As much as I’d like to get away from Technology, it still plays a very large role in my life, even while on the road. I use my Garmin GPS regularly to record my daily statistics and elevation charts not to mention getting me out of binds when I go off the beaten path. I carry an Apple iPhone with me, not so much to make calls over the cellular network, but to send text messages, check for available WI-FI networks, so that I can browse the web, check the weather, or use Skype. Not only that, I have an Mp3 Player with a set of portable speakers going almost all day long to assist from me going crazy listening to the music player that is running through my head without reprieve. When I stop riding for the day, I like to muck about on my laptop, read books on my Amazon Kindle device, and review footage that I’ve taken with a video camera throughout the day. That’s a lot of gear!
All of my devices have their own internal battery packs, good to last for extended amounts of time when out on the road, but this takes an excessive amount of time to recharge when they run low. If I had 1-2 hours a day to sit in a coffee shop this would be a non issue, however there are some days where I haven’t seen a single person, let alone a diner or any other public space with a spare power outlet. At night when entering in my daily journal, I would typically charge the components off of the USB ports of my laptop – resulting in less time to compute, and an even longer recharge process due to its much higher power demands.
I spent an awful lot of time researching an effective solution that would satisfy even 50% of my requirements, carefully balancing factors such as cost, weight, durability and ease of use. As with most things, you have to try a few options before you get it right. I invested a hefty chunk of change into portable USB batteries, using them when my devices components ran low, yet still faced the issue of finding a source to keep them topped up. Next, on the advice of a passing cycle tourist, I went down the path of Solar Panels, with newer generations able to charge even on cloudy days, but found them to be large, bulky, and a pain to strap onto the bicycle each time I needed access to my gear – not to mention the amount of power generated was barely enough to charge one of my components per day. Newer panels are on the market that are flexible and output a higher voltage, providing you have a source to store its sun-garnered energy and are willing to lug around heavy batteries.
It made sense that since I was on the saddle for 5-10 hours a day, why not deal with my power requirements by pedaling along? I recalled being a boy in the 80′s having a nifty light on the front of my bicycle, which turned on when I attached a (fairly loud mind you) small device known as a sidewall / bottle dynamo to the sidewall of a tire. It wasn’t extremely bright, but it worked in concept and I was pretty jazzed whenever I got to use it, having a similar love for gadgetry then as I do now. I commenced research and found that I was not alone with my quest to charge components, and that companies have stepped up to provide solutions for basic needs.
The bottle dynamos still exist, and output either 6 or 12 volts AC, enough to fire up a very bright headlight and tail light, but after further investigation, my components all took between 3.7 to 13 volts DC! (I won’t get into the explanation of what AC or DC current means, if you’d like – check out the Wikipedia articles). Nokia, a popular cellular phone maker from Finland came out with a bottle dynamo device that performed the AC-DC conversion to charge their phones, unfortunately Nokia uses proprietary 2mm connectors, and I haven’t owned a Nokia since 2003. Bottle Dynamos not only put out an annoying sound should one wish to ride in silence but also have a very high friction rate, equating to a loss of almost 7% in efficiency! I decided to look elsewhere.
Hub dynamos, which means all the electrical circuitry resides inside the bicycle wheels hub (typically the front) have been around since the 1930′s providing power for headlights and tail lights again, using AC voltage. Advancements have been made throughout the years to deal with their ‘drag’ and an attempt at reducing the weight of the unit, causing unnecessary slowdowns to the rider. Various Manufacturers such as Sturmey-Archer, Shimano, Pioneer, and Schmidt are known to produce reliable hub dynamos well suited for today’s cyclist, coming in a range of output voltages (6 or 12V AC), and the amount of spokes that need to be fitted when building a wheel. I decided this was going to be the solution for me, and commenced further research into reliability, weight, efficiency. I even found a company in Australia named Pedal-Power who is the first on the market to create a Dyno hub which primarily outputs 5 volts in DC! Bicycle Quarterly, a publication based out of Seattle, Washington, USA tested the efficiency of various manufacturers Dyno hubs in it’s June 2005 issue complimenting Chris Juden’s research on Efficiency and Electrical Output of Dyno Hubs. Finding reliability data was much more difficult especially for the extreme conditions faced when bicycle touring. I eventually settled on the Schmidt SON 28R Hub Dynamo, which has the longest warranty out of any of my other choices, with an operating time of 50,000km before servicing. While it only outputs 6V AC, I was still faced with the dilemma of voltage conversion.
The Dahon Biologic ReeCharge, Pedal-Power V4I, DynaLader Eco, Tout Terrains ‘The Plug’, Kuhn’s KECHARGER, and the ZZing all are products which have been on the market to handle the voltage conversion process, using basically the same techniques, however some models include a battery to store the power. These devices are rated to output a maximum of 5 volts DC with at 500mA (If you have two devices that both operate at 5 volts, the it may require a higher amperage to power and charge – These devices seem to be designed to charge one single device at a time. Typical USB devices draw 500mA and in some cases electronics such as the Apple iPad require chargers of up to 2.1A!). A reader of my website Christian Benke, who right now is cycling from Europe to Asia alerted me to an online community who make DIY chargers that are suitable for charging USB components with some models even outputting 12V (the same voltage your car lighter outputs). I hadn’t worked with electronics other than the odd soldering fix-it job in almost 20 years, but was prepared to give it a whirl, that is until I found the Busch and Mueller E-WERK.
Well known for their lights for cyclists,B&M goes above and beyond what other manufacturers are offering – It has the capability of allowing you to dial in the voltage that you need (too high of voltage is a quick way to see smoke come out of your components) from 3.6 volts all the way to 13.6 volts and a selectable amperage output from 100mA all the way up to 1.5 amps (enough to power 3 USB components at once!). It’s waterproof, sealed in a plastic casing, and all interconnection cables to and from the device offer o-ring seals to protect from moisture. It’s very small and lightweight can be mounted on the bicycle with rubber bands, or zip straps, or simply carried around in a bag. B&M states it can accept a wide variety of voltage of both AC and DC up to 50 volts, so it is compatible with not only bicycle Dynamos, but Electric bikes, and automobile systems. B&M provides a series of cables to connect directly to your Hub Dynamo, an extension cable, various USB connectors, and 2 spare cables with no ends, to be used for what you wish.
With this device, I set out putting together a component list to adequately charge the majority of my components while riding. Since the B&M came with single USB connectors, I devised a plan to use a USB Hub, that I found on a popular Chinese wholesale site, Deal Extreme. The hub is fairly unique, as it offers the ability to split one USB connection into four, but offers switches to independently control each of the ports. I’d yet to see one in Canada, so patiently waited 1 month for it to arrive, spending my spare time devising other aspects of the system.
The next piece to the puzzle was the fact that some of my devices had a tendency to reset, power off, or freak out with audible and visual alerts when they lost power. If I was to stop to grab to adjust something, snap a photo, or wait for a traffic light to turn green, I’d have to fiddle and fudge around with the devices to get them in operation again. I noticed that some of the other manufacturers offered batteries to combat this solution and set out to find a battery that would suit my needs. Most backup power packs only supply 5VDC at 500mA, putting the whole idea right back at square one. Thankfully due to the increased power consumption of Tablet devices such as the Apple IPAD and Motorola Xoom require, manufacturers now offer devices that output higher current, such as the Hypermac Mini, and the Tekkeon 1860A. Both have different storage capacities but share another required feature – Passive Charging. This feature allows the user to charge the connected components & the battery simultaneously, switching between the two when either is fully charged. If you were to use a battery without this feature it would add more to your time at the end of the day charging the electronic components internal systems, and it would be quite difficult to know when the battery itself was charged, potentially wasting efficiency.
Next, was the storage of the charging system. I considered using the E-WERK as a portable device, not permanently affixed to the bicycle, but thought about the ramifications of repeat insertion and removal of the waterproof cabling. I opted to mount it on the bicycle’s fork keeping the connections permanently attached to the hub, allowing only a commonly available USB port to wear out. I then set out to find a suitable bag – something that was easily attached and removed, well-built and large enough to store the gear yet compact enough to not get in the way. I tried two bicycle stem bags, one from Topeak, finally returning it and upgrading to the Axiom Power Bag II, which offered more space, and separate compartments for isolation. The first thing I did with the Axiom bag was pulled out the trusty Sharpie black marker and spent a few minutes colouring in the annoying white embroidery. I’m not at all into being a riding billboard for manufacturers, and find it annoying that they continue to plaster their branding all over components, no matter how small or big.
I then took a knife and cut holes in the top pocket to allow a USB plug to fit through it, but not wide enough so that the MP3 Player would slip through. I also cut slits in the backside of each of the main compartments, enough to fit 4 USB cables and enough room to get the connector in and out should I ever have to replace it. Since it is a nylon material I used clear nail polish to seal the edges to avoid fraying.
After the holes were cut I carefully placed the cables through the holes and gave them enough slack so that when they rested on the top tube of my bicycle they didn’t cause any more bulk than necessary. I lined them up beside each other and then covered it with duct tape. I didn’t have any black tape lying around, so again, it got the sharpie treatment. 2 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. Finally, I mounted the components inside the bag and performed test fitting to see if my idea actually worked – it did! I can fit the battery and USB hub on one side, the Mp3 Player on the top pocket, and the other side is reserved for cable storage, the phone, and if I need to take the bag off the bike, I can store the GPS and my speakers as well.
One of the benefits about this bag is that I can take it off the bicycle in a short amount of time if it rains, protecting the electronic components from shorting out. It fits nicely in my handlebar bag, and can also be stored flat in a pannier to save space. Since these devices sometimes still need to be connected to a computer to do synchronizing of libraries, reloading of content I can simply unplug the USB cable from the battery inside the bag and plug it into a computer. This will keep things a bit more organized over the long run as well.
This sorts out the portable devices that I carry with me, if I ever decide to upgrade, or face a catastrophic failure of one of the components or devices they are easily replaceable, and swapping out the cables should be a non issue. There is still one more component that needs to be addressed which is the laptop…
I use an Acer 1830T laptop which is netbook sized (11.6″) but has a great amount of horsepower behind it and is chock full of RAM. I need a fast computer as most can’t keep up to my usage patterns and this suited me almost exactly at a reasonable price and very light weight (It’s barely 3 pounds) with a serious amount of battery life. The power consumption requirements are very low on this unit, so I began to research if I could perform charging with the spare voltage the B&M E-WERK provided. An hour of searching on the internet as to what sort of jack is required and what voltage I would need at a minimum to charge the unit was all it took, and I managed to find an off-brand charger designed to charge laptops in automobiles for the whopping price of.99 cents (free shipping too!) from China. I’ll write a post in the future about all the great goodies that one can find with a bit of searching from all of these discount warehouses – it’s a goldmine!
When it arrived it didn’t take long for me to cut it open with a knife and solder on one of the spare cables that came with the B&M E-WERK, To avoid any stress to the cable from it dangling while riding I applied a generous amount of marine ‘goop’ I found in someones closet. What I need to do when I want to charge the laptop is make sure my other electronics components are charged, and disconnect the charging system, moving it over to the newly modified adapter, and adjust the B&M E-WERK to output 12 volts. It’s a simple modification that can either be done with a small hex tool, or the included plastic key that fits into the E-WERK’s backside.
Test runs have so far been successful, and it remains to see how this will work out in the long-term, but I will be sure to keep reporting on any changes in architecture, additions, or meltdowns. It was a costly project to put together, but when one does the math of how much it costs to sit in a coffee shop on a regular basis, let alone the time it takes having to sit and guard electronics components either in a public space/cooped up in a tent waiting for things to charge, it becomes a non-issue and the return on investment is seen very shortly. If I was doing short trips on the weekend, or the odd week long tour a year, I would likely accept the fact that things are going to run out of battery power eventually, but since this is my home on wheels, some adjustments had to be made and priorities set.
If you have any questions or want more information, speak up in the comments!