Beware black snot

Posted on April 22nd, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Safety,tools by Julian Edgar

If you’ve been sawing, grinding or filing metal, it’s likely that you’ve ended-up with a nose full of it. Not just snot – but black snot.

For years I thought it a just curiosity that resulted from that pursuit.

But now I am rather wary of it.

Recently, after spending a full day cutting and grinding, I started feeling a bit ill. The next day, going back to doing some more cutting and grinding, I wore a light dust mask.

But that night I still had black snot – and a hacking cough.

After a few days of feeling crap, I went to the doctor. I hate going to the doctor, but this one had the advantage of being the most beautiful doctor I’ve ever been to. And what did she say? You’ve got a virus – harden up.

But despite that opinion, I really do wonder if the metal dust that I’d been getting into my lungs didn’t have something to do with it.

Now when cutting and grinding, I wear a half-face respirator that has two double filters, one to catch particulate matter and the other for fumes. The result? No black snot – and filters that after only a few days of work, have changed from white to black.

Better caught in the filter media than in my lungs – or in my snot.

Beware that black snot….

The Underwhelming Mercedes

Posted on April 2nd, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Reviews by Julian Edgar

While I don’t write new car tests any more, whenever I am interstate and have the opportunity to hire a car, I drive it with rather more than usual interest.

So the Camry Hybrid (by now the previous model) was a great disappointment (surely a 10 year old Prius is better in every real-world respect?); and a Hyundai i45 was scarcely any better (what happened to the great Hyundai promise exemplified by the i30?).

And what about the BlueEFFICIENCY C200 Mercedes?

Perhaps I am getting old, with all the implications in both perspective and experience, but I thought the car had a direction that was at times bizarrely stupid.

I have to start with the tyres. Here is a small – not compact, small – car that has simply enormously wide, low profile tyres. Is that good? Nope – not in 99.9 per cent of road driving conditions… in this country, anyway.

So what was the tyre size?

Try 225/40 on 18 inch rims – and that’s crap for ride, crap for fuel economy… and oh yes, great for absolute grip. Just what you need on lousy roads and in a country with heavily-policed, low speed limits – not!

So what’s this BlueEFFICIENCY tag? A hybrid electric/diesel maybe?

Er, no.

It’s a turbocharged 1.8 litre with heaps of torque down low (270Nm at 1800 – 4600 rpm – excellent) and a reasonable amount of power at 135kW. And all connected to a 7 speed auto trans – one that has such terrible gear-changing logic that a five-year-old Honda craps all over it from a great height.

Reads well on the spec sheet; performs poorly on the road.

But what about fuel economy?



Ten years out of date.

On my gentle country drives, I got between 7 and 8 litres/100km. And that’s just what the official government test specs say I should be getting. But isn’t that good? Nope, not if you’re driven anything with similar room that’s powered by a diesel, or by a hybrid.

Or, and this is where it gets ridiculous, even a 20 year-old small/medium car.

Cos the Mercedes had just Godawful interior space. I banged my head against the roof rail above the door several times (there wasn’t room to turn to look around) and at all times I felt myself to be in this little, squashed car.

More room in a 1980s Holden Camira? I’d think so.

More room in a 1960s Austin 1800? Without a doubt, vastly more so.

And then we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. This squashed little car weighs-in at 1470kg. Yep, just under 1.5 tonnes. No wonder the fuel economy is nothing to write home about…

Good aspects? Build quality, the sound system and….hmmm, I’d imagine safety. And I loved the self-tightening seatbelts.

More bad points? Yep, can think of lots of those – the steering vague around centre, the hard seats, the rebound damping that was so overdone it’s ridiculous, the lack of space… oh did I mention that last one already?

At AUD$65,000, why would you bother?

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…

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.

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.

An unexpected modification outcome…

Posted on January 25th, 2011 in Aerodynamics,Driving Emotion,testing by Julian Edgar

One of the most exciting aspects about making car modifications is hitting the road and finding out how the car drives after the performance mods have been made. Recently, after fitting new intercooler plumbing, I did just this – but something rather unexpected happened.

But back a few steps.

I’d installed a new intercooler and built its associated pipework but I’d been a bit unhappy with the plumbing: it was about 80 per cent right but I thought I could do better the second time around. I wanted to change aspects like the tightness and number of bends, and to add some brackets to hold the pipes more securely in place. I also decided that this time I wouldn’t grind back any welds, thus leaving the joins much stronger.

So I measured and cut and welded and painted. The end result was one I was much happier with – I reckoned the revised plumbing fitted better, flowed more freely and would be more durable.

Fitting the plumbing required removing the bumper cover and undertray – a fiddly job. So while the undertray was removed, I decided to add some aero enhancements. Across the full width of the undertray I glued a line of Airtab vortex generators (pictured above). The idea was to encourage the boundary layer to stay attached to the undertray, so better drawing-out air from the engine bay as the flow moved past the end of the tray.

I already had the Airtabs and gluing them in place was only a five minute job – so if they worked, great; and if they didn’t, not much time or money lost.

But when I drove down the road for the first time the Airtabs were furthest from my mind. Because what I could feel was a vibration – a vibration through the floor, gear lever and steering wheel.

Being an older design diesel, the engine in my Skoda Roomster is quite coarse, and so my first thought was that the intercooler plumbing was too firmly mounted, so transferring engine vibration to the bodywork. This idea was a real downer: to access the brackets holding the plumbing would require taking off the undertray and front bumper cover – as I have said, a fiddly exercise. (And I hate doing those sorts of tasks!)

I checked under the bonnet to ensure that the pipework wasn’t banging against anything – but it looked fine. I idled the engine and physically felt the pipes – and yes, there was quite a lot of vibration occurring in them (perhaps also because of internal pressure waves – diesels breathe a lot of air, even at idle). But then again, that’d been the case with the first lot of plumbing – where driving vibration wasn’t an issue.

I went for a longer drive at highway speeds and the vibration was so bad that I knew something had to be done. And it was more than vibration – the car was also noisier. This was terrible – even in standard form the Roomster diesel is no paragon of NVH… and I’d made it a lot worse.

So how much of the noise and vibration was coming from the engine? I drove along at 100 km/h and then selected neutral, letting the revs drop back to idle. And you know what? – most of the vibration and noise remained!

So what the hell was going on?

Then I remembered the vortex generators. Surely, surely they couldn’t be causing these problems? There was only one way to find out – off they came.

Incredibly, the noise and vibration disappeared.

So the vortex generators must have been causing massive turbulence under the car – the vortices perhaps impinging on the floor near the firewall, shaking the car and generating noise. It seems implausible, but there’s no other possible explanation…

Home Workshop Performance

Posted on May 14th, 2009 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,tools by Julian Edgar

Our ‘Building a Home Workshop’ series (starts here) has been very popular. So what’s the workshop like after being in use for 9 months? What’s been learned about its performance in that time?

Firstly, the excellent.

The lighting system (an expensive and very powerful system using a lot of suspended metal halide luminaries) is well worth the time and money involved in its installation. You can be working in the late afternoon and as evening falls, not even notice the change in lighting. You can work as efficiently in the middle of the night as the middle of the day.

The internal layout – the position of power points, machine tools and workbenches – has also proved excellent. The ‘island’ workbench is particularly effective, as is the proximity of the welding bench to the main workbench. 

The tall headroom is also noticeable every time I swing a piece of tube or even carry the ladder. Talking about the ladder, the storage of items high up (clearing floor space) has also proved to work very well.

Now, the bad.

I chose to install two skylight panels on the north-facing part of the roof, down the end of the workshop furthest from the roller doors. These work well in that the summer heat build-up caused by their presence is limited but they still provide a lot of light. However, I should have used one more panel so that the back wall of the workshop (where the machine tools are located) was evenly illuminated. As it is now, on a cloudy day, the drill press, grinder and hydraulic press are a bit dim.

Ventilation is also not sufficient. Even with the two roller doors up, the twin whirligig ventilators working and a fan moving air within the workshop, the build-up of fumes while brazing or welding is excessive. This is one aspect I think I will have to change – either adding an extraction hood and exhaust fan over the welding bench or placing an opening window in the far wall.

Finally, the concrete floor has proved to be very soft, not just in the second batch (which I always knew was soft) but also in the first batch. To avoid damaging the floor, items cannot be dragged across it and nothing can be hammered on it.

Overall? Very happy indeed.

Do we need so many traffic lights?

Posted on April 21st, 2009 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Back when I was a kid, growing up in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, every six months or so there’d be some local excitement.

Normally it was presaged by a squealing of tyres, followed by a loud bang. On one occasion I can remember that after the bang there was the sound of an engine revving hard.

What had happened was a car crash at one of the local road intersections.

All the roads were grid-like; all used the ‘give way to the right’ rule – I don’t remember any ‘stop’ or ‘give way’ signs at those junctions. 

The frequency of crashes was so high that when the right noises occurred in sequence, no-one stood around wondering what was going on: instead, everyone started running towards the scene.

Then, when I was about 13 or 14, the crashes suddenly stopped. What had happened was that small roundabouts had been placed in the intersections where crashes had most frequently occurred.

I don’t remember hearing a single crash from that point onwards. There might have been some minor bingles, but as the intersections had become quite tight, they would have been only at low speeds.

At the roundabouts drivers were travelling less quickly and were also required to be observant and participatory. Well, certainly less quickly, and more observant and participatory, than they had been when barrelling through a junction with just a cursory glance to the right.

I was reminded of my childhood because I have been increasingly hearing the idea that many traffic lights should be removed. That’s especially the case on secondary and tertiary (feeder) roads.

The arguments go like this:

• When traffic lights are green, people assume an absolute right of way. They don’t check for other cars and in fact, pay little attention to anything other than the colour of the light. So when crashes occur at traffic light controlled intersections, the impact speeds are high and so the crashes are likely to cause death or major injury.

• Even traffic lights controlled by smart systems (variable length time periods, sequencing of green lights on successive intersections) can, through prolonged idling times, cause increases in fuel consumption and emissions.

• The cost (both in installation and in running) of traffic lights is much higher than many other traffic control approaches.

It is being said by some that rather than giving driver apparent certainty, it is better in many situations to create uncertainty – to make the driver unsure of their surroundings. Perhaps the best example of that are those (rare in Australia) precincts that mix both pedestrian and vehicular traffic – cars just creep along at a walking pace.

Of course, in many applications traffic lights are just fine.

But the next time you’re out on the road in city conditions, note the dozens – perhaps hundreds – of traffic lights you pass, and start to consider: are these really necessary… or could this intersection have been handled in a different, simpler, cheaper and more effective way?