Archive for the ‘Nice products’ Category

Sears Craftsman C3 tools work well (only) with Lithium

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

I’ve been using many of the Sears Craftsman 19.2V C3 series of battery-powered tools for several years now, and have been quite pleased with their performance.

Unfortunately, they generally come with NiMH battery packs, and those I find less than useless (i.e., more trouble than they are worth). For my kind of intermittent use, those packs are usually flat or nearly so when I go to do something, and they seem to have a very short useful life. Sears ought to discontinue them, in my opinion, because they bring disrepute to the whole tool family.

But the big (now middle-sized) Lithium battery packs are great! They hold their charge for very long times, and hold enough energy to do serious work on each charge. I haven’t tried the small Lithium battery packs that Sears now includes with some of the tools–they don’t seem enough cheaper or lighter to be worth the bother. And I’ve just purchased a couple of the new extra capacity 4AH XCP series, but have no experience with them yet. At present, those are selling for the price they used to charge for the big packs.

Over the years, they have had a number of sales of the big Li packs with fast chargers for $89, so I’ve accumulated a bunch. They really have been the key to making the tools useful. Only one battery has failed, and it was covered by the warranty–I rarely purchase the extended warranty for anything, but in this case it was given me as part of an exchange/replacement. I had to struggle to get the promised actual replacement, though–Sears wanted to give me a credit for the (sale) price I’d originally paid, which was not enough to purchase the promised replacement anymore. But I complained and eventually the manager sold me the replacement for that exact amount, so I was satisfied.

The tiny hand vac, 315.115710, is a bit marginal. I think the airflow is just too limited, but they do work. The sound is awfully shrill, though. But I prefer them to my previous hand vacs just because the battery system is compatible with my C3 tools.

A bit bigger and more friendly and effective is the portable wet/dry “canister” vac in this family, 315.175980. It hasn’t always been available to buy, but I now have two of them. I find these quite useful for vacuuming floor edges and corners, webs from ceilings and skylights, occasional localized messes.

I find the inflator, 315.115860, handy for car and bike tires, even though I have an air compressor.

The radio, 315.101260, was a disappointment. It runs the battery down in less than a day’s work. It looks like it has an incandescent bulb to light the dial, which might explain it. Probably they figured the battery was huge so they didn’t have to care about efficiency, but the result is I use a smaller battery-powered (3 AA) radio, which runs for weeks.

The drills are really strong and rugged. A big surprise for me was the impact driver, which I didn’t buy for a long time, figuring the drills were good enough for driving screws and lag bolts. But a construction guy suggested I try one, and now I use it all the time. It is really a lot better for driving screws (or removing them), using its impacts for the hard going part and turning very fast when the going is easy.

I wish they’d add an oscillating tool (like the famous Fein Multimaster) to the family. They have one in the 12v NexTec line, which is very useful, but not as rugged as I’d like. I’ve had trouble with the battery-retaining system, perhaps wearing due to the extended vibration or perhaps softening due to heat, but some battery packs don’t want to stay in by themselves now. The NexTec series are quite usable, but you really have to have extra batteries ready for swapping if you’re going to do serious work with them. I wish the NexTec and Dremel Li batteries were interchangeable. Both are good, and very similar, but it’s not efficient to have separate spares and chargers for both systems.

I’ve also found the NexTec electric hammer useful for odd situations, cramped working areas, etc. It’s awfully noisy, but effective.

Nice refrigerator

Monday, November 5th, 2012

A couple years ago my wife and I got tired of our Side-by-Side fridge, because the small shelves resulted in inconvenient access and/or unusable space. We bought a large Kenmore Elite French-Door model from Sears, model 795.71054.010.

We immediately upgraded one of the shelves by buying a split shelf (as an expensive repair part) from the next higher model, a good choice, so we could handle tall items more efficiently.

I was concerned because people had reported problems with the icemaker, but decided to risk it anyway.

The icemaker and water dispenser are in the door of the refrigerator space, not the freezer, so that requires an insulated section in the door and a mechanism to blow freezing air up into that section from the bottom freezer.

That turns out to work well. The one problem that we had was that now and then the ice cubes would stick together and form an arch over the dispenser mechanism, so it couldn’t knock any cubes loose to dispense. The workaround was to open the little door into the ice dispenser section and stir the cubes up with a long spoon or a knife. One clue as to the problemĀ  was that some ice would form on the outer edge of the mechanism (toward the little door), and some water would trickle down and freeze in the little door’s gasket along the bottom.

Eventually the ice maker died, and a new one was sent. The new one is better, in that it never dribbles water where it shouldn’t, and in several months the ice cubes have only arched up and jammed once. I suspect a good practice would be to occasionally use chipped ice, which runs the mechanism in the opposite direction, to help keep the cubes loose.

Installation was a nightmare, but Sears compensated for the trouble by giving us an extended warranty (nice when the ice maker failed). The installers measured our doorways and said the refrigerator was too large, that the wood trim on the doorway would have to be removed. I agreed to do that, and told them to bring the fridge in through the other door (through two rooms). They did that, and by the time they arrived at the kitchen door I had the trim removed. But they said they’d used all the time allotted, and I’d have to get another appointment to finish the installation, and they left. Sears said it would be a week for the new appointment, minimum, which was a big problem, needless to say. We had our food in ice chests for the transition, but not good enough for a week or more!

So I installed it myself. It was awkward for one person, because it had to be lifted 9″ from the family room floor level to the kitchen floor level, and concurrently rotated through the doorway. I maneuvered it onto a strong 3/4″ plywood piece about 4’x5′, and raised that with levers and blocks of wood until it was level and even with the kitchen floor, which made moving the fridge fairly simple since no further lifting was required. Just had to be careful crossing the threshhold and making the turn. So by the end of the evening we had refrigeration again. But the next day I contacted Sears and complained a lot. (The installers had also broken a piece from the door latch–found bits of it where their truck had been parked. So I requested replacement of that as well.) Sears responded by replacing the broken piece, removing the installation charges, and giving us a free extended warranty. Seemed fair enough, though of course I’d have much preferred to just have had the installation done properly.

Anyway, net-net, the fridge has been a significant improvement over our previous side-by-side, and it has mostly worked well, so we’re pleased with it.

It has a new kind of mechanism inside–not a normal rotary compressor. It sounds a little different, but cools well. I suspect the compressor is some kind of acoustic device.

Sprinkler Controller

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

I’m really pleased with a new open-source sprinkler controller I bought. It’s a project of Chris Anderson (who just resigned as editor in chief of Wired magazine) and Ray Wang of Ray’s Hobbies.

It cleanly replaced my old traditional electronic timer controller (12 channels, 24VAC), making it easy to move the wire connections over, and using the existing 24VAC transformer for power. The big virtue of Ray’s controller is that it is network connected, and very versatile. It’s a stand-alone Arduino computer with a small LCD display and a few buttons, with an Ethernet connector that can either connect to your computer system via wire (which I’ve done) or via WiFi (by buying a WiFi access point from whomever).

Now I can see the programs on screen, much easier to check and edit than the old timer system. It’s expandable to 32 channels with little effort, just plug in the expander boxes for groups of 8 channels. In principle it can go even larger, and can be customized in a variety of ways if you like to hack.

Its web interface lets me manually control the sprinklers from my iPhone as I walk around the yard, and I can check on things or change programs from anywhere in the world (I did set up Port Forwarding on my home router, and use a dynamic IP address manager,, to make this happen, but I’d already done that for other purposes so it was little trouble.)

It’s called OpenSprinker, at
For hackers, all the software is available online so you can reprogram it any way you like.

In fact, I expected to do just that. One of the features the system lacked, which I really really wanted, was a log of what watering was actually done over the last week.

But it turned out that Ray designed the system so flexibly that I was able to do everything I wanted just by writing my own web page that kept a log and then formatted it and displayed it the way I liked. I just used PHP and adapted some of Ray’s public JavaScript, and presto–no reprogramming of the Arduino was needed. Nice!

I’ve been very impressed by the quality of Ray’s software and the care he’s put into his hardware design. It’s really great that he’s made these things open source. However, I bought the assembled and tested version, to save time. (I bought the main controller plus one 8-channel expander box, for 16 total.) But it was the open source nature of the system that made me decide to buy it, because that way I know I’m not trapped if I want to make basic changes. It’s so much nicer (and less buggy) than normal commercial products.

Of course, I’ve made my software available too, via Ray’s site.

Someone in Australia already contacted me who has adapted it to his commercial nursery setup!

Update: I had a problem! My wife said the system wasn’t watering part of the garden, and I looked at the logs and said that it was! Eventually I went out to the garden and used my iPhone to turn on the corresponding circuit, and sure enough–no water. So I investigated, and the problem turned out to be that the cable connecting all the sprinkler wiring to the controller had gotten pulled, and about half the circuits were no longer making contact! So, the controller was indeed telling the system to turn on the water, but the wires didn’t carry that info to the valve, so no water arrived.

I fixed the problem by making some little clips that hold the connector onto the controller securely. The better solution for the long run would be to use connectors that have a latching feature.

Of course, this has started a long-term project to measure the moisture in the soil, which could not only detect such failures but could also be useful in figuring out how long one needs to water, which is purely a guess now.