Moving AV Gear to the Basement

Posted by mitch on January 04, 2014
audio, home

When I bought my house in Boston, I gutted most of it and did extensive rewiring, including speaker wires in the living room. Recently, I had a large built-in cabinet/bookcase built for the living room and had to move some of those wires and outlets in preparation for it. Since the electricians had to come out anyway, I decided to move all my AV components into the basement. The goal was just to have the TV, speakers, and subwoofer in the living room.

There are now 5 drops down to the basement for the surround speakers. I soldered RCA keystone jacks onto one of the old speaker drops for the subwoofer–the only place I could find solderable keystone RCA jacks was, strangely enough, Radio Shack (for 57 cents each). Behind the TV, I had the electricians pull 8 new Cat6 drops and a single HDMI cable. I also had the electricians run two 15 amp dead runs that go into a 2-gang box and terminate in AC inlets (male connectors) so that the TV and sub in the living room are plugged into the same surge protection system as the basement, thus avoiding any ground loop issues, and also eliminating the need for surge protectors in the living room for this gear.

Four of the Cat6 drops terminate at the AV shelving. I planned to use 2 of these for serial and IR lines and 2 are held for spares in case of future video-over-Cat6 or other needs. The other four Cat6 lines run to the basement patch panel. Of course, some of these could also be patched back to the AV shelves if needed for uses other than Ethernet.

I’m using a cheap IR repeater from Amazon to control the components from my Harmony remote. This works fine with my Onkyo receiver, HDMI switch, Apple TV, and Roku. It doesn’t work with my Oppo bluray player–apparently there’s something different about the IR pulse Oppo uses, and I couldn’t figure out which general repeaters would work from various forum posts. Fortunately, Oppo sells their own IR repeater system for about $25, and I’ve modified it to run over Cat6 as well. This means I have two IR sensors hidden under the TV that plug into 1/8″ mono jacks in the wall using Leviton keystone modules.

The Playstation 4 and Wii use Bluetooth controllers, which work fine through the floor. Nothing fancy was needed to extend these. It turns out that the Wii sensor bar is an “IR flashlight”–the bar itself doesn’t send any data to the Wii. So I bought one with a USB connector on it so it can plug into any USB power supply. (The original Wii bar had weird 3-tooth screws and I didn’t want to tear it up.)

I also finally got around to building a 12v trigger solution for my amplifier–my 7 yr old Onkyo receiver doesn’t have a 12v trigger for the main zone, but a 10v wall wart plugged into the Onkyo does the trick, now that I’ve soldered a 1/8″ mono plug onto the end and plugged it into the Outlaw amp. (My front speakers are 4 ohm and the Onkyo would probably overheat trying to drive them.)

The final missing piece was a volume display. I missed knowing what the volume was on the receiver, the selected input, and the listening mode, so I built a simple serial device that plugs into the Onkyo’s serial port over Cat6 cables. I have a 20×2 large screen display that queries the Onkyo for status a few times a second (powered by Arduino–firmware code is here). Muting, powered off, volume, listening mode (e.g., THX, Stereo, Pure Audio…) are displayed, as well as the input source. My next step is to add a second serial interface to the display so that I can query the Oppo and show time into the disc, playing state, etc. (Many newer receivers support their serial protocols over Ethernet, albeit at a higher standby power usage, and as far as I can tell, Oppo has not opened up their Ethernet protocol, though their serial protocol is well documented.) The enclosure is a rather ugly, but works for the moment until I build something better:

Note that another option is just to buy a receiver/pre-amp that puts the volume out over HDMI. My receiver is older and leaves the HDMI signal unmolested. Most modern gear will just put the volume up on the screen, but my next processor is going to be a big purchase, and this was a lot cheaper for now.

I did make a few mistakes:

  • The quad coming off the inlets should have been a 4-gang (8 outlets).
  • I almost only had 4 Cat6 drops behind the entertainment center, mostly due to the length of Cat6 cable I had on hand. Happily my electrician went and bought another 1000 ft spool and said, “Mitch, what do you really want?”
  • I probably should have run a second HDMI cable, just in case I ever need it.
  • The 8 Cat6 cables, a coax line (in case I ever want another sub or need a coax line), and the HDMI cable all go into a 3-gang box in the living room. This is a bit tight for this many wires, especially when one of the Cat6 lines splits into two 1/8″ connectors.
  • Not really a mistake, but if you’re doing this and buying new shelving for the rack, buy shelves with wheels. I am just using an old shelf I already had, but wheels would be very handy.

If you have a small living room with a basement or closet nearby, this might be a good way to go if you don’t want to get rid of AV components. With more room to keep things organized, more air flow around the electronics, I’m really happy with how this turned out. Since the bluray player is in the basement, the DVD and blurays are now in the basement, and this has freed up ~50 linear feet of shelving upstairs. (I’ve ripped a lot of my movies, but it’s a pain and I haven’t done them all.)

And best of all, there is now a lot less crap in the living room.

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Getting Back Into It

Posted by mitch on March 10, 2013

Over the last 25 weeks, I’ve been trying hard to do very little beyond sleep and goof off. Even though I don’t have a job and have been considering myself on vacation, looking back at my calendar, I still managed to do over 100 business-related meetings and spent 4 weeks on the road. Nevertheless, I’ve been relaxing–I bought a Playstation Vita last March and didn’t start playing it until January.

I’m starting to get going on a few projects and as I fiddle around with possible next directions, and come to realize that I don’t have enough desk space to juggle completely different activities that hit creative road blocks. I was at a stand-still most of last week because my desk was covered with a project that wasn’t going anywhere. I needed another desk to dump it on so I can still look at it, but engage on another project while it percolates. Since I’m doing some other remodeling this year, I started looking at reclaiming my closet (which is just a junk room) to pick up an extra 35 sq ft of “spreading out” surface area.

I’m also finding that I have too little in the way of filing space–despite moving most “archive” files into banker boxes and shredding about 60 gallons of files, I still lack sufficient filing space. So this configuration adds a second linear file cabinet.

Some other remodel considerations for the office:

1. Build a large built-in bookcase at the front of the office. In this configuration, it will hold most of my office-related books. Barely–which would be a big improvement over the current situation. Below is a rendering that my architect created of the bookcase. I also plan to reclaim space under the eave to put the stereo without it taking up floor space in the room where it currently resides.

2. Remove the chimney. I should have done this 5 years ago but felt like I had feature-creeped on the first remodel too much as it was. To finish a software release, you have to stop adding crap to the release and get things fixed. The same applies to a remodel.
3. Finally install a split AC system. I got a quote for this years ago, but could never get the fellow to come out and do the work.

Sadly, remodeling in real life isn’t as fast as a few hours of monkeying around in SketchUp… so until then, piles of stuff it is!

If you came to this post hoping to read about what I’m working on and you weren’t happy to hear about goofing off, come back in 25 weeks!

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Kitchen Remodel Contemplations

Posted by mitch on December 23, 2011

Recently I have been spending some time planning a kitchen remodel. The kitchen remodel is something that we have been expecting to do since before buying the house. Frankly, there’s just no other way to say it–the kitchen sucks. It’s ugly, the cabinets are hugely inefficient, there are a mere 12 sq ft of built-in counter space, and the layout is ridiculous. Who puts a dishwasher in the corner? Anyone shorter than 6’0″ can’t unload the dishwasher and put dishes into the cabinets above without staging the dishes onto the counter first. The inefficient design is a bit weird because the room is quite large–it’s roughly 14 x 16 ft, with everything on one wall in the back.

Depending on what else is going on, I plan to start construction in either late 2012 or early 2013, so I have had plenty of time to look at kitchen design books, web sites, and make a lot of models in SketchUp. I’ve also spent some time thinking about the kitchen like I would a product. How will the kitchen be used? What are the use cases? What’s the workflow? Here are some of the things I’ve come up with to consider for how we use our kitchen:

1. Food preparation. Where do ingredients come from, both from the fridge and cabinets? What about spices, which are often stored closer to the stove than regular pantry items? If the user needs a mixing bowl, a serving dish, a baking dish, where do those come from? Is there room for ingredient preparation from the fridge and queuing for cooking? Where does trash go?

2. Staging food to the dining room. Is there a logical place to queue prepared dishes to leave the kitchen and be moved to the dining room? Does that space compete with other tasks?

3. Loading the dishwasher. Is there sufficient counter space that is naturally a target for putting dishes in queue for the dishwasher? Is that counter space likely to compete for other tasks, such as a dish drainer or preparation? How is this space positioned against the dining room or eat-in area? Is it natural for one person to queue dirty dishes while another person loads the dishwasher? Where do food scraps go? Where do dishes with leftovers go to queue for putting into the fridge?

4. Unloading the dishwasher. Where are the cabinets for pots and pans, plates and glasses, where are the drawers for flatware and other utensils? How does the design enable the user to move dishes from the dishwasher to those destinations with minimal work (number of steps to take, reaching in awkward ways, etc.)? For our volume of dishes, does there exist sufficient space in those destinations to hold the amount of dishes we want to keep in the kitchen? Is there a place for a dish drainer that doesn’t compete with other tasks?

5. Getting a drink. How efficient is it to enter the kitchen, get a glass, get ice, and a Coke? What about making coffee? Mixing a manhattan? Where are the beverage supplies and glassware? How does the drink preparation flow co-exist or interfere with cooking flow?

6. Number of users. Knowing how we cook as a couple, is there space for each person’s tasks and access to tools and ingredients with minimal cross-over with the other’s tasks? Can two people prepare food and still interact? What if there is just one person preparing food and the other person wants to hang out in the kitchen? Can this be accomplished without physical overlap of space?

When we bought the house, our realtor advised living with the crappy kitchen for a while to get a better understanding of its limitations and give careful consideration to what’s really important in a kitchen. I thought this was pretty strange advice, but since there was so much other remodeling going on, I was happy to go with it. This turned out to be amazing advice. I never would have articulated much of the above without having to consider what makes the current kitchen a disaster.

If you think I’ve missed something in the above ideas, please feel free to tell me. I am not a professional architect of physical spaces, just software.