L.A. at Home

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Category: Technology

Review: Insteon remote-control LED light bulb

The dream of a fully technology integrated and automated home can make a tech geek downright giddy: coffee machines that grind coffee and brew at a set hour, power sockets with built-in USB outlets, steaks cooked medium rare thanks to a Bluetooth thermometer. For every person who thinks a thermostat that learns personal temperature preferences is excessive, there's a tech geek who calls that cool.

Take the new LED bulb by Insteon. Released a couple of weeks ago, this bulb can be turned on, off or dimmed by remote control (included with bulb) or by iOS and Android apps. It's the next step in automating your home lighting: No special lamp attachments needed, no dimmer plates to attach to your wall.  The bulb and remote communicate via radio frequency.

We tested the device and found installation to be simple. Hold down a button on the remote until it beeps, screw in the lightbulb, then wait for a confirmation double-beep from the remote and bulb. The setup worked the first time we tried. At $29.99, the Insteon bulb presents an easy, albeit limited, alternative to much more expensive home automation systems.

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Summer blackouts beware: Cars can be turned into backup generators

Leaf reverse flow chargerSummer is almost here and with it, the high temperatures and cranked air conditioning that often lead to power outages. Some Angelenos may have considered a costly gas-powered generator for backup power, but another option is already sitting in their driveways: cars.

Power inverters on the market connect to car batteries to keep home appliances running. Just pop the hood, connect the inverter directly to the battery of a running car and thread the power cord from the inverter into the house. A refrigerator, television, lights or other devices that usually plug into a wall outlet would instead connect to the inverter power cord.

PowerinverterThe inverter, similar in size to a hardcover book, converts direct current, or DC power, coming from the car battery into alternating current, or AC, used in most homes.

PowerBright, based in Coral Springs, Fla., makes inverters in a variety of power configurations. A 900-watt version, costing about $60, is strong enough to run a sump pump, freezer or refrigerator, and it can handle the peak power surge from first plugging in a refrigerator, Chief Executive Gil Hetzroni said. A 2,300-watt version, Hetzroni said, can power many appliances at the same time.

Power inverters work with gas-powered cars as well as electric vehicles, but Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have both developed equipment specifically for electric cars. The bi-directional electric vehicle charger, which Nissan calls the Leaf to Home electricity supply system and Toyota dubs V2H for vehicle-to-home charging system, can reverse the flow of electricity from electric car to house in case of blackouts.

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Small speaker reviews: Wireless, rechargeable and just plain cool


Big Jambox

Small Bluetooth speakers 2A ton of sound from a box that's less than a pound? It's possible. We tested eight small speakers in hopes of finding the perfect piece of portable audio: small size, dynamic audio, rechargeable battery and Bluetooth technology for wireless music controlled by phone, iPad or laptop.


Small wireless speakers

We cranked up the new Big Jambox, pictured above, the upsized version of the impossibly small original Jambox. We also tested the new Bose SoundLink, the new Soundfreaq Sound Kick, plus offerings from SuperTooth, JBL, Geneva and Tivoli.

With suggested retail prices from about $100 to $300 (and sales prices readily available), we're thinking Father's Day present, perhaps?

Photo credit, top: Jawbone

Photo credit, right: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times


Garbage Maven: Recycling cellphones at the ecoATM

EcoATMMachine_01Mobile devices are discarded more rapidly than any other type of electronics, yet only 11% of them are recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But something called an ecoATM is working to change that.

The ecoATM is a self-service kiosk that helps people dispose of cellphones and other mobile devices. The machine uses electronic diagnostics and artificial intelligence to evaluate electronics' value and pay customers on the spot with cash or credit.

The company the makes ecoATM is based in San Diego. It began rolling out its machines in 2010 and has been operating 50 ecoATMs at malls around California, including the Glendale Galleria, Westfield Century City and Westside Pavilion. Thursday marked the kickoff to another round of openings, starting at malls in Brea and Orange and continuing later this month in Baldwin, Westminster, Ontario, Burbank and the South Bay.

Recycling needs to be convenient, financially rewarding and immediate to prevent people from throwing cellphones in the garbage, ecoATM Chief Executive Tom Tullie said.

Although California is one of the few states that bans electronics from landfills because of the hazardous materials they may contain and their potential to be reused, many cellphones still end up in landfills. Recapturing raw materials such as copper and plastic saves the energy, expense and environmental cost that go into mining and processing new materials.

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Critter cams: Natural History Museum's videos of wild visitors

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has installed cameras to capture urban wildlife roaming its new North Campus garden
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's new garden employs, as one would expect, a cadre of groundskeepers to groom 3.5 acres. But it also has a senior media producer, a full-time staffer who with the help of motion-activated cameras, or critter cams, documents animals living or traveling through the space.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has installed cameras to capture urban wildlife roaming its new North Campus garden"They really allow us to get an idea day and night of what animals are hanging out here," said Sam Easterson, the producer for the museum's North Campus garden and nature lab, scheduled to open next year.

Easterson said seven cameras are in continuous operation and have captured thousands of images of animals such as the California ground squirrel, a specific species that Easterson said hasn't been spotted on the museum grounds for 20 years, and a baby opossum born this spring in the garden's opossum den.

Today the museum is launching a dedicated Fickr link to these photos and videos, which highlight the mission of enticing wildlife to the North Campus.

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Personal car sharing comes to L.A.

RelayRides founder Shelby ClarkPersonal car sharing comes to Los Angeles on Monday. RelayRides, based in Boston, is expanding a service that allows car owners to rent their vehicles to other licensed drivers by the hour or the day.

"We've had literally thousands of people all over the country asking us to come to their neighborhoods since we started," said RelayRides founder Shelby Clark, 29. The 2-year-old service has 200 car owners loaning their vehicles to 6,000 renters in Boston and San Francisco.

Personal car sharing was legalized in California last year, but RelayRides and the other two companies that offered the service in the state (Getaround and Spride) operated only in San Francisco.

Car sharing would seem to work best where "it's easy to live without a car," Clark said, meaning a dense city with good public transportation. In areas such as L.A., where the opposite is true, Clark expects car sharing will be used as an alternative to buying a second or third car.

"A lot of families always need one car and sometimes need two," Clark said. "Right now, their only option is to round up. The only way to access that car when they need it is to own one."

Owners list their cars on the RelayRides website. The cars generally are no older than 10 years old and have fewer than 80,000 miles. Registered renters select a car they would like to use, make a reservation and pick up the car and the key from owners in person or through a lock box.

The starting price for RelayRides rentals is $5 per hour and includes gas, 20 miles of driving and insurance. RelayRides keeps 35% of the rental cost. The remaining 65% goes to the car owner. Monthly payments, which average $250, are sent to owners.

Nationally, 260 million cars are registered in the United States, according to Clark. Still, fewer than 1 million people use car sharing. That may change in the next few months when RelayRides partners with General Motors. The manufacturer has 6 million OnStar subscribers, whose cars will be available for rental through RelayRides and can be unlocked by smartphone.

"Urban mobility solutions are a vital building block of the future success of GM," said Steve Girsky, General Motors' vice chairman. "Peer to peer concepts such as RelayRides in combination with OnStar's technology delivers against this target. We could stand on the sidelines and watch or we could choose to participate and try to make it into a favorable business model, which in this particular case, we have."

Already, Ford has partnered with the car-sharing service Zipcar, which has its own cars from which members choose. Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW have also launched their own car-sharing services. Last week, Hertz expanded its global car-sharing service, which rents cars hourly. Jupiter Motorcycle Rentals in New York City also launched MotoShare, a motorcycle-sharing service.

Clark was inspired to start RelayRides after experimenting with Zipcar and deciding some customers might want easier access to vehicles that were close on short notice. "The answer to the lack of access to cars was not more cars," he said. "We needed better access."


Got a car? Personal car sharing comes to California

LivingHomes C6 and the promise of affordable prefab

EnergyGlass: Windows that make solar electricity

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: RelayRides founder Shelby Clark drives a Mini Cooper available for sharing in Boston. Credit: RelayRides.

Santa Monica, Costa Mesa try to reduce junk mail [Updated]

MailtruckAllenSchabenFour Southern California areas have joined Chicago, Seattle and a growing roster of other cities working with Catalog Choice to cut the junk from residents' mail. Last week Santa Monica, Redlands and areas served by the Costa Mesa Sanitation District partnered with the Berkeley-based junk-mail opt-out service to help residents stop unwanted catalogs, phone books, coupons, circulars, credit card offers and other unsolicited mail before it's sent. Pasadena will launch in April. [Updated Feb. 16, 2012, 2:15 p.m.: The original version of this post said Pasadena's partnership with Catalog Choice launched last week.]

Each city was given a dedicated website to connect residents to the Catalog Choice program. Such links have more than doubled junk mail opt-outs in Berkeley; Santa Fe, N.M.; Brookline, Mass.; and other cities where the program has been in place since launching last year, according to Catalog Choice founder Chuck Teller.

"The participation rate is what we're trying to drive," Teller said. In the slogan "reduce, reuse, recycle, reduce," he said, "reduce is the Holy Grail. Recycling is not good enough because it costs a lot of energy and it doesn't all get recycled."

Each household that stops junk mail can save a city $10 in disposal costs annually, Teller said.

Since Santa Monica added a link to the junk mail opt-out service to its website on Feb. 6, 83 of its 89,000 residents have signed up. That may sound insignificant, but "it's about 1,500 pounds of paper that we have saved in just those 83 residents," said Kim Braun, resource recovery and recycling manager for the city of Santa Monica.


New service stops junk mail before it's sent

Time to refuse unwanted, unrecycled phone books?

The Garbage Maven's goal: A kids' party with no trash

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: A U.S. Postal Service truck delivers mail. Four Southern California areas are working with Catalog Choice to cut the junk from residents' mail. Credit: Allen Schaben / Los Angeles Times

EnergyGlass: Windows that make solar electricity

EnergyGlassHouse1Almost 90% of electricity generated from the sun comes courtesy of roof-mounted panels made with silicon, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. But new technology using clear glass offers another option.

EnergyGlass, based in Riviera Beach, Fla., sandwiches a sheet of polycarbonate laminate infused with nanoparticles between two pieces of optically clear glass. When it comes into contact with various types of light, the light is directed to the pane's perimeter, where it's converted into electricity in the frame of a window or door.

The glass can convert sunlight, ambient light and artificial light into electricity, according to Saf-Glas, a 15-year-old manufacturer of bullet- and blast-resistant safety glass. The company introduced EnergyGlass last year for commercial projects, such as high-rise office buildings and hotels, that are already using significant amounts of clear plate glass.

Vertically mounted EnergyGlass generates about a third as much power per square foot as traditional photovoltaics, the company said. The advantage of EnergyGlass is that it generates electricity in spaces that otherwise wouldn't.

"Architects and designers and construction managers can use this like any other piece of glass. We can make this any size or shape, and it goes where regular glass would've gone anyway," said Steve Coonen, EnergyGlass chief technology officer. "We're taking advantage of the cost of the glass already going in and the labor to put it in. You don't need a rack to hold the solar panels because it's already part of the building."

The technology used in EnergyGlass is known as a luminescent concentrator, so called because "small particles in the glass absorb the light and reluminesce," said Sarah Kurtz, a spokeswoman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Kurtz said the efficiency of luminiscent concentrators still has a ways to go before they are as efficient as silicon and cadmium telluride photovoltaics. It's a "difficult technology" that will take a few years to develop to become cost effective, she said, but "if you can take light that would otherwise result in heat load from the building and turn that into electricity, that's a win-win for everybody."

Coonen said a 30% federal tax credit and the fact that EnergyGlass simply substitutes for another type of glass make the product competitive in price to standard rooftop photovoltaics. So far, the company has installed the glass in two buildings: a government building in Taiwan and an office building in Delray Beach, Fla. A few other projects are slated for completion in South Florida.


Thin-film solar panels

Solar Decathlon moves to Orange County in 2013

Residential solar power in California still a hot topic

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: A buildling in Taiwan outfitted with electricity-generating EnergyGlass. Credit: Saf-Glas.

Solar Decathlon will move to Orange County in 2013

The U.S. Department of Energy's worldwide competition to build solar-powered, highly energy-efficient homes will move to Orange County in 2013. The biennial Solar Decathlon had been held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., since its inception in 2002. 

"We wanted to find a way to extend the competition’s reach beyond D.C. and showcase energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies across the country," DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said. By moving it to Orange County Great Park, in Irvine, "we’ll be able to reach millions of Southern Californians and demonstrate for a new audience the benefits that come with energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies."

The DOE selected Orange County Great Park through a national competition. The site was chosen for its ability to accommodate 20 houses, its visitor parking and easy freeway access, as well as favorable weather conditions.

"California has been at the forefront in leading America toward a clean energy future, developing and showcasing energy efficiency and renewable technologies like solar energy for many years," Stutsman said. "We’re excited to have the state once again play a role in building an American clean energy future that will create new jobs and help America to compete in the global clean energy race.”

For the Solar Decathlon, 20 teams from colleges and universities across the United States and the world spend two years designing, constructing and testing home designs that combine affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence, according to the DOE.

The announcement about the Solar Decathlon's move to Southern California in 2013 came on the same day that the DOE announced that three universities from Southern California had been selected to compete, including the Southern California Institute of Architecture, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California. In 2011, Caltech and SCI-Arc competed as a single team -- the first time a So Cal entry had been accepted in the Solar Decathlon. SCI-Arc and Caltech will collaborate again for the 2013 competition.


2011 Solar Decathlon photos

Designs on energy efficiency

California team leads way in Solar Decathlon

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: A rendering of 2013 Solar Decathlon Solar Village at Orange County Great Park. Credit: Orange County Great Park Corp.


New baby monitors stream video, connect via Wi-Fi

Ibaby monitor

The cry has been heard: After 30 years with little change to baby monitoring devices, new designs premiered this month at the Consumer Electronics Show promising Wi-Fi connectivity and high-definition video that streams live to a smartphone.

Some new monitors will have two-way audio, allowing parents to whisper comforting words in their baby’s ear without stepping foot in the room. Other monitors will text messages when a baby starts to cry, and still others will allow parents to shift the camera's view up, down and around the room remotely, using an iPad.

The next generation of technology represents a leap from most of today's monitors, which consist of a radio transmitter equipped with a microphone in the baby’s room, and a receiver in another room, often no more than 1,000 feet away. When the baby stirs, or coos, or cries, mom and dad can hear and decide whether or not to intervene.

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