Another incredibly cheap digital meter

Posted on December 13th, 2011 in Driving Emotion,testing,tools by Julian Edgar

The story that we ran on the very low cost digital temperature display has proved to be extremely popular – hardly surprising, when only a few years ago such a display would have cost well over AUD$100. It is well made, has excellent functionality, and at a cost delivered to your house of about $25, absolutely unbeatable value.

But there’s also another digital display available at an unprecedented price. It’s not of direct relevance to cars or car modification, but if you’re interested in technical stuff, it’s a very good buy.

So what is it?

It’s a mains-powered LED panel meter that displays mains voltage. In other words, it constantly reads out the supply voltage to your house.

If you live in an area where you can see your (filament) lights dimming and brightening as loads are switched on and off inside the house, or switched on and off by neighbours, there are probably substantial variations from the nominal supply voltage.

Here in Australia the standard supply voltage is 230V with a plus tolerance of 10 per cent and a minus tolerance of 6 per cent – so from 216 – 253V. (Yes, isn’t that a huge range!)

At my house, in rural New South Wales, the monitored supply voltage has always stayed within those guidelines – but it has certainly used up a lot of that range!

The meter shows the turning on and off of an electric jug (the resulting voltage drop is about 2V) and clearly shows when the electric water heater cuts in and out. You can also see in winter when people in the hamlet are cranking-up the heaters, and in summer when they’re turning on the air-conditioners.

Cost of the meter? Just AUD$19 delivered to your door. Do an eBay search to find it and similar meters.

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Driving something different

Posted on November 30th, 2011 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,tools by Julian Edgar

Back here  I raved about how much fun I had driving a Bobcat (or, more correctly a skid-steer Cat 226 B2).

I’d hired it to clear the site for my new home workshop, a step I’d taken as a result of getting crazily high quotes for others to do the work. Before hiring the Cat, I’d thought it might be rather fun to drive such a machine, but after only a few minutes of driving the Cat around my block, I knew it was much better than that – it was just an absolute blast.

So when I needed an absorption trench dug, I didn’t bother getting quotes for others to do it – instead, I went off and hired a small excavator.

As with the skid-steer machine, the hire company was happy to deliver the excavator to my place, and – again as with the skid steer – they gave me just a short tuition in operating the machine before heading off.

So what did I have this time?

The machine was a Cat 301.8, a 1.8 tonne machine boasting only 14kW from its little naturally aspirated diesel. It had a grader blade at one end and an excavator arm at the other, complete with three different buckets to choose from. It ran on rubber tracks.

Compared with the skid-steer, it was harder to drive – more levers sprouted within the cabin and their use seemed less intuitive.

So it was harder – but was it fun? Well, no, not really. And definitely not in the same way as the Bobcat.

Look, if I get a chance to drive a little excavator again I’ll take it – but I won’t be wildly excited. To me the machine felt like a workhorse, a slow plodder that dug my trench, put the spoil to one side, carried the rocks to fill the excavation, and then pushed the soil back over the top.

But its movement from place to place was akin to a snail, tree roots required tedious successive bites with the bucket, and when you tried to do multiple operations simultaneously, you could feel the engine slow. I even stalled it a few times – interesting, when there’s no clutch!

Good aspects were its ability to rotate while keeping the tracks still (and it didn’t make me feel sick as I thought it might) and, as with the skid steer, the subtlety of control was impressive.

Now a much bigger, more powerful excavator? Now I reckon that would be a heap of fun…

Better bike lights

Posted on November 13th, 2011 in Opinion,pedal power by Julian Edgar

We’ve previously covered in AutoSpeed building your own high quality bike head- and tail-lights. For my money the best design of DIY headlight was the one covered here  – it’s super-bright, has a broad beam that has excellent penetration, and is durable.

However, there have been two problems will all the light systems we’ve covered: the control electronics, and the battery.

To efficiently run high intensity LEDs you need a DC/DC converter that maintains LED current as battery voltage falls. Furthermore, an indication of battery level is important. Finally, it is best if flashing and steady modes are available. Doing these things with DIY electronics is of course possible (and we’ve previously covered some techniques for making your own) but the end result adds up in cost and size.

And batteries? To build your own pack that’s waterproof and compact is a harder ask than it first sounds – and then, what about a charger? In fact, I’ve tended for my own systems to go back to heavy and relatively inefficient sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries – despite their size and weight, they’re easy to charge and come pre-packaged.

But things are rapidly changing. The other day I bought from Aldi (and unfortunately they’ll almost certainly all be gone by the time you read this) a bike headlight system.

It comprises a 3W LED headlight, 2 amp-hour lithium battery pack, mains-powered charger and assorted brackets for mounting the lights and pack. The system has switchable full power, half power and flashing modes. A battery level indicating LED is also fitted.

I have been watching bike lighting systems very closely for years, and I can say with some confidence that a year ago, a system just like this would have cost well over AUD$100.

The Aldi price? Originally $30 and on special at $20!

I bought one set and tested it. Then, on the basis of those tests, I went back and bought another four sets!

The real beauty of the systems is that the headlight can be easily pulled apart. Doing this reveals the use of a standard ‘star’ (eg Luxeon or Cree style) LED. In turn that means the LED can be changed to whatever colour you want – so in one system I have swapped-in a red tail light LED. (Bright? You’d better believe it!)

The smart LED control electronics can also be easily wired to a non-standard light. So I use one system to power the original glass-and-stainless steel 3W headlight I built in the story referenced at the beginning of this piece.

Are the results good?

Especially with some modifications, for the price I think they’re unbeatable.

A seminal paper… published in 1956

Posted on November 2nd, 2011 in automotive history,pedal power,Suspension by Julian Edgar

Back here I described my search for the lightest possible springs for a lightweight human-powered vehicle. Although I didn’t say so at the time, it had been my desire to use rubber – light, cheap and readily available.

However, as that article describes, I found it impossible to find a rubber (or elastomer) approach that allowed high spring deflections without overstressing the rubber. High suspension deflections were possible with rubber, but in turn that required high motion ratios (ie leverage) that resulted in large stresses in the suspension arms and spring seats.

However, since writing that article in 2007, I have been reading everything I can find on using rubber as suspension springs – and I have to tell you, there’s not a lot around.

But today I found a paper that I think is worth sharing with you. I can’t share the content – it’s copyright – but I can say it’s the best treatment of using rubber as vehicle springs that I have seen. It was published in 1956 and the author is Alex Moulton, the man who later developed the rubber springing used in the Mini, and the rubber-and-fluid suspension used in the Mini, Austin 1800, Morris 1100 and other vehicles.

You can buy the paper from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Proceedings Archive here – it will cost you US$30.

If you are interested in lightweight vehicles with sophisticated suspension design, I think it’s a must-read.


Of mental grit and determination

Posted on September 29th, 2011 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

In my day-job as a trainer in business writing, I am often asked by people within my audience to comment on Gen Y employees.

Frequently the question comes after I have talked about different learning styles, or about writing for different audiences. Invariably, the question (usually being asked by a middle-aged person of their middle-aged trainer – that’s me) is said with a knowing grin and a slightly curled lip.

“So what do you think of the learning style of Gen Ys?”

There is an obvious expectation that I will say something like: “Oh Gen Y? Yep, they’re hard to please, have poor attention skills and want everything presented to them on a plate.”

Trouble is, I don’t say anything like that at all.

Instead I say something like: “Isn’t it just fantastic how Gens Ys are so quick to absorb information, and are so effective at isolating – and then asking – the key questions?”

At this point the questioner assumes a rather sour question and you can see them thinking: I thought he’d be one of us!

In fact, I think you can point to a deficiency that limits practical outcomes – but I don’t think it has anything to do with age.

And nor do I think it has a great deal to do with intelligence.

Instead, I think the most important point is intellectual rigor.

But what does this mean?

In the way I am using it, it means a willingness to do the hard mental yards. That doesn’t necessarily involve high level or incredibly abstract thought; instead it’s about not being mentally lazy.

Yes it sounds so very conservative, traditional – school-teacherish, even. (I was once a school teacher.)

But it explains so much.

Take the development of a business case.

In my job I see many written business cases. These normally suggest that a certain path should be followed, one that typically involves the expenditure of lots of money. Obviously, such a business case needs clearly enunciated justifications.

When training in writing, I describe to the group the requirements for mounting a strong business case – aspects like using effective proofs that support the key premise, for example.  No one suggests this approach isn’t effective.

But do they do this in their own business cases? Nope, too much mental effort to carefully and rigorously follow such criteria.

Of course, people don’t say: “That’s too hard.”

Instead they rationalise the lack of effort in another way – oh, they say, we don’t need that much detail in this business case anyway.

At a completely different level, I can – and do – talk about effective proofreading techniques, those you can implement after you have finished writing. People nod their heads as I carefully explain why each of three different proofreading techniques works, and why it is important to have error-free documents. (Or as error-free as humanly possible, anyway.)

Their documents? Often full of the most basic errors. “There’s no time to do any proof-reading,” they say.

Nope, I think: you just don’t want to go to the mental effort.

And of course this idea applies in spades to the hobby we share. Especially if you’re going your own way in car modifications, developing and testing those modifications requires major amounts of intellectual rigour.  Of mental grit and determination.

Right now, I am playing with the rear aerodynamics on one of my cars. I have a spoiler stuck together from plastic Corflute and I am up to – I think – my eighth different design iteration. So far, I have spent perhaps 20 hours reading background material, making different designs and testing them. This amount of time doesn’t include the fuel economy runs – they’re up to several weeks of measurement.

Am I getting sick of it?

You bet.

Would I like to take some mental shortcuts?


Am I going to do so? No.

And at this type of stuff, I’m just a veritable mental lightweight.

Talk to anyone – anyone – who has invented a commercially successful product.

Learn about the years and years of demanding work, fighting battles against those who disbelieved, thinking hard for hour after hour after hour, week after week, and sometimes year after year, about how the product, the idea, could be improved.

Immense mental determination – immense intellectual rigor.

Over the years I have met plenty of people with absolute mental stamina. As it happens, Brendan Taylor, one of the directors of Web Publications (the company that owns this publication), is one of them. When I first met him, he would work a normal 8 hour day, then work a second half-day from 10 or 11pm until well into the early hours of the morning.

All the while thinking hard.

And I have met others who also drive their brains hard, pushing and pushing. To reiterate a point: they’re not necessarily intellectually brilliant. They just won’t let themselves take mental shortcuts.

But there are plenty who instead choose to park their brains in neutral, slumping down in front of the idiot box or sitting on the couch, laptop in hand while they contribute drivel to some discussion group full of like-folk.

Instead they could be out in the shed, bullying their brains to fit a turbo exhaust manifold into that space that looks way too small…

Intellectual rigor.

It’s not something you get from a training session, or likely even inherited with your genes.

It’s just something you make yourself do.

A radical reduction in the price of small industrial bits

Posted on September 9th, 2011 in Driving Emotion by Julian Edgar

If you have been reading AutoSpeed for a long time, it’s very likely that you like making things for your car. And if you have followed our longstanding approach, it’s also very likely that you like using bits in your car that were never intended for automotive applications!

Things like cappuccino pumps to power intercooler water sprays, or pneumatic valves and fittings to build your own boost control. Or DIY electronic modules to power an added airflow meter… things like that.

This sort of lateral thinking is great – often, you can achieve an outcome that’s better than taking a more traditional approach. It can also lead you into all sorts of interesting shops – specialist industrial hose and hydraulics suppliers, electronic components shops – even those selling parts intended just for trucks.

But something that has always annoyed me has been the very high prices this type of reseller charges. That’s partly because they have quite different pricing for retail and trade customers (why? – especially if both buy just one-off parts) and also because, with a relatively small turnover and a large amount of stock, you’re paying for stuff that may sit on the shelves for years.

So clamps and clips and fittings and small valves – they’ve all cost a motza.

But – and this has happened only very recently – sellers on eBay have now turned to industrial supplies.

I’ve been browsing this area and the prices are simply unbelievably low. Including international freight to your door, I’d say that prices for small industrial bits and pieces are up to one-tenth the dollars I’ve been charged over the years.

Need boost hose fittings or valves? Want a pressure sensor that will interface with electronics? In fact, talking about electronics, want some off-the-shelf pre-built modules? What about nuts and bolts, solenoids, spray nozzles, small pneumatic cylinders – it goes on and on.

So if you are building something yourself that requires small industrial parts, go first to eBay.

I sure will.

Your living choice to make

Posted on May 23rd, 2011 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Back in early 2009 I wrote a blog post that created a lot of rancorous feedback. On the basis of objectively measurable criteria like air pollution, house prices and traffic congestion, I said I was amazed that Sydney continued to grow when pretty everyone who lives there could move somewhere else and so enjoy a potentially better quality of life.

The yells of outrage were massive. People variably stated that:

– they had to remain in Sydney because of their job (must be an incredible job if it is available nowhere else)

– they had to remain in Sydney for medical care (what level of care is needed that is available in Sydney and nowhere else?)

– my suggesting that people would have a better quality of life in places with less pollution, less traffic congestion AND at a lower living cost was somehow elitist (the logic escaped me)

– my sampling of Sydney suburbs was too small (but in fact in the 10 years prior to writing the blog, I had stayed in many different areas of Sydney and had visited dozens upon dozens of Sydney suburbs)

– moving was impossible as people wanted to stay near families (I guess that’s so for many, but on that basis no one would ever have moved anywhere!)

There was also a strong suggestion that it was all very well for me to talk about living elsewhere: my editing and writing job for AutoSpeed could be done electronically, and I lived at Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland – as someone said, an almost idyllic location.

“Ah the joys of writing [for a living]!” said one correspondent. “Delivering the work only an email away, researching only a click away and angry car companies media departments a comfortable distance away.”

So my views were apparently framed within the reference of my unique job, one that allowed me to live anywhere. OK for you, went the implication, but what about the rest of us?

Well, today my job primarily consists in the face-to-face training of people in business writing and reading. (Something , incidentally, I am very happy with: I enjoyed being a teacher before I became an automotive journalist.)

With the change in my vocation, we chose to move from Tamborine Mountain.  And to where did we move? I’ll tell you in a moment.

I see that at the time of writing, the median house price in Sydney has just clicked over AUD$650,000 – a house in Sydney is one of the most expensive of any city in the world.

As a Sydney resident, aged in his early thirties and living in a small unit, said to me the other day:  “I am now realising that, in terms of housing, I will never achieve the quality of life that my parents had.”

And it’s not just Sydney.

In Melbourne the average house price is over $550,000. Australia-wide, the average mortgage is just under $350,000.

My mind boggles at the monthly repayments on houses so expensive.

But there is a different world….and it’s accessible to nearly anyone who lives in Australia.

The location to which we chose to move is in a hamlet in the countryside near Canberra.  The house that we’ve bought cost us vastly less than a typical Sydney home.

And as it happens, it’s a house that’s on a little over an acre of land – so how big a shed do you want for your work on cars?

It’s not a brand new house; neither is it one that is immaculate. Sometime in the next year or so, we’ll probably redo the kitchen, toilets and bathroom.  Right now, we’re doing fencing and painting and floor coverings.

But compared to the average house in a major Australian city, the mortgage repayments are so low that a couple on average incomes could work part-time and still meet living costs. Or one person could choose not to work at all. (Are you old enough to remember those days when typically only one person in a couple had to work?)

From the location it’s a drive of a couple of hours to some great beaches; in winter it’s about the same distance to the snowfields. That makes weekends at the beach or snow dead-easy. It’s about an hour to work – 60 minutes of driving in which I typically pass through just two or three sets of traffic lights and the rest is an enjoyable free-flow on empty country roads. Sometimes, I see only three cars in the first 50 kilometres.

And it’s not just this location that has cleaner air, no traffic congestion, lower house prices, demonstrably lower crime rates, and access to a job. There are literally hundreds of such places around Australia that have those benefits.

Look, if you live in a major Australian city and like it – great. Wonderful. I am genuinely happy for you – it’s good to be happy in your life.

And you’re also in a majority: most Australians live in a handful of relatively large cities.

But if you don’t like how much you pay each month for your mortgage (or rent), or how long you spend each day stuck in traffic breathing fumes, look more widely. It’s not your job or money that is preventing a move: it’s you.

Some great products to buy

Posted on March 22nd, 2011 in Opinion,tools by Julian Edgar


I’ve recently bought three products that I think might interest you.

The first is an OBD reader and display.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a variety of OBD readers, including:

  • Using a data cable that links the OBD port to a smart phone
  • Using a commercial module that acts as an interface between the OBD port and the USB port of a PC and lets you read and reset trouble codes
  • Trialling a commercial unit with a colour screen and ‘live’ dial gauge readout of engine parameters
  • Using a small unit that is left plugged into the OBD port on a continuous basis, logging driving behaviour

(The last one, CarChip, I think is an excellent tool for this sort of continuous logging. To view and graph the data, you just unplug it from the car and connect it to a PC cable. See here for more on this device.)

However, the other OBD units have all been problematic to a greater or lesser degree. The one that looked most promising needed multiple firmware upgrades from the seller before it would work at all, and in the end never operated satisfactorily.

Then I bought a ScanGauge (pictured above). At the time of writing, with the Australian dollar so strong against the US dollar, the ScanGauge can be bought for around AUD$170.

And at that price it’s just a helluva bargain.

I bought it online. It arrived by post the next day: I plugged it into the OBD port, configured it without even glancing at the instructions, and have never had to touch it since.

The parameters I have chosen to select are: coolant temp, manifold pressure, throttle position and intake air temp. (Metric or imperial units are available and all OBD parameters can be displayed.)

Buying and installing dedicated gauges to show me those four parameters would have cost vastly more and taken hours, rather than seconds, to install!

The device can also be configured to show fuel consumption and also some unique, manufacturer-specific data. It’s a favourite in the hybrid community (especially with the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius owners) and I can see why.

I give it 10/10 for value and functionality.


Changing gears completely, I recently bought a new pair of sunglasses, primarily for driving. I last wrote here about sunglasses back in 2002 and now I think things have changed.

This time, the sunglasses were bought from an outdoor store – they’re sold not only for general use but also for snow and mountaineering. I won’t be climbing too many mountains, but behind the steering wheel I find them quite incredible.

They’re Julbo Colorado with polycarbonate Spectron lenses having an anti-reflective coating.

The lenses are claimed to provide 100 per cent UV protection and to reduce visible light transmission by 95 per cent. I don’t really know what those figures mean, but what I find is that they’re just fantastic in reducing glare.

The lenses have a brown tinge (that I don’t like all that much) but the clarity they give driving vision is amazing. The highlights seemed to be reduced in intensity but vision is still possible in the shadows.

And they’re not that expensive – say about AUD$75 here in Australia.


Finally (and don’t say I never give you an eclectic mix!), I recently bought some hammers.

The Australian eBay seller – Pacific Agriculture Forge General – directly imports the hammers and, to coin a phrase, passes on the savings.

The hammers are cross-pein designs and for your money you get a set of three hammers: 2 pound, 3 pound and 4 pound. The heads are drop-forged and hardened and the handles are hickory.

The cost? Just AUD$43 for the lot! (I picked mine up from the Canberra seller, so if you live elsewhere you’ll also need to factor-in postage.)

If you can’t find the vendor on eBay, you can directly email Greg Greet at greetingsurthling (at)

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Manipulating your modification choices

Posted on February 25th, 2011 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

It’s taken a long time but I think that finally the web is now the main source of information for people modifying their cars. I say ‘a long time’ because I honestly expected that state of affairs to be current in perhaps 1995 – rather than six years later.

The benefit of the web being the main info source of car modifiers is that there has never been so much good material available – from enthusiasts’ groups, from manufacturers’ websites and from car modification company websites.

The bad news is now web marketing has become big business in car modification circles – and I am not talking banner ad spots.

Instead I am talking about deliberate and concerted manipulation of opinion through the ownership and infiltration of manufacturer-specific enthusiasts’ sites. 

I heard of one engine management modification company that has a paid team of people (was it seven of them?) who spend all their time posting positive messages about that company’s products to different discussion groups. I heard of another example where a major tuning company – let’s say it was a Volkswagen tuning company – owns a major Volkswagen-specific tuning forum – and of course, ensures that no negative messages about that company stay published. (And that no positives about the opposition appear, too.)

At the time of writing I’ve been on holidays and a bit bored; I have joined a few car modification discussion groups and have been contributing.

Now long-term readers will know I have a love/hate relationship with discussion groups: they can be extremely useful, and they can also be extremely misleading. But in the past I would have said ‘misleading’ because of the general lack of knowledge in what people are talking about – that is, through ignorance they say stuff that is wrong or misleading. But now I’d say ‘misleading’ because, from my position as a very experienced car modifier, I can see specific barrows being pushed.

For example… when selecting a new modified exhaust for your car, you can either buy an off the shelf performance exhaust developed for your model, or you can go along to your local exhaust shop and have them build something for you. There are pluses and minuses of each approach: an off the shelf exhaust is likely to be quiet, to fit well and be typically a low headache purchase. However, it will cost a lot. An exhaust made by a local exhaust workshop can achieve exactly what you want from it (eg retaining the factory cat – or upgrading it, as you wish) and will be cheaper. However, some experimentation might be needed to get the desired outcome. 

That seems a fair enough summary – there will be some other interpretations but this is largely in the ballpark.

But in the discussion forum I was reading, there was a clear and detailed attempt to say that anyone who bought an exhaust from a local exhaust shop was doomed to frustration and by far the best approach was to buy a specific, named, pre-built exhaust. For a post or two I thought the person just didn’t have any idea, but when I realised the length of the posts being written, and how they were so emphatic, I realised a different agenda was being pushed.

I realised it…but many people new to car modification wouldn’t have seen the reason behind the posts. Multiply that by hundreds of posts a day to thousands of discussion groups, and you can see that, at minimum, you should be extremely wary of anyone saying that a specific product is by far the best, or a specific way of doing things (a much more subtle approach) is the only way anyone sane would do it…

Thanks a million

Posted on February 11th, 2011 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Nearly every day in the adult classes I run on writing, I talk about the importance of two things. The first is in writing for your audience; and the second is in gaining effective feedback from that audience.

(These days I work for AutoSpeed only part time: my main job is as a trainer, mostly for the Australian Public Service in Canberra.)

When writing, if you cannot get inside your audience’s heads, you’re lost: you’re writing not for the reader but for yourself. So as a writer, you should always be thinking of your audience: will they understand this word, this concept? Will this interest them? Thinking of them, what is the best way to express these ideas? Would the audience prefer that I use an inductive or deductive approach? Would the story work better for the audience if I include this diagram or that photo?

And so on and so on, right down the screen (or page).

But of course, while the writer can think of the audience, they can never be sure that they’ve hit the right spot. Not without feedback, anyway.

Feedback from the audience can be detailed, it can be analytical and it can be highly structured. Alternatively, it can be very simple, very quick and anonymous. At AutoSpeed we chose the latter, giving readers a 1-5 continuum they can use to assess every page of content on the site. Because it’s simple and anonymous, many people choose to provide feedback.

In fact, as this is published, we will have received close to one million page feedbacks! One million! That’s quite extraordinary – and from a writer’s perspective, it provides immense feedback value.

Feedback helps govern AutoSpeed’s direction; it influences the writing style and it allows us to take major risks with content – and then to see if those risks pay off.

For any given article, I analyse the feedback rating in four ways.

1. The total number of feedbacks closely correlates with the page views of the article, so at a glance I can tell whether the article has been well read – or not.

2. The average score shows how much the article was liked by readers – our one million average (ie the average of all the individual article averages) is currently 2.81, so a comparison of individual articles with that number is easy.

3. The diversity of ratings tells me how much impact the article had on readers – how engaged they were with it. What I want to see is polarisation: readers either loved it or hated it. An even spread of scores from 1 – 5 indicates to me that readers did not become much engaged – and that is not what I want!

4. The change of average rating for an individual article alters over time. This is because initially loyal and longstanding readers rate the article; subsequently a greater mass of readers coming to the article via links and search engine results arrive to give their view. Thus I can see how current and new readers rate material differently.

So thanks if you’ve rated any articles over the years. The information you provided with those clicks – all 1,000,000 of them – helps guide and influence our writing.