December 26, 2010

Electricity Rates May Go Up Soon Due to New EPA Regulations

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its plan for establishing new greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution standards. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said: “We are following through on our commitment to proceed in a measured and careful way to reduce GHG pollution that threatens the health and welfare of Americans, and contributes to climate change.”

Here is a little history. Last summer, the US House of Representatives narrowly passed the 1,000+ page American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, called the Cap-and-Trade bill. This bill particularly mandates a 17% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions, requires that at least 20% of electricity comes from renewable sources, and mandates increased energy efficiency.

Basically, the government tried to "cap" the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other so-called "greenhouse gases" that can be emitted nationally. Companies that emit such gases would be issued emission permits and would have to pay for these allowances every year. This of course would cause energy prices to rise, since the utilities and other companies would have to pay for emission permits and at the same time spend large amounts of money to change their technology. Does anyone have any doubts these extra costs will be passed on to the consumers? Luckily for us, the consumers, the Cap-and-Trade bill stalled in Senate. So now, having failed to impose their plan via Congress, the administration is moving unilaterally to develop new standards over the next year.
Note that CO2 is not declared a pollutant or health threat in itself, because it is not. Rather, its increase is said to have an insulating effect in the atmosphere and cause global warming. Most climate scientists support such a notion, although there are those who are skeptical about it. For example, Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Richard S. Lindzen asserts in his article titled "Global Warming: The Origin and Nature of the Alleged Scientific Consensus", “there is no substantive basis for predictions of sizable global warming due to observed increases in minor greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons”.

Of course, fossil fuels are finite. So, regardless of the scientific dispute on global warming, eventually we will have to switch entirely to renewable energy sources. However, the electricity production from renewable sources costs significantly more than that of coal and natural gas. For example, utility-scale solar electricity costs about four times more than coal-based electricity (see cost comparison of energy sources). To become cost-competitive, photovoltaic technology should become four times more efficient, which is theoretically impossible (see solar cell efficiency limits), or drop in price four-fold, which is unrealistic. Given this fact, the transition to alternative energy should be gradual and should not rapidly hit the economy and the consumers. Especially now, when the country is broke with a multi-trillion dollar debt, it’s not the right time to burden it with politically motivated regulations.

November 13, 2010

Recession, Jobs, and Business Ethics

There used to be a saying: to launch a power supply company you need to have a two-car garage and one car. This is sort of how Todd Products, where I have worked for 11 years, was launched. Paul Todd himself was an engineer and an inventor. It was really nice to work for a company where a president could walk into your cubical and discuss the electronic circuits with you. As an engineer himself he understood that experienced engineers are holders of important expertise and are not commodity-- you get a drop in business, you lay them off; you get more business, you hire some more. Another example of engineer-entrepreneur for whom I had an opportunity to work is Richard Blake -- the founder of Transistors Devices. I feel it is always refreshing to work for a company whose owner could argue about the circuits and not just financial reports. In general, in the past, companies used to be owned by someone -- an entrepreneur, an inventor, an engineer, etc. -- who devoted his/her life to the company and cared about its long term growth. Now most of the companies are owned by shareholders, which means by everyone and by nobody. They are controlled by a board of directors who seem to care only about the bottom line, and who begin what they call “downsizing” as soon as they see a drop in business.

Last week’s issue of The Jewish Press featured an article, “The Media's Madoff Moment” by A.H. Foxman. It describes a story about a 1995 fire in a textile plant, Malden Mills, that employed 2,400 people. The fire destroyed three of the four factory buildings and caused $500 million in damage. Two days later Aaron Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew who owned the company and who followed Biblical values in his business, announced that all his employees will be paid their full salaries. He also gave $80,000 in gifts to charitable organizations, as he did every holiday season. Feuerstein ended up paying full wages to his idle employees for up to four months while the plant was rebuilt. Whatever became nowadays of business owners with a human face? I was lucky to keep my job during the recession, but during the worst of it, unemployment rates of all engineers exceeded 5% and overall jobless rates were 10%. If the companies who have cash in a bank or enough assets to get loans tried to keep their employees in spite of the losses and let them do some R&D for example, they might wind up getting out of recession sooner and stronger. The people who keep getting their paychecks would keep buying things, which would stimulate the manufacturing and job growth better than unnatural injections in the form of the government’s “stimulus plans.” And the old employees who know your business would contribute more effectively than new ones who need to go through a learning curve.

October 11, 2010

Power Supply Efficiency and Power Factor: Regulations Update

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently announced that effective December 31, 2010, external adapters will no longer be eligible for the Energy Star label. The main reason for this move is in 2008 a mandatory federal minimum efficiency standard went into effect for adapters, mandating basically the same Energy Star performance level.

Last month the ENERGY STAR also published its Draft 3 revision to the proposed criteria for LED lamps, which can be screw into standard lamp sockets to replace incandescent bulbs. To earn the ENERGY STAR logo the LED lamp should have power factor ≥ 0.70. Of course, Energy Star is a voluntary program. However, chances are their requirements will be eventually incorporated in a federal standard. Also, Europe already requires lighting PF>0.9. These developments will certainly cause LED lamps manufacturers to use active power factor correction (PFC) circuits for LED drive. Given the efficiency and size requirements, it's likely that the SMPS designers would also have to use other techniques such as bridgeless PFC rectifiers and synchronous rectification.

July 29, 2010

"True" Bridgeless PFC Claims Power Supply Efficiency Increase

I am going to discuss Dr.Slobodan Cuk article entitled “The True Bridgeless PFC Converter Achieves Over 98% Efficiency, 0.999 Power Factor”. It was featured in the July issue of Power Electronics Technology Magazine. The article describes the latest invention of Dr.Cuk aimed at eliminating input bridge rectifier from the offline PFC power supplies and thus increasing their efficiency and power factor.
The bridgeless PFC circuits were known before. The diagram below compares Dr.Cuk’s circuit with a different circuit described in ST’s App Note 1606.

The Dr.Cuk approach is certainly novel and very interesting, just like probably all of his converter circuits. However, I believe the above article contains some exaggerations more suitable for advertising than for a technical paper.

For example, the author says: “This method also leads to a rather unusual converter topology consisting of three switches only: one controllable switch S and two passive current rectifier switches CR1 and CR2”. He also claims: “…The odd number of switches, three, is a distinctive characteristic of this converter with respect to all conventional switching converters…” However, later he admits: “…At present, a single MOSFET implementation is not possible due to built-in body-diode, so that switch S must be implemented by use of the two MOSFET devices connected in series at their sources and driven by a common floating gate drive circuit…” So, in reality, the switch S must consist of two real switches and overall there are still four switches, not three. When the power switch S in ON, the current flows through three switches: S1, S2 and CR1, which is a drawback of this converter. With respect to the conduction losses during the ON time interval, I see no improvement relative to the known circuit of a “bridgeless PFC”, in which ON-state current flows through only two switches, S1 and S2. For the same reason I would say, it is not more "true" bridgeless than the original circuit. I understand, the reduction of conduction losses in Cuk's circuit comes during OFF state of the switch when the current flows through a single switch CR2 while in the known circuit it flows though two switches, such as CR1 and S2. Therefore the main advantage of this circuit would probably be realized when ON time is low and OFF time is high. Since at low input line the duty cycle and ON-time tend to be high, while at high line they tend to be low, the advantage of the Cuk’s proposed converter would be at high input lines where PFC has higher efficiency anyway. The article claims 98% efficiency, but unfortunately it does not state under what input and output conditions it was achieved. I tend to doubt very much it is achieved at low line.

July 23, 2010

Engineering Salaries 2010 Survey

Design News magazine just revealed their 2010 Salary Survey of design engineers. The survey evaluated both compensation and job satisfaction.

According to the study, the average salary of a design engineer in 2010 was $89,597, average bonus: $9,025, average hours work per week: 46. 40% of engineers got base salary increased compared with 2009, 51% have the same salary (note that the study was done in April 2010, so some might still get a raise later on). 51% are Extremely or Very satisfied with their design engineering career.

41% said their company had layoffs/downsized during the last 6 months. Among all US regions, the largest amount of employed engineers was in Midwest (36%). The highest base salary is in Southwest ($106,756). The average compensation keep rising with an age being the highest for the age group of 55-64, and then declines ("Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm 64?"). The highest average compensation is in software area. The entire survey can be downloaded from the link in Design News magazine homepage (they require a registration, but for now it is free).

June 10, 2010

Consumer Products Safety: What's Unsafe

The Commission of the European Union (EU) has recently released statistics on notices of unsafe consumer products that have been processed through their rapid information system (RAPEX). In April 2010 the Commission validated 145 notifications. Guess what tops the list of unsafe products? Cars? Nope, it’s toys for children. Of the 152 total notifications received, toys continue to top the list of unsafe products with 29% of the total notifications; clothing, textiles and fashion items - 19%, autos - 17%, electrical appliances -12%, cosmetics - 7%.

The notifications validated in April covered 11 different types of risk such as injuries (24%), chemical (18%), choking and strangulation (14% each), electric shock (10%).

Regarding the country of origin of the products identified as presenting a serious risk, more than half (53%) originated from China including Hong Kong. Another 19% of unsafe products originated in EU. For a comparison, only 2% came from US. Another good reason to buy American!

March 25, 2010

Energizer Duo USB Charger: Backdoor Trojan Issue

Can a battery charger present a security risk to your computer? You bet, it can. Of course, not a charger itself, but a free software that comes with it. US-CERT (a United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team which is part of the Department of Homeland Security) has just issued a Vulnerability Note stating that "Energizer DUO USB battery charger software allows unauthorized remote system access".

For reference, Energizer Holdings, Inc. is one of the world's largest manufacturers of batteries, battery-powered devices and flashlights. Chances are your portable player uses their batteries. In 2007, Energizer introduced Duo USB Charger that can charge Nickel Metal Hydride batteries from a USB port. It had optional downloadable software that let you view the battery charging status. Well, it has been found that this software included a file Arucer.dll which is a backdoor Trojan that allows unauthorized remote access to your computer. According to Symantec, this Trojan operates with the privileges of the logged-on user and listens for commands from anyone who connects and can perform various actions, such as the following:
• Download a file
• Execute a file
• Send a directory listing to the remote attacker
• Send files to the remote attacker
• Modify the registry

The solutions recommended by US-CERT are: remove the Arucer.dll file, remove "Run DLL as an App" exclusion from the Windows Firewall, and block or restrict network access. Energizer acknowledged the security issue. It has removed this software download and are now directing consumers to download an uninstall software that should eliminate the vulnerability.

March 22, 2010

AVE.exe (Total Vista Security) Virus Removal

I recently wrote about removal of fake security alert Anti-Virus System Pro. The main step in the removal procedure was restarting PC in safe mode and running Malwarebytes (mbam.exe). Unfortunately, it does not work with a new modification of this virus, called Total Vista Security that runs a program file ave.exe. This program continues running in safe mode and prevents you from starting mbam. So, how to stop it? You can temporarily stop ave.exe process via Task Manager but it reappears in a moment. What does ave.exe do? Basically it does the same as similar fake security alert malware- it prevents you from opening any program on an infected computer and is trying to trick you into buying their software. Don't pay them - you can fix the problem for free in minutes. I managed to get rid of this malware just by restoring my computer to a previous date.

To use the system restore while this virus is running you can begin as if you are restarting the computer in safe mode via Start menu:
Start> Shut Down>Restart.
When Windows shuts down and the screen becomes blank, start hitting F8 key until you hear a beep and a menu appears. Select Safe Mode with Networking, hit Enter and then hit Enter again on selection of your operating system (such as Windows XP). After computer restarted and you logged in, it asks you if you want to proceed into Safe mode or use System Restore. Select System Restore and choose a past date when you are sure you had no viruses. Note that this process does not affect your files, only the programs you might install or update since the restore date you chose. After restoring your system you should be able to download (if you have not done it yet) and run free Malwarebytes (mbam.exe). Just update it to the latest version first. The above ave.exe removal guide does not constitute a professional advice: if you choose to use it, do it at your own risk. It worked for me, but of course I can't guarantee it would work for everyone.

March 11, 2010

Meeting Energy Efficiency Standards for External Power Supplies

I previously wrote about the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007). Its Section 301 establishes efficiency standards for external power supplies (EPS), such as power adapters. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has recently published a Final Rule on "Energy Conservation Program: Certification, Compliance, and Enforcement Requirements for Certain Consumer Products and Commercial and Industrial Equipment." In this document under section 430.24 (bb), is the requirement for determining the number of EPS units to be tested to claim compliance with EISA 2007. In short, the DOE document requires 97.5% confidence level to reflect variations in materials, the manufacturing process, and testing tolerances.

The Section 24(bb) of Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR) Part 430 states:
For each basic model of external power supply selected for testing, a sample of sufficient size shall be selected at random and tested to ensure that—

(1) Any represented value of the estimated energy consumption of a basic model for which consumers would favor lower values shall be no less than the higher of: (i) The mean of the sample, or (ii) The upper 97.5 percent confidence limit of the true mean divided by 1.05;


(2) Any represented value of the estimated energy consumption of a basic model for which consumers would favor higher values shall be no greater than the lower of: (i) The mean of the sample, or (ii) The lower 97.5 percent confidence limit of the true mean divided by 0.95.

To demonstrate compliance with EISA 2007 standards for Class A EPSs (in effect since July 1, 2008), manufacturers must test representative sample of units according to the DOE test procedure, and certify their compliance by submitting a compliance statement and the first certification report to DOE by July 6, 2010.

To translate their language to plain English, when they say the "represented value of energy consumption for which consumers would favor higher values" they refer to the efficiency. Conversely, the "represented value for which consumers would favor lower values" is input watts. (Our lawmakers of course presume they know what we, the consumers would favor. Would you favor a charger with 51% efficiency over a charger with 49% if the latter one costs twice less?)

To determine the number of the samples to be tested to confirm the compliance with 97.5% confidence level, the manufacturers would have to revisit the statistical analysis theory. To be able to sell the affected external power supplies in US, they have to do the testing, the math, and to submit the required docs to DOE by 07/06/10.

January 22, 2010

Antivirus System Pro- How to Remove It for Free

During the last few months there have been massive attacks against personal computers by so-called Anti-Virus System Pro, Antivirus Pro 2010 or similar. Once installed in your PC it is constantly barraging you with fake security alerts, such as that your computer is being attacked from an Internet (which is true except they are the attackers), will impersonate Windows Security Center with fake security alerts, etc. and will be continuously trying to trick you into buying their software by asking you to activate their protection. They are trying to scam you to paying some $50 for three months of so-called protection. (Would you give thieves your credit card to buy back your things they stolen from you?) Common anti-virus software programs do not seem to be able to prevent these attacks. The main difficulty with removing Antivirus System Pro and similar trojans is these malwares prevent you from running any program such as task manager, web browser, or antivirus software, claiming that these program files are infected.

I know people who wind up reformatting their hard drive because they could not find a way of getting rid of this infection. When I first got this virus, I've spent hours searching the web from my other computer looking for the procedures to remove it. Likely, there is a simple way of removing Anti Virus System Pro for free. The main thing to do is to restart your computer in Safe Mode. One can do it from the start menu: Start>Shut Down>Restart. Once the computer shuts down and begins restarting [while you still have blank screen], start hitting the key F8 until you hear beeps and a menu appears. In this menu, select Safe mode with Networking. Once your computer restarted in safe mode, you should be able to connect to Internet and download a free version of the program called Malwarebytes. Save it to your desktop and install. After installation firstly run Update. It took me a few minutes to install updated version. Then run Full Scan. It took it several hours to run a full scan, but it did find plenty malware files. When it finish scanning, select Display Results and then select Remove all selected malware. If you have any antivirus program installed, you can now run it too. Malwarebytes may then ask you to restart your computer. You can now restart it in a regular way and you should be OK. Note that their free version does not provide live protection- it only activates manually. I have not tried Malwarebytes paid version (at least because I already have one licensed antivirus program installed), so I can't tell if their live protection is solid. One more thing: the malware sometimes changes Internet Explorer connection setting to Proxy. If your IE does not connect to Internet in safe mode or after the clean-up, try this: Tools> Internet Options> Connections> LAN settings, then if Proxy Server is checked and you are not using proxy, uncheck Proxy Server and hit OK.

The above procedure worked for me, but of course I can't guarantee it will work for everyone. If you choose to go through these steps, you do it at your own risk- I don't give you any professional advices. Also, the malicious programs are being constantly updated. They may possibly invent a new trick that interferes with the above removal procedure. It's a shame that Microsoft Corp. with all its funds and resources as well as the anti-virus software firms so far can't provide live protection against a bunch of criminals.

January 7, 2010

No-Spill Gas Cans Recall Due to Leaks

If you bought between August and November 2009 a red plastic 5-gallon gasoline container made by No-Spill, check it out for leaks at the black plastic collar where the spout connects to the can. The company just announced a recall of the cans with date codes AIP09202 through AIP09222. For info see The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A leaky gas tank presents fire and burn hazards because gasoline and its fumes are very flammable. Note that even with a good container, you should always shut down a gas generator before the refueling.