Release the Brewterus!

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I’m a big fan of beer—a really big fan. I’m also a fan of things that I can do myself with a little help from my friends and the Internet. Pat and I recently joined, which is a Plano-area makerspace. One of’ more interesting programs to me is their Brew of the Month program and it was a big reason that convinced me to join the group. Essentially, members of the are invited on a monthly basis to come out and participate in brewing some beer and for a pretty meager fee, members of are welcome to rent equipment and brew their own beer.

Over the past three or four months, we’ve lurked at the Brew of the Month events and partaken of the prior months’ beers as they’ve been kegged and made ready to serve. Having enjoyed observing the process almost as much as I enjoyed its outputs, I knew this was something that I wanted to get involved in. About a month ago, I decided that I’d go hog wild and start down the home-brewing path myself.

To Keg or To Bottle?

This was one of the first questions I asked myself, did I want to bottle my beer or did I want to put it inside a keg? From what I understand, midway through the fermentation process you bottle your beer. The carbonation happens by putting some sugar in each bottle for the yeast to feed off of. The advantages of bottling seemed to be a lower up-front cost and portability, which meant sharing my beer with others — like my softball team on Friday nights. However, bottling sounded pretty repetitive. With both Pat and I brewing, we’d have up to 10 gallons each month of beer to bottle. The typical beer bottle here in the US is 12 ounces and there are 128 ounces in a gallon, so that’s a total of 1280 ounces each month needing bottling—that’d be over 100 bottles every month!

Kegging on the other hand had its own advantages and disadvantages. If you’re an American then you expect your beers to be served ice cold, which means you’d need to find a way to store and serve them that way. I’ve even been able to experience Oktoberfest in person and drink beer brewed to the German Beer Purity Law in all of its glory. At room temperature it’s wonderful and delicious, but it’s still my preference that beer is served ice cold. I hope I get the chance to brew a beer according to the German Beer Purity law and that beer will definitely be served at room temperature for authenticity’s sake!

The primary problem with this is that kegs are big and there’s not any room in a typical household to keep them cold. This is typically solved by something like Kegerator, which in short is a smaller refrigerator converted to serve kegs of beer from. If you clicked the Kegerator link, it should be apparent what the drawbacks of this approach are: cost and real estate. Eliminating the inconvenience of bottling is an expensive proposition!

Ultimately, I decided that I would keg the beers that we brewed at’ Brew of the Month events. Because variety is “the spice of life,” and because I’m anticipating that I’m not going to be able to drink 10 gallons of beer every month all on my own, my Kegerator was going to need to support more than just 1 or 2 taps like the less-expensive kegerators can handle. Ultimately, I decided my kegerator was going to need to accommodate the following:

  • 4 taps.
    • 3 carbonated for most beers
    • 1 nitrogenated for stouts like Guiness or nitrogenated cold-brew coffee.
  • Each tap capable of running at a unique pressure.
  • Room for at least 4 Cornelius (aka “corny”) Kegs

Of the “off-the-shelf” kegerators I found, I couldn’t find a single one that matched my requirements. And the ones that got close to my requirements were all pretty expensive. Based on their prices and the fact none of the ones I saw met my requirements, I’ve decided that I’ll build my own. Because I made all of these decisions literally the days leading up to my first brew, I spent the weekend researching an ordering parts I’d need to build my kegerator — sure to be a topic of a future blog in the next one or two months!

The Brewterus

My followers on the various social media platforms have probably noticed I’ve been babbling quite a bit about my “Brewterus.” Those of you that haven’t (and probably some that have) are probably asking yourself: “WTF is a Brewterus?” The answer is a bit silly, which is why I like the name so much. The Brewterus is a name for my fermentation chamber, essentially a brew uterus. Once the beer is brewed, I needed to have a temperature-controlled space to ferment the beer. Different recipes call for different temperatures for fermentation which typically takes roughly 3-4 weeks. As I understand it, the different yeasts used in brewing behave differently under different temperatures, and if the recipe calls for it, it’s a requirement to be able to manipulate the temperature at which your brew is fermenting.

Essentially, this means in addition to the kegerator, I’d need a second temperature-controlled space, capable of holding at least two 6.5-gallon containers of fermenting beer. Based on my research (Googling), the temperature-controlled space can be accomplished in a number of ways: swamp coolers, cool basements, via buckets of ice, and temperature-controlled fridges or freezers.

7.1 cu/ft freezer 7.1 cu/ft freezer – in the garage STC-1000 Temperature Controller Parts for the DIY Temperature Controller Testing our Wiring DIY Controller Begins Regulation of Temperature Temperature Logging #1 Temperature Logging #2

Because I couldn’t devote half of the kitchen or living room to brewing, I decided whatever approach I took, it needed to work out in the garage. In the past I’ve set up an air conditioner in my garage, but I doubt very much that it is capable of lowering the temperature of the entire garage down to something that’d allow the beer to ferment. Even if it could, it didn’t make any sense to spend the money cooling my entire garage, especially during the ridiculous summers we have in Texas.

My solution? A 7.1 cu/ft chest freezer that I picked up off of Craigslist. Please note that mine has a different brand name but it is literally identical to the one in this link, the only difference being the name brand, I have a strong hunch that these two freezers likely came off the same assembly line. In addition to that, I built a DIY temperature control which enabled me to set a temperature and maintain it to facilitate fermentation.

DIY Temperature Control Unit

There are some food-grade temperature control units out there like the Johnson Controls Digital Thermostat Control Unit but it felt a little expensive at $70. Especially after I found these blogs (listed below) from other home-brewing enthusiasts who all built their own DIY Temperature Control units. Their DIY temperature control units were both dual stage and cost much less than $40 in parts. Ultimately, I’d need two of these control units (one for the Brewterus and an additional one for the kegerator) so spending as little around $25 per DIY unit wound up saving me almost $100 compared to the other temperature-control units I looked at. Here are the few blogs I found most helpful in building my temperature control unit:

There are a couple differences in my own DIY dual-stage temperature controller from the ones above, but they’re pretty minor:

  1. Instead of modifying a power extension cable and wiring it directly to the STC-1000 to power the device, I bought a power inlet which would work with a PC-power cable. I have lots of PC power cables lying around the house.
  2. Rather than using a standard outlet for the heating/cooling plugs, I used a couple 3-pin power sockets.
  3. Pat is in the process designing and 3D-printing my own custom project box for holding the STC-1000 and various outlets. But while Pat was working on designing and 3D-printing the box, I temporarily used a black project box to hold my prototype.

With the prototype assembled, I hooked the freezer into the cooling side of the STC-1000 on my project box. For the time being, I haven’t put anything in the Brewterus for heating. I expect that the garage will remain warm enough to keep the Brewterus at the programmed temperature.

After that, I wound up filling up a 32oz cup full of sanitized water and submerged the STC-1000’s temperature sensor in that water. I did this because what I’m interested in is the temperature of the beer and not the air in the brewterus. However, I am curious about what the various temperatures are inside the Brewterus, so I also picked up an inexpensive thermometer as well as a temperature logger too. Because the temperature logger did not appear to be water-resistant, I taped it to the side of one of the fermentation buckets and rotated the bucket so that the logger was between both buckets. Because plastic isn’t a great conductor, I expect that the data pulled down by the logger will wind up being a bit warmer than the temperature inside the buckets, but I think it’ll be close enough for me to decide if I need to tweak the temperature setting on the STC-1000 and to also show whether or not I actually need to add a heat source to the Brewterus.

I pulled the temperature logger out of the Brewterus just a couple hours shy of having it in there for 3 days and based on the summary data from the temperature logger, I’m pretty happy how the DIY temperature control unit is performing. According to the recipe of the current beer, I should be fermenting at 54 degrees Fahrenheit for the first two weeks. Per the data logger, the average temperature over those three days was 53.9 degrees Fahrenheit and the raw data was even more exciting:

According to the graphed data, the DIY Temperature Control unit seems to be working as well as I had hoped. Despite many people saying that it’d work just fine, I was concerned that the freezer I purchased would be too cold to control the temperature tightly; I expected that it’d cool far past the point that I set and spend a lot of time warming back up to the correct temperature. These concerns are what led me to buy the temperature logger, but seeing the data that it has spit out has given me quite a bit of peace of mind. Temperatures seem to be hovering right where I have the temperature control unit set at. I’ll probably continue to use the temperature logger to keep an eye on how things are inside the Brewterus and check it on a periodic basis.

Next Up? The Keezer

I really liked the chest freezer I used in the Breweterus, and I discovered that they’re sold at Lowe’s, so I picked one up to use for my kegerator, or more accurately a “keezer.”“ All this week, parts for my keezer have been showing up from Amazon; every day’s been a bit like Christmas! In my upcoming brewing blogs, I’ll talk about the parts I picked, share my thoughts on assembling the keezer, talk about getting the beer into the keg, and finally talk about how well the first few frosty beverages tasted out of the tap!

An assortment of boxes from shipments. All the Keezer parts CO2 and Nitrogen Tanks, Taps, and Clamps Corny Kegs, Secondary CO2 Regulator, and Primary CO2/Nitrogen Regulators Clamps, Taps, Handles, and Tanks Corny Kegs, Gaskets, and Ball Tap Adapters Some Random Homebrew parts and supplies Primary CO2 and Nitrogen Regulators Secondary CO2 Regulator Supplies and Hoses

We Simply Don’t Have Enough Power, Brian!

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Do you know one of the things that’s great about all of these devices that charge via USB? Travelling! A decade ago, anytime I had to travel I was stuck making sure I had a handful of different power supplies packed in order to keep devices charged and all of those power adapters were device-specific. In the current day, considering our number of different devices, I’d need the airlines to allow me to bring a third carry-on item of all my different toys! Thankfully, I can usually get away with a single AC adapter to charge my various devices.

But at home, it’s a bit of a different story. I’ve literally got AC adapters scattered throughout the house: in the bathroom, in the bedroom, next to the couch in the TV room and near the computer. And in some of those places, there are more than one or two adapters capable of charging devices. All of this is fine and dandy, until everybody has a device which needs charging. It’s a bit of a first-world problem, but it’s a modern inconvenience nonetheless. A few times I’ve wondered out loud to myself: Why hasn’t someone created a power strip for charging USB devices?

The answer to that first-world problem? The gofanco® 7-Port USB Charging Station (specs) — exactly what I had wondered. A 7-port USB power strip for all of your mobile devices. I’d finally be able to charge my iPad Air, Nexus 6, Dexcom G4 CGM, Fitbit Flex and Kindle Paperwhite at exactly the same time without having to use up more than one power outlet. And even then, I’d have two spare ports for any of Julia’s devices or for any visitor.

I recognized the goFanco brand from an adapter that I needed for my QNIX 2710 monitors. My positive experience with that device encouraged me to go ahead and give the 7-Port USB Charging Station a try after seeing that it was priced extremely competitively with similar products I found on Amazon. On top of ordering the gofanco® 7-Port USB Charging Station, I purchased six 6 inch Micro USB cables and an AmazonBasics 4” Apple Certified USB-to Lighting cable. The AmazonBasics 4” Lightning cable wound up being a bit too short to reach the tablet and I remembered that my glucometer charges via plugging directly into a USB port, so I also bought a couple Mediabridge USB 2.0 – USB Extension cables to allow me to charge those two devices. I decided on the shorter cables because I didn’t want a bunch of loose USB cables ruining my cable management system that I’d set up earlier this year.

Immediately out of the box, I was most impressed with something unexpected on the gofanco® 7-Port USB Charging Station. It wasn’t the abundance of USB ports, the dedicated power switch, or anything else I found on the product’s specification page — it was rubber! Specifically, the rubber feet on the bottom of the charging station. The rubber kept it in one place on my computer desk; picking up and removing devices from the charging station didn’t cause it to move one bit. Furthermore, that same rubber lines both borders of the stations “slots” to hold your devices, which keeps the devices from sliding when they’re left in the station or accidentally brushed up against.

In the box. Unboxed #1 Unboxed #2 Charging station from the front. Charging station from the side Placed at my desk #1 Placed at my desk #2 Loaded up with 7 devices #1 Loaded up with 7 devices #2 Loaded up with 7 devices #3

Update (9/28/15): Corrected an assumption that I made about the charging unit after gofanco® contacted me, I originally had said that devices like my iPad Air and Nexus 6 could not charge at 2 amps or higher, which was incorrect on my part!

One of the things I especially appreciate about the gofanco® 7-Port USB Charging Station is the fact that it supports charging at 2.1 amps (for theiPad Air) and 2 amps (for the Nexus 6). Based on what gofanco® explained to me earlier today, its Smart IC will allocate the maximum amperage allowed to the devices requesting it. However, it’s also my understanding that it’s not possible to charge 7 different 2.1 amp devices all at once, but as long as the unit isn’t going over its total allowed output of 65 watts it will continue to charge devices at the devices’ maximum capabilities.

Altogether, I’m really pleased with the gofanco® 7-Port USB Charging Station. It’s found a permanent home here on at my computer desk and to me, that’s some pretty valuable real estate. I appreciate having one place to set a device down and charge it up, rather than taking it to any of the dozens of AC adapters or USB ports around the house.

Brian’s 2015 Gaming Rig

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It’s been a very long time since my last computer upgrade, almost three whole years! It’s been long enough since I built that computer that when I finally decided to upgrade, it made more sense to build a new computer than to try and piecemeal upgrade of my existing PC. Based on what I was wanting to do, I thought that it was a bit beyond the capabilities of my old motherboard and CPU to pull off.

On the flip side, that meant I would wind up having a whole extra computer here that could be used to upgrade or replace my wife’s old computer. In the three years I’d owned the computer, I wound up needing to RMA the Crucial m4 256GB SSD. During that process I decided to just go ahead and upgrade to a Crucial M550 512GB SSD. On top of that the AMD FX-8350 Black Edition has aged pretty well. Overall, my old computer was going to be a rather nice upgrade for Julia.

Bang-for-Buck vs. Bleeding Edge Performance

Typically in my builds in the past, I’ve made attempts to get as much performance out of as few dollars as possible, although I usually splurged on an item or two to make sure my new computer wasn’t too pedestrian. So far I’ve been very happy with this approach and the fact that my current computer has almost made it to 3 years old is a testament to how well that plan has worked for me so far. However, in looking at some Geekbench scores for CPUs I began to worry that this approach wasn’t going to produce results that I’d be very happy with this time around.

For this upgrade, I allowed my impulsive side to abduct, hog-tie, and stash my frugal side in the basement. I ultimately decided to build a pretty high-end machine, especially by my previous standards.


Case and Power Supply

I used a couple random power-supply calculators and the rest of my hardware specifications to decide that I’d probably want somewhere in the range 600-700 watts of power for the hardware I was considering. In addition to that, the GeForce 980Ti video card I wound up picking had two 8-pin power connectors. After some trials and tribulations (more on that later), I wound up deciding that I wanted a bit more total wattage than what was being recommended, that I wanted the power supply to be modular, and I wanted to have at least two separate 12 volt rails for powering the video card. This led me to pick the Raidmax Vampire RX-800GH (specs) as my power supply.

Even though it gets hidden underneath my desk, I wanted a pretty simple case without all the angles and LEDs you see in so many popular cases. Enter the Fractal Design Define R4 case (specs), a case built satisfying exactly those needs. Among my favorite features of the case is the perpendicular position of the hard drive bays which allow for much neater and easier access to the drive bays. The fact that this case holds up to 12 total hard drives has tempted me in the past to use for it for one of my DIY NAS blogs, but its price and size has usually been a bit too big for my NAS-preferences. There is quite a bit of sound dampening material inside the case to try and keep things as whisper-quiet as possible. About the only complaint that I had about the case is that its “Two Extra 2.5in. SSD Positions” are pretty useless. They’re located on the flipside of the motherboard plate and in order to mount a drive in those positions you’d have to install them before the motherboard. In all of my experience building PCs, the last thing I’ve always put in are the hard drives, which meant by the time I got to mounting my storage I couldn’t access those two positions any more. Furthermore, what happens if your SSD fails or needs to be upgraded? If you used one of those two positions, you’d have to remove your motherboard in order to replace the SSDs!


Based off of my experience with my prior computer upgrade in 2012 I already knew I was going to be using a SSD manufactured by Crucial. I actually wound up buying nearly the same SSD that I was already using in my current PC (after an RMA); the Crucial 512GB MX100 SSD (specs). For this new PC, I wanted to increase the redundancy and reliability by a bit, so I wound up ordering two SSDs which I’d use in RAID1 configuration using either the software RAID built on the motherboard itself.

Video Card

The video card wound up being the easiest (or most difficult) item to choose. I knew that I wanted an nVidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti video card for my machine, but I was also using Dual QNIX 2710 27” LED monitors which have DVI-D connections only. I’ve had luck using a DisplayPort adapter with my work laptop, but there are some noticeable artifacts occasionally. It’s fine when I’m doing some working from home, but it’d be a huge distraction on my personal PC. Keeping that in mind, I went out hunting for GTX 980 Ti video cards which had two DVI-D ports and found only one: the Gigabyte GeForce GV-N98TG1 GAMING-6GD (specs). Only having one option sure made picking out the best one for me an easy decision, albeit not a very inexpensive one!

CPU, RAM and Motherboard

Ultimately, the CPU is what drove all of the remaining decision points. While I wanted to build a powerful new desktop machine, I didn’t want to go so far out on the bleeding edge that it really became painful to my wallet. I knew that I wanted an LGA 2011-v3 so I picked out the Intel® Core™ i7-5820K Processor (specs). As an added bonus some of my research seems to suggest that its a particularly overclock-able CPU. Which essentially left me with three viable upgrade options down the road: by overclocking, by replacing the CPU, or by both!

DDR4 is the supported type of RAM type for the LGA 2011-v3 CPUs, of which I hadn’t collected a stick yet. Every now and then, I like to save a few bucks by supplementing RAM from a prior machine with additional RAM of the same type to achieve a higher amount of total RAM, despite the fact there are usually faster supported speeds. Intel’s specification sheet for the i7 5820k CPU had 2133Mhz listed as the fastest supported memory type. The Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (4 x 8GB) DDR4 DRAM 2666MHz C16 kit (specs) had a base speed of 2133Mhz and a tested speed of 2666Mhz and seemed to be priced well amongst the DDR4 memory that’s out on the market.

I wound up digging through quite a few Intel X99 chipset motherboard reviews and thought I’d found a motherboard priced pretty competitively with a pretty awesome suite of features. But that motherboard wound up getting replaced (much more on that later) by the ASUS TUF Sabertooth X99 (specs). Ultimately, I decided that a couple of the features of the Sabertooth X99 were right up my alley. Especially the “TUF Fortifier” which adds rigidity to the motherboard and really helped support the full-length Gigabyte GeForce GV-N98TG1 which is also quite heavy for a video card. An added feature that I liked of the motherboard was that plastic covers were included for just about every feature on the motherboard to protect unused DIMM Slots, PCI-e slots, SATA connectors, etc… from dust. It also didn’t hurt that I was routinely seeing the ASUS TUF Sabertooth X99 at the tops of Intel X99 motherboard round-up reviews and reading that people were getting good results when overclocking their CPUs with the motherboard.

Assembly Challenges

Normally at this point in a blog like this, I’d have a couple nice galleries of pictures to show off, featuring the pictures of the parts and step-by-step photos of the computer’s assembly. But this time around, fate had something completely different in mind for me.

For those of you that follow me closely on Twitter, you already know that I had some initial problems after putting the hardware together. The computer was very unstable with frequent BSODs and unresponsiveness; especially while playing games. I thought that the video card may be to blame, and after swapping my new video card with my old video card, it sure seemed like it. But then the new video card didn’t have any issues in my old PC either. Unfortunately, I couldn’t swap out any other components between machines since this is my first LGA2011-3 CPU and first set of DDR4 DIMMs. However, I was pretty confident in the RAM because it went through numerous passes in Memtest86+ without any issues.

Based on my gut feeling and because I wasn’t crazy about powering the Gigabyte GeForce GV-N98TG1 6GB PCiE Video Card entirely off the same 12 volt rail, my first step was to go ahead and replace the power supply that I had selected. The issues were just random enough and I didn’t care for the fact that my original power supply was powering the video card solely off the same 12V rail. I decided my easiest step would be my first — pick a new power supply. That’s how I arrived at putting the Raidmax Vampire 800W RX-800GH in the computer. Unfortunately, this did not solve my instability issues. Which wasn’t a huge deal at the rate I’m building computers (especially DIY NAS machines); I’d have use for the previous power supply in no time.

After failing to solve the problem with a new power supply, I decided to try the motherboard next because it was the biggest pain in the neck to swap out. I had originally selected the ASRock ATX DDR4 X99 EXTREME4 primarily after having a great experience with different ASRock motherboards in my NAS blogs, especially the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition. But after beating my head against the rock trying to solve whatever issues plagued the ASRock motherboard and not getting any response from their technical support team, I eventually decided to spend a few dollars more and replace it with the ASUS TUF Sabertooth X99.

Once I’d replaced the motherboard, I figured I’d repeat some of my burn-in tests in the same order and that’s when I found out that my “gut feel” had been all wrong for this issue. While running the very first pass in Memtest86+, many errors were captured by memtest. Which was equal parts disappointing and relieving. It was a relief because after testing each DIMM one-by-one, I determined that there was a particular DIMM that would not pass Memtest86+ under any circumstances. But it was disappointing both because it hadn’t been caught the first time through on a different motherboard and it was especially frustrating since it meant I then needed to exchange a third component of the hardware.

Ultimately, I wound up swapping three different components than the ones I originally ordered. I’m a little disappointed that some of my gut feelings hadn’t proven to be more accurate, but I’m glad that once I upgraded the motherboard, it helped me determine exactly what the issue is. The worst lingering effect was that I had a bunch of photos that I couldn’t use with this blog.

Burn In

Before I considered my new machine “worthy” of being my primary desktop, I essentially put it through a number of steps. It’d have to pass each of these with flying colors before I used it:

  1. At least 3 error-free passes in Memtest86+.
  2. At least 12 hours of Prime95’s torture test.
  3. Problem-free runs of my favorite benchmarks (Geekbench, 3DMark Vantage, 3DMark Advanced, PCMark Vantage, PCMark 8)

Thankfully, after finally getting four good sticks of RAM in the machines, it survived/passed all of the above without any issues.


For apples-to-apples comparisons, I installed the same benchmarking utilities I used two years ago: Geekbench, 3DMark Vantage, and PCMark Vantage and ran them on the new computer. On top of that, I wound also updating to latest version of both 3DMark and PCMark to use as a baseline for any upgrading/overlocking/tweaking that I wind up doing in the future.

A quick note on the graphs below, if I didn’t have a particular benchmark for a computer (especially my old, old computer) then I just left its value as zero on the charts. The performance of my older PCs is certainly less than my newer ones, but it wasn’t that bad!

Butt Dyno

If you’re a car guy like me, you’re familiar with the term “Butt Dyno” but for everything else the butt dyno is an unscientific way of measuring the increase in performance to car after some upgrades. Once you upgrade into the car, you hop in the driver seat and take it for a spin. How the upgrade winds up feeling the first time you experience it is more or less the cognitive dissonance of the car’s performance after the upgrade. It also works pretty well with computers; after a major upgrade like this one I’d expect that everything I do on the computer feel faster and smoother.

Which is exactly what I experienced with this PC. It was a bit difficult for me to gauge some of the differences, since I’d moved from Windows 7 to Windows 10 in the process. But within the games I spend quite a few hours playing, the difference was pretty evident. Especially in multiplayer games, my prior computer would begin to bog down the more objects there were on the screen and even start dropping frames.


In my prior blog’s benchmarks I’d only run the “free” versions of both Geekbench 2 and Geekbench 3, which is the 32-bit version. This year, I decided to go ahead and purchase Geekbench 3 so that I could get both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions to see if there was much of a difference. I also did two sets of tests, one with the RAM set at it’s conservative default of 2133MHz and a second at the 2666MHz the RAM is advertised at.

With the RAM set at 2133 MHz, I managed to score 14725 in the Geekbench 2 32-bit, 19074 in Geekbench 3 32-bit, and 20070 in Geekbench 3 64 bit. When bumping the RAM up to 2666 MHz, I saw a performance jump anywhere between 5.03% and 6.47% and scored 15465 (5.03%) in Geekbench 2 32-bit, 20280 (6.32%) in Geekbench 3 32-bit, and 21368 (6.47%) in Geekbench 3 64-bit.


3DMark / PCMark

3DMark and PCMark were a bit problematic, as there have been new versions and releases over the years since my last upgrade. Which meant just installing the latest versions wouldn’t give me very good data for an apples-to-apples comparison to past benchmarks. So I decided to also install the “old” versions (3DMark Vantage and PCMark Vantage) in addition to the latest version of each. Based off the results and the data out there for similar computers, I’m a little disappointed in my numbers out of the default tests. Compared to my prior PC there’s a very good performance bump as well as some room for improvement with some further tweaking.

Like with the Geekbench tests, I saw a bump when running the RAM at 2666MHz. In 3DMark Vantage I scored P46769 and 15303 on the latest 3DMark Firestrike test with the RAM at 2133MHz. Setting the RAM to run at 2666MHz saw an increase in performance between 3.43% and 7.37% with 3DMark Vantage scoring P50215 (7.37% better) and 3DMark Firestrike scoring 15828 (3.43% better)

While at 2133MHz PCMark Vantage’s score came in at 20356 and in PCMark 8’s two tests I scored 3856 on the conventional test and 4065 on the accelerated test. With the RAM set to 2666MHz, I saw gains in each test but they were pretty meager coming in between 1.58% higher and 6.2%. At 2666MHz I scored 21635 in PCMark Vantage (6.28% higher), 3917 on the PC Mark 8 Conventional test (1.58% higher), and 4159 on the PC Mark 8 Accelerated test (2.31% higher).



Back in 2012, I made the switch from a platter hard drive to a solid state disk. I was pretty excited then about the performance increase related to using a SSD, which is pretty evident in that blog’s graphs. But for this upgrade, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing the marginal performance increase from my Crucial m4 256GB 2.5-Inch Solid State Drive to my Crucial 512GB MX100 SSD. However, that being said I think I should get a bit of a boost in performance from the newer generation of SSDs and from the fact that a RAID-1 configuration should have some modest performance gains in reads. But I didn’t really feel the need to try and measure that boost in performance. Until we experience another leap in performance like we did as we started using SSDs instead of platter drives, I probably won’t be doing any benchmarks of my storage devices.


This was a pretty problematic upgrade due to the bad RAM and/or motherboard I experienced early on. I’m the first of my close friends to upgrade to an LGA 2011-3 CPU and DDR4 RAM, so not only did I not have any working systems to test parts with, but also the people I’d ask for help couldn’t test my parts in their machines either. Ultimately, this made something I could’ve sorted out in a matter of hours, stretch across a couple weeks — not exactly the best outcome for someone who’s notoriously impatient.

Coolermaster Hyper 212 EVO CPU Cooler Intel Core i7-5820K #1 Intel Core i7-5820K #2 GeForce GV-N98TG1 980Ti Pair of Crucial MX100 512GB SSDs Fractal R4 Case #1 Fractal R4 Case #2 Motherboard, RAM and CPU Installed #1 Motherboard, RAM and CPU Installed #2 Motherboard, RAM and CPU Installed #3 All drives installed. GeForce 980Ti Installed. Fully Assembled Machine #1 Fully Assembled Machine #2 Fully Assembled Machine #3 Fully Assembled Machine #4

But with these problems in the rear-view mirror, I’m pretty excited with the result. Primarily, performance in my games is noticeably better. It’s been fun going into games and changing the level of detail from pedestrian settings and crank them all up to their most advanced settings.

By my standards, I definitely spent way more money than I normally do on any kind of PC even when I’m already quite the hardware enthusiast. However, if my 2012 PC is any indicator, I should expect to get 3+ years out of this PC too. And I purposefully picked out hardware that should have room for upgrades in the future, as well as quite a bit of potential for overclocking. Between those upgrades and overclocking, perhaps I can go even further before needing to build another brand new PC from scratch again!

Our Foster Hillbilly, Jed

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As I mentioned in a previous blog, we’ve been on a bit of a hot streak with our foster dogs recently from Brittany Rescue in Texas. Our past three foster puppies Sunshine, Emily, and Pardner all wound up finding their forever homes quickly. In Emily’s case, just after a few minutes! I’ve been frantically working on this blog about our newest foster dog, Jed, as soon as possible because I’ve got a feeling that he’s headed to his forever home shortly!

When we found out that our next foster dog was named Jed, I immediately started humming this song aand hence the title of this blog. I remember during summer break, we’d occasionally watch the Beverly Hillbillies reruns in syndication and from what I remember of J.D. “Jed” Clampett, a few of his traits are present in Jed the Brittany. Especially loyalty and a calm demeanor!

Jed is an eight-year-old Brittany, he’s neutered and he’s probably a bit on the heavy side. When we picked him up from BRiT we were told he weighed 47 pounds. However, Crockett is around 45 pounds and he’s quite a bit smaller than Jed. Jed’s got a bigger frame than Crockett does and Jed’s is a bit more filled out than Crockett too!

Unlike our other two Brittanys, Crockett and Zoe, Jed is low-key. If I could describe Jed in a single word, I think that “mellow” is the best adjective that comes to mind. Compared to Zoe, he’s practically catatonic. However, our little Zoe’s probably on the high-energy end of the spectrum — she’s frenetic.

When the time is right, Jed likes to curl up and lay down in front of us or near us and just relax. I came home from work the other day, exhausted and irritated after my commute home and I laid down on the bed to take a quick little nap to recharge my battery for the evening’s activity. I had been on the bed all of 3 seconds when I felt Jed gently jump on the bed and curl up right next to me and join my restful state.

Checking out everything in the backyard #1. Checking out everything in the backyard #2. Patroling the backyard,  enjoying some shade. Patroling the backyard,  enjoying some shade. Relaxing while Zoe and Crockett investigate. Catching some Zzzzz's with Zoe. Posing with Zoe and Crockett. A selfie with Brian. Posing in the backyard with Zoe and Crockett. Is that a treat?! Gimme! Worn out after watching some Thursday Night football.

Normally we’ve found that the excitement of unfamiliar places and perhaps a lack of indoor manners have led to a few indoor accidents with our other foster dogs, especially Marley and Pardner. However in Jed’s case, he’s not had a single accident inside. In my opinion, I’d say Jed’s completely house trained.

Jed seems to have some basic obedience training. When outside in the backyard, he’ll come when called and if he’s being oblivious it’s not difficult to get his attention and get him to come to you anyways. In working with some of the standard dog obedience commands, he seems to understand both “sit” and “down” pretty well. And when on a leash, he’s been pretty complacent. Considering his larger size, I halfway anticipated that Jed would attempt to pull his handler around by the leash, but so far that’s not been the case. Jed also didn’t seem to have any issues staying in a kennel both overnight and while we’re away at work. Finally, we also didn’t have any reservations about letting Jed stay out of his kennel overnight on special occasions.

If Jed is laid back, he’s certainly not lazy. He gets real excited when either Julia or myself come home, he’s quite vocal about barking at the neighbor’s dachshund whose owner lets him out to relieve himself in our yard, and he likes to play with our other two dogs. Jed certainly seems to have that high-energy Brittany spirit within him; perhaps his age and previous activity level have just taught him how to have a better on/off switch than most dogs. I think Jed would benefit from being a bit more active and I certainly think he has the motor and the spirit to do it.

All that being said, I’d recommend that both Jed and his new owner take some fundamental dog obedience lessons in order to get on the same page. Ultimately, that’s my recommendation for anyone adding a dog to their household even when the dog is as well behaved as Jed has been.

It’s our understanding that Jed’s prior home had quite a bit more backyard and front yard than we did. At first we were a little concerned that Jed was used to running around an patrolling a large backyard with most of his time and that he’d need some time adjusting to being an inside dog with much less property to be responsible for. However, what we’ve found is that if Jed is more comfortable outside, then he is every bit as comfortable inside with us. His indoor manners are fantastic, he doesn’t jump up on furniture without being invited. He will put his forelegs on the couch and stand up to get closer to you. When invited, he’ll jump right up on that couch and snuggle right next to or in between whoever is currently on the couch.

Just like each of our foster dogs before him, Jed is a fantastic dog and would make a great addition to the right home. Are you that home? I certainly hope so! If you’re interested in Jed, your best bet is to first check out Jed’s page on the BRiT website and then go fill out the BRiT adoption application. On top of that, please feel free to use the comments below to ask any questions you might have about Jed and I’ll answer them as best that I can in a quick fashion.

Continuous Glucose Monitoring Review: Dexcom PLATNIUM G4 with Share

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As many of you might know, I’m a Type 1 Diabetic, which essentially means my pancreas no longer produces the insulin required to break down sugars and starches and turn them into energy. It’s a life-changing, yet manageable, disease that technology is giving us more and more tools to take care of ourselves. One of those tools is Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM), where a sensor is placed in the skin which measures the amount of glucose in the interstitial fluid and that sensor transmits the values to a receiver wirelessly and the end result is that a Diabetic can have a near real-time eye on their glucose levels, which is invaluable in spotting trends, heading off high glucose levels as well as low glucose levels, and giving our health providers a better glimpse at how we’re managing our conditions.

For almost two years, I’ve been using the Medtronic Enlite CGM, which is incorporated into their MiniMed 530G insulin pump and for the last few months, I’ve been slowly amassing a list of grievances that I have with the Enlite CGM.

Medtronic Enlite CGM Grievances

  1. Clunky Interface: All of the CGM data is displayed right on the insulin pump itself, which to my chagrin is about as advanced as a 1990s era pager and every bit as fun to use.
  2. Frustrating Calibration Issues: Because you’re measuring your blood glucose in a different way, there’s a bit of calibration and intelligence that happens with the CGM. Periodically throughout the day, you still do the traditional finger-stick tests with a glucometer. That value is then input into the CGM and based off calculations your glucose value is presented on your CGM. However, what I’d found is that I was frequently running into issues where the calibration was way out of whack. These calibration issues were incredibly frustrating and usually wound up causing me to do one (or both) of two things: turn the CGM off and not use it for 8-12 hours and call Medtronic’s technical support. The support people were always friendly, helpful, and ultimately replaced any defective sensor, but the phone calls were often long and exasperating. At its worst, my CGM data was way off one early morning, reporting that it was 100 lower than it actually was. Because of how the pump & CGM are integrated, the pump stopped dispensing insulin as a precaution. Because I slept through the alerts from the pump, I wound up getting no insulin overnight and had to deal with outrageously high blood sugar that morning.
  3. Unreliable Data: This probably goes hand-in-hand with my calibration issues. It wasn’t uncommon for my glucometer and CGM to be pretty far off from each other. While I never really expected that they’d be the exact same value, I did expect the readings to be in the same vicinity the majority of the time. However, this wasn’t the case, as there were frequently times when I looked at my CGM and had no confidence in what it was telling me.
  4. Missing Features: It’s frustrated me to no end that I have more computational power in my Nexus 6 than my computer from just a few years back, but for some reason I couldn’t use my phone to manage either my insulin pump or CGM. Medtronic recently announced the MiniMed Connect, which is bringing some of the functionality I’m interested in. However, it’s still not available yet and, its initial release is targeted at Apple iOS devices only.
  5. Limited Range: I quickly found that the range of the Enlite CGM was pretty limited. I used to tuck my insulin pump under my pillow to keep it in one place at night; however, I quickly found that in the middle of the night that the connectivity to the sensor would get lost when sleeping like that. Instead, what I found was that I had to keep the insulin pump on my waistband on the same side of my body as the sensor. As someone who frequently tosses and turns in bed, this led to quite a bit of night-time aggravation as I tried to get situated for some sleep.

Ultimately, these complaints led me to talking to my doctor and asking about the Dexcom PLATINUM G4 with Share.

Dexcom PLATINUM G4 with Share

I follow quite a few Diabetic bloggers, Twitter personalities, and participate in the /r/diabetes sub-Reddit, and what I’ve learned is that the preferred CGM is the Dexcom PLANTINUM G4 with Share. Above all else, it appears to produce the best real-time glucose data for Diabetics. It’s helped out immensely by the fact that the CGM receiver has a pretty modern interface, especially the color display. The receiver boasts a range of twenty feet if unobstructed. In my use, it’s had no problems sitting on my nightstand while I sleep, which is a huge bonus and means my insulin pump can go back under a pillow where I’m much more comfortable. The first night I used the Dexcom CGM, I had a hard time falling asleep because I’d grown so accustomed to being uncomfortable with how I was forced to wear the Medtronic CGM. It’s ironic that finally being comfortable once again was temporarily the reason I couldn’t fall asleep.

In looking at the Dexcom CGM sensor materials, I was a bit bewildered, and even a little intimidated. I’ve been poking and jabbing my body now for well over a decade, but my initial impression of the Dexcom CGM was that it was a bit terrifying. The strange angle that it sits when flush to your skin, the long thin needle in the middle of the sensor inserter and the sheer bulk of it all wound up surprisingly intimidating. Watching this instructional video was informative but didn’t do much to calm my irrational fears.

However, just like giving myself the first insulin dose via a syringe in a hospital room so many years ago, it looked way worse than it actually was. I found that the act of inserting the Dexcom CGM’s a bit more complicated than the Medtronic’s CGM sensor’s insertion. However the execution wound up being pretty pleasant, all things considered. That odd angle that I was worried about? Not a big deal at all; in fact I found that the angle of the sensor’s insertion to be quite a bit more comfortable than the Enlite CGM sensor insertion.

Speaking of videos, I was a bit taken aback at Dexcom’s approach. With the Medtronic devices, I’d always received some sort of in-person training from a Medtronic trainer. Usually this was in small sessions, even one-on-one. Dexcom however, had a series of instructional videos they wanted me to go through instead. The videos were very helpful and I didn’t wind up having any issues following them and inserting my sensor for the first time. But I wonder how I would’ve felt if this had been my first experience with a CGM. Perhaps in this regard, I’m a bit old fashioned.

As my experience with CGM has proven, it didn’t take long for something wonky to happen with my sensor. The first two mornings with the sensor in, I wound up having issues with the receiver displaying ??? after I took a shower. My shower’s enclosed on three sides, so if the receiver is on the counter there’s a wall between myself and the shower. The second morning, I set the receiver down on the bathtub across from the shower where the only thing between us would be a shower curtain. However, after each shower the receiver read “???” which according to Dexcom’s FAQ on errors and alerts meant “The question marks mean that the receiver does not understand the sensor readings for the moment. You will want to wait a minimum of three (3) hours for them to clear.” In both cases, it took a couple hours but eventually it got back to normal. However, towards the end of the second night on that sensor, it crapped out on me, and eventually this error message popped up: “Sensor Failed. Replace Sensor.”

That meant I needed to call in and talk to Dexcom’s technical support for the first time. In the past, whenever I encountered an issue like this with the Enlite CGM it wound up taking around 30-60 minutes on the phone, if not longer. Eventually they’d wind up replacing the failed sensor, but not after using up all of my patience. Dexcom, on the other hand, handled the phone call quickly, advised me to go ahead and replace the sensor, and that they’d ship me a new one the next morning. I’m still not quite sure what happened to that first sensor, but I’m suspecting that I might have been a bit delicate when first inserting it and latching down the transmitter due to some hesitance on my part in setting up the new sensor.

Shoddy insertion (more likely) or defective sensor (less likely) notwithstanding, so far I’ve been pretty impressed with the Dexcom CGM. I’ve been using it now for a few weeks and I’ve noticed how close the CGM’s readings are when compared to the regular finger stick tests I’m doing with my glucometer. I’ve seen a few people boast that they’re so confident in the Dexcom CGM that they’d be willing to dose based solely off the numbers on the CGM. Both Medtronic and Dexcom warn you not to do that and that any insulin boluses should be done using data from a glucometer, but nonetheless it’s impressive to me that someone has that much faith in the data they’re getting back to the CGM. Starting the morning of my third day with the CGM, I decided to start keeping track of what my CGM said and what my glucometer indicated for my glucose values any time I measured my blood sugar and remembered to jot it down and save it for the blog later. Here’s what about a week’s worth of data from both looked like for me:

To be completely honest here, I was really surprised at how close together the readings from the CGM were to the readings from my glucometer. Really surprised. One evening we went out to eat and before we ordered our food I’d measured my blood sugar at the table and to the chagrin of my company, I exclaimed “Holy Shit!” quite loudly in the restaurant. The numbers on my glucometer and the Dexcom G4 receiver were identical! Nearly a third of the data that I collected had CGM readings (in either direction, positive or negative) which were single digit differences from what my glucometer was saying. At no point, despite my best efforts otherwise, did the Medtronic Enlite CGM come close to that kind of accuracy.

There were also a few points where there was quite a bit of variance between the two devices, but what I seem to be observing is that it is the least accurate around the times that you’re doing your next required calibration. The Dexcom G4 recommends calibrating twice a day, not at a meal time, and when your blood sugar has been relatively stable.

What, no Android?!

As I mentioned before, I have been exceptionally motivated to see my CGM results displayed on my phone. I’ve been enviously lusting after the Dexcom CGM ever since they announced that iPhone users could view, upload, and share their CGM data using their phones or tablets. I got pretty pumped when Dexcom announced their Follow App for Android devices, but boy did I misread that!

What I assumed from the press release, was that you could do everything with the Dexcom CGM on your Android devices that you could using an iOS device. I misread, I assumed, and I was wrong! The Dexcom Follow App for Android allows you to view CGM data from a Dexcom CGM user who’s sharing their data via their iOS device. I was so angry at myself, I saw the words “Dexcom,” “App” and “Android” and made up my own mind about what the app would be able to do, but once I installed it on my phone I was crestfallen.

Diabetic ‘Hackers’ to the Rescue – #WeAreNotWaiting

I started poking around trying to figure out what could be done about my mistaken assumption. While I enjoy using my iPad Air, I’m an Android guy to the core. I do too much cool stuff like home automation and my Ultimate Car Dock for Gearheads which depend on Android apps and device-level functionality that I’d have an impossibly hard time recreating on an iPhone. From a fellow blogger and fellow Diabetic, Scott Hanselman, I’d been remotely aware of a project named Nightscout, which showed promise to being the answer to my problems.

Nightscout is your own diabetic software as a service (SaaS) whose goal is “To allow remote monitoring of the T1D’s glucose level using existing monitoring devices.” Skimming through the website, this project sounded like it was going to be exactly up my alley. In fact, Scott Hanselman even wrote a blog about Bridging Dexcom Share CGM Receivers and Nightscout, which was essentially an answer to the very problem I was trying to solve. To summarize, Scott wound up using the Dexcom CGM Reciever, a USB On-the-Go cable, a Micro USB cable and a spare Android device. The phone was hooked up to the Dexcom CGM receiver using those two cables, it pulled the data off the Dexcom CGM Receiver and then would use its data connection to upload the CGM to his Nightscout installation.

While I have plenty of old Android devices laying around unused and gathering dust, I didn’t really feel like carrying a second phone with me all the time. I also didn’t like the prospect of having to hook my Dexcom CGM to my Nexus 6 on a permanent basis. I also wasn’t very excited to add an additional line to our mobile phone account, or to try and find some pay-as-you-go plan to cover the data this additional phone would use while publishing the CGM data to Nightscout.

I asked /r/Diabetes for help and they came to my rescue, educating me on xDrip and I believe that one of the replies is even from the project’s leader, Stephen Black. xDrip was quite literally the answer to practically all of my problems. It’s an Android app, which uses your phone’s bluetooth to connect to the Dexcom CGM Receiver and bring the CGM data down to your phone. From there, you could upload that data to your own Nightscout installation or using the latest xDrip beta the app would upload the data to the Dexcom Share servers, which means you could then allow other users to access your CGM data using the Dexcom Follow app for either iOS or Android.

Notification Icon Main Screen and Glucose readings graph Calibration Graph System Status screen 30 Day Raw Statistics 30 Day Pie Chart 30 Day Graph

It’s my understanding that Dexcom is working on getting an Android app completed, approved and into its customers’ hands, and I look forward to trying it. However, due to projects like Nightscout and xDrip the bar for their app has been pushed pretty high. Dexcom’s got quite a bit of competition from these projects and they’re going to have to beat the pants off of xDrip before I’ll consider using their offering.

Final Thoughts

I finally seem to have part of I have been looking for — access to my CGM data from my mobile phone. The xDrip Android app is outstanding, filling a tremendous gap in Dexcom’s approach to mobile devices, which Medtronic appears to be foolishly following. If I were Dexcom, I’d be hiring each of the people working on xDrip today or at the very least supporting their ongoing efforts in a meaningful way.

One final note — Murphy’s Law struck this week with the FDA and Dexcom announcing their next CGM, the Dexcom G5 Mobile. Dexcom is being gracious enough to offer those of us who recently purchased (purchases on or after July 25th) to upgrade to the G5 for free. The really exciting part of this newest version is that the low-power Bluetooth is now incorporated within the sensor’s transmitter, eliminating the need for a receiver — but only if you have an iOS device. Android users will have to continue using a receiver and hoping that Dexcom finally releases an Android app or that the awesome folks working on the xDrip project are able to reverse engineer and support the Dexcom G5 Mobile. My money’s on xDrip.

Little Miss Sunshine

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Update (9/7/2015): Sunshine has been adopted! BRIT contacted us yesterday evening wanting to know if we’d be willing to drive a bit to the south to help deliver Sunshine to her new family on Labor Day. And boy, what a lucky dog she is! She’s going to live in Houston with two of the nicest people I’ve met lately, we had a great little chat after making introductions and I’m really happy for Sunshine. Personally, it’s a tiny bit bittersweet, Sunshine is a really fantastic dog who really loves her people. I’m a tiny bit envious that she’s not going to be following me around the house any more and she was only here for one day! On the other hand, I’m also tremendously excited for Sunshine, she certainly seems to have won the lottery with her new owners!

This blog is about Sunshine, a dog rescued by Brittany Rescue in Texas group that we’re providing a foster home for. When possible, I like to write a blog about each foster dog and get it published shortly after they come home with us. This “rush” might lead me to jumping to some conclusions too early. If you’re interested in Sunshine, please check back often. As I learn new things about each dog, I post regular updates. Especially when I find out that I’ve been wrong about an important aspect of their personality.

Before I dive too deeply into words, here’s a small gallery of pictures to have in mind while reading through this blog. I’d really like if you o had this sweet little face in your head as you’re reading and learning all about her down below.

Resting in the living room, looking pretty happy! Early on, Zoe was protecting Brian from the new dog. She found a safe place very early on. Relaxing in her safe place while Brian writes this blog. Equal opportunity relaxer,  hanging out with Julia #1 Equal opportunity relaxer,  hanging out with Julia #2 Equal opportunity relaxer,  hanging out with Julia #3 Sunshine's looking attentive. Now this is a happy face! And an even happier face, who wouldn't love this?

Our Recent Foster Adventures

We’ve had a pretty exciting foster-life lately. We wound up having one short-term foster dog stay with us for a few days only. Pardner is quite the handsome and friendly guy. I’d started frantically throwing together a blog about him when the folks at Brittany Rescue in Texas called me up and informed me that they’d already found a home for Pardner!

But if you think finding a forever home before I could write and publish a blog was quick, just wait till you hear about Emily! Emily and her sister Trixie were picked up by the BRIT team and they made quite an effort to find a home that could take on two dogs. But they were having a hard time finding someone who wanted to adopt both dogs. The BRIT team determined that the two sisters could be split up, and they called Julia and I asking if we’d take on Emily, and naturally our answer was “Yes!”

Pattie from BRIT asked me where in the Dallas Metroplex would be a good place to meet. Considering that the BRIT team covers the entire state of Texas and it sounded like they were about to have a busy weekend, I told them we’d just meet them wherever they were going that morning. That morning they were headed to Denton, TX in order to to meet a family from Oklahoma who was meeting Trixie and planning to adopt her. Denton is about an hour-long drive from where we live and well within my driving tolerance, so I said that we’d just meet them up there! Besides, I thought it’d be rewarding to get to see an actual adoption — I had no idea!

When we showed up, Pattie was already talking to the family and had Trixie in the hands of the daughter of the adoptive family. However, her parents were nowhere to be seen. Pattie looked at me and said lowly “We might have a small complication, but let me introduce you to Emily.” We retrieved Emily from the BRIT-mobile and she was as pleasant as could be, she was friendly, energetic and really sweet. After reading Emily’s profile on the BRIT webpage I had been excited about sharing our home with her for a little while.

However, fate had other plans in mind. The “complication” Pattie had alluded to was the adoptive family was distraught over breaking up the two sisters, despite Pattie’s best efforts to reassure them. I tried to help by explaining what a great situation we have here at our house and about how we wouldn’t let Emily out of our hands unless she was headed somewhere fantastic just like where Trixie was going.

In the end, the family decided that they just couldn’t bear to separate the two sisters. And despite being adamant that they were only interested in one dog, they decided to adopt Emily too! What a pair of incredibly lucky dogs! Emily’s leash was in my hand for a total of maybe 5 minutes — this has to be some sort of record for the shortest foster stay in BRIT!

I’ve never been so happy to head home empty-handed, but I will have to admit that I was a tiny bit disappointed that we weren’t going to get to find out more about Emily. However, thankfully for Emily and Trixie, the adopting family’s hearts had room for two new dogs.

Introducing Sunshine

No worries though, the BRIT team is so active that it wasn’t too long before we were asked about the possibility of fostering another dog, a “little” girl named Sunshine. Sunshine’s story is a little incomplete — she was found in McKinney, a town here in the Dallas area not too far from where we live, but nobody had claimed her. To be safe, BRIT swooped in to claim her and waited to see if anyone contacted the animal control office about her. When nobody did, BRIT assumed responsibility for her and asked if we would foster her. Naturally we said yes!

About the first thing you notice is that Sunshine is a sweet girl, but perhaps a bit on the round size for her frame. Wherever she lived previously, she was well fed! Sunshine’s weight is 44 pounds. She’s roughly the same height and length as Zoe, but she weighs about 12-14 pounds more. However, that’s nothing a little diet and exercise won’t fix.

I picked up Sunshine this past Saturday and she is a doll! Best of all, she appears to be housebroken. With the foster dogs we’ve had so far there’s usually a transition period where it takes the dog a little while to figure out how to ask to be let out, and that usually results in an accident or two. However in Sunshine’s case, that’s not been the issue at all. She’s very well housebroken and there haven’t been any accidents early on, which hasn’t been the case with our previous foster dogs, Marley and Pardner.

Even better? She seems to have a little bit of training. I was able to get her to sit using commands; we got on the same page really quickly. Despite all of the commotion of changing hands and meeting Crockett and Zoe, she has been very well behaved. On top of that, Sunshine appears to be crate trained. We introduced her to her crate here at the house and she went in without needing any coaxing. Equally great, she’s been excellent on a leash. To introduce Sunshine to Crockett and Zoe, we took her on a walk around the block once with Crockett and then again with Zoe. On her walks, Sunshine was very polite. There was rarely tension on the leash at all.

Sunshine is a tremendous dog, she’s very sweet and tuned-in to her people. I picked Sunshine up from BRIT and as I’m writing this, she’s laying right next to me. If I get up to go get a drink in the kitchen, she’ll follow me. She’s been following me around since I brought her home; all this attention is flattering! Sunshine really likes to be close to people in general. When I woke up this morning and fixed some breakfast, she was wrapped around my wife, Julia’s, feet as Julia caught up on current events from her computer.

We have two Brittanys already: Crockett is a four-year-old male, and Zoe, who’s nearly two year old. Both of them are relatively young and still quite energetic. Sunshine has gotten along well with the two of them, but clearly prefers the people to the dogs. She’s played a bit with our existing dogs, but something about Sunshine’s energy level (more on this later) suggests to me that they might be a bit too high-paced for her preferences. Her behavior with the other dogs has been perfec; even though her energy level may not be 100% compatible with Crockett & Zoe’s, they have all gotten along from the moment Sunshine was introduced to them.

Sunshine’s Backstory

As I understand it Sunshine is a stray that was picked up in McKinney, a suburb of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area just a little north of where we live in Plano. The BRIT team was either notified or saw a listing on a local Animal Control website. They informed the animal control of their interest of rescuing Sunshine in the event that nobody claimed her, and picked her up when that didn’t happen. We’d discussed Sunshine when we were fostering Pardner, and Pattie was hopeful that Sunshine’s owners would come find her.

A bit more about Sunshine

Sunshine appears to have been treated very well and is accustomed to being around people. As I mentioned above, she’s completely house broken. So far, all of the dogs we’ve fostered have also been housebroken, but in the excitement and chaos of changing hands so often, there’s almost always an accident or two inside the house while the dog gets situated. That hasn’t been the case with Sunshine at all. It’s been a couple days by now and we’ve had zero indoor accidents.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m going to keep mentioning it because it’s her most prominent trait, she’s a very sweet dog. She and I are already forming a special little bond. I’m not necessarily sure why that is, maybe it was our hour or two in the car alone together when I picked her up, or maybe I remind her of her prior owners the most. In any case, she seems to be very in-tune with my comings and goings throughout the day. If I’m at the computer, she’s probably laying down near my feet somewhere around the desk. If I get up and go to the kitchen, she gets up and follows me to the kitchen. This is both a bit flattering and unusual. Zoe and Crockett do the same things but to a much lesser extent and they get bored and do other typical Brittany things like patrol the house and look for things in the windows.

Sunshine also seems to be a bit more sedentary than Crockett and Zoe, which might be due to her personality or the fact she’s a little bit on the rotund size. According to her biography on the BRIT page, she weighs around 44 pounds. Her frame isn’t sized much differently than Zoe’s, but Zoe’s a good 12 or so pounds lighter than Sunshine. In some of Sunshine’s photos, you can tell that she’s quite a bit more filled out than Zoe is. And to be frank, when watching how she moves around compared to our other two dogs, I think she’s probably a bit overweight. We treat all of our fosters as if they were our own, so we’ve put her on a bit of a diet and we intend to help her be a little more active than she’s inclined. I think just having Zoe and Crockett around will force her to be more active.

My Idea of Sunshine’s Perfect Forever Home

Note: This is 100% my opinion and ultimately has nothing to do with how or where Sunshine will get placed. The most important part in finding a forever home for any dog is you! If you know that Sunshine’s perfect forever home is your house, then you can make that happen regardless of my opinion.

I honestly think Sunshine will fit in wonderfully in just about any home. All indications so far is that she’d do fine at a home with dogs or a home without dogs. She seems sweet and patient enough to me that I think she’d do well around children as well, although I haven’t had a chance to observe that yet, but in gaging her demeanor, I’m pretty confident with this hunch.

Sunshine seems to have some training already. She’s better than either Crockett or Zoe on a leash, she seems to be crate trained — although the first couple nights she let us know that she was uncomfortable in a strange new place, she comes when you call her but not necessarily by her name (give her a break though, she’s only been named Sunshine a couple days) and she’ll sit when you command her to. I also found out accidentally that she knows shake when I reached out to pet her once this morning. Personally, I’d recommend some more obedience training for Sunshine, but that’s my recommendation for all dogs. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you get trained every bit as much as the dog does during obedience training. It goes a long way towards getting you on the same page with your dog and being on the same page is what makes dog ownership so rewarding.

I think Sunshine’s biggest immediate need is to find a person, or a family who can be the center of her universe. They’d need to help her lose some weight by being active and setting up a healthy diet. But there’s nothing about her energy level or her zest for life which make me think that’s not possible. I get the distinct feeling that this dog would happily follow her owners for as long as her body would allow it, if not longer.

Are you interested in Sunshine? Do you have any questions about her? Please feel free to use the comment section below to ask any questions, I promise I’ll answer each and every question that comes to me in as quick a fashion as possible. If you don’t have any questions, please feel free to visit the BRIT webpage and then read over and complete the BRIT adoption application.

Figuring out the ESP8266

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For those of you following me on Twitter, you know that I’ve been on an Internet of Things binge lately. It started off when I finally did something with my Arduino Leonardo after having it for almost a year. My original plan was to find a decent WiFi shield for the Arduino Leonardo but there’s been a recent development of a very interesting, inexpensive products that both has WiFi capabilities and Arduino Sketches can be loaded on it, the ESP8266. And by inexpensive, I mean only $2-3 on eBay. If you’re impatient and want faster shipping they can be found on Amazon for a few dollars more!

Unfortunately for me, I’m a novice. The biggest problem with being inexperienced is that your problem-solving toolbox starts off pretty empty. Thankfully solving those problems begins to fill up that toolbox, but those first few problems wind up being really difficult to move past. I’m writing this mostly to help move people past the problems that I encountered.


I wound up running into a few different obstacles:

  1. My own cheeky and fun shenanigans.
  2. I couldn’t get my ESP8266 ESP-01 to talk to my Arduino Leonardo.
  3. My DROK LM2596 Adjustable Power Supply cooked a couple ESP8266 ESP-01s.
  4. Nothing but garbage back via my USB-to-Serial adapter.


My own shenanigans are a minor, yet ever-present challenge whenever I am learning something new. None of my self-inflicted problems are ever incredibly serious, but when you inject one of those into a sequence where you’re unfamiliar it can have very maddening results. Here are a few of those self-inflicted problems that I ran into:

  • Forgetting to swap the transmit (TX) and receive (RX) pins between devices: Your ESP8266 can’t talk directly to your computer, so you need to use something like the Arduino or some sort of USB-to-Serial device in order to be able to talk to the ESP8266. Each device has its own transmit and receive pins, which means the ESP8266’s transmit pin needs to be hooked to the other device’s receive pin and the other device’s transmit pin needs to be hooked to the ESP8266’s receive pin. It sounds simple, but when you’re frequently changing things around, it’s easy to get this backwards.
  • Neglecting to run power to the CH_PID pin on the ESP8266 ESP-01: Because I bought several ESP8266s ESP-01s, I wound up swapping them in/out frequently, wondering if one device was bad or not. I’d unhook everything and then hook it back up, but I’d very frequently forget to run power to the CH_PID pin and then be dumbfounded as to why it wasn’t powering up.
  • A common ground for all devices: At one point, I was using my KEDSUM CP2102 USB-to-Serial adapter and for some reason, I grounded it out on the opposite side of the breadboard as where the ESP8266 and power supply were grounded and the devices just wouldn’t cooperate.

Ultimately, I wound up solving most of these shenanigans by using a breadboard and a breadboard adapter for the ESP-01 along with my ESP8266 ESP-01. Once I had that, I didn’t have any more self-inflicted problems of not hooking the appropriate cables up.

Failure to Communicate

My initial ESP8266 plan was to use the ESP8266 ESP-01, my Arduino Leonardo, and a PIR Sensor to make a little device that I could put by the back door to detect when one of our dogs is by the door wanting to be let out. My first step of that was to get the Arduino Leonardo and ESP8266 ESP-01 conversing with each other. I wrote crude Arduino sketch to run some AT commands and write the response so the Arduino IDE’s serial monitor would display their result. But for some reason, nothing I tried seem to work. The closest I ever got was an “ERROR” response to the basic command “AT”. None of the other ESP8266 AT Commands seemed to be working at all.

I wound up having to decide if it was my Arduino Sketch, the Leonoardo, or the ESP8266 which was defective. My typical approach is to assume that I’m the most likely source of problems, so I assumed it was the sketch that wasn’t working. I decided to instead of use the Leonardo, I’d just use the KEDSUM CP2102 USB-to-Serial and send AT commands at the ESP8266 manually to see if I got a different result.

ESP8266 Barbecue

Previously, I’d been using the Arduino Leonardo to power the ESP8266 ESP-01, but since I was bypassing that, I’d need to find another power source. I couldn’t use the power available on the KEDSUM CP2102 USB-to-Serial because its default is 5V which, is too much for the ESP8266 ESP-01 which only needs 3.3v of power. Changing the CP2012’s output power was possible, but it was going to require soldering some pins and I didn’t want to do that yet unless I really had to.

Thankfully, I had purchased a DROK LM2596 Adjustable power supply which could be easily adjusted down to 3.3v. I immediately hooked it up to power the ESP8266 ESP-01 and used the CP2012 adapter to transmit data between my computer and the ESP-01, but for some reason I wasn’t getting any response. The activity LED on ESP-01 never made any indication that data was being transmitted, despite a plethora of AT commands being sent.

At one point, I touched the ESP-01 and found it to be really hot. I asked my friend Pat if that was unusual and his response was “Yeah, they get pretty warm. Even at 3.3 volts!” The next day we planned to nerd out in my kitchen and solve all my ESP8266 problems once and for all. After Pat also failed, to get any kind of response to AT commands he reached down to pick up the ESP-01 and immediately yanked his hand back like he’d been bit. Apparently, my ESP-01 was running a bit warmer than normal!

We used a cheap multimeter to check the output voltage from the DROK LM2596 Adjustable power supply to make sure it was operating at the expected voltage and it was. Assuming the ESP-01 was just defective, we swapped it out for another one. When we powered everything back on, I noticed something peculiar on the DROK LM2596’s display and captured a video of it. The display on the LM2596 is a little hard to read, so I left the multimeter hooked up too:

After powering on the DROK LM2596 Adjustable power supply, the output display fell from the voltage of the adapter (12v) down to the voltage the DROK LM2596 was set at (3.3v). Initially, we hoped that this was just a display error, but the multimeter confirmed what we suspected. We found that the initial output voltage was as high as 12v in those first few moments and likely frying the ESP8266 ESP-01! I’m glad we caught that after two ESP-01s!


After solving the combustible ESP8266 ESP-01 problem, we still couldn’t get the ESP-01 to respond to the AT commands. Pat’s experience with the ESP-01 was that they communicated either at two different baud rates: 115200 or 57600. Some Googling confirmed Pat’s experience and assumption, but for some reason we’d get garbled output back from the KEDSUM CP2102 USB-to-Serial when we used it to send AT commands. That’s when we decided to try every supported baud rate in the Arduino IDE’s serial monitor. We started at 115200 and worked our way down, eventually landing at 9600 when we got the expected “OK” back from the plain old AT command.

Even then, we weren’t in the clear. We kept trying to run the the AT+CWLAP command, which should list the WiFi access points that the ESP8266 ESP-01 can see, but we kept getting the ERROR response to that command. Ultimately, what we found is that my ESP-01s were all in the Access Point mode and apparently the AT+CWLAP command doesn’t work when it’s in that mode. Sending a AT+CWMODE=1 changed the mode and finally I was getting somewhere with the ESP8266!

All Problems Conquered!

Now that I finally had achieved my goal of having luck with AT commands, I was pretty confident I could use one of the sketches that came with the ESP8266 Arduino IDE add-on package (File > Examples > ESP8266WiFi > WiFiWebServer from inside the Arduino IDE) which toggles the LED based off of hitting a URL being served up by the ESP-01. However, I did run into a momentary wrinkle uploading the sketch; in order to upload a sketch, you have to set the GPIO0 pin to low as it boots up. The ESP-01 firmware uses this to put the ESP-01 into its download mode.

Once I was finished uploading the sketch, I added a resistor and a green LED to run off of GPIO2 on my breadboard. After I powered it on, I was then able to pull up the two URLs (it’s documented in the sketch’s comments) in a browser that turn the LED on and off.


So, here are a few suggestions that I’ve come up with based on what’s gone well and what hasn’t gone so well for me.

  1. Download Arduino IDE 1.6.4 or later: They improved the IDE to make the management of boards like the various ESP8266s easier in version 1.6.4.
  2. Follow the Installing with Boards Manager directions at the ESP8266 Arduino Github page: These steps will install everything that you need in order to start developing sketches for the ESP8266.
  3. Purchase some extra ESP8266 ESP-01s, especially if you buy at the $2-3 price point: They’re cheap enough to buy a handful of them and have some spares in case something bad happens. It’s a luxury to have some extra lying around when you need to troubleshoot why something is not working the way it should.
  4. Buy some breadboard adapters for your ESP8266 ESP-01: I can’t recommend these enough, they really helped cut out some of my self-inflicted nonsense.
  5. Use your USB-to-Serial adapter and run some AT commands first to validate that you’ve got the hardware wired up correctly:
  6. Build a “download station” using a mini-breadboard, an ESP8266 ESP01 breadboard adapter, your USB-to-Serial adapter, and a 3.3v power source: There aren’t very many GPIO pins on the ESP-01. If you want to do something more complicated than light up a single LED, then you’ll need to use the GPIO0 pin, TX pin and RX pin, but all of those are used in the transmission of sketches. Having a download station like this will save you some frustration of constantly re-wiring your device before/after each sketch download.

Do you have experience with any of the ESP8266 boards? What other tips am I overlooking that would help a newbie like myself get started? Please share your tips in the blog’s comments and I’ll keep this list up-to-date with the best tips.

What’s Next?

I tweeted about this the other day, but my first thought for a little ESP-01 device is pretty simple. I’d like to make something that monitors my blog. Every few minutes it’ll do an HTTP GET of something that’s up on my blog. If the result is positive, it’ll light up a green LED. If the result is negative, it’ll light up a red LED. After that little device is done, hopefully I’m going to start using the ESP8266 boards and Arduino sketches to start building out some interesting home automation tools.

Tagg: The Pet Tracker

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On at least two occasions our dog, Crockett, has gotten loose and scared us. A few months back, I’d done some yard work during the day but failed to completely latch the gate to the back yard. My wife, Julia, decided that afternoon to take our dogs outside to play in the backyard. At one point, a squirrel scampered up the fence near the house, ran along the fence and then jumped onto a tree branch that hangs down near the fence at the back of our property. Naturally, the dogs were terribly excited at the prospect of a close encounter of the rodent kind and began sprinting along the fence leaping with all their might at the fence. Nearing the end of the fence, Crockett flung himself at the gate like it was a tackling dummy and to everyone’s surprise, the gate opened!

Julia frantically yelled for help and we gave chase, but by the time we turned the corner they were a good block away from us. They’d run behind the house, exited our street’s alley and were now running away from our house along the street behind our house. I shouted the dogs’ names and Zoe stopped on a dime and sprinted to me, nearly taking me out as she crashed into my legs. Apparently, the taste of freedom was not to her liking; she looked bewildered and terrified. Crockett on the other hand was happier than a pig in slop, sprinting and sniffing whatever he could. That day it took us almost two hours to catch Crockett. I took the approach of jogging and stalking Crockett waiting for him to get bored. But after a good 20-30 or so minutes of this approach, I ran out of endurance and he got out of my line of sight. Thankfully, Crockett has undying love for Julia and at some point after getting away from me, he ran to her when she was a block or two away in paralleling of my pursuit.

As I jogged, huffed and puffed through our neighborhood and nearby park, I wondered to myself, “Why don’t they have anything like my Tile tracking device for pets?” Later that night, Julia and I discussed the possibility of buying a Tile to track each of the dogs. But I felt it’s not quite the right tool for the job. Tile uses Bluetooth on your phone (or anyone’s phone with the Tile app on it) to communicate with the Tile tracker, but Bluetooth’s max theoretical range is roughly 330 feet. In order for the Tile to be useful in tracking your pet, you’d have to be within 330 feet and most likely much closer than that. As I was catching up on social media that night, a review of an interesting pet tracking device caught my attention.

The Tagg Pet Tracker from Whistle is a bit similar to the Tile, but it uses GPS and cellular data capabilities instead of Blueooth, which allows for tracking without having to be in close proximity to your smartphone. Considering Crockett’s previous escapades, I wanted to be able to be proactive in finding him for when he got loose again. I immediately went to Amazon and looked for the Tagg Pet Tracker to buy it right away. At the time, they were not quite ready for sale, and we wound up pre-ordering trackers for both of our dogs.

Towards the end of May we received updates that our Tagg Pet Trackers would be shipping and they showed up the first week of June. When they showed up, they immediately got my attention—it is an interesting product that touched on at least two passions of mine: geeky gadgets and dogs.

Unboxing and Initial Impressions

The Tagg Pet Tracker comprises of two pieces: a base station and the tracker. The base station does double duty as both a charger for the pet tracker and then also as a communications device. I assume that as long as the base station remains in contact with the pet trackers, it handles the tracking of the pets. The cellular data and GPS on the tracker are used in the event that the base station loses connectivity with the tracker. At that point, the tracker begins to communicate directly with the Tagg servers. When using multiple Tagg trackers like we do, they all communicate with the same base station. I assume that the primary reason behind this configuration is that while near your base station, battery usage is diminished since it’s not having to use the cellular data. Similarly, it probably helps Whistle save some money on their cellular bills, which they’re passing along to Tagg subscribers starting at $6.95 per month for monitoring.

Retail boxes for Tracker+Base Station & Extra Tracker All the Pet Tracker Components Tracker -- Front Side Tracker -- Front Side Tracker -- Back Side Tracker on Base Station -- Front Side Tracker on Base Station -- Back Side


Using the Tagg Pet Tracking website you’re able to create a profile for your pet, associating the tracker with that pet and defining where their home base is located. If the tracker shows up outside of that home base, notifications can be sent via e-mail, text message, or push notifications to your phones/tablets via the Tagg Android app or Tagg iOS App. In addition of location tracking, the Tagg Pettracker also can provide temperature-based alerts and also functions as an activity monitor much like fitness trackers like the Fitbit Flex or other fitness trackers.

The first weekend after they arrived, I took out all the trackers, created an account on the Tagg website and created profiles for both Crockett and Zoe. After that, I attempted to associate each of the trackers with the dogs’ profiles by activating them. The activation itself seemed simple enough; using their website you pick which pet the tracker is being associated to and provide an ID code from the back of the pet tracker before placing the tracker on the base station. After sitting on the base station for a little while, the tracker is then activated and ready to be put on a dog. This went very smoothly for the first tracker.

However, the second tracker was more problematic. It was failing after punching in the ID. I checked numerous times and tried to re-enter it, but nothing I tried would help and the error message I got back was very non-specific. Much to my chagrin, I wound up having to call in and speak to their customer service team. After waiting on hold for nearly 25 minutes, a helpful team member worked through a few things with me. Based on our conversation, I made an assumption that for some reason the ID of this device wasn’t in their system. The case was escalated to their technical team and I was told I’d get a call back in up to 48 business hours.

Roughly a week later without hearing anything back, I just tried to register Crockett’s tracker again out of curiosity. Thankfully, it didn’t give me any problems whatsoever and it activated. I was tempted to call back into their support line to let them know it fixed itself on its own, but I thought it would wind up being a hassle so I didn’t bother. Someone eventually emailed me almost two weeks later to let me know that they were happy the second tracker was activated.

My experience with their customer support was pretty disappointing; hopefully that’s just a byproduct of how new the product is and they’ll improve over time.

Tagg on Dogs

When we were pre-ordering the Tagg Pet Tracker, my initial concern was the size of the device. Based on a few Google Images searches, I was a bit concerned the device would be as big as 90’s-style pager strapped to the dogs’ necks. I was pleasantly surprised to find out they were quite a bit smaller, about the size of a smart watch with a little extra material to make it more rugged and waterproof. The tracker slides and clips into a bracket that is wrapped around your dog’s collar. At one point as a puppy, Zoe had decided to entertain herself by chewing on and licking her dog tags, which completely rendered them indecipherable. Even though she’s older and hasn’t chewed her newest tags up, I was still worried that she’d start chewing on her Tagg tracker, but so far after a few weeks, both Zoe and Crockett haven’t paid them any mind.

Pet Tracker charging on Base Station -- Front Side Pet Tracker charging on Base Station -- Top Tracker clipped to Zoe's Collar Tracker clipped to Zoe's Collar Tracker on Zoe #1 Tracker on Zoe #2 Tracker on Zoe #3

Tagg Website and Apps

The Tagg Pet Tracker website, Android app and iOS app all worked very well. I didn’t find any features that were present in the iOS app that weren’t in the Android app (or vice versa), and the only feature that I found on the website that wasn’t available on the mobile apps was the ability to perform the initial activation. When I first set up my notifications, I had signed up for both the text and email alerts. By the time I installed the smartphone and tablet apps, I was getting the same notification in different forms in about 6 different places, which seemed a bit excessive. Depending on your preference, I’d suggest using a single notification method, although I would suggest to Whistle that they consider allowing you to manage what kind(s) of alerts you get of each type. For example, if Crockett wanders outside of his home base I wouldn’t mind getting a text message, email, and push notification on all of my devices.

One thing to note is that there doesn’t appear to be a tablet version of the iOS app. I found that using the phone app on my iPad Air to be a bit clunky and didn’t work too well. I had a very hard time with the username/password entry using the on-screen keyboard. Thankfully some copying/pasting allowed me to work around that issue. Once I was logged into the app, I didn’t encounter any additional issues. Hopefully in the future versions of the iOS app will support the phone and tablet layouts equally.

Pet Tracker charging on Base Station -- Front Side Pet Tracker charging on Base Station -- Top Tracker clipped to Zoe's Collar Tracker clipped to Zoe's Collar Tracker on Zoe #1 Tracker on Zoe #2 Tracker on Zoe #3

We “Lost” Zoe

The day after getting the Tagg Pet Tracker, Zoe cut her paw running around outside. It looked like a big, nasty paper cut, which after some doggy first-aid and a couple hours’ worth of time hadn’t stopped bleeding. We decided to take Zoe to our vet and within 5 minutes of leaving the house both Julia and I received this notification simultaneously on our smartphones:

From within the application, it gave us last known approximate locations and the option to track the location as well as options to give you directions to that location. We were in the car at the time, so it was pretty apparent that the GPS data wasn’t quite in real-time, but it was recent. By the time we’d gotten to the vet’s office and into an examination room, her location had updated to the vet’s office. It was informative to see the Tagg Pet Tracker in action without having to actually lose one of our dogs.

Anrdoid notification Tagg Tracker Status showing Zoe's status Zoe's last location and our current location Zoe's last location and our current location

Battery Life

Among the things I wanted to include in this review was my thoughts on the battery life. Based on my initial research on the product, I was expecting to charge the unit on a weekly basis. However, what I’ve found instead is that as long as the pet spends most of its time near the base station, the battery life is excellent. I’ve had the Tagg Pet Tracker now for over 3 weeks and both batteries seem to be near half full. Initially, I wanted to run the batteries all the way down to empty and include how long that took as part of this review, but considering how long they’ve lasted so far, I was a little worried I’d not get to publish this review for a few more weeks!

Naturally with battery life, your actual mileage is probably going to vary a bit. The components on the Tagg Pet Tracker which eat the most battery are going to be the GPS and mobile data hardware within the tracker. If you spend a lot of time away from your home with your dog or if your dog escapes, I expect that the battery would drain much quicker. Despite the long battery life, my suggestion would be to not let the Tagg Pet Tracker’s battery get too low because you can’t predict when a dog might get loose. My plan moving forward is to charge them when I see that they’re around half full.


It’s been nearly a month and I think that the Tagg Pet Tracker is a nifty little product. Despite mobile data and GPS hardware within it, it is still small enough that it doesn’t bother the dogs to the point they try and get it off. Zoe and Crockett have been wearing their trackers for a combined total of 40-50 days so far without any issues. We’ve had unusually rainy weather which has kept us confined more than usual, so we’ve been nice and close to the base station, which is part of the reason why we’ve had so little battery use. But we’ve made trips to the vet, the pet store, agility lessons and our group obedience classes too. We’ve spent more than a few hours away from the base station and it didn’t result in a dramatic drain on the battery.

The activity-tracking component of the Tagg Pet Tracker is interesting. It’s fun to see which dog is more hyper than the other (Zoe, by far) and I can see how the activity tracker would be helpful in helping maintain a healthy amount of activity if your vet has recommended that Fido be a bit more active.

Most importantly, I feel a bit better equipped to handle the next escapade that the dogs might lead us on. If either dog gets out of our sight, I feel a bit better that with the help of friends, family, and neighbors we’d be able to corral the little bugger much faster.

For Sale: HRE 547 Wheels

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Update (6/15/15): A few people had responded to my blog/forum posts/Craigslist ad and I was lucky enough to find a buyer for the wheels and tires today. The buyer is putting them on his own C5 Corvette after getting them touched up and into showroom condition. I hope he shares a few pics with me, so that I can update this blog down the road!

I recently upgraded the wheels and bought new tires for my 2002 Corvette Z06 and I’ve had the old wheels and tires sitting in my garage for a couple weeks, so I thought I’d try and sell them. I’m writing this blog, posting them in a couple area Corvette forums, and listing them on Craigslist this weekend. I decided that I’d buy new tires this spring and while I was shopping for tires I got the urge to get my car looking closer to stock by putting a set of the original wheels on my car.


The wheels are HRE 547s with the standard step lip, it’s an old model from HRE Wheels which apparently are no longer listed on their website. When I bought the car, they could be found under the “Past Collections” section, but as of the writing of this blog I’m not able to find them there anymore. If you’d like to see the HRE 547s from another source, there are usually a few sets listed on eBay for sale.

I don’t know much about the wheels. They were on the car when I bought it from Carmax three years ago and they had the typical amount of wear & tear on them. I’m sure in the three years I’ve owned the Z06, I’ve probably added a bit of wear myself. The wheels are all the stock size for the C5 Z06: 17x9.5” up front and 18x10.5” in the back.

#1 #2


The tires are also the stock sizes for the C5 Z06: 265/40/17 for the front and 295/35/18 in the rear. They’re Continental Extreme Contact DW Tuned. I wound up replacing the tires mostly because I wanted to have some fun on some brand-new tires but also secondarily because the rear tires were getting close to needing replacement. I decided to include the tires just in case someone was upgrading the wheels on their Corvette and didn’t have new tires to put on them.


Considering the condition of the wheels and the prices I’ve found on similar wheels across the Internet, I think $1000 for all four wheels and tires is a fair price.

I’d like to avoid the hassle of shipping & handling, so at the moment I’m only considering offers from buyers in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area here in Texas.

If you have any questions, please feel free to use the comments below and I’ll answer them as quickly as I can. If you prefer anonymity, please feel free to send me an e-mail.

I think the price is pretty competitive but I’m also willing to consider offers. However, I’m not really willing to consider low-ball offers. Any offer below 90% of the price above is going to be rejected and probably ignored. If it turns out my price is unrealistic, I’ll lower the price. Please hold on to your offer until it’s within 90% of the price.


This weekend I took the wheels out of the garage and detailed them (I’m not a very good detailer) so that I could take some pictures. The pictures haven’t been altered at all for this blog. If you’d like, here’s a ZIP file containing all the pictures (39 pictures, 76MB) that you can download and look at on your own. Where there’s wear and tear on the wheels, I tried to take close-up pictures so you can see the condition the wheels are in. The resolution of the pictures is 3648 X 2048, so don’t forget to zoom in!

All Wheels

#1 #2 #4 #4 #5

Front – Driver Side

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 Wear & Tear #1 Wear & Tear #2 Wear & Tear #3 Remaining Tread

Front – Passenger Side

#1 #2 #3 Wear & Tear #1 Remaining Tread

Rear – Driver Side

#1 #2 #3 #4 Wear & Tear #1 Wear & Tear #2 Wear & Tear #3 Remaining Tread

Rear – Passenger Side

#1 #2 #3 #4 Wear & Tear #1 Wear & Tear #2 Remaining Tread

DIY NAS: EconoNAS 2015

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Giveaway Update (07/01/15): Congratulations to Charles Moye for being the lucky contestant (out of 350-something) for winning the 2015 EconoNAS. I’m very pleased, this is a 50% increase over the number of entries in the 2014 EconoNAS! I’ll set it back to default settings, get it boxed up and ship it either this weekend or early next week. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly and we’ll get this moving along. The rest of you, it’s time to start building your own EconoNAS and share it here! Alternatively, you can wait for the next giveaway, probably early next year. Thanks to everybody who participated, you may not have won this NAS but you’ve all but guaranteed that I’ll do another giveaway next time around!

Ever since building and blogging about my own NAS back in early 2012, I’ve been carrying on the tradition every six months or so by building out a new NAS. This year has been no different—at the beginning of the year, I built the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition which featured a maximum capacity of 24TB at around $1,600. But in my opinion, that’s not a very budget-friendly price tag.

As an answer to that blog, each year I also put together an additional NAS build but with a different focus: minimizing costs and get every last drop out of each dollar spent as I possibly can. I named these builds the EconoNAS. This year I took some calculated risks and did things a little bit differently. I bought parts much earlier in the year so that I could start a series of blogs evaluating different NAS packages. I essentially wound up gambling that the prices of parts I bought would fall down to an acceptable level for the newest EconoNAS build.

Here’s my set of goals for the EconoNAS build this year:

  • Total price below $750 (extra bonus for keeping it around $500).
  • At least two drives of parity data.
  • More total storage than the 8TB in the 2014 EconoNAS.
  • Some room for future upgrades.

The last two goals are probably the hardest to achieve. Firstly, hard drive prices seem to be pretty stagnant. I like to keep each NAS build blog up-to-date for at least 6-12 months; in those months the hard drive prices barely move at all. Considering that hard drives typically account for the majority of expense in NAS builds, this makes adding more storage for the same price (or less!) pretty difficult. Additionally, wanting to leave room in the case and on the motherboard for future upgrades typically ends up in having to scratch most of the extremely economical motherboards off the list.

If I have my own NAS that I’m perfectly happy with and I’m still building and blogging about new ones at the rate of two a year, that begs the question: What am I doing with all these extra NAS machines? I raffle them off for one of my readers to win! The details of the giveaway can be found at the bottom of this blog.

CPU & Motherboard

For every NAS that I’ve built, this is the component that I put the most effort into selecting. I’ve got a set of criteria that I like to use when shopping for a motherboard for a NAS, and there just aren’t that many motherboards that meet that criteria. When they do meet that criteria they tend to be a bit expensive, which is a concern for the economical NAS build. Here’s the criteria that I considered when searching for this year’s EconoNAS motherboard:

  • Relatively inexpensive (<$100)
  • At least 6 SATA ports.
  • Onboard Gigabit
  • Basic integrated Video
  • Room for Upgrades:
    • Free DIMM slots for memory upgrades in the future.
    • Additional SATA Ports or PCI-E expansion slots to handle additional hard drives.
    • Room in the case for additional HDDs down the road.
    • Support for faster CPUs.

The motherboard that I wound up selecting is the ASRock H97 Pro4 (specs) which, to my surprise, met or exceeded each of my criteria. The LGA 1150 motherboard supports a wide range of CPUs, which allowed me to select the inexpensive Intel Pentium Processor G3220 (specs). Other important features of the motherboard included: 4xDDR-3 DIMM slots for up to 32GB of RAM, 6xSATA3 6.0GB/s, onboard Intel gigabit network controller, and a smorgasbord of different PCI slots. In my opinion the ASRock H97 Pro4 is an ideal motherboard to use as the foundation of an inexpensive NAS.

Running Total: $165.44


Depending on which NAS distribution you pick, you can go just about any direction with memory. You can spend a little (and get a little) or you can spend a bunch (and get a bit more). Many NAS zealots will point out that ECC RAM is the best option for the sanctity of your data, a point I have no squabble with. However, I think the risks of using non-ECC RAM are acceptable and manageable. Since budget is a driving force behind this NAS, I’d rather save the money on the RAM and motherboard and go with non-ECC memory. This led to me buying two sticks of Kingston Value RAM 4GB 1600MHz PC3-12800 DDR3 (specs), which also happened to be a slight upgrade from last year’s 1333MHz RAM. As far as I’m aware, 8GB of RAM meets or exceeds the minimum requirements of the most popular NAS distributions.

Running Total: $217.32


The case and power supply I picked out signify what I think is both the best and worst of my decision making for this build. I picked out the NZXT Source 220 Mid-Tower Case (specs), which is a feature-laden and budget-friendly mid-tower case. It is the big brother of the case I purchased when I last upgraded my PC, as well as the same case I picked out for the 2013 and 2014 editions of the EconoNAS. I really like this line of cases, and this newest version is no different. It’s easy to work inside, it has room for many hard drives (up to 11), and has an interesting tool-less drive-mounting system. About the only thing I didn’t like was the amount of vibration I could hear using the tool-less drive-mounting system, especially when you have a bunch of drives in there all spinning at the same time. This noise caused me to dig up some screws and mount the hard drives in a more typical fashion. Despite that one complaint, I love the NZXT Source 220 Mid-Tower Case, which has lots of features at a very reasonable price.

Now the bad: I wound up looking for the best deal I could possibly find on a power supply and I wound up carelessly selecting the Rosewill ATX 350W PS (specs). It was very inexpensive and well-reviewed, so I thought it’d work great with what I’d picked out. Unfortunately I found out two things: it didn’t have enough SATA power connectors and its 4-pin 12v ATX cable was too short to reach from the bottom of the case to the top of the motherboard. To take care of these, I had to buy 3 Molex-to-SATA Power adapters and an extension for 4-pin ATX 12V CPU power cable. Rather than repeat my mistake, I’d suggest spend a few dollars more ($7-12) on a power supply with those features already built in.

Running Total: $314.50



In the past, I’ve focused on NAS distributions which are lightweight enough to run on a USB flash drive. The beauty of running the OS from a flash drive is that your physical HDDs can be used solely for storage of your data. Additionally, USB drives are inexpensive enough that it’s easy to keep 2-3 around for backups and use when upgrading your NAS to the latest distribution. As with recent blogs, I picked the SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB (specs). I’ve used these for almost every NAS that I’ve built and I’ve had nothing but good experiences. Furthermore, its slim profile allows it to be installed in the USB ports on the back of the machine without obtrusively sticking out.

NAS Hard Disk Drives

This is where I encourage everybody to seriously consider veering from my build. Hard drives typically account for at least 50% of the cost of a NAS, and when building an economical NAS you should expect that percentage to creep up higher. You may need more storage or you may need less, so when building your NAS build it to suit your needs.

I’m taking a little bit more risk in my hard drive selection. Readers of my past NAS builds should note that I usually encourage users to buy similarly sized drives but from different makers to reduce the likelihood of buying drives that could all originate from the same batch. That way if a batch of drives is plagued with a manufacturing defect, you don’t wind up having to worry that every drive in your array may have come from that batch.

I found a good deal on the HGST Deskstar 2TB (specs) which I felt was too good to pass up, especially after reading Backblaze’s recent updates to their drive reliability report. In the report the HGST drives, especially the 2TB model, seem to be particularly reliable. After reading this report, I felt comfortable with buying 5 of the HGST 2TB drives for a maximum total of 10TB of potential storage.

Unfortunately, if you’re following the comments on the blog, you’ll see that at least one person has had a hard time finding this great hard drive at a comparable price (see my update at the bottom for full details). I expect to run into problems like this with each EconoNAS blog but to experience it within the first day of the blog being published is a first! So, in the event that you’re trying to build exactly this configuration and can’t find the same drive, I think that the HGST Deskstar 2TB (0F10311) is also an excellent drive spoken very highly of in Backblaze’s drive quality report. The good news about this drive is that it appears to be a better deal ($5-10) cheaper, so I’ve gone ahead and updated this blog to reflect its new price.

Final Price: $680.49

ASRock H97 Pro4 Intel Pentium G3220 Kingston Value RAM 4GB 1600MHz PC3-12800 DDR3 NZXT Source 220 Midtower Case Rosewill 350W ATX Power Supply Molex to SATA Power Adapter 4-pin ATX Power Extension HGST 2TB Hard Drive SanDisk 8GB USB Flash Drive

Hardware Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the hardware I picked out. I’m especially pleased at how much it has dropped in price since I originally shopped for of the parts. For a while there I was pretty worried that my “econo”-NAS wasn’t going to wind up being much cheaper than the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition. In a perfect world, the EconoNAS would be closer to $500 than it wound up being this year. But all things considered, it has wound up being a nice upgrade when compared to the prior year’s EconoNAS. Especially the fact that when similarly configured, this year’s NAS has 50% more usable storage (roughly 6TB vs 4TB) than last year’s EconoNAS.

Hardware Assembly, Burn-In, and Configuration


It’s been a couple months between when I built the machine and wrote this blog, so my memory’s a bit fuzzy. But from what I recall, the actual assembly went pretty smoothly. I didn’t run into any issues putting things together. Aside from what I previously mentioned: I discovered that the power supply I picked had an inadequate number of SATA power connectors that had to be remedied by a few molex-to-SATA power adapters and it also needed an extension cable for the 4-pin 12V to reach from the bottom of the case to the top of the motherboard.

There’s a likely chance that there’s not enough SATA cables to hook up all 5 of the HGST Deskstar 2TB hard drives included with the motherboard. After only having 2 SATA cables packaged with the motherboard on my first and second NAS builds, I bought a bulk bag of SATA cables so that I’d always have extra in case I needed them. The cables that came with the ASRock H97 Pro4 were black and there were only four of them, so I replaced all four with red ones from my collection. I really liked that the NZXT Source 220 had the motherboard punched out so that I could run some of the extra SATA cable length behind the motherboard.

All components, ready to go ASRock H97 Pro4 ASRock H97 Pro4 w/ Intel Pentium G3220 NZXT Source 220 NZXT Source 220 - Hard Drive Mounting Tray #1 NZXT Source 220 - Hard Drive Mounting Tray #2 NZXT Source 220 Preparing NZXT Source 220 for Motherboard install ASRock H97 Installed #1 ASRock H97 Installed #2 HGST 2TB HDDs installed using mounting tray #1 HGST 2TB HDDs installed using mounting tray #2 HGST 2TB HDDs installed using screws #1 HGST 2TB HDDs installed using screws #2 4-pin 12V ATX 8 Fully Assembled Fully Assembled interior front Fully Assembled interior rear


The 2015 EconoNAS got the same burn-in as the prior NAS builds. Firstly, a couple days’ worth of Memtest86+ to validate and put the memory through its paces. Anything more than 3-4 passes in Memtest86+ is excessive; my test only went on that long because I got busy and neglected it. On top of that, I ran roughly 24 hours of stresslinux to put some strain on the system. Both of these tests came back positive without any errors or instability occurring during the tests. Furthermore, I used this system extensively when working on the initial NAS Roundup blog. I tinkered with several NAS distributions on this hardware and didn’t experience any issues during that testing. Finally, the machine has been running with FreeNAS on it nonstop for a couple of months.


The biggest challenge in getting this configured was picking which of the NAS distributions I’d evaluated so far that I wanted to go on the NAS. In the past, I’d exclusively configured my NAS builds to use FreeNAS. However, having recently evaluated both NAS4Free and OpenMediaVault, I was tempted to run OpenMediaVault on this year’s EconoNAS build. But ultimately the ZFS file system and my experience with my three prior NAS builds left FreeNAS as the most appropriate choice in my eyes.

FreeNAS Installation and General Configuration

Installing FreeNAS is simple. You boot a machine using their installer ISO and tell it which device you want FreeNAS installed to, in this case the SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB. The next significant step in the installation process is to provide the root user’s password. The installation concludes when you’re prompted to remove the installer ISO and boot from your FreeNAS drive. Once it’s booted from the FreeNAS USB drive, the remainder of the work can be done from within the FreeNAS web user interface.

When you initially log in to the FreeNAS web interface, you’re prompted to use an installation wizard which walks you through enough setup to get your NAS functional. I think that initial wizard is pretty handy; however, there’s a configuration step or two that I also like to do not covered by the wizard, so I skipped the wizard. The first thing that I did was to change the hostname to “EconoNAS.” Mostly, I did this because my own FreeNAS box is still running the default hostname, and having two machines with the same hostname tends to be problematic. After that was changed, I updated the timezone information in the General settings. Followed by that, I configured the Email punching in my SMTP server details, updated the Root user’s email address to my own and sent a test email. In the network setup, I specified the default gateway and DNS addresses to what’s appropriate for my home network here.

FreeNAS Services Configuration

From the Services screen, I turned on the following services: CIFS, iSCSI, S.M.A.R.T., SNMP, and SSH. Depending on your environment and what you want to play with, you may want to enable more of the services. For the most part, I left each service using its default values except for CIFS and S.M.A.R.T. Within the CIFS configuration, I updated the NetBIOS name to read “EconoNAS” and within the S.M.A.R.T. configuration, I entered my email address so that the S.M.A.R.T. errors would wind up in my inbox.

FreeNAS Volume and Share Configuration

Setting up the volume, dataset, and share is the heart of your NAS configuration. As part of this I created a new Group called “ShareUsers” and a new user whose username and password matched the credentials that I use on my primary PC. That user was added into the ShareUser group. The user and the group would be assigned the appropriate file and share permissions once they were created.

Then I launched into getting a new FreeNAS volume created. For its configuration, I added all five of the 2TB drives to the volume and chose Raid-Z2, which provides the two drives’ worth of parity data. Once the ZFS Volume was created, I went ahead and modified the scrub schedule to run every 14 days instead of the default value. The scrub is responsible for detecting and fixing some problems and corruption. Scrubbing more frequently was a best-practices suggestion that was made to me on the FreeNAS forums because I decided to use consumer-level hard drives and Non-ECC RAM in my own NAS, much like in this EconoNAS.

Once the ZFS volume was created, I added a new ZFS dataset to that volume. I named that ZFS dataset “share” and set the share type to Windows. After the Share dataset was created, I tinkered with the permissions; setting user FreeNAS account as the owner, changing the owning group to the “ShareUsers” group and making sure that both owners (group & user) had Read, Write, and Execute permissions on the dataset.

I then created a CIFS share named “share” (I’m so creative!) and pointed it at the /mnt/volume1/share path. Finally, I opened a Windows File Explorer and browsed to the appropriate share path. My local credentials were used to authenticate to FreeNAS and the share path opened right up. For grins, I created a new text file to make sure that all of the permissions that I was expecting were in place and as expected I didn’t have any issues creating or updating a simple text file.

Selecting to Boot the FreeNAS Installer FreeNAS Installer Booting Up Picking the Desintation drive for FreeNAS Picking the Desintation drive for FreeNAS Picking the Fresh Install Option Confirming Installtion Details Picking the Root User Password FreeNAS Installation Complete FreeNAS Booted up for First Time Initial Login to FreeNAS UI Updating the FreeNAS Hostname Picking Appropriate Time Zone SMTP Settings Updating Root User's Email Test Email Received Network Configuration Enabling FreeNAS Services Configuring CIFS Configuring S.M.A.R.T. Creating the ShareUsers Group Creating a user for Brian Setting up the FreeNAS Volume FreeNAS Volume Details Post-Volume Creation Updating Scrub scheduling Creating a dataset for the Share Configuring permissions to the Share Dataset Creating Windows Share Validating Share creation and functionality


In a tradition that I started with the 2014 EconoNAS and continued this year with the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition, I am going to raffle this NAS off to one of the blog’s supporters. Here’s essentially how the giveaway works:

  1. You follow my blog and myself on Twitter, the blog’s Facebook page and the blog’s Google+ page.
  2. You retweet or share the promotional posts from these social networks (links below) with your own friends and followers. (Note: Make sure that your share is public, otherwise I won’t be able to see it and give you credit!)
  3. Your name gets entered up to three times (once per social network) in a drawing.
  4. After a month or so, I’ll pick a winner at random and announce it here.

Here’s a link to the best posts to promote for each social network:

If there are any questions, please go read the #FreeNASGiveaway rules page, I explain it in a bit more detail there. Please keep in mind, it’s more about the “spirit” of these rules, rather than the letter of the law. If you go to the trouble of helping promote my blog, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you get an entry into the giveaway. The best way to make sure you get your entry is to follow the steps above.


05/29/15: Well it certainly didn’t take long for the first update. The HGST Deskstar 2TB (0F12117) is apparently out of stock on Amazon as brand-new drives at reasonable prices. I poked around a few of my favorite computer-parts websites and the only ones I found had been marked up to well over $100 (way to gouge people looking for an exact replacement, shameless retailers!). I’ve crudely updated this blog with an equivalent drive which seems to be in stock on Amazon. This is one of the dangers I’ve found in the EconoNAS builds, great prices don’t last long so we’ll see how long it lasts!

07/01/15: Announced Charles Moye as the winner of the 2015 EconoNAS. Congratulations, Charles!