Gadget Finder



Gadget Q & A:

What Am I Trying To Do Here? I like gadgets--not just any gadgets, but gadgets that help me solve a problem that would be difficult to solve without them.  Too many telemarketing calls?  I look for a gadget that takes care of them.  Teenage daughter leaving the basement and attic lights on?  I look for a gadget that turns the lights off.  Teenage daughter running up long distance bills?  I look for a gadget that limits phone time.  Flashlight dead or missing when the power goes off?  I look for a flashlight that I can count on.

In this page I share information that I've accumulated,  and occasionally ask for information to use and pass along.  I don't sell any of the gadgets I talk about here, and have no financial stake in the companies involved.

I've arranged most of the information in a question and answer format.  A few longer articles are in a more standard format.  If you need a gadget that does something I haven't talked about, feel free to e-mail me.  If I know of anything I'll tell you.  I may also post the information on this page.  If I don't, I may ask for information here.  

How Can I Make Sure Unused Lights are turned off? 

How Can I Actually Use Solar Cells In My Typical Suburban Home?

How Can I Limit Long Distance Calls From My Home Phone?

Where Do I Find Gadgets On-line?

Gadget Articles:

Emergency Lighting: A Slightly Obsessed Look At Flashlights

How Can I Make Sure Unused Lights are turned off?

Smart Light Bulbs


Five or six years ago, Phillips came out with a line of light bulbs with microchips built in. I've seen three kinds. One shuts the light bulb off automatically after 30 minutes.  Another one shuts the light bulb off after 6 hours, but remembers your pattern of turning it on or off.  Another one contains an internal dimmer that lets you treat the bulb as if it were a 100+ watt bulb, or a 20-odd watt bulb, with several steps in between.  I found the bulbs at the local Menards for fifty or sixty cents apiece. I put a couple of the 30 minute ones down in our basement laundry room and up in the attic where lights had been being left on a lot.  It solved that problem cheaply and easily.

Unfortunately, these smart light bulbs are getting hard to find these days.  They've apparently been out of production for at least four years, but a few stores still have left-over inventory.  I found a batch of the 30 minute off Phillips bulbs at the local Menards in November 2001.  

As near as I can figure, a company called Beacon Technology designed the controller chips for these bulbs and licensed the technology to Phillips.  I'm guessing that Phillips made a bunch of the bulbs, but couldn't find a big enough market for them.  The ones I've been running into lately are probably just the remnants of their inventory.  If that's true then it's too bad.  This is a nice technology.

Beacon Technology may still be around.  They used to make the controllers separately so you could just put them on the base of a normal light bulb.  I don't know if they still do.  Last time I checked their website was still around.  It's at:

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Motion detector switch that plugs into light sockets or outlets

Motion detector switches that replace an existing light switch are pretty common, but that wouldn't have done it for us.  We'd have to rewire too much of the house. We needed something that screwed into a light socket and turned the bulb on when it detected motion.  I looked in five or six large hardware/home improvement stores.  None of them had anything like that.   Finally, I found them at the local LOEWS for about $25. I used one on the back porch to automatically turn on the porch light when someone comes onto the porch at night. That's very handy. I'm also installed one in the laundry room.  I've actually found two versions of this gadget.  The more versatile one appears to be the "Hands Free Switch" from First Alert.

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How Can I Actually Use Solar Cells In My Typical Suburban Home? Solar Cells

Solar or photovoltaic cells are kind of the ultimate gadget.  You put a solar cell  or a panel of solar cells in sunlight and it generates electricity--keeps doing it until the sun goes down.  When the sun comes back up the cell starts generating electricity again.  Most solar cells last at least twenty years, probably a lot longer than that.  They just keep generating power without causing any pollution.  Solar cells have been "the energy source of the future" for probably thirty years now, though to be fair the solar cell industry has been growing rapidly as cost of production has gone down.  

I've always been fascinated by the potential of solar cells.  To be honest I haven't found many practical uses for them, but I'm still fascinated.  

What have the obstacles to widespread use of solar power been?  Historically there have been three factors that make using solar power difficult for the average person. 

  • Cost: When they first started becoming practical, solar cells were expensive enough that they could only be economically competitive where there were essentially no competing power sources.  Solar cells were used in extremely remote locations like mountaintops and outer space.  Costs gradually came down and made solar cells practical for more applications.  By the time of the energy crisis of the 70's, solar cell electricity could be 'only' 10 to 15 times as expensive as typical utility-generated electricity over the lifetime of the solar installation in areas with a lot of sunlight.  Though that sounds high, solar cell electricity generation was actually competitive in some situations.  If the choices were to run new power lines for several miles or to use solar cells, solar cells were often economically reasonable even at the price levels of the 1970s. 

    Solar cell costs have been slowly drifting down, getting closer and closer to the cost of utility generated electricity.  It is possible, though not easy and not inexpensive, to power an average suburban house using solar cells.
  • Compatibility: Solar cells and the electricity they generate don't fit naturally or easily into our houses.  Solar cells generate direct current (DC), the kind of power that is produced by a car battery.  Our houses and most of the appliances in them run on alternating current (AC).  You can't simply plug a household appliance into a solar panel and expect it to work.  In a typical household solar electrical system, the electricity from the solar cells is fed into a bank of batteries.  As the electricity is needed, it is then fed through a device called an inverter, which changes it from DC to AC.  That allows it to be used in household appliances.  Solar electrical power for a home requires a large up-front investment, both because of the cost of the solar panels and because of the cost of the inverter and bank of batteries.  It doesn't make a lot of sense economically to buy small amounts of solar panels because you still have to buy the balance of the system--the inverter, batteries, etc--before you can use most of your system. 

    Again, the solar industry is very aware of that problem, and is working on various solutions.
  •  The diffuse nature of the power: A reasonably efficient solar panel will generate 120 watts per square meter.  On a good day it might generate around 600 watt/hours of power. What does that mean in plain English?  If you want to run three 60 watt light bulbs an average of 3 hours per night, that will take nearly all of the power that a solar panel a little over a yard square will generate on a perfect sunny.  And light bulbs aren't particularly heavy electricity users compared to refrigerators, televisions, and electric ovens.  It takes a lot of area covered with solar panels to run a house in the manner most Americans are accustomed to running it.

So what can the average suburban American  do with solar cells?  Potentially the most practical use I have found for solar cells is in battery chargers.  You can charge most rechargeable batteries--Nickel Cadmium and Nickel Metal Hydride batteries--in a variety of relatively inexpensive solar battery chargers.  Charging them that way takes considerably longer than using a charger that you plug into the wall, but the solar charger allows you to recharge batteries anywhere where there is sun, so a solar charger might be useful if you're tent-camping in an area with no electricity.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of solar battery chargers out there that simply don't work very well, so you might want to do some reading up before you buy. 


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