meeting friday night to discuss pedal powered film series in riverside park and the green future of ypsilanti

At some point tonight, I think they’re going to put my second post up on the Concentrate site. As much of it is taken from older material, I wasn’t going to post it here on, but then it occurred to me that, if I did, I wouldn’t have to write anything else tonight. So, here it is. It’s not all old crap, though. There is some new crap mixed in too. The most important thing that I wanted to be sure to pass along is that some of us will be meeting at the Brewery, this Friday at 7:00, to discuss the possibility of actually making this bike-powered film series happen. If you’re interested, please join us… OK, here’s the post:

Who’s Up for a Pedal Powered Film Festival in Ypsi’s Riverside Park?

Those of you who read my blog know that a lot of things occur to me during the course of a day. Most of my ideas are admittedly pretty stupid. Recently, for example, I was arguing that Ypsilanti should position itself as a regional hub for drive-thru chicken slaughter. Occasionally, however, I come up with something really good. The last one of those that I had was for a bike-powered film series in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park. And it wasn’t really all my idea. I just got the ball rolling.

The origin of the idea was pretty simple. I have a favorite movie, and I wanted to watch it some spring evening with my friends on the banks of the Huron River. The movie was the 1955 film noir Night of the Hunter – the only film ever directed by actor Charles Laughton. The film follows two children as they travel down a river, away from their mother’s killer, a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum. It’s a brilliant film that I love sharing with people, and I can’t imagine a better venue than alongside the Huron at dusk, there among the frogs and crickets. That, anyway, was the impetus. And things evolved from there.

Shortly after posting the idea, two things became very clear. First, I found that there are a lot of people who really feel passionately about Night of the Hunter. And, second, I found out that there are a hell of a lot of people who want to see movies in our park. And, best of all, I learned that representatives from both groups are willing to help. Within hours of posting my idea, I had offers of sound systems and projectors. I had people offering to shimmy up trees to hang screens. I had people offering to bring popcorn. I also got the sense that this was going to happen with or without me, which was really cool.

Then we found out that it we couldn’t get electricity in Riverside Park. That’s when conversation on my site turned to solar cells. I ran the idea by Dave Strenski, the fellow who built the solar system at the Ypsi Food Co-op, and he, for various reasons, suggested we not go that route. (I think there was some mention of acid sloshing around and getting into kids’ eyes.) The wheels, however, kept turning, and we ultimately settled on bike power, which is probably where we should have started in the first place. It works on every level.

I cannot imagine a better community-building event than a free, people-powered movie series. (And, yes, somewhere along the line it also became a short series, which could include other river-centric films, like The African Queen, or offerings for kids.) It has a whimsical Gilligan’s Island kind of feeling to it that makes me smile whenever I think about it. I envision kids peddling with their parents, neighborhood associations signing up for blocks of riding time, folks from our senior housing developments coming out – everyone happy and enjoying the evening.

There would be another benefit too. If we pull it off, I think we might be the first in the nation to do so. I imagine some positive press might come from it, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll be enough to attract the attention of an alternative energy company looking to open a facility in the Midwest, or a green developer like this one. I know it’s a reach, but as long as we’re rebuilding Ypsilanti, why not do it right? Why not go green? Why not say to the world that we’re a forward-looking community, thinking about sustainability? I don’t know how successful they’ve been, but there’s a town in Kansas that’s doing it. They were hit by a tornado, and they’ve decided to rebuild green. They’re using the opportunity to recreate their city. Why can’t we do the same thing, starting with the 38-acre parcel we call Water Street?

We’ve already started doing it from the bottom up. Volunteers led by Dave Strenski have already converted our Co-op over to solar. And dozens of us have already pledged our own money to do the same for City Hall. The citizens of Ypsi are stepping in and doing it themselves, and this bike-powered movie project would be one more, very visible, illustration of that fact. This movie series would be an inexpensive, fun way to show the world what we value and what we’re capable of.

As for the costs, I don’t expect they’d amount to too much. I’ve got people willing to donate bikes. The only real significant cost then, assuming that we can borrow a projector and sound system, would be the City’s fee for the use of the park and the generators. But, before we worry about that, we need to figure out how many bikes we need. Following are two assessments from my readers. This first one comes from Paul G, an engineer in Silicon Valley:

I’ve thought about trying to build a bike generator. You could just replace the rear wheel of an old bike with a motor, add an energy storage/AC inverter box, and presto, you’d have free power (and get good exercise too).

When I learned how much power can be generated by a human body though, I got discouraged. For instance, a super-fit, Tour de France-caliber bicyclist can sustain about 400 watts over several hours. But even that would barely be enough to run the portable theater.

The main problem is the projector, with its super-bright lightbulb. A quick google search reveals the average projector consumes about 250 watts. Add a sound system and factor in generator inefficiencies, and you’d probably need Lance Armstrong to power this thing. And he’d be pretty tired by the end of the film.

For the average “fit” adult, you could count on around 150 to 200 watts being available (after inefficiencies, maybe 100 watts). So you could power the theater with three or four such riders, or maybe 6-7 kids. The effort would be similar to riding a real bike (with wind resistance) at about 20mph for a few hours…

And here’s what local alternative energy guru Dave Strenski had to say:

…Human powered generators would be the best option for safety and “coolness” but can be expensive…

If I’m reading your mind correctly, this is what you want.

You can find DIY plans for bike generators here, here, here, and here.

You can also buy finished bike stands here or here.

Keep in mind that a healthy/fit person can produce about 100 watts of power for maybe 30 minutes. I think you would need 10 to 20 bikes plus a line of would-be pedelers. Each bike would have it’s own small battery to smooth out the power coming from the bike and to handle people switching riders. All the power would then be collected behind the screen (some place safe) and combined and sent to an inverter to convert the DC power to AC to run the projector.

Sounds like a great event, but would be costly to put on. Maybe you could sell the bike stands after the show to recover some of the costs. I could see people sitting on the Riverside Park’s sledding hill watching a movie with a line of bikes in back…

And then there’s my friend Eric, who suggests that maybe we just have people bring their own bikes. Or, better yet, we scrap the idea of bikes altogether. He suggests we locate some old paddleboats and create recumbent pedal-power stations. And, as I’m not an engineer, I’m not sure that his would work, but he also seems to think that maybe we could do it with one big crankshaft, where everyone worked together to feed a single generator. I was skeptical, but he reminded me that 3-person bikes exist. So, maybe he’s on to something.

So, let’s say we want to do this — is it possible to do it now, this spring? As I see it, we’d need at least three working groups to pull it off. One to handle the math, engineering and implementation. One to handle the pr, marketing and fundraising. And one to handle the logistics, permits, etc. My guess, just looking at the notes from Paul and Dave, is that we could probably do it with 14 bikes, if we had a constant stream of fresh riders to rotate in. I know that we could get 14 used bikes donated. I even suspect that we could find someone here in Ypsi to contribute space to store them and work on them. And, if we’re lucky, I bet we could even find some local mechanical types to help us put all the pieces together. So, all we’d really need to do is raise money for the motors and City’s $100 fee. My friend Homeless Dave just built out a system in his house (see his video further down) and I suspect he’d be willing to help us cost everything out.

Another approach that may be worth considering is getting a number of local businesses, not-for-profits, high school classes, social groups, neighborhood associations and the like to each sponsor a bike. We could give them the plans, and help them out, but they would each be responsible for getting the bike there on the day of the event, having it staffed with riders, etc. It could be pretty cool.

So, here’s the question… Am I stupid to think that this might be possible? Is it unreasonable to think that we can get 20 bike riders to rotate in and out for the duration of a two-hour movie? Is the cost of 14 or more motors going to be too much? I don’t know. There are a lot of components and a lot of unanswered questions. It’s exponentially more complicated than something like the Shadow Art Fair, but I think it might be worth it. (I’ll tell you more about the Shadow Art Fair in my next post.)

How cool would it be to get something like this off the ground? And, once it’s up and running, there’s no reason it couldn’t be done on a regular basis. (Unless we follow Dave’s advice and sell the bikes afterward, which is also a good idea.) Once all the pieces are together, we could break everything out several times a year if we wanted to. We could even use the bikes to generate energy for other events. We could run the PA at the annual Heritage Festival. We could use it to power the lights at other city-sponsored events. We could even keep them somewhere, like at the Senior Center, for people to charge their phones and laptops with.

I’m sure there are other things that need to be said, but I’m going to leave you now with Homeless Dave’s video on bike power while I start my letter to Al Gore (inviting him to Ypsi to show An Inconvenient Truth in the park). Watch it, imagine the possibility of what I’ve laid out here, and let me know whether or not you’d be interested in helping out. Or, better yet, come on out and have a beer with me this Friday, April 18, at the Corner Brewery. A few of us will be meeting there at 7:00 to talk about the project.

This entry was posted in Special Projects. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  1. Thoreau
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Why not concentrate on the flowing river power? It right there. Some contraption thats anchored or cabled in the river that turns a paddlewheel generator. I would think the mass/volume/spped of the water has more kinetic energy than several people pedaling a bike. And the river doesn’t tire out or need replacements.

  2. Posted April 17, 2008 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    could river and water energy be combined? People would enjoy watching two different processes, as well as the movie. May provide more areas of opportunities for participation to people.

    I do children’s storytelling and edutainment and would be happy to donate service in offering a children’s storytime and actvities about energy while parents are setting up and so forth. I work at the library (and local freelance) in this capacity. This might be useful because children can get bored when grown-ups are working. Keep the kiddies in full view of the grown ups and let them have fun exploring wind power with a giant parachute, make their own pinwheels…(I will donate all supplies for this if people want it.)

  3. Stan Swan
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    You could strap something to my hips, which I could then pump furiously.

  4. JulieU
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    While I don’t live in Ypsi (I just visit it M-F 8-5pm), your project sounds great.
    Would you be willing to set up a paypal link for donations to this project?

  5. Thoreau
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

  6. mark
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Hydro would be interesting. I know folks are working on small devices which, I suppose, could be used here. I’m more interested in bike power, though. I like the community-building aspect. That, to me, is just as important as the green aspect.

  7. Posted April 17, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Thoreau, cool idea, but it might be wise to consult with area naturalists to see if anchoring something like that in the river would disturb habitats.

    Mark, great posts in Concentrate!

  8. Posted April 17, 2008 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Hydro power sounds more expensive than the bike power, just because the engineering is more complicated. There are buoy type devices for towing behind sailboats to generate electricity, but I’d think buying one would be expensive.

    On bike power: Two generators/alternators should be sufficient. Standard alternators on cars are on the order of 75 to 100 amp devices. At 12 volts, thats 1200 watts/device. One would be more than enough to power the projector. The second should handle the audio system. A central drive axle could be coupled to multiple bikes and to the alternator(s). A standard automobile voltage regulator will maintain a 14 volt charging voltage to one or more 12 volt lead acid batteries.

    I have two deep discharge marine batteries. One has a 75 amp-hour capacity and the other has a 110 amp-hour capacity. I also have a 750 watt DC to AC inverter. At maximum power output, the 750 watt inverter draws about 40 amps from the 12 volt source. I’m willing to provide both batteries and the inverter for use on the night in question. At least one more DC-AC inverter will be needed.

    By my first calculation in my head while driving to work this morning, I think my two batteries, fully charged, would be enough to power the projector and audio for two hours. The bike powered generator would just serve as backup to ensure enough power was available for the whole event…or if more than one movie will be shown, therefore longer than two hours.

    Mechanically, a large fan belt can be routed right over a tireless rim on the back of the bicycle and then to the common drive shaft. Alternatively, sprockets could be mounted on the common drive shaft and the bicycle chains attached directly. The key engineering will be to provide a drive pulley on the shaft that is the right diameter to keep the alternators turning somewhere near their peak effieciency RPM (2000-6000 RPM if I remember right.)

  9. UBU
    Posted April 18, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    There must be some way to harness all the hot air you produce, Mark….

  10. amanda
    Posted April 18, 2008 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    okay so i missed the meeting tonight, if there was one– but several years back i paid $30 to buy detailed plans and part lists to build one of these bike generators… never happened, but i’ll see if i can dig up those plans… we’d LOVE to have one at the downtown ypsi farmers market– power a blender to make smoothies or something, and it could simultaneously promote the movie series- in fact, we could take one with us to a lot of community places and i’m sure it would drum up much pr. would be a neat thing to see if the ypsi area beyer memorial health foundation would fund– as part of active living stuff– they could travel with groups like ours and health groups during the off hours to raise awareness about cycling and health and good enviro-ness, and then converge to run movies on the weekend… hmmm…

  11. Posted April 18, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I thought the meeting tonight went really well. It did remind me a little of Apollo 13 when they were trying to figure out how to get enough amps to start the re-entry computer. Our discussion was more based on watts, but the same idea. If we have a 1500 watt projector and a 100 watt stereo and a 50 watt video player, how big of a generator and inverter do we need. I am not an EE, but I understood the basic concepts, and Dave seemed to have the best understanding of all. In the end I think we all came away with the idea that it was doable and that we could probably come up with the money.

    The best part for me though was being out of my store at 7:00pm, that doesn’t happen very often. It was different to see the crowd at the brewery at that time.

  12. Brackache
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what obstacles there would be (in the realms of physics and law) to operating a local independant bike-powered power grid. In my imagination, it’d be like a spinning class that everybody hooked up to it would take turns doing. I’m not into ecotrends so much, but I’d love to tell DTE to kiss our gyrating toned asses and do some local good as a side effect. I also know nothing of which I speak.

  13. mark
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Yup, as Jim said, we did meet last night and things were really well. Given the fact that the meeting was put together with just 3 days notice, I think we had a great turnout. There were about 8 of us. And a lot more folks, like Amanda, wanted to be there but couldn’t. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to post a proper update later this weekend. Before I do that, though, I think I need to walk around the park and think about where we’d put the screen and the bikes. Like Jim, I’m convinced that it can be pulled off, it’s just a matter of getting all the pieces moving. One thing, though – it’s going to be somewhat expensive to get the generators and the DC to AC inverter (if we need one of those). Everything else, I think we can get donated.

  14. mark
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    And I love the idea of a local sweat equity power grid, Brackache, if only to use the phrase, “kiss my gyrating, well-toned ass.” It, of course, would never work, but it should be pursued.

  15. Brackache
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Pointless Pursuit sounds like the perfect name for a stationary bike power station.

  16. Posted April 20, 2008 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    The projector draws 1500 watts? That’s hefty. On the other end of the spectrum, would a 100 watt stereo be enough? Where’s Leighton for this question?

    Mark, did you miss my offer, up above, of a DC-AC inverter. It’ll handle the half of the need at least. If we really need an inverter to power a 1500 watt projector, though, that’ll still run a few George Washingtons.

  17. mark
    Posted April 20, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    John, I did not see your offer of an inverter. That’s great… How many watts can it handle?

  18. Posted April 21, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Did you miss my offer of a support program to make the event even more family friendly? I do children’s programming, both at the ypsi library and freelance at other locations. I would gladly donate my services at the low, low price of free for a short children’s program, right next to where parents would be setting up the event. I think it would be invaluable to families that come to help get the event set up, as adults may get distracted. In an open area, children can wander off lightening quick.

  19. Posted April 21, 2008 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    That last post was from my wife, using my name. drat her! Now I have to change my name.

  20. Posted April 21, 2008 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Ok, I won’t change my name. I like it too much.

    Mark, all the details of my offer are right here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Jeff Clark