It’s a 40-minute drive each way to the airport, so the idea of trekking out there after work tonight to plug in the engine heater is enough to dissuade you from flying at all. If you wait to plug it in when you get to the hangar tomorrow morning, it will be hours before the engine comes up to a temperature where you feel comfortable starting it. If only you could clap on, clap off.
The real solution, of course, is some way to remotely turn devices on and off. Such systems have been around for a few years, using dedicated cellular connections. However, for the most part, traditional cellular plans didn’t cost effectively accommodate such occasional uses. Owners would have to pay for dedicated cellular service, often at $40 a month or more, just to send a few bits of data a few times a month.
Sean Mollet, an electrical and software engineer consultant and Beechcraft Baron owner with time on his hands during the COVID shutdown, decided to design his own solution. The result is SwitcheOn (pronounced switchy-on), a two- or four-channel electrical outlet that can be controlled remotely through the cell network. The two-plug model sells for $199; the four-outlet unit goes for $299. Rather than having to add your own phone connection and deal with a variety of SIM cards, you pay an annual fee of $50 to SwitcheOn through its app to take care of it. The first year’s service is included in the purchase of the unit.
Set up is super simple—and rather clever. Download the SwitcheOn app for your Apple or Android device. Plug the box in and a QR code appears on a small display on the unit. Scan the code with the app and it immediately makes a connection.
Simply slide the switch to On and know that when you arrive the next morning, Mighty Bird’s engine will be toasty and warm.Plug into the box whatever you want to switch off or on. Depending on model, the app shows two or four familiar slider switches. Each can be labeled for whatever is being controlled—“Engine Preheater,” for example. So now, on that Friday night as you anticipate your Saturday morning $100 breakfast flight, simply slide the switch to On and know that when you arrive the next morning, Mighty Bird’s engine will be toasty warm.
The unit has a temperature sensor that shares data with the app, so you can remotely check the temperature in the hangar to determine whether you need to activate the heater.
But the SwitcheOn does more than simple on/off control. Through the app you can set it to automatically turn devices on or off at selected temperatures. Or turn things on or off on particular days at selected times. And the time/date selection can be temperature dependent as well—so it will only take the action if the temperature is, say, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
James Gallagher, a Beechcraft Bonanza owner and friend of Mollet’s, has been promoting the product. He says pilots have been using them not just for engine preheaters, but also for ceramic heaters to warm the cockpit and avionics. He uses one to warm the engine on a tired gasoline-powered aircraft tug. They’ve also noticed people using them to turn battery chargers on and off not only for airplanes, but also for boats and recreational vehicles. The unit is weatherproof, so it can be used outside.
A 15-amp fuse protects the circuitry, which means users have to be careful about what they plug in—ceramic heaters on a High setting, for example, can draw 13 amps, according to Gallagher. A typical engine heater draws only about 3 amps. Mollet said a 20-amp version will be available soon, but electrical code requires it be plugged into a 20-amp outlet and utilize a 20-amp connector.
When discussing those cabin heaters, Mollet, with his electrical engineer hat on, can’t help but caution about the amount of heat those 1,500-watt ceramic heaters can generate—becoming a fire hazard should they get tipped over. His recommendation is the PMAed, installed 500-watt cabin heater from Tanis (tanisaircraft.com/product/replacement-parts-accessories/avionics-cabin-heater/thp3094-500), which can still be controlled by the SwitcheOn.
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