct Canada, attending seminars and looking for greener building materials and anything else that might stand out. One of the things that grabbed my attention was the ChargeSpot wireless charger. Pat Laureano, Founder and CTO of ChargeSpot, explained to me that it’s as simple as placing your dying phone on top of the logo indicating a charging spot.

Now, if you’re anything like me, when you go to meetings or conferences, you are constantly seeking out electrical outlets in hallways and conference rooms and racing to get there before others, pulling out your cord and adapter to recharge that baby, because, after all, who can live without a phone these days? As a writer my phone also acts as my recorder, camera, agenda and library. So, when it dies, I feel pretty darn useless.

When Pat started to explain the simplicity and ease of the ChargeSpot, I could immediately see the appeal of the product.

» Read more: ChargeSpot – wireless charging for your phone

Home Sweet Home Competition and Student Challenge 2013

June 22nd, 2012

 Last week the National Conference for the Canada Green Building Council was held in Toronto. It was the perfect time for the Home Sweet Home Competition to launch, and what better place to do it than at the winner of last year’s home renovation award, The Rosedale House?

There are two divisions of the Home Sweet Home Competition — one is for professionals and residential projects that have already been built, the other is for students from universities and colleges across Ontario, to design a well-built, low energy-using dwelling. The competition was developed by Mindscape  Innovations Group as they were developing the Ontario GreenSpec directory — a listing of services and businesses that sell green building materials across Ontario. They saw a gap in the category of green building awards; there were awards that were national, and others that were regional, but there were no awards at the provincial level, so they developed one.

The purpose of the competition is to highlight new and innovative house building projects and in particular, designs which focus on lowering a home’s carbon and water footprint, as well as the materials used. Finally, the competition recognizes that homes are built by teams of people, and that the end-result of their work is demonstrated in the finished product. Winning projects demonstrate that constructing a home that uses less, well, everything, is not only achievable, but also beautiful, easy to maintain, with low running costs. Emphasis is put on using as many local products as possible, and materials which are produced in an ethical and fair way, and preferably close to the building site.

You can see the winner of the 2011 Home Sweet Home Competition here as well as the winner of the Student Challenge, here.

So that homes can be judged against similar entries, the professional competition is divided into four categories:

  1. Production Home
  2. Custom Home
  3. Affordable Home
  4. Renovated Home

As this is a provincial competition, the home must also be built in Ontario.

The Student Challenge offers the opportunity for students enrolled in building and design programs at colleges and universities across Ontario to enter their best designs which should demonstrate the following characteristics:

An entry should be

  1. Healthy and Comfortable,
  2. Efficient, Affordable and Economical,
  3. Ethical: Socially and Ecologically Responsible.

All entries will be screened for energy efficiency and technical design aspects before the judges look at the entries. Because they structure the challenge around a story problem, to make it more realistic, this year they were able to get Rick Mercer involved. The story goes like this: Rick, “the unofficial lead of the opposition,” is having a “granny flat” built for him on the property of 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. The address should be known to Canadians, as it is the residence of the Prime Minister. The students’ task is to design a home that is situated on a pre-determined piece of land at 24 Sussex, and the final product should be no larger than 8000 cubic feet or 262 cubic meters.

I was thrilled and honoured that the nice people at Mindscape invited me to be one of the jury members, and a distinguished jury it is! I am looking forward to seeing what the students design.

Some of the Jury Members from the HSH Competition and Student Challenge. Left to right: Ted Kesik (Competition), me (Challenge), Derek Satnik (Mindscape), Dave LeBlanc (Competition), Lloyd Alter (Challenge). Photo courtesy of Deena Huertazuela

To find out more about either the Student Challenge or the Professional Competition, visit the main website for Home Sweet Home.

To see the winning entries from 2011, visit this page:


The Modlet and SmartAC Thermostat

May 22nd, 2012

***Update, June 29, 2017: Sadly, Thinkeco and the Modlet seem to no longer exist. The website is dead. The CoolNY program has also been discontinued. ***

It’s a beautiful day outside, sunny, 25C and no humidity. It is my favourite kind of day (let’s ignore the fact that I’m inside working on my computer instead of out there enjoying it). In a few weeks my least favourite weather will begin: hot, smoggy, humid and sticky. Blech.

Last year we moved from our new townhouse in Toronto, to an old duplex in Montreal. We lost all modern day conveniences that I had taken for granted: programmable thermostat, energy efficient appliances, and most importantly of all, central air conditioning. I don’t sound like much of an environmentalist when I wax nostalgic over central air conditioning, do I? We were pretty strict with its use, however. We participated in Ontario’s peaksaver program, kept the thermostat at 26C during the day, ran the central fan continuously, drew the curtains on the south side of the house to block direct heat and installed ceiling fans in all the bedrooms. In July, when the temperature rose above 36C plus humidity outside, we were thankful that we had central A/C. All in all, even with central airconditioning, our hydro bill from July 5 through August 8, 2011 indicated that we’d consumed 1,084 kWh during that time frame.

Oh what I wouldn’t give for electricity consumption like that! In our “new” place, which we are renting, the only energy and water efficient appliances in the place are our washer and dryer, which we brought with us. We have a 20 year old fridge, stove and dishwasher, the latter of which will leave you deaf if you’re in the kitchen while it’s on! Electric baseboard heating is used on the upper floor, and generally speaking, we consume between 1800 and 3000 kWhs per month, depending on how cold it is outside. If you want to know if energy efficient appliances are worth the investment, trust me, they are! Our hydro bill is now a significant expense.

But once we add our three window air conditioners, our hydro bill will shoot right back up to winter levels when baseboard heating is on. Until now, there wasn’t really a way to control your window air conditioners — they were either on or off, so it’s likely that you leave them on all day so that your house is cool when you get home at night. Now however, there is a new gadget that turns your window air conditioners into a central air system.

ThinkEco, a startup based in New York City, has developed a smart thermostat that works in conjunction with your window air conditioner so that you can control when your window unit comes on, and the temperature you want to set it for. That means you could either set it at a higher temperature (or turn it completely off), when you’re out of the house, and have it come on half an hour before you come home. It’s a programmable thermostat for your window a/c unit! The SmartAC thermostat works in conjunction with another product called The Modlet.

Earlier this year, ThinkEco launched the Modlet, which stands for “modern outlet.” The neat thing about this outlet is that when you plug in your appliances, it will connect wirelessly with your computer though a USB key and you can control your appliance through your computer or smart phone. It’s great for home or professional offices, gaming systems, stereo systems, and cable boxes — all of which draw power even when they’re off. If you leave the office and have forgotten to turn your systems off, you can do it from your phone. You can buy a single Modlet (including the USB key), for US$50 plus shipping (and they ship to Canada).They also have an office starter kit for US$345 plus shipping which includes 5 modlets and one USB key. One USB key can work with up to 100 Modlets.

 How the Modlet and SmartAC Thermostat work: You need to use the Modlet and SmartAC Thermostat together. Plug the window air conditioner into the Modlet, use the SmartAC Thermostat to set temperatures, set a schedule for your unit on your computer, then control temperature either from the remote control or your smart phone or a remote computer.

In fact, New York City thinks it’s such a great idea that they’re working with ThinkEco for their “Cool NYC” program. If you happen to live in NYC you can see if you’re eligible for a kit — if you qualify, the city will send you a modlet and smartAC thermostat for free! Plus, on top of that, at the end of the summer, they’ll send you a $25 thank you gift.

I had a few questions about how the SmartAC Thermostat works, so the good folks at ThinkEco took the time to give me detailed answers, which I’ve included below.

Cathy: Does the computer with the USB key in use, have to be on in order for the appliance to be controlled? For instance, let’s say you wanted to monitor the appliance from your phone or office, would the computer the appliance is communicating with have to be on in order to get data on the appliance?

Answer: No, it doesn’t. The modlet plugs right into your existing outlet and communicates wirelessly through ZigBee technology with your home computer so you can remotely track (via web application or smart phone app) how much energy your devices consume and also set schedules for turning your devices off and on. 

There are two ways to control your devices with the modlet. The first is through setting schedules through the mymodlet web application. Schedules allow you to program when you want your appliances to be on or off. You can choose from one of our ready-made scheduling templates or create a custom schedule that reflects your lifestyle. Once you program a schedule into a modlet, the modlet will continue to implement that schedule regardless of whether it is in communication with your computer/USB receiver. The second way to control your devices is by instantly turning them on or off through the mobile app or web application. For this feature to work, the modlet needs to be in communication with your USB receiver and your home computer would need to be on or in sleep mode. 

We will have a new stand-alone gateway on the market later that will serve as an alternative to the USB gateway and is not dependent on your home computer to be on.

Cathy: Does the USB key need to be plugged in to the computer all the time? The reason I ask, is because it seems to me that the modlet is a good device if you have a desktop computer but not so good if all you have is a laptop. At our house my laptop is the main family computer and having one of my two usb ports taken up by one usb key all the time would be a little inconvenient. Also, if I had to go somewhere and take my computer with me, does the computer with the USB key still have a way of communicating with the modlet?

Answer: No. The USB does not have to be plugged into the computer all the time. The modlet has an internal memory and can store up to 10 days worth of energy usage data. As long as you plug your USB in your computer at least once a week for a few hours, all your data will sync up with your computer. The amount of time for the sync depends on how large your modlet network is.

Cathy: How does the SmartAC Thermostat remote control work? Do you use it to set the temperature and turn the a/c on and off when you’re in the room with it? If so, do you have to input all the settings via your computer?

Answer: The smartAC thermostat works much like a home thermostat for a central air-conditioner system. The thermostat communicates with your modlet to cycle your air-conditioner on and off based on your desired room temperature, and allows you to control the units remotely from your smart phone or computer. In addition, you can set a set a schedule through our web application for when you want your air conditioner to be on or off.  With the modlet apps for the iPhone and Android phones (just go to the app store and search for “ThinkEco”) you will be able to see your energy consumption and turn your air conditioner off and on remotely.
Cathy:  Can you use one remote control for more multiple window A/C units? (I recognize that each unit would need its own Modlet).

Answer: No. Each modlet and smartAC thermostat works as a pair so users need a thermostat for each modlet/air conditioner. The smartAC thermostat measures the current room temperature and works with the modlet to turn your air conditioner off or on in order to maintain your desired temperature. By having a separate thermostat for each air conditioner, each room has separate control so everyone can have their air conditioner set to their preferred temperature.

Cathy:  How much will the SmartAC Thermostat sell for?

Answer: MSRP $150 [US]

Ecobee Thermostat: Save 25% of your Heating and Cooling Bill

April 27th, 2012
Ecobee programmable thermostat

Ecobee programmable thermostat

The Ecobee is a very cool device I discovered at The 2012 GreenLiving Show that can help any homeowner save money on heating and cooling their home. It’s a programmable thermostat that’s actually easy to use and program. Not only that, but because it has a wireless connection, you can control it from your computer or smart phone. What this means is that if you’re going to be away for a significant amount of time, you can work with your settings while you’re not there — no more cooling the house when you’re not there. Best of all, shutting down electric devices is usually the last thing on my to do list when preparing for a trip away — now you can do it once you’re on the road.

You can order this unit directly off the website, but Stuart Lombard, one of the founders and CEO of Ecobee, told me that it’s best if you order through your heating and cooling provider because they will install it for you too. Once it’s set up, you can control your furnace and central air conditioner either from the home console or any of your computers. There are two versions for homeowners, a simpler one with a colour touch screen that sells for around $180, and the newer model with a larger colour touch screen and more features such as controlling your central humidifier for $330.

One of the other benefits of the Ecobee is that it generates monthly reports so you can see how you’re doing regarding your consumption patterns and make adjustments to lower your energy use.

For more information about the Ecobee, visit their website.


Tapmaster: One foot away from Water Efficiency

April 12th, 2012

A nifty product that helps keep your faucets clean while saving water at the same time, the Tapmaster line of products lets you turn water on and off using your knees or foot, leaving your hands free to do other things. Tapmaster is in Calgary, and developed its product initially for the dental industry, but the products found their place in other areas, and is particularly popular with gardeners. This is also a great gadget for cooks because it gives you that third hand you’re always looking for, when you need to turn on the faucet but your hands are either full or dirty. You don’t need to touch the faucet to turn it on — simply move the lever using your foot. The water stops when you pull your foot away. It helps keep faucet tap handles clean while washing your hands.

It’s apparently easy to install and has no need for batteries or electricity. The Tapmaster people told me that this is a DIY project (as long as you own a drill and screwdriver).  There are a variety of models available, each one suitable for different settings and uses.

 The Euro Foot Activators are simple levers that are installed at the bottom of cabinets. Model 1770 operates solely when your foot touches the lever. The water stops only when you take your foot away. Water temperature is controlled using the faucet handle. (CDN $325)

Model 1775 has a continuous flow option where, if the lever is kicked all the way to a 90-degree angle, the water will stay on (CDN $345).

Temperature is controlled by the faucet.

 Kickplate models: Available in brushed stainless, black or white, one touch to turn on, and another to turn off. There are three models available:

1750: Two options for use: touching the vertical space will keep the water flowing until you release it. Pressing down on the top part will lock water flow in place. A light touch to the vertical part will unlock it and stop the water flow. This is a great product for the kitchen. ($345).

1751: A combination kickplate and cabinet door activated control. Either press the cabinet door to operate the tap, or touch the kickplate. (CDN $447).

1756: Allows complete control over water temperature from the kickplate itself. There are hot, warm and cold settings available. It is available in black, white or silver.

  Cabinet door activator: Model 1720, installed inside a cabinet door, this model is ideal for bathrooms where only short bursts of water are needed for brushing teeth, washing hands or face. Once installed, it is activated when the cabinet door is pushed. Because it needs very little pressure to activate it, it is hardly noticeable when the doors are shut. It is also the most economical, at CDN$302. Note that this model is not suitable for bathrooms with pedestal sinks.

 In floor activator: 1780 is installed directly into the floor. The water is turned on and off with a quick tap to the floor plate (CDN $370). A new model, 1786 also allows for temperature control. This model would work well with pedestal sinks. I wondered whether it would be a suitable product with cats and dogs in the home, however, Lynne Pubbin, Operations Manager at Tapmaster explained:

We have built this product specifically so that cats and dogs cannot possibly turn these on.  We have actually tested this with large dogs (0ver 90 lbs) and had them walking on them and they cannot turn them on as it requires a specific force to activate the water.  It may not seem like much to most adults or children, but there is an actual purposeful force which needs to be applied.

Installation seems straightforward: For the kickplate and Euro models, drill a hole in the kickplate of the cupboard and the floor of the cupboard close to the faucet’s plumbing and feed the Tapmaster lines through it. Connect it to the water feeds to the sink faucet and that’s it. Visit the support page for installation instructions and videos.  Note that there is no need for electricity for any of the units a  they work via pressure.

For more information on each of these models, as well as installation information and exactly how it works, please visit the Tapmaster website.

To purchase the Tapmaster, order online through the website or call 1-800-791-8117.

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