Ritchey Mulhollem doesn’t simply work with technology. He surrounds himself with it. He immerses himself in it. He rolls in it.
His front gate is automated with two relays and is connected to an off the shelf network power switch. For his hot tub, he developed a crude controller board using salvaged power relays off eBay, screwed them onto a 2×8, and plugged it directly into the network power switch. Dangerous setup, but it proved the concept. Now he’s built a safer version.
He’s created a hydroponics system for his garden that cycles the water on and off, to ensure the trays he uses to sprout seeds flood properly. It’s all solar powered. And to make sure everything hums along properly, he created a set of mobile apps for his Android to control it all from pretty much anywhere.
Obsessed? Sort of. The 42-year-old programmer from Conroe, Texas, does love things beyond tech: He listens to techno, gardens and is a fan of Coast to Coast AM, a nationally syndicated talk-radio station whose beat includes UFOs, strange occurrences and life after death. Although, it’s worth pointing out that he developed a program to automatically download his favorite programs to his file server, conveniently located in a separate workshop/outbuilding on his property.
He’s also a fascinating guy to talk to.
Tell me about your training.
I don’t have a college degree. My family was poor, and I grew up poor. I knew they could never afford to send me to college and I wasn’t about to put them into debt. So right after high school, I joined the Navy and started my career as an electronics technician. After I left the Navy, I took some college classes but was bored with the academics. I was more interested in working than pursuing a degree.
When did your interest in automation begin in earnest?
Years ago, when I was working as a junior programmer for Houston Lighting and Power (now Reliant Energy), I was introduced to a remote management software suite known as Tivoli. I wrote interfaces which helped expand its functionality. I heard a rumor that an engineer had developed a module that allowed him to turn his coffee pot on and off remotely from anywhere in the world. Until then, most of my programming experience was writing simple Web to command line interfaces, but that simple idea stuck with me. At the time, I didn’t have the skills to tackle a job like that. Later, I started to play around with network power switches and writing API’s for them. After getting a taste for automating things with off-the-shelf components, I wanted to take it further. I met other people working with AVR programming. They were controlling relays though the network using their own circuits. I had found the perfect merger of my love of electronics and my passion for programming.
Ever had a major fail?
Oh, yeah. I was working for a luxury motor home company. We were developing a state-of-the- art motor home. I built an automatic transfer switch using solid-state power relays which would change over from the main shore power to generator power. The automatic generator circuit worked flawlessly and the generator fired up and came on-line with no problem. But when the system went to switch over, all hell broke loose. The generator was out of phase. So it exploded. It was so violent, it ended up blowing the cover off the relay housing and setting fire to the surrounding wood enclosure. Seems I didn’t add enough of a delay for the actual transfer to occur. My boss was so angry he didn’t even say anything. That’s when you know it’s really bad, when they don’t say anything.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on an antenna rotator for my father. He’s a ham radio operator and has been looking for ways to control his antenna from a computer. I’m taking this project to the extreme. I’ve integrated Google maps into the system. You can click anywhere on a map and it will rotate the antenna to that location. I even tied it into the FCC database. Now all you have to do is type in another operator’s call sign and press a button. It not only displays the person’s location and points the antenna at them, it’ll display their address, distance from your location and picture of their house via Google Street View. I’m also tying it in to government-based resources like real time D region absorption maps, and I’ve added satellite tracking of ham radio satellites. I think my dad regrets ever asking for my help.
So where do you got from here?
Any place I can use automation! I’ve never been hired to create any of these things, but that’s not why I do it. Sometimes you just have to do something, simply because it’s really cool.
By the way, Ritchey Mulhollen is currently unemployed, though he’s kept busy with contract work with companies as diverse as JPMorgan Chase, Zappos, Hewlett-Packard and Capital Group. He’ll travel for the job. Give him a shot.
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