Monday, July 18, 2011

In search of solar car-battery charger

MY friend Aning Awang showed me a solar car-battery charger when I visited him last month. His son purchased the device a decade ago while he was studying in Japan. When he returned to Malaysia after his studies, he brought a couple of the chargers home and installed one in his father's Nissan Bluebird.

According to Aning, the device charges the car's battery using the sun's energy. Leave the car outdoors during the day, switch on the charger, and it goes to work to keep the battery power in healthy condition.

"The good thing about this Japanese-made product," Aning said, "is that it also works under normal light -- not necessarily under the hot sun."

Having used quite a number of solar powered devices -- from torchlights and radios to garden lamps -- I was skeptical of any product that claims to use solar energy. They simply don't last. But I had to give this one the benefit of the doubt.

According to Aning, this charger is different. He said he has forgotten when he last changed his battery since using the charger.

"I only maintained the electrolyte level of my car battery," he added.

When I returned to the city, I went looking for several car accessories dealers to ask about the solar car-battery charger. I even showed them a photograph I took of Aning's charger. No one has seen the device before despite the solar charger being in the market for over a decade.

These days, car batteries cost a bomb. And they don't last as those made in the good old days. Part of the reason is because today's cars are wired with all sorts of power-sapping instruments, especially the central locking and alarm system.

Wet batteries last two years at the most -- if you take good care of them. Maintenance-free ones do last just about the same duration except that you don't have to dirty your hands topping up the electrolyte level every few months.

But if you had been absent-minded enough to leave your car lights on, like I did a couple of times this year, your battery would die even faster. And the red face you would experience would not only come from being absent-minded, but also from having to push your car to start the engine.

I have seen a solar charger for cell phones. I don't know if it works as well as its manufacturer claims but the RM499 price tag makes it too expensive to invest in.

I have also read about annual solar car competitions our local scientists have been taking part in. I am sure each year, they are closer to putting us in pole position in the worldwide race to produce the ultimate solar car.

But can they make me a solar car-battery charger instead? I think it takes less sweat than trying to figure out how to cool the interior of a solar car under our hot weather to make it practical to drive in.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When technology is humbled, rely on the traditional

EVER wondered how coconuts are plucked? If you grew up in villages, chances are that you have seen coconut gatherers at work. During my childhood, the village's coconut gatherer used a rattan loop strapped to his feet to climb the trees.

He would place his feet on the inside of the loop right up to the ankles. With the loop in place, he hops onto the tree trunk, straddling the loop over the tree trunk like a saddle. The rattan loop supported the feet and allowed the soles of his feet to grip firmly onto the slippery trunk. He then wrapped his hands behind the tree trunk, locked the fingers of both palms, and pulled himself up, two limbs at a time, frog hop-like.

Coconut tree climbing required not only strength and but also stamina and fearlessness of heights. The climber, who was in then his 50s, had all. He was able to climb over 15 coconut trees by late afternoon.

While coconut gatherers on the west coast of the peninsula used rattan loops, those in the east coast were smarter. Where I spent the earlier part of my childhood, coconut planters cut V-shaped notches onto the sides of the trunk as the tree was growing.

The notches, spaced out a foot or so all the way to the top, became a series of steps for tree climbers to gain a foothold on and get to coconuts easily. And that is why when you see a picture of a coconut tree in a photograph (or a painting) with notches on its trunk, you can bet that the scenery was captured in the east coast.

Old coconuts were usually twisted off their stalks and dropped from the trees by the gatherers. However, young ones had to be lowered to the ground using ropes because to drop them from 40 or 50 feet high would shatter their thin shells and spill the water for which they were prized.

Some also used beruk (pig-tailed macaques) and kera (crab-eating macaque) to pluck coconuts. Properly trained to identify ripe coconuts and how to pluck them, the primates could do a man's job twice as efficiently and at half the cost.

However, they can rarely be taught to pluck young coconuts without destroying half of their pickings should they decide to drop them from the tree tops.

A coconut supplier told me recently that the labour-intensive job of plucking coconuts is fast losing its appeal with the young these days. I know why. A few years ago, the prices of coconut and santan soared because of the shortage of manpower. Local suppliers had to import coconuts from neighbouring countries.

Last year, a competition to produce a mechanical coconut plucker was held in the state of Kerala, India's major producer of coconuts. According to news reports, such a contraption unfortunately will remain a distant dream.

With technology humbled by the coconut tree, I suppose if there is a real shortage of traditional climbers to pluck coconuts here, we can still depend on our beruk and kera.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Surviving on as little as possible in the city

ONE evening, while lamenting about rising food prices and how much a meal costs these days, my wife and I decided to see if we could get a dinner for two for under RM10.
The condition we agreed upon was that the meal must not only be cheap but reasonably balanced, and palatable.

We chose a banana leaf rice restaurant that was usually packed in the evenings. We thought the food must be either good, plentiful or simply cheap. We each ordered a garlic naan and a glass of limau kosong, and a small plate of fried cabbage to be shared.

The naan was about 15cm in diameter, dressed with chopped garlic, carrot and parsley. Only a small portion of dhall came on the serving tray but the waiter said we could help ourselves to more from the gravy container. The cabbage was yellowed. I did not know if it was overcooked, had turmeric added to it, or left over from the afternoon's lunch. As it was warm, it was good enough for us.

The bill came to RM6.80. The naan cost RM1.50 each, limau kosong was RM1.40 a glass, and the cabbage was RM1 a plate.

The meal was nothing to shout about but it was well within our budget.

We could have substituted limau kosong for plain water and ordered a boiled egg each for additional protein in our diet for the same price or less. Or we could even have ordered two plates of cabbage.

I am glad that there are places which still serve such cheap meals these days. If we had gone Dutch, it would only have cost us RM3.40 each. To have the same fare every day would have needed great resolve, but there are cheap meals elsewhere if we were cash strapped and not choosy.

Economy rice, depending on whether you are in Jinjang or Bangsar, probably cost between RM3.50 to RM5 - add RM2 for a drink. Noodles might be slightly cheaper, and you may not even need a drink.

If you know your way around the city, I think you can still stretch your shrinking ringgit a little. If you spend about RM5 for a meal, three times a day, you would need at least RM500 a month, excluding other expenses like transport, clothes and rent.

With these expenses thrown in, what is the least you need to earn monthly to live in a city like this?

A Myanmar I met said he only earned RM800 per month as a production worker at a factory. His employer provides accommodation, uniforms and basic amenities.

Since he has been living here for three years, I believe he was not joking. A Nepali said he did it on a monthly pay of RM600.

With overtime, he said, he takes home slightly under RM900. He has been here for six months and was happy about it.

Perhaps a TV producer should do a reality show on what is the lowest wage one can survive on in the city?

The show may not have the glamour of Malaysian Idol or Akademi Fantasia, but it could be a hit. After all, what could be more "real" than trying to survive in the city with what little we have?