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Tuesday, September 30 2014 @ 06:49 AM PDT

Electricly Heated Home??? How about Computer Heated?

Computers in UseI was talking to a friend and fellow work-at-home computer consultant, Tom, who lives quite a way outside of town - so far that he uses a wood stove for heat in Winter and until recently was reliant on a satellite internet feed for his software business.

While diagnosing a problem with his connection to my e-mail service, we got to talking about computer hardware in general, and he commented that his newest machine put out a lot of heat (dual Xeon); to which I quipped that this meant he didn't have to stoke his wood-stove quite so much in the Winter. This lead to my observation that since my run in with our local electrical inspectors over whether or not I had a grow-op here in the house (I use a lot more electricity to power the computers here than the typical family home) my tax adviser and friend David Ingram says I should be deducting 2/3 of my electricity bill instead of the square-footage pro-rated amount I've been deducting (about 20%), and that had relevance to Tom too.

One thing lead to another, and we got to thinking that, since Tom's cabin also has electric heat, that there might be an opportunity here to increase the amount of deduction by making computers do ALL the electric heating when necessary.

Hmmm... if you had as many old computers around your place as I do, you could simply plug them into a mechanical thermostat that caused them to boot up when you needed heat, "yeah - and if they came up on the net you could donate the CPU cycles to Folding@home or SETI@home, or if you really wanted to make sure the power was tax deductible, sell them to one of the new businesses looking for cycles such as CPUSHARE."

So here's our thinking - for all of those homes (and businesses too) out there that are electrically heated, we can kill 2 birds with one stone so to speak. First, we can make some use of the electrical power before it ends up as heat by powering CPUs doing as much work as possible. Remember that it does not matter what provides the resistance to the electricity that makes heat, whether it be a bit of niobium wire in a stove, tungsten in a light bulb, nichrome in a heater, or silicon in a CPU chip - the same amount of heat comes out eventually for the amount of power that goes in. 200 Watts is 200 Watts (typical max power for an older computer) and 10 of them is the same as 2000 Watts of electrical heater.

And the second "bird" is a use for all those old computers sitting around out there - instead of breaking them up or putting them into land fills, we can get some more use out of them as heaters and get the CPU cycles too - all in the name of a good cause.
The devil is in the details so to speak, and we're just at the beginning of this idea, but here goes.

Tax and Environmental implications make this Practical

Much of the press recently has been about "greening" our use of computers. Data centers are projected to use upwards of 20% of the total electric capacity of North America over the next few years - an amount that is truly staggering. On the other hand, use of power to heat a home is also a major amount of total electricity used - and that electricity use does not get any other "work" done to offset its cost. The work that electricity can do while it slides on its inevitable way toward becoming heat is what makes data centers, machine shops, welding, and other industrial uses of electricity cost effective and tax deductible. If you do no work with your electricity but just use it to heat your home, there is no opportunity to offset its cost with income or write off the cost against income.

But if you use electricity to do something useful while it is being converted to heat, and you can make money from what it does, then its cost is deductible against the income you earn. Along the way, you may also reap other benefits but that's a story for my friend David, the Taxman (see the section on how to make your mortgage tax deductible).

In essence, anyone can be the "proprietor" of a business, even if you earn most of your living working for someone else. As a proprietor (not an incorporated business - this does not work if the business is incorporated) you have complete discretion over how you work the finances of your business. You can for example, borrow money, the interest for which is tax deductible, (using the equity in your home as collateral) to pay all the capital and operating expenses of the business, and take all the gross income and pay off the mortgage you got originally to finance the home's purchase which was not tax deductible. You end up with a mortgage that is tax deductible, thereby saving you the marginal cost of the interest you pay. It can get a bit complex, and at least one book has been written about this - so do your homework if you want to go there.

So... to the details of how to do it - why to do it should now be relatively obvious - it will save you money and help save the planet - and maybe save your life by being part of a project that cures whatever ails you.

I'll note here that this article is mostly aimed at people whose home is already electrically heated as the use of different "heaters" (the CPUs) will not affect the overall total amount of electricity used, just what uses it. This project can also be used in a home that is heated by fossil fuel - Tom's using wood, I use natural gas. The ecologic gain would be in efficiency in most areas (big users of fossil fuel generating electricity tend to be more efficient than small ones like home use) but here in BC it is almost a 100% move away from fossil fuel as most of our electricity comes from hydro dams - the greenest source so far.

The project also works best if you have need of heat. I doubt that people in the lower US states, Mexico or other warm climates will see much benefit - but you might think of cooling by absorption - a project for another day.

The hardware

The computer needs a BIOS (or other trick) that will cause it to power up when the electricity is turned on to it. Most new machines have this setting but if I recall correctly the way to do it with older ones was to put a jumper across the connection to the front-panel power switch so the system thought the switch was always "pushed". Since we're going to be using an operating system that is read only, we don't have to worry if/when the power is turned off because we won't lose anything.

There's no need for a hard drive as long as the system will boot from the CD drive - and today's bootable Linux distros will run on almost anything you're likely to have around from the past 10+ years or so. Many of the latest distros like Fedora Core (FC9) have all the tools necessary to make a custom bootable CD/DVD with your own programs on it. I'll look into making one with the stuff for one or more of the CPU share projects as soon as I get a FC9 system up and running.

The computer should have enough memory that the operating system, project software, and transient data will all fit in without the system needing to go to the CD all the time. I don't know exactly (yet) what this is but I'm guessing that it will be at least 256Megs. I'll see how low I can get this when I build the boot CD. If I were to use "embedded" Linux I expect this could be less than 100Megs but we'll see. Of course an option is to burn it onto a flash thumb-drive if the system will boot off of one.

The thermostat must be able to directly carry the load of the computer(s) plugged into it. Either that or you'll need to do some fancy stuff with such items as X-10 controllers and such (I have a bunch of them I've accumulated over the years - and have used the appliance modules to control computers remotely in several applications.) A quick search, "mechanical thermostats" brought up several manufacturers of them - and the prices are not out of line - as low as about $30 for one I saw. For $60 you can get a Honeywell that will handle a full 15 Amp circuit (1500+ Watts or about 10 typical computers.) This type of control would require a bit of wiring - what I'd really like to find is one that is already wired to plug into an outlet - and that can have a power bar plugged into it. You'll need one thermostat for each "zone" you want to put computers into. If you're going to wire one of these up yourself, don't forget to use heavy enough wire for the total current you're expecting to use. A typical full 15 amp circuit's current would need at least 14 gauge wire for the cables between wall and thermostat and thermostat to power bar/splitter.

 

Where to put the "heaters"

I've been running many of the disk servers I have here in the house down in my furnace room for a couple of reasons:
1 - they make a bit of noise with their fans and drives, and that room is out of the way enough that the noise is not a problem, and
2 - the furnace has a cold air intake in the room so the heat ends up in the house anyway - lowering my gas bill.
Now from a green point of view, any lowering of other energy use if you're already creating lots of heat from computers is a good thing. If I had all the systems in my office or work room, the heat would end up being wasted by either having to run an air conditioner (more energy lost) or by running fans to push the heat outside (as I already do for just the workstations in my office)

But... my home is heated by a central gas furnace - electrically heated homes typically have heaters in each room.

If your house/apartment is already electrically heated, and the computers we're talking about only come on when the electric heat would otherwise come on, then there is no waste - only gain (in productive use of the otherwise wasted potential)

So the trick will be to find one or more places where one or several computers can sit unobtrusively all the time throughout the home, and kick in to provide heat when needed. The two other tricks will be to provide safe power to these extra computers along with a connection to the internet, and to position and set the necessary thermostat to turn them on just before the regular heaters would come on.

Now before you do anything or follow any advice here, you should know that I'm not a licensed electrician, and that you should consult with one before doing any wiring modifications or taking this project too far beyond a couple of old computers scattered throughout the house.

On the other hand, from my experience pre-wiring homes for telephone, cable and other "low-voltage" services, and my general background and curiosity about anything electrical, I'll note that the typical electrically heated dwelling I've seen (around the Vancouver, BC area mostly) tends to have enough capacity that plugging in a few computers around the place should not cause any problem - and since the heat from the computers will mean that the overall use of the "normal" heaters will be less by the same amount than the computers provide, there should be no change in the actual amount of electricity used overall. Electricity in = heat out, not matter how it is converted.

I'm sure you can find places to put computers - you might even work them into the furniture (a pair of matching towers with plate glass between them might make an interesting side table - or one at each side of the bed for night stands - be creative. Note also that you can (and maybe should) paint the cases. I recall one of those "insight moments" from science class back in my youth when the teacher asked "if black radiates heat better than other colors, why are the radiators in this classroom painted silver?"

The answer is "because it looks better" - esthetics wins every time - but don't neglect thinking about heat (and black) if you can get your other half to buy into it. A black case may mean the difference between silence and having a fan running with its noise.

This brings up the question of noise, fans, etc. The typical electric baseboard heater is quiet (well, aside from the mechanical "clicking" from metal expansion that is) where computers have fans and make noise. Well, the biggest noise makers in the computer are typically the hard drives - and unless you actually need one to boot from, you can probably take them out or disconnect them (which lowers the amount of heat you'll get from the machine but that's again another story) - and you can probably either run the system with only the CPU and power supply fans on, or re-wire the chassis fans to run off the 5 Volt supply instead of the 12 Volts they typically run from. Again, this may mean a bit of wiring but in true "information society" fashion, a search "run fans from 5 volts" shows up a site to tell you how to do this.

You might want to run the system with an indoor/outdoor thermometer (but you could use a cheap plastic one if that's all you have) in it to test how hot the interior gets with/without fans. Note that the only consideration you really have is whether the CPU and other electronics get so hot they fail. All heat is in reality "good" heat in this project as it will eventually find its way to heat your home. Note that painting the INSIDE of the case black will help with its passing the heat to the outside.

 

Setting up the network

All these new (old) computers in your home need access to the internet so they can sell/donate their cycles. How you hook them up may be as much a matter of esthetics as was the decision on whether to paint them black, but here are a few ideas you should keep in mind.

The first thing to understand is that the actual amount of network bandwidth these system will use is fairly minimal. If you have several in a room you can wire them together with almost any old Ethernet hub/switch. In fact, you may want to wire all of these heater/computers in a slow-speed network completely separate from your main network - right back to the modem. If you have an old hardware firewall kicking around, you can even use it to completely separate these on-demand boxes from your regular network if your ISP allows more than a single "outside" address on your account.

I've seen 10 Mbps hubs and old firewalls at garage sales for a dollar - sometimes less. This is not a significant cost.

The Ethernet switch for any group of computers can and should also be hooked to the thermostat - no need to have it plugged in all the time unless there is data from some other room/use flowing no matter what the temperature. The Ethernet hub/switch will power up in plenty of time to allow the computers to get an address from the firewall. Of course the firewall does need to be on all the time as you never know when one of the thermostats will kick in and a computer will need to see the outside net.

Of course you can also use wireless - either to each of the computers directly, or from a wireless access point in each room to the central modem site. Note here that you probably don't want to use the same wireless system you use for your "real" computers unless you ensure that all the wireless links are up to the same standard. If you use older WIFI equipment that is 802.11b (11 Mbps) in with your new 802.11g (54Mbps) the older stuff will make the new stuff "fall back" to the slower speed. If you do use wireless in a situation where you have new and old stuff, make sure that the older system is forced to use a channel that is different from the newer one and that both use different "SID" names so they don't try to talk to each other. You probably will want to put encryption on too - just to keep people from stealing your ISP bandwidth if nothing else - there certainly won't be any "interesting" data on the link to worry about. I leave that part of it up to you but there are lots of sites that will help you with the setup if necessary.

Again, I've seen lots of the older 802.11b wireless hardware at garage sales for next to nothing.

 

How and Where to set the Thermostat

OK - so you have a half-dozen computers in your bedroom disguised variously as bedside tables and shelving units. You've wired up the thermostat and plugged them all in. How do you take advantage of them in the best way?

Most electrically heated homes have their thermostats at light-switch level - 3-4 feet off the ground, away from the actual heaters and typically by the door. The heaters are typically under a window (which is where the cold air mostly comes from) or behind the bed along the wall.

Your new computer/heater thermostat is not mounted in the wall, it is likely on a piece of (heavy) cable, plugged into a wall outlet somewhere - so it's likely near the floor. This is actually a good thing - as the floor is where the cold air accumulates. What this means is that even if you set your new thermostat to exactly the same temperature as the built-in one, the new one will likely kick in before the original simply because it is near the floor where the cold air gathers.
You want these systems to come on before the main heaters kick in. You may need to set your main thermostat a bit lower  than normal so it kicks in only when the temperature drops below what the computer/heaters can handle, and you may want to play around with this a bit as you get some usage history.

 

Conclusion

Business use of heat producing technologies means that the cost of the power needed can be offset against the income to the business. Computers that do work, generate heat - and if the heat produced lowers the need to otherwise pay for heating (out of your after tax dollars) then you're ahead of the game.

Even if you don't take advantage of the potential for income and tax write-offs, using old computers and donating their CPU cycles to worthy efforts while reducing direct use of otherwise non-working electricity for heat is a "good thing." Keeping these same computers out of the land fills is even better.

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