The Gibbon’s Blog

The N Gauge Dual-Scene Layout Log 7: Platform Two is built

Aethelhurst station has been laid down at last.  Platform two has been constructed over a week’s worth of evenings out of the excellent Metcalfe platform kits and is looking quite splendid.

The only thing that really marred this achievement was the fact that I couldn’t also construct platform one before I lost the use of the downstairs coffee table once my Dad and our Dog got back.  I was hoping to get any railside structures on the layout built and placed so that I could lay the layout on the coffee table and thus have an undisturbed space to let the scenic glue set; I have no such room in my bedroom apart from the bed, and given that even something as lightweight as a cat can make sleeping uncomfortable for the occupant, I doubt I’ll be able to nod off with a layout on my lap.

In addition, thanks to my prior cowardice when it comes to weathering the track, I am now faced with the very real possibility of failing my 2018 New Years Resolution and extending the construction period of Timeslides into 2019.  This got me thinking…

What does “complete” even mean?

The one thing that has to be understood about any creative project is that there really is no objective concept of “complete”.  Anyone who doubts this can ask an art expert about Richard Dadd, the infamous Broadmoor Painter.  The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke – widely considered to be his most important work – was never considered finished by it’s creator despite being worked on for nine years!  There are apparently parts of the painting that are layered so much that they actually pop out of the canvas in the third dimension.

With this in mind, it makes sense for me to actually define what I consider to be a complete layout; Generally-speaking, for Timeslides to be complete, both scenes have to be fully recognisable as a preservation-era Station and a run-down goods yard.  Simple enough, but let’s take this from a project-management standpoint and define specific tasks that need to be done:

  1. Both stations are complete with enough detail for viewers to know their names and the contexts in which they exist, with Aethelhurst being the preservation-era station, while the second station is set to be called Eadley Halt, situated just outside the goods yard as a simple wooden platform about 15 metres (99mm in real terms) long.
  2. All visible areas of track are ballasted, and all points work afterwards.
  3. All scenery is constructed, with any hills being formed, painted and detailed.
  4. Scatter is laid on the layout wherever needed.
  5. The hill overlooking Aethelhurst station has at least a few trees overlooking the site.

This should give us a presentable, if basic, layout to aspire to.

Chocolate-Block Connectors:  Trading one hell for another

There is something I need to get off my chest before we proceed to view the platform:  Working with chocolate block connectors is a lot more fiddly than I expected:

Yard Wiring Redux (3)

What you see here is the reworking of the wiring under the goods yard into a more presentable and flexible state than it was previously, replacing bad soldering with the aforementioned connectors.  The troubles began upon discovering that the thinner wire that had worked so well for soldering was an absolute nightmare to locate under the screws, so I reverted to thicker wire which meant ripping out all the soldering done previously.  Oh well, it was a rubbish job anyway.

Now that the screws can actually grip the wire, you’d think things would be as straightforward as shoving them in and screwing them down, right?  Nope.  If you want to insert two wires into a single terminal (which you have to do if you want even a basically-sophisticated setup), you’ll need to unsheath a longer length than you’ll think you need (about 1cm in the case of the Peco blocks used here), try to intermesh them as much as possible and – taking care not to let the strands of wire stab your fingers – twist them as much as you can before carefully inserting them and screwing them in as far as possible.

Even then, it’s not an easy job especially when you’ve got many to do.  Still, rant over, and if it saves frustration for just one modeller it would be worth it.

Platform Two

Building the platforms may well have been a long and semi-frustrating process, but it wasn’t without it’s highlights.  In a truly exciting moment for me as a modeller, I was able to mock up Aethelhurst station and get a first glimpse of what it would eventually look like:

Platform Construction (12)

Necessarily lopsided on account of the fact that Platform Two is cut off near the baseboard edge, the station still looks the part.  I am especially proud of an idea I had when siting the Sweet Shop; placing it in between the station building and the subway allows the prospective businessman to capture customers going to/from both Platforms One and Two, effectively doubling his potential customer base.

As revealing as this moment was, it still couldn’t escape my attention that the platforms were on the deck; typical heritage railway carriages don’t come with step access, and I don’t have the luxury of claiming that some American businessman bought the station and transported it brick-by-brick to some ranch in Texas, thus we need to build the walls underneath the platform surface.

Platform Construction (13)

Overall, the Metcalfe Platform Kits can be fiddly to assemble, especially when the platform curves (which, being a freeform kit, the modeller inevitably will want it to).  The instructions are as clear and precise as they ever were, however, which is a relief for a kit that won’t have a definite final form.

One tip I can share with you is to choose your adhesives wisely.  The platform walls come as a single piece of card folded up to produce a double-thick wall, so the use of contact adhesive works wonders; apply and spread it on both sides, wait around four minutes for the glue to get tacky, and then press the sides together along the length of the wall to get an instantly useable part.  For any other assembly jobs it is generally best to stick with the recommended UHU adhesive, as that permits some adjustment while not taking too long to settle.

The end result was a truly superb-looking platform with enough length to accommodate a train of four typical heritage coaches and the locomotive.  I was so pleased with it that I unboxed my prized heritage train of the Q1 and Maunsell Coaches to model it for a photo:

Platform Construction (16)

Until next time…

The N Gauge Dual-Scene Layout Log 6: Timeslides

At last, around one-and-a-half years into the project, the layout has a name.

The name ‘Timeslides’ comes from a Red Dwarf episode of the same name.  The premise of the episode is when Kryten is developing some photographs (in a timeline where the prevalence of Command Line interfaces rendered digital cameras unworkable, apparently) when he notices that the film has “mutated”, producing endlessly-repeating motion pictures locked to a particular moment in time.  Not only does this happen despite it breaking the laws of physics – where does the energy required to keep the images moving come from, after all? – but it also permits people to step into that moment in time by converting the film to use in a projector and literally stepping into the scene!  Things take a turn for the absurd when the dwarfers discover one final property of the photographs that can only be described as an assassin’s wet dream; doing things in the photos alters time itself!

The first part of that essentially encapsulates the theme of the layout.  The station half of the layout is to represent the present-day preservation appearance of the line, having been restored to represent a snapshot in the line’s history.  The goods yard half depicts a much more sorry part of the tale, with heavily-weathered and crumbling infrastructure showing a line clearly earmarked for the infamous Beeching axe.  Not a perfect analogue but it came to me one day, so not being cut out for slogans or puns, I’ll take it.

Finally moving on from track weathering…

I’ve said before that weathering the track on your layout is one of the key details that separates a model railway from a mere train set; little did I know that achieving a decent effect that didn’t jam the points and ruin electrical continuity was such a major job.  The amount of time I eventually spent on this job is probably what I thought it would take on a layout twice the size of this one, so needless to say, I shall be entrusting track weathering to a more rapid method next time!

Still, with this done I can finally move onto more satisfying aspects of the scenery.  I had a week off from work planned recently and as such I planned to move away from the flickering screens that take up so much of our time these days, capitalize on the extra time and get to work on a more tangible, physical hobby.

Tunnel Portals (1)

Above is a selection of scenic items I had procured for the layout, undergoing the process of priming.  Two Peco tunnel portals, four whitemetal SR concrete platform lamps and two station signs.  I am aiming to represent an SR station similar to the ones you find on railways like the Watercress Line and the Spa Valley Railway, so while the lamps look the part I think I’ll keep the station signs for another project.  I guess I should’ve researched for my station before buying the signs; In my defence I did go to Upstairs Downstairs on the Isle of Wight while visiting a friend there, and I’m sure you know how a good model shop can inspire a frenzy of purchases!

The tunnel portals I had bought earlier at Gaugemaster come with a dark grey plastic finish, so the first order of business was to apply many coats of paint onto them to give them a weathered sandstone finish.  One coat of primer, two coats of Humbrol Matt 94 Natural Stone, one thinned application of Humbrol Matt 103 Cream (wiped off the stone faces to represent mortar) and one dry-brushing of a dark grey weathering mix.  I’ll let you judge the results for yourself:

Tunnel Portals (5)

With regards to weathering the track, I did learn a valuable lesson in the end, which is to never rely on the points to carry electrical current, especially if they’ve lived in a toolbox for over a decade.  Despite my best care to prevent any paint finding its way into the moving parts, and a lot of subsequent attacks with a track rubber and sanding of the blades, I could not get my sidings to work reliably, not even when testing with my newest, most reliable locos.

Yard Wiring (2)

Nobody wants to go through all that painting only to discover that a large portion of their track cannot fulfil its primary function anymore, so my only recourse was to wire up the switch that originally provided power to the headshunt to power the other two sidings.  Another arse of a job for the week…

Yard Wiring (3)

I’ll be honest, I probably won’t show you the wiring job I did underneath the baseboard because it’s too embarrassing – I’ll probably replace the lot with a more professional job using screw-block terminals, anyway.  Initially, I used wire too thick for the heatshrink I had, only to discover that when using the same stuff on the thinner wire it didn’t shrink enough!  In the end I settled for a hack-job of wrapping the wire junctions in masking tape just to test it safely.  When you combine this with how nervous and twitchy I was about scraping off my weathering paintwork and soldering connections to the rails, perilously close to the plastic sleepers, I honestly didn’t expect it to work…

But work it did.  The Q1, despite developing a nasty habit of riding over the track when traversing the first point at the throat of the yard, did manage to run fairly slowly throughout the yard into all of the sidings.  Its a pity that no other locomotives in my collection are as well suited to the yard as the Q1:  The Merchant Navy and Class 47 are too long, the Large Prairie has problematic pickups and the 94XX Pannier suffered the same fate as the points living in the same toolbox, resulting in poor running and a dog-eared appearance.

Still, at least the buffers look the part when mounted, with UHU glue once again working wonders to bond plastic to metal and cork.  The tunnel portals also fit upright onto the baseboard, although there is a clearance issue with the planned scenery (a road above the western portal), and the goods shed, which has forced me to adopt a different angle to the portal.  It will be interesting to see how I eventually hide the wooden buttress that holds the backscene up.

Tunnel Portals (9)

So all in all, what could I do in a week?  disappointingly little, it turns out.  I was hoping to have mounted the plastercloth scenery and be ready for ballasting by now.  Still, it is what it is.  Let’s hope the scenery itself gives comparatively little trouble.

Packing it in.

A man looks over Albay, Bicol, Philippines.

Almost one year and four months ago, I made a pledge to myself to keep this blog going for at least a year.  The primary reason for this was to see if I had any talent for writing about my exploits; whether I had a passion for writing as well as for making things for the hell of it.

As it turns out, I have never really been one for self-promotion.  I have little-to-no interest in merely talking about the things I’m doing, as it takes time away from actually doing them and getting ever better at it as a result.  If I were to become a relentless self-promoter, it would probably result in my life becoming as hollow and meaningless as the internet rage machine; two camps spitting forth a constant stream of douchebags who show up at the podium, then make a lot of noise before disappearing back into obscurity, often because the disciples have discovered they ain’t as holy as they seem.  Burn bright, then burn up, in other words.

So what does this mean in terms of my audience?  Well, it simply means that I won’t be posting regular content on a weekly basis anymore.  The last thing I want to do is run this blog into the ground trying in vain to get content up every week.  Since I’ve reverted from a 4-on 3-off night shift to the common 5-day work week I have found my time being squeezed more and more.  I never realized just how useful that extra day was, where I could go to the gym and bash out a blog post, and yet still have time for antics on the other two days.  Still, at least my body clock doesn’t see me falling asleep in broad daylight anymore.

Ongoing projects, such as the N Gauge Dual-Scene Layout, will continue to receive updates as-and-when I work on them, but once those are concluded, so will be this blog.

Will I ever return to blogging?  Never say never, but at the moment I’ll be aiming to enjoy a little more time on the weekends.  The idea I have for future online content is to create specialized blogs focusing on a specific project; if I were to build a steam bicycle, then perhaps a blog dedicated to it’s development would allow me to focus the content and marketing a lot better than a generic “geek-makes-stuph” type blog.

In the meantime, the best place to keep up with my antics would be Flickr.  Probably second place would be Twitter, but I don’t tend to be all that verbal as I have stated before.

Thank you for all your support.

Fun facts about Dogs.

A Cocker Spaniel Puppy.
  1. If a dog is attempting to lick your face, he is signalling that you rank above him in the pack.
  2. Dogs sunbathe for the same reasons humans do – to get Vitamin D – but it’s probably escaped them that a coat of fur does not a cool doggy make.
  3. If your dog is rolling around in something, it’s often because they like the smell and want to carry it with them.
  4. Dogs often take their treats to another room as they see the humans as alphas of the pack, and thus likely to steal their food.
  5. A neat way of curbing separation anxiety is to leave a piece of clothing that smells like you near them; just make sure it’s not something that you can’t do without, as was the tragic case with my mum’s reading glasses!*
  6. Dogs spinning in circles before settling down are a leftover instinct from when they would do this to flatten long grass to nest in.
  7. Dog urine contains acids which can accelerate the corrosion of metal.  In fact this was once blamed for a spate of lamppost collapses in Croatia.
  8. Dogs can dream, and when they do they twitch their bodies and paws and can even woof!
  9. “Raining Cats and Dogs” refers to some morbid happenings in Seventeenth-Century England (1600s), when heavy rainstorms would drown stray animals such as these and they would float down the streets, giving rise to the idiom.
  10. If you were to stand 300 yards away from a dog, remaining still, you would almost disappear off the dog’s visual radar.  Waving your arms, however, will allow the dog to clock it’s owner in spite of the fact that you may be up to 5,280 feet (a mile) away!

Now that you’ve heard some amazing things about dogs, here’s something silly about dogs:

*I should point out that Ruby had climbed up to fetch them off a shelf in order to take them back to bed and chew them, which was quite a feat!  It wasn’t like mum wanted to dispose of them in the most bizarre way possible.

Learning to Drive, 10 years behind schedule

A red Volkswagen Polo.

Well…  It is time…

Time to take care of something 10 years late, at least.  Up until now I have been utterly reliant upon bicycles and public transport, which is fine until you find yourself planning train trips up to the northern Heritage Railways and finding that you need to book a bed & breakfast for a trip that should only take four hours by train!

What I’m probably implying is that the only reason I want to learn to drive is because I’ve run out of Heritage Railways in my local vicinity that are easily accessible by rail.  This isn’t really the case.  In reality my hand is being forced by the demands of work and the desire to rent a flat that won’t break my financial back.  I live in Surrey, after all.

So what have I missed?

  1. Being seen as “awesome” for being able to carry yourself to College in an armoured box.  Let’s just get this out of the way first, as it’s a joke, frankly.  Sure you can be “awesome”…  If you call being a useful idiot awesome.
  2. The chance to take advantage of one’s plastic youthful brain to learn things quicker.  I’m learning Russian, currently, so this one stings me particularly hard as I struggle to get to grips with describing my occupation.
  3. Being capable of moving to your new flat without assistance.

All the kinds of things that matter to a teen:  Reputation, Learning and Independence.  Probably not that middle one to most but that’s probably why I never had the first one.  Still, this is what I get for depriving myself of pussy:

  1. MUCH Cheaper Car Insurance – I’m looking at around £60 a month fully-comp with breakdown, personal injury and legal cover.  Not bad considering that those at 17 often pay as much as £1500 per year, or twice my rate, for less cover.
  2. A distinct dearth of people scrounging lifts.  This one depends on your point of view, but as an INTJ it’s a major bonus.  Plus, you know who your friends are – they’re the ones giving you lifts!
  3. Better maturity/perspective means you’ll be less likely to end up being scooped out of the crumpled remains of your Golf GTi four days after passing your test.
  4. Dependence upon cycling and walking means you gain habits that effectively fend off obesity…  Well, no guarantees that you won’t become a regular at Dominos Pizza like I was at lunchtime in College, but at least them calories will be converted to a greater amount of Carbon Dioxide, which foliage will appreciate.

And now, if I were to channel my inner girl, how about a name?  Well, it’s a small car, and it’s red…

A red Volkswagen Polo.
It’s kind of surreal experiencing the exact same type of car as I would’ve got back in my teens, but through the eyes of someone who is almost thirty.

What exactly is going on with Steam Bicycles and the Law?

Anyone with even a passing interest in steam locomotion has probably heard the story of an enterprising cyclist – Sylvester H. Roper –  who had fitted the titular external combustion engine to his machine, garnered the unwanted attention of the fuzz, only to be released without charge when they couldn’t work out what he had actually done wrong.

Since then, a number of other cyclists have made attempts to apply the concept of steam power to two wheels, from Michaux-Perreaux of 1868 to Geoff Hudspith of the present day.  Interestingly, there seems to be a hiatus of machines from the Victorian period onwards, no doubt because steam power doesn’t scale down particularly well and internal combustion engines are generally a better option due to greater power density and ease of use.

Where the Law (probably) stands

Disclaimer:  This is NOT Legal Advice.  If you are seriously considering registering a Steam Bicycle for the public roads, consult a specialist legal professional on the subject.

Morbidly enough, the dearth of incidents involving steam bicycles has left me wishing that more people ran afoul of the law just so more information would be available.  The best I can really do is to read up on laws regarding both electric bikes and petrol bike kits, and attempt to amalgamate a rudimentary legal picture.

We’ll start with the basics:  Under UK law, all electric bikes are limited to a power output of 200 Watts, are limited to 15mph, and must feature a ‘Pedelec’ sensor to only run the motor while the pedals are turning.  That means no throttles, which is strike one against the steam bicycle.  The EU laws are more permissive, with maximums of 25km/h (15.5mph), and 250 Watts, but as far as I’m concerned the sooner we can adopt American laws the better; what could be better than an iron horse that only rears up when you want to try for a Darwin Award?

Surely building a 200 Watt Steam Bicycle is no different?

Although a like-for-like comparison between a steam engine and an electric setup is near impossible without fully examining the steam circuit, the Hudspith Steam Bicycle in it’s original condition was said to develop 1/4hp, or ~190 Watts, fairly comparable to a legal electric machine.  This, along with it’s top speed of 8mph, would be theoretically within the letter of the law, but as we’ll see, things aren’t so rosy in the real world beyond the numbers.

You see – regardless of whether you remain within the law or not – if you want to remain away from the fuzz on your electro-horse, the key to hiding in plain sight is to keep cycling the pedals at all times, refraining from burnouts and generally not doing silly shit like charging up a steep hill in a Swansea suburb at 30mph.  Electric machines also have a major benefit of lacking any major emissions of both the aural and gaseous kinds.  Only the first is true of steam bicycles, and neither is true of petrol bikes.

Various attempts have been made during wartime to make Steam Locomotives stealthy (as viewed from the air, mind) with varying levels of silliness.  None of these were particularly successful, however, with most attempts having adverse effects on the draughting and/or obscuring the driver’s view with smoke; not exactly the invisibility the designers had in mind.  In any case, with visibility distances of perhaps tens of metres, it is unlikely that solutions designed to work from kilometres away will do anything to disperse the visible vapours, particularly on cold days.

For those of us who want to follow the law – and make history it seems – what are my options?

Your first port of call is to obtain an Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) Inspection, the successor to the Single Vehicle Approval (SVA).  This is a test primarily concerned with whether a custom/import road vehicle is fit to drive on the road, whereby the driver is also required to operate the vehicle and any doors without difficulty.  Given that the primary concern of this test is operational safety, it is unlikely that your average bicycle will pass; large wheels, thin spokes and high speeds are not a good combination, especially when turning.

Similarly, when it comes to constructing your own frame, unless you are seasoned in the art of welding and structures, you might as well be wrapping yourself in red tape.  It’s a good bet that using the chassis from another motorcycle/moped, and building the steam engine and boiler gubbins around that, is likely to involve fewer headaches.

Speaking of which, boilers are legally considered explosive devices, and not without reason:

Given the distinctive lack of space available for a stoker and his shovel common to all two-wheelers, a manual approach to managing the water/burner levels is not an option, especially when you’re inevitably preoccupied with the road.  Thankfully, advances in electronics in recent years mean that building an automatic stoker is – relatively-speaking – childs play.  Still, government officials are a nervous bunch when it comes to personal liability, so good luck convincing them of your electrical and coding prowess.

Once the chassis and boiler have been tamed, it should be a matter of building the engine and building a suitable control system.  Beyond that, you’ll need the usual suspects:

  • MOT Certificate
  • Insurance (from who?)
  • Register the vehicle with the DVLA (as what?)
  • Vehicle Excise Duty
  • L Plates (If you lack a full motorcycle license)
  • Crash Helmet conforming to EU Regulations

In conclusion

Annoyingly, this is probably one of those posts which is just a thousand-word way of saying “no-one really knows”, mostly because the rigmarole of building a steam-powered bicycle for the public roads under modern legislation has never been attempted before.  The legal hurdles of the IVA Inspection alone are enough to make even the second coming of Brunel shudder.

Still, if you’d like to attempt it, feel free to get in touch.  In the meantime, I’m sure the idea of a steam moped will jump out at me once I’ve got some money to incinerate.

Britain’s most powerful steam locomotive finally looks like an engine

Has it really been ten years since Tornado first hit Britain’s rails in her grey undercoat?  I know that Tornado has been around a while but I forgot that I had only just finished Secondary School by the time she was unveiled.

Tornado (1)

Having driven the illustrious machine myself, I can confirm that the dedication and workmanship that has gone into her has resulted in a fine engine indeed.  Grasping the regulator and reverser both feel as solid as the controls of an industrial lathe, and actually driving her was something of a fusion between a delicate responsiveness to the controls and the feeling of “okay, we’re moving…  now what?” that comes with driving such a large and powerful machine.  Her first runs at Great Central Railway were expected contain at least a handful of teething troubles, but her time there ended with a test train of eleven coaches and a “dead” diesel, which assuming the coaches are Mk.1s amounts to a load of around 450-600 Tonnes, with 2,000 Horsepower produced and not a hiccup in sight.  It even has USB Charging Ports!

Tornado Cab (3)

With all of this in mind, it becomes clear as to why I have been so utterly stoked to see No.2007 Prince of Wales finally begin to look like the titan of the rails she was designed to be.  With a child’s imagination, the simple presence of both the boiler and driving wheels is enough to envision her as a complete locomotive.  Needless to say, Britain’s most powerful steam locomotive deserves a team with this level of pedigree behind her, especially considering that with the hitherto unimaginable standards offered by modern metallurgy and manufacturing techniques, it is entirely possible that Prince of Wales could raise the high bar of tractive effort set by her peers in the P2 Class.

This has got me thinking recently about the state of Britain’s Engineering Sector, and even though I currently only have the perspective of a mere technician – so not a “real Engineer” I suppose – I believe there is a lot of potential for the nation.  A lot of our expertise plays a major role in projects around the globe, such as capitalising upon the engineering success of the Crossrail initiative to export the talent and experience gained for the metro systems of other cities such as Sydney in Australia.  But where is the nation to gain and generate that expertise in the first place?

The simple answer is in ambitious engineering projects.  New Build Steam lists 22 projects under construction as of the time of writing, with a further four being New Build Diesels.  An unimaginable prospect when Railway Preservation was simply an initiative to rescue engines from scrapyards too lazy to cut the damn things up as soon as they arrived, which just goes to show just how popular and successful Heritage Railways have become.  And these, as well as Crossrail, are not alone in supporting the theory that Engineering isn’t dead in this country.  The recent Farnborough Airshow has seen the reveal of Project Tempest, a sixth-generation fighter aircraft that aims to revive the combat aircraft industry that suffered a major blow with the demise of the TSR.2, leaving the English Electric Lightning as the only home-grown supersonic combat aircraft to see service with the Royal Air Force.

The unveiling of the Tempest is probably the most significant of these, given that unlike the aforementioned heritage projects that preserve the past, and Crossrail that meets current demands, it’s an ambitious defence project aimed at meeting future needs.  Specifically, those of defence.  I’ve said before that Trade is the bloodstream of Civilisation, and in order to keep that blood from becoming diseased and having it’s nutrients stolen by pathogens, a strong immune system is needed.  If British industry can pull this project off, then not only can we sustain the base of knowledge required to remain relevant, but the future of the fifth largest economy in the world by GDP will be assured.

CPU Cooler Air Conditioner Mk1 – The Test

The last time we were here, I left you with a quick construction that tested a concept that I had had in my head for a few years, but never got around to verifying:  Linking a CPU Cooler to a Heatsink immersed in icy water to transfer the heat in the air into the icy water, blowing cooled air into one’s face.  That was the theory, anyway.

That said, if life has taught me anything, it is that theory and practice are two different things.  It is all well and good for me to claim that the CPU Cooler Air Conditioner Mk.1 works because my theory sounds good and the air seems to be cooler when it leaves the fan, but to really prove this idea, I need to put some numbers to it.  To this end I have obtained a meat thermometer from my local supermarket, which isn’t much compared to a UKAS-certified thermocouple and reader, but it allows readings to one decimal place and should be reasonably accurate.

The Method

The Control

The first thing to do is quite obviously to establish what the Control is, which in this case would be the ambient air temperature.  There is also a dial thermometer mounted on the wall in my room, which I will monitor to gauge whether the ambient temperature is increasing or decreasing during the course of the experiments.

The Fan Test

The next thing to be done is to determine what temperature readings would be obtained with the fan from each system running at full tilt on it’s own.  This will provide what is, in effect, a second control for the system under test, ensuring that we know whether it is the fan doing all the work.  The temperature probe will be raised into the airflow next to the fan for ten minutes, after which the temperature reading will be recorded.

The Ice-Water Test

This is where the systems are put to the test-proper.  Each system will be tested with the same amount of ice (250g, as this is what will fill the cheese-grater tub), immersed in water almost to the top of the container, leaving a gap to allow for melting ice to fill the tub further.  The full setup is then allowed to work for fifteen minutes, after which the temperature of the air leaving the fan is recorded.  After this test is completed, the water will be drained and the remaining ice salvaged for use in the next test.

The Ice-Salt-Water Test

The final test is the same as the Ice-Water test above, but with a controlled amount of salt (50g) stirred into the Ice-Water mixture; this is likely to saturate the water with salt at the temperatures and volumes we are dealing with.  This is to test the theory that adding salt to the water will lower the freezing point of the water, which will permit it to attain a lower temperature and thus chill the air (or the heatsink in the case of the CPU Cooler Air Conditioner Mk.1) to a lower temperature.  After this test the salt-water and ice are both discarded.

The Results

Setup Temperature (℃)
Ambient Air Temperature (Control) 25.8
Silverstone RL4Z S1803212H-3M 180mm Fan 26.1
Zalman CNPS9900 Max 26
Silverstone RL4Z S1803212H-3M + Ice-Water Cheese Grater 26.7
Silverstone RL4Z S1803212H-3M + Ice-Salt-Water Cheese Grater 26.8
CPU Cooler Air Conditioner Mk.1 25.3
CPU Cooler Air Conditioner Mk.1 (Ice-Salt-Water) 25.5

The Verdict:  Inconclusive

There are some conclusions to be drawn from the results beyond the notion that you might as well just blow a fan on yourself:

  • The Air Conditioner does indicate that the concept works, but the low level of cooling suggests that it is inefficient.
  • The Fan + Cheese Grater solution is a complete farce, with it’s results indicating a rise in air temperatures.
  • Adding salt to the water does not increase cooling effects – possibly the opposite is true – and it could be harmful to the unit in the long run with increased risks of corrosion.
Possible improvements:
  1. Add a Peltier plate between the CPU Cooler and the Heatsink to act as a heat pump to force heat energy into the ice water.
  2. Some kind of agitator mechanism to stir the water, to help prevent algae growth and circulate cool water around the heatsink.
  3. As TIM needs a solvent to clean it off of a CPU after use, I doubt that it can be washed away; that said, it would help to create a waterproof barrier around the heatsink on the lid to prevent contamination of the water by the TIM, possibly allowing the water to be drunk after use (once it has cooled down!).

CPU Cooler Air Conditioner Mk1

CPU Cooler Air Conditioner.

Just over a week ago I tweeted a picture of a setup I had going on my PC Desk; Essentially, fill a cheese grating tub with iced salt water (the salt lowers the freezing point of water, hence it’s use on icy roads), put the grating lid on top (leave the tub lid off, but you can use it to prevent spillage whilst moving the unit around) and place it in front of an old PC Fan you have lying around.  You’re going to want as big a fan as possible, as they tend to have both respectable airflow and reasonable noise levels.

The way this worked was that there would be a chamber of air above the iced salt water that would be cooled when air particles hit the water and transferred their heat energy to the water – heat will always travel towards the cold – and the air will thus get colder.  The fan will then pick up this chilly air and thrust it towards the user, while fresh air will be sucked into the tub to be cooled by the iced salt water and thrust forward.

It seemed to work, both in principle and in practice, but it did have some drawbacks:

  1. The cooling effect depends on whether or not the air remains in contact with the water long enough to lose a significant amount of heat energy, if it even contacts the water at all.
  2. The fan was never exactly stable, being unprotected and therefore prone to breakage (of either the fan or my fingers).
  3. As I have learned to my cost, the iced salt water solution is very easy to spill.

So this got me thinking:  Was there a way for me to bypass the need to rely on air – a notoriously poor conductor of heat – in order to transmit the heat from the air to the iced water solution directly?

The CPU Cooler in question

It was at this point that I remembered about the Zalman CNPS9900 MAX that I had recently dispensed with from my Main PC on account of the space it took up inside the now tiny case.  Zalman were famous for their flower-shaped CPU coolers in the Athlon XP/Pentium 4 days when I began in PC Hardware, and this design was their last hurrah, a circular rebuke to the quadrilateral, functional wave of the future that now dominates CPU Cooler design.  Effective, yes, but also incomparably bland, as is now becoming true of most AIO Coolers.

This cooler has been in my possession since 2011 and has outlasted several generations of graphics cards, so I felt it was my duty to give such a long-serving component a new lease of life, even if it suffered the ignominy of being perched upon a lunchbox for the rest of it’s life.

The Build

The Component Parts

Still, a fantastic CPU Cooler is worth nothing without the right kit to enable it to perform it’s job.  In a PC this means a CPU to perch it on, and in this case it means the following items:

Materials required for CPU Cooler Air Conditioner.
From left to right: Lunchbox (with rubber seal to prevent leaking water), CPU Cooler, plain aluminium heatsink (using one with copper or other metals present introduces the risk of electrolytic corrosion), and a set of nuts and bolts. The Aluminium plate was originally intended to bridge the gap between the heatsink and CPU Cooler, but this turned out to be surplus to requirements.

Could hardly be simpler, could it?  The only additional bits used were a couple of compounds; Nut Lock to set the nuts in place, and TIM (Thermal Interface Material) to create an effective heat transfer between the heatsink and CPU Cooler by filling surface imperfections with a conductive paste.

The build commences!

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The whole process was over in a couple of hours.  Not so good for aesthetics, but brilliant for those of us with things to do and places to be.

The End Result

I would say the results spoke for themselves, if this was indeed anything more than a proof-of-concept.  This device looks like the sort of constructions that would scatter around weapons laboratories up and down the country in the next world war.

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So how effective is it?  First impressions indicate a positive result, with the air being blown from the device being noticeably colder than if it were from the CPU Cooler alone.  How does it satisfy the three drawbacks I outlined before?

  1. The cooling effect no longer relies on the rather dubious concept of air being cooled by a chilly body of water in an enclosed space, and then extracted by a fan.  The chilly body of water is now receiving heat energy from the CPU Cooler taking it from the air, transferring it to the lower heatsink, which then conducts it to the water.  In doing this a direct heat path to the icy water is created.
  2. The fan is mounted into the CPU Cooler, which means it is protected by it’s fins.  The Zalman doesn’t have an outer shroud like most CPU Coolers do, so the blade tips are still vulnerable, but it’s a better deal for both your fingers and the fan than simply standing it up on it’s frame.  Most modern CPU Coolers use fans with an outer casing.  There is also the fact that it is mounted to a lunchbox full of water, which prevents it from tipping easily.
  3. The gap for the CPU Cooler and heatsink to mate through isn’t watertight, so spillage is still possible.  The aforementioned stability of the device and the fact that the edges of the lid are sealed, however, does mean that spills are a lot less likely.

So there are many concrete advantages to this configuration.  With regards to it’s effectiveness, however, going by “feel” is no way to ascertain whether a device is functioning correctly.  Join me next week as I obtain a thermometer and put this to the test, also assessing this solution against the old cheese grater solution.