Have a green and hackable holiday

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Before Christmas this year, there seems to be plenty of neat holiday themed stuff with good parts about to go unsold. Anything with an overt holiday theme will be marked down the day after Christmas, so it is possible to think ahead and provision yourself for some maker fun for the months and years ahead. Of course this could apply to Halloween Easter or any other over commercialized holiday.

Looking at the things that will go discounted later in the week, there are a few filters for considering the items. Green things will help you reduce your energy consumption for the holidays in the future. Hackable things will provide you with an object that can be hacked into holiday dressings with a decidedly different naughty/nice ratio. Items with good components can be separated that has nice systems which can be and useful for other projects.

LED Christmas lights are worth looking out for. Lights are generally rated in watts. Higher wattage means higher electricity use, so getting low wattage lights will reduce your cost of ownership over the lifetime of the item. Looking for the Energy Star logo will help you find lower power consumption devices in general. If you have really old and big Christmas lights, then they certainly use more electricity than newer series wired lights. If you can get your hands on some new LED lights after the holiday, then you could save some of next year’s holiday money. How about gifting your family and friends some replacement lights so they can trash the old power sucking illuminations?

This could apply to displays or just about anything that people consider to be gifties. If it has a program directing its operation, then you could do something with it. After Halloween, I picked up a environmentally responsive skeleton. At the store, I saw a device that was selling for about $6 usd, and it had a speaker, a wobble motor, a sensor activated programmed chip. This device could in turn be used to do other things. After some study, I figured out that the action is triggered by a photocell when the light is reduced. That means that any resistive based sensor could activate the circuit, which is currently set to run a motor, blink two red LED’s and play an audio file through a speaker. At the very least, my six bucks gave me a decent experience of analyzing the function of the circuit. It took a while to find and figure out the sensor aspect of the circuit, but it was a neat challenge.

Essentially, with a hackable device, you want to be looking for components that you can understand and repurpose. Can the system be circuit bent? Could you change the function? Could you drive it with some other programmable system like Arduino, basic stamp, lego RCX, Android, iPhone or PIC microcontroller?

Good components
Look for motors, lights, speakers, anything that if you wanted to buy, you would have to go to a special store, or a catalog. You probably won’t find much that can be programmed, but maybe you can find some stuff that has a couple of sensors. The more sensors the better. Switches or resistive based sensors are probably what you will find.

This season, I am seeing lots more LED flashlights and for the first time, solar powered lanterns. The ones I saw were about $8 usd and had an LED that is powered by rechargeable batteries fueled with a solar cell. It seemed like a good deal, but will be better after the holiday. Solar panels used to be really expensive. Now they are part of really cheap stuff. Change out the 600 mAh batteries with something legit, and maybe you have a good solar charger. How about a fake tree with dozens of rgb color shifting LEDs? It had a speaker system and played music. No clue how much it cost, but if it was cheap enough, it would be fun to play with it. If you can see the components, count them up, and maybe even try to build a price list for buying each of the parts. Don’t forget to include shipping. If the thing is busted, even better. You might get it real cheap, especially if the people working at the store just see it as old, damaged merch and hard to move.

So what goodies can you find in the closeout bins of post holiday cheer? How can recessionary junk make you smile and happy to experiment? What could you do with a decent collection of LEDs from a string of lights? How much electricity can you save by junking your old lights and getting new ones? How much electricity does your holiday display gobble up? Could you have an entirely solar or wind powered holiday setup? Join the conversation in the comments, and of course, add your photos and video to the Make Flickr pool.

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Making things is the best way to learn about our world.

View more articles by Chris Connors


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