New Work Computer

February 23rd, 2013 1 comment

Several years ago I wrote about making a transition to the Mac world with a 13″ MacBook. That was my main computer for several years. Back in 2009 when I first got it I wrote about a whole host of things I hated about the Mac. Like the fact that there was no decent enterprise e-mail client. That the ‘DEL’ key on a Mac is really a ‘BACKSPACE’ key. That the ‘COMMAND’ key is ridiculous. Most of what I wrote is still true. Outlook 2010 for Mac is terrible, so e-mail is still painful on a Mac. It is a pale comparison to its Windows sibling. Visio is still better than OmniGraffle. The only thing that improved is that Office for Mac got VBA functionality so people can write their own functions.

So earlier this year I finally had the chance to replace my work laptop. I opted for a Windows Ultrabook – a Toshiba Portégé Z935 to be precise. And this thing so unbelievably rocks it isn’t even funny. I had the option to get a MacBook Air, but I am totally glad that I didn’t. Being back in the Windows world in my corporate life is so much easier. And I’ve been able to configure this machine to do some really cool stuff.

Like the way I am running an Ubuntu 12.04 virtual machine on an external Western Digital USB hard drive. That’s right – a complete Linux install that runs perfectly on an external (hardware encrypted) hard drive. Running in VMWare Fusion as a guest OS on my Windows 7 machine, this thing kicks butt. I use it primarily as a Python and web development environment, but having the ability to whip up a quick web server doesn’t hurt. I also love writing documents using Restructuredtext as well. It supports multiple monitors and I haven’t had a single hiccup with it’s install on an external drive.

I’ll probably write more about this configuration soon, but for now – it’s awesome.

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My Home Office Phone System – Part 1

December 23rd, 2012 1 comment

I have been fortunate because for most of my career I have been able to work from home whenever necessary to make my life easier. But along with this benefit comes the need to maintain decent connectivity. This includes not only Internet, but also telephone. The Internet part is easy – my Verizon FiOS connection handles that well, along with my home network. But the phone part proved to be a problem. Here’s how I solved it.

The Options

For many people this isn’t a problem at all. Most people working at home do one of two things and then move on with their lives: they either use their cellphone (usually provided by work) or they use their own home phone.

Neither of these options was acceptable for me for reasons I discuss below. So I started looking around for other choices. Here are the criteria by which I evaluated my options.

  1. Must give high-quality voice. No dropped calls, garbled speech, or background noise.
  2. Must have a good quality speakerphone option.
  3. Should be able to handle domestic and international calls.
  4. Should be cheap … i.e. no incremental cost more than ~$10/month.
  5. Should easily accept inbound calls.
  6. Must not interfere with my normal home phone service.
  7. Must allow me to keep my work and personal lives separate.
  8. Should allow the use of a headset/hands-free device if possible.

I realize that these criteria are a mix of hardware and service parameters, but, in the world of phone services, the hardware and service are often tightly intertwined.

Using my list as a guide, I explored these options, more or less in the following order:

  1. Using my work cellphone (an iPhone 3GS)
  2. Using Google Voice on my personal cell phone.
  3. Using Skype
  4. Adding an additional line to my FiOS Digital Voice service.
  5. Other VOIP alternatives.

To cut to the chase, I ultimately settled on building a really robust system based on a 2-line business phone along with VOIP service from VIOP.ms. Here’s how I got there. In later parts I’ll go into detail about how I built what I built.

Early Successes & Failures

Work Cellphone

My work phone is an iPhone 3GS running on AT&T. Don’t tell me I should upgrade it. I despise the iPhone and everything about it and the new 5 isn’t any better in my mind. So I tolerate this thing and use it mostly as a phone. When I want a real smartphone I use my HTC Amaze 4G running Android. The problem with using my work cellphone isn’t the hardware – it’s the service. AT&T has a terrible signal at my house. It works acceptably well if I stay anywhere on the west side of my house or on most of the second floor. But if I try to move around it drops calls way too frequently, and even on a good day I only get 2 bars. So very quickly I ruled out using my cellphone as a reliable source of communication.

This option failed to deliver criterion #1, and so I deemed it unacceptable.

Google Voice on my Personal Cellphone

For a while this worked fine. I gave people my Google Voice number and they could call me on either my personal cell when I was mobile or I could have Google Voice ring through to my home phone when I was working from home. The problem of course is that this completely violated my criterion #7. Basically – I was getting work calls on a number that I also used for personal reasons, and that was unacceptable. So I ditched this method quickly.

Skype

Ahhh Skype. This was very close to a perfect solution. With the right combination of services, and the right hardware, this would have been perfect. I ended up using Skype as a solution for well over a year and it was 99% there.

A basic Skype account, with the addition of a Skype number and an unlimited US & Canada subscription was all I needed to get started. I put the Skype client on my computer, grabbed a headset, and things worked well. I could call people and they could call me. The phone number was separate from anything I used for personal use, so most of my needs were satisfied. The drawback was my work computer. I used a late 2008 vintage 13″ MacBook as a work laptop and even with 4GB of RAM in it, it just didn’t have the horsepower to handle Skype calls while running applications. There were times when calls would be choppy – and I could correlate them to computer use. Not necessarily Internet use, in case you are thinking this was a network issue – but use of the hard drive and other processor functions. It was clearly a computer issue. Just in case it was a network issue, I investigated QoS settings on my router for Skype and discovered that the Skype protocol is notorously difficult to deal with. So QoS by TCP/UDP port numbers is difficult. But – if I could offload the Skype duties to an appliance … then I might be able to fix the problem.

For reasons that I won’t get into, I chose to try a dedicated Skype phone – specifically, the Belkin  F1PP010EN-SK Desktop Phone for Skype. This thing worked great – for me anyway. I don’t think Belkin ever sold that many of them and there were a bunch of complaints online, but I found it really reliable and of good quality. It provided me with three key features:

  1. It used its own dedicated, wired, 10/100 port.
  2. It had a great speakerphone.
  3. It had its own MAC address so I could assign this device to the highest priority queue on my router for great QoS.
I used this phone for about 2 years and I really don’t have too many major complaints. About the only one of my criteria that it didn’t meet was #8 – the wireless/hands-free device, though as I said the speakerphone was good enough. For most people in my situation, this would be my recommendation. Get yourself a Skype appliance and a Skype number and you have a really cheap office phone. Unfortunately for me, I’m not most people.

Additional FiOS Line

One of the things that began to bother me after a while is that I had two phones on my desk. Our normal landline (don’t ask me why I don’t get rid of it – my wife insists we keep it) and a second Skype phone. I found that a pain. And that’s because I’m nuts. The landline was nothing more than a cordless handset that took up no room at all so this is mostly me being an idiot. So I wondered if I could simply add a second line to our normal FiOS service and get a two-line phone for my office and be done with it.

The short answer is yes, you can kind-of add a second number to a FiOS line. Verizon calls it a Virtual Telephone Number. The problem is that it is inbound only. When you call out, your original number (in my case my home number) appears. This is an issue. In today’s world, lots of people I call same my number to their cellphones or whatever and then just hit my name to call me back. In this case they’d be calling my regular home number; a violation of criteria #5 and #7. And it would also disrupt normal service because if I were talking on the phone it wouldn’t be available for others in the house. On many days when I work from home so does my wife, and she needs a working phone too, hence my need for a truly independent second line. So the virtual telephone number was a non-starter. Verizon offers a true second phone line for an additional $9.99 per month, but this requires a truck roll and is not self installable. This isn’t the biggest pain, but still, it seemed like a hassle. So I gave up on that option too.

The Best Solution: VOIP

Obi 100 & Obi 110

Obi100 (left) and Obi110 (right)

In the world of things I could install myself, dedicated VOIP service seemed like the best route. Adding VOIP to your computer via a soft phone seems to me to be much less processor intensive than Skype, because standard SIP-based VOIP services are less resource intensive and the software seems less processor intensive as well. But a softphone wasn’t really what I wanted – I wanted a decent piece of hardware. To make that happen, one typically needs an Analog Telephone Adapter or ATA. These are common enough in the business phone world, but not easy to obtain cheaply in the residential world. Until recently that is. Many people are familiar with Vonage as a VOIP provider and I tried their service years ago. They provided an ATA in the form of a Linksys PAP2 device. This was a great piece of hardware actually made by a company named Sipura which was bought by Cisco. The problem is, companies like Vonage don’t want normal people to know how easy it really is to provide VOIP service and how cheap it could be. You see Vonage is only cheap in comparison to the shakedown that traditional phone companies give you. But there are other VOIP providers out there that, as you will shortly see, are much cheaper still. So companies like Vonage want to lock you into their service and they therefore added firmware to the PAP2 device that prevents it from ever being used on a competitor’s service. I don’t really have a problem with this – if that’s how Vonage wants to do business. What I do have a serious problem with is when two companies, in this case Vonage and Cisco conspire to eliminate consumer choice by joining forces. You see, originally you could buy a locked PAP2 from Vonage or an unlocked one from Sipura/Linksys. And with an unlocked one you could use whatever VOIP provider you wanted. Buy then Cisco bought Sipura/Linksys and they quietly stopped providing unlocked devices to the market. And that really pissed me off, because they made VOIP unreachable for many people until companies like MagicJack finally came along with their own new hardware.

Apparently this also pissed off the original founders of Sipura who left Cisco (a second time actually – they sold two separate ATA manufacturers to Cisco over the years) and founded a company called Obihai Technologies. And Obihai makes a really great set of inexpensive VOIP ATA devices.

What Did I Build

So, what did I ultimately build for myself? Here’s my current system:

 VOIP Service

There are a number of VOIP providers. Common residential/small business ones include CallCentric, Voipo, and Voip.ms. I scoured the forums and ratings at DSLReports.com. After considering the options, I decided on Voip.ms for their combination of features and their “pay-for-what-you-use” billing. This latter point was the clincher for me. In the Voip.ms world, there is no monthly fee (unless you want to maintain a dedicated number, which costs me $0.99 a month). After that you pay for only the minutes you use. Current domestic rates? $0.0125/minute inbound & outbound. That’s a penny and a quarter a minute. How much cheaper is this than a $9.99 additional line? My call records show that for September – November of this year I made 180 calls totaling more than 27 hours of use (27:34:38 to be exact). My usage charges: $11.20. That’s right: $11.20 for three months of phone use. Add the $0.99 for my number and I’m at a whopping $14.20 for three months of home office phone service. And the system satisfies all my criteria. Another killer feature: VOIP works with multiple devices, including softphones on PCs and mobile devices. So now I can take or make business calls from my laptop or my smartphone. Cool.

Hardware

RCA Visys & Cordless Handset

A brief description of my hardware: the Obi100 plugs into a wired Ethernet jack on my desk. It’s analog output becomes “line 1″ of my two-line phone. My normal landline service is plugged into “line 2.” The cordless handset pairs without trouble to the base. The VOIP service provides free voicemail for my business line, along with a bunch of other features like programmable call routing rules and auto-attendant scripts. I can use a real over the ear headset with both the desktop phone and the cordless handset so I have freedom to move around. In fact I have roamed around my yard and walked for 90 minutes straight on nice days during conference calls, just strolling around my property.

One additional feature of the Obi devices – they connect to Google Voice. So if you are a Google Voice user you can access your account and make calls without having to dial your own number or originate them from the web. For me, I pick up line 1 on my phone, dial “**2″ and dial the number normally. Google voice places the call. And, if I have voicemail on my Google number, my phone blinks it’s message waiting indicator as well.

The Visys gives me great features that would be lacking in my home phone, if I tried to use that, including a good full-duplex speaker phone, a headphone jack with a button to activate it or switch back to the main handset, two lines with independent message indicators, plenty of speed-dial memories, do-not-disturb functions, and more.

Final Word

I’ve been using this setup for about 6 months now and I couldn’t be happier. It does everything I want for almost no cost. The phone sounds as good as anything I’ve ever had in an office, it is totally flexible and reliable, and I have a dedicated business number with working inbound and outbound caller ID. I can even set it up to forward to my office line so that if someone saved my home office number to their speed-dial, they will get me no matter where I am. For me, having one comprehensive device on my desk that does whatever I need is the key. No matter what phone rings, I can answer it, and if my wife and I are home at the same time, I can spend hours on the phone without disturbing her work at all.

For home workers who spend a lot of time on the phone, I recommend this setup.

In future articles I will delve into the details of setup, but for now, happy phoning.

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Wow – I haven’t written anything for a while…

December 23rd, 2012 No comments

But I guess that’s what an intense graduate school schedule can do, along with way too many things happening in life.

I do have a couple of things in the works, including a series of articles on how I build a home-office phone system for when I work at home, as well as some of my experiences working with the Raspberry Pi computer that someone gave me for Christmas. Let’s just say the Pi reminds me why I pushed Linux off my plate some years ago. Managing dependencies for software packages is an absolute nightmare – at least when trying to implement things that people have hacked on their own. As I write this I am 11 hours into a seemingly never-ending marathon of installing missing components just to get one simple program to work. What a nightmare.

Stay tuned for more.

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Runkeeper Activity Merger

September 23rd, 2012 2 comments

If you are a Runkeeper user like I am you have no doubt experienced the frustration of having your mobile device fail during a run, interrupting your recording. Then, if you re-start the app, you end up with two partial records of one single event. Runkeeper (currently at least) has no facilities for merging these activities together in either the mobile or web apps. This sucks if you are actually trying to monitor your training, or are just really anal about your data like I am.

Luckily, other people with far better programming skills than I have created a simple (and free) web app to fix this. Called, simply enough, the “Runkeeper activity merger” (their capitalization scheme – not mine) it essentially allows you to take two exported Runkeeper files and merge them together so that you can upload them as a single event.

I had this problem during a 5-mile run this past weekend, and the app saved my data.

Go to http://zip-zero.com/runkeeper/index.php and follow the simple directions that you can find via the Help link in the top left corner of the page.

Good luck.

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A match made in heaven

September 16th, 2012 No comments

image

So today I had a quick project where I needed to secure a couple of things to the side of my foundation using some Tapcon screws. I would have had to run an extension cord about 150 feet from one side of my house to the other. Instead I just grabbed my little 800 W generator, checked to make sure my drill wouldn’t overpower it, and plugged it in. The specifications plate on the drill says it draws about 800 W peak – just at the top range of the generator. Sure enough, I plugged it in and it all works fine. I drilled 4 holes without having to unroll and wind back up 150 feet of extension cord. And the generator still runs fine. I’m still glad I bought it, and this is exactly the kind of use I had in mind for it.

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Warranties That Work

September 8th, 2012 No comments

Once in a while I give some credit to systems that actually work. Lately I’ve had three companies step up and honor their warranties with no hassles and no questions asked.

The North Face

About 13 or 14 years ago I bought a pair of winter pants from the North Face. I used them a lot over the years – here’s a picture of me snowshoeing them back in 2000. As one would expect from good quality gear, they’ve held up pretty well through numerous hiking adventures, skiing trips, days sledding, and playing in the snow with my daughter.

Then came the NHL Winter Classic of 2010. Or actually the alumni game on New Year’s Day. My wife and I drove to a Green Line (subway) station that would take us to Fenway Park in Boston. Out of the car I went to put on my pants and the leg zipper completely blew apart. This was unacceptable since I was wearing only jeans and it was snowing all day. I was so pissed I crumpled them up and threw them in a puddle under the car. Luckily there is an REI at the Landmark Center, which shares a parking lot with the Fenway Green Line stop near Fenway Park, so I called a friend we were meeting at the game and asked him to go to the store and find a new pair of pants in my size. He did, I got off the train, paid for them, and we were off to the game.

But the cool part is that I grabbed my pants when we got back to the car (and I had calmed down) and washed them when I got home. I went to the North Face webpage and got their warranty information. The warranty begins:

The North Face® products are fully warranted to the original owner against defects in materials and workmanship for the lifetime of the product. If a product ever fails due to a manufacturing defect, even after extended use, we will repair the product, without charge, or replace it, at our discretion.

So I boxed it up and shipped it back. About a week later I received a postcard in the mail acknowledging that they received the package and were evaluating it. Then about 4 weeks after that a box from the North Face appeared. A inside were my pants with a brand new zipper, repaired for free. Awesome.

Thanks North Face – at least someone still makes quality stuff and stands behind it. These things were more than  10 years old and the North Face stepped up for the repair.

Totes Travel Umbrella

I work in the city – in Boston – and I always carry a compact travel umbrella (basically the older model of this umbrella) in my laptop bag (which is currently a Timbuk 2 Command messenger bag). For several years I have carried a Totes flat travel umbrella in case I get caught in an unexpected shower.

Last year I was walking on a wet windy day and a gust of wind collapsed my umbrella. Not the kind of wind that turns it inside out mind you. Rather, I was walking into the wind and a gust so strong came that it literally snapped two of the ribs while pushing the umbrella shut. After I arrived unhappy and wet at work, I went to the Totes/Isotoner web page and found their warranty information. Following the instructions I popped the broken umbrella into a box, included a $5 money order, and mailed it to Ohio (my office shares a building with a Post Office so mailing it and getting a money order meant I didn’t even have to go back outside in the rain).

About 3 weeks later a box arrived at my house with a brand new umbrella in it. Amazing. Thanks Totes for stepping up and backing your product.

Mountain Hardwear Synchro

The Mountain Hardwear Synchro soft shell jacket

Mountain Hardwear Synchro Soft Shell Jacket

My normal commute to work involves waiting on an uncovered train platform in Central Massachusetts for between 5 and 50 minutes (mostly due to the unreliable service from the MBTA Commuter Rail). Then I ride a train for 90 minutes, followed by a 1.5 mile walk from South Station to my office across Boston. In the winter this can mean a variety of temperatures and conditions, from sub 10 degrees on the train platform, to the train cars where the heat has only two possible settings: “off” and “blast furnace.” My walk is usually warmer, since Boston averages 5 to 10 degrees warmer in winter than the town where I live, and I arrive there later in the morning. Add in the seasonal temperatures and my point is that I need an effective layering system to remain comfortable throughout the fall, winter, and early spring. So in 2009 I bought a Mountain Hardwear Synchro soft-shell jacket to wear as my daily outer layer. (It has since been discontinued, more or less replaced by the G50 jacket.)

I really love this jacket, and for the last two and a half years I’ve probably worn it 100 to 120 days a year. It gets crumpled up and draped over my bag in the floor of trains, and stuffed into overhead racks. I’ve worn it in the rain and the snow and the wind, and carried backpacks or messenger bags every day. And it has performed absolutely fabulously. Washed once or twice a season, and refreshed with Nikwax, it seemed nearly indestructible. It’s my second favorite jacket in the world, behind only my North Face Mountain Guide shell that I bought back in 2000 and reviewed on Hike-NH.com (in fact I am wearing the Mountain Guide shell in the snowshoeing picture above).

But towards the end of last winter the right lower pocket zipper started separating from the jacket. Not at the end, but right in the middle. This jacket was built a bit odd – the zippers are covered with a rubberized membrane for waterproofing, so the zippers don’t seem to be stitched in the normal manner. I kind of forgot about it until now, but I decided I should get it fixed. So I followed the instructions on the Mountain Hardwear page and called for an RA number. A nice lady took my information and I dropped the jacket off at UPS. Mountain Hardwear’s warranty says:

 Mountain Hardwear also provides a limited lifetime warranty, to the original owner, on all products against defects in materials or workmanship. All defective or damaged products should be returned to us for evaluation and will be repaired or replaced at our discretion. Rips, burns, tears, and damages due to accident, normal wear and tear, improper care, mis-use or the natural breakdown of colors and materials over time are not covered by warranty, but can be repaired for a nominal fee at Mountain Hardwear’s discretion.

I just hope they follow it. Given the way that the North Face and Totes stepped up, they have a couple of great examples to live up to. I’ll keep this post updated.

In fact, Mountain Hardwear stepped up quickly. 20 days after I mailed this, an envelope was waiting by my side door with a Mountain Hardwear logo on it. And sure enough, my freshly repaired jacket was inside, good as new, done at no charge.

So there you have it…

Three companies who stood up for their products and fixed them no questions asked. I didn’t expect that in this day and age. Maybe I should have.

Thank you to:

You’ve earned my respect.

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Categories: Rants Tags: , , ,

Giving the Harbor Freight 800 W Generator a Workout

August 12th, 2012 No comments

In my original post about this little generator, I mentioned that I was going to hook it up to my Bradley Smoker and see if the pair worked well together. I’ll cut to the chase: they do.

Two friends and I headed to the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH for the Honda Indy 200 over the weekend of August 4th and 5th. It was a fantastic weekend of racing. But I figured that slow-smoked ribs would be the perfect meal, since I could just set up my smoker near our RV and leave it for 5 hours. The plan worked perfectly.

The generator runs the smoker perfectly.

The Harbor Freight 800 W Generator Powering a Bradley Smoker

Right around noon on Saturday I set up the smoker for ribs (12 hickory bisquettes – 4 hours of smoke – followed by my 3 aluminum spacer pucks, oven at 230° F, timer set for 5 hours. I filled the little generator with gas, as much as I could fit into it, and fired it up. At this point it was running the original Bonon spark plug that it came with (#F5TC) because I only had the generator for a couple of days prior to the trip and didn’t have time to replace it. (As a side note – if you Google “Bonon spark plug” you get pretty much nothing except hits about this generator and how people replace this plug with something decent, so who the hell knows how good a Bonon spark plug is.) With the original plug, the generator idled pretty rough but started and ran decently. (I have since replaced it with an Autolite #64 plug from my local Auto Zone store. Others have reported good luck with an NGK #BP5ES plug.) I let it run for about 5 minutes, then switched on the 500 Watt draw of the main Bradley heater. The generator adjusted to the load quickly. At this point I grabbed my Fluke DVM amd took a voltage reading: 110.5 V AC. Great. The frequency was holding steady at 60.2 Hz also. Perfect. I gave the generator a minute or two to get used to the new load and then switched on the additional 150 Watt load of the smoker. Again it took a second to adjust but stabilized again at 110.5 V and 60.2 Hz.

Then I walked away. With my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t come back to two racks of raw ribs because the second generator had seized up like my first one did. My friends and I took off to walk the paddock at the race for the next four-plus hours. The manual claimed that the generator would run for approximately 5 hours on a full tank at 50% (400 W) load. Since I was running at 75% load when the heaters were both on (and only ~17% when the main heater cycled off) I knew it would be less than that. But not sure how much less.

When we came back to the RV 5 hours later I was proven correct – the generator was off and the tank was dry. But the smoker was still holding 210° F, which means that it probably hadn’t been off for long. Maybe 30 minutes was my guess. So I  unplugged everything, refueled, and it started back up on the second pull. I restarted the smoker and let it get the final 45 minutes if smoking in. I noticed no ill effects from letting the generator stop under load.

The ribs were fantastic. And so was this little generator. After my initial failure, this one has probably 12 to 15 hours on it now and it seems to be doing fine. I just fired it up today after replacing the spark plug and it even seems to idle more smoothly now.

So, my initial impressions are still favorable. This little generator seems to be an awesome little tool and has been surprisingly reliable. Hopefully I’ll have more favorable updates in the coming months

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Categories: Tools Tags: ,

What Can You Do With 800 Watts?

August 1st, 2012 No comments

If you’re wondering what someone could possibly run with only 800 Watts from my new little Harbor Freight generator, let me just point out the following little facts.

On a Bradley Digital Smoker, the main heating element is 500 Watts. The smoker element is 150 Watts. Hmmmm. Since 650 W < 800 W, well, I’ll let you figure it out. While I’m eating slow smoked spareribs while camping at the Mid Ohio Sports Course this weekend.

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Harbor Freight 800 Watt Generator

July 21st, 2012 No comments

Harbor Freight 800 Watt Generator

I needed a small generator for an upcoming camping trip. And my every other day Harbor Freight sales e-mail arrived in my inbox. So I took the plunge on this popular little generator. The first one didn’t work out so well (ahhh, Harbor Freight, you never fail to fail). But the second one seems to be working. Read all about it – I gave the generator its own review page here.

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New Weather Station

June 4th, 2012 No comments
Davis Vantage Pro 2

Davis Vantage Pro 2

After more than 10 years of wanting one, I finally replaced my old weather station with a new Davis Vantage Pro 2 system. For the last 6 years I had been running an Oregon Scientific WMR968 system, with some success, until the anemometer and barometer both decided to die in April. Rather than spend a couple hundred dollars for new parts I put together some money from a couple of sources and splurged on the ultimate weather geek gift.

I just got everything working a couple of evenings ago and am excited that everything is back up and running.

I’ve created a new page on this site which aggregates weather forecast information for my local community, and I’ve posted details about my station on it’s own page.

Check them out.

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