Forget Standing Desks: Here's One You Pedal To Power Your Gadgets

Finally, you don't even need to get off your butt to get moving at work.

"I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet may not spend his time well," wrote Henry David Thoreau a century and a half before his society had stuffed its white-collar workers into cubicles with computers. His point, made as part of a longer series of lectures, boiled down to the notion that if you don't sustain yourself with love for what you do, whatever you're doing might be sort of worthless—or worse, without principle or enjoyment.

People who move back to the land to devote themselves to active living are often considered Luddites in our fast-paced modern age. But white-collar office workers don't have to those extremes to at least enjoy their desk work, or participate (to some degree) in the movement. A pair of best friend engineers in upstate New York are Kickstarting a campaign to open-source their dynopods—or pedal-powered work surfaces—that use the power from your legs to charge anything from a smoothie maker to a laptop.

"Bikes are the most efficient transportation machines by far, by an order of magnitude of 10," lead Pedal Power engineer and avid cyclist Andy Wekin says. So when a group of families in Burlington, Vermont, came to his business partner Steve Blood and asked him to help them build an intentional community with localized energy sources, he naturally thought of pedal power.

Blood and Wekin now have two designs, the Big Rig and the Pedal Genny, that use bicycle technology to power lightbulbs, blenders, applesauce makers, grain mills, and different types of chargers. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, they'll be able to fine-tune the designs with a larger community of makers, and produce more.

If funding exceeds their original goals, Wekin is looking to make a quieter version with rubber belts that can be used in an office setting. He's also tinkering with something like an upright, pedal-powered stairmaster that can be folded up and stored in apartment cabinets for kitchen uses—coffee grinding, butter churning, or whatever artisanal activities the kids are up to these days.

The organizing principle is to make people more energy conscious, Wekin says. "For me, if everyone in the United States could ride on one of these things and feel what it's like to turn on the TV, or flip on the light switch, or turn on a video game, I think it would change how we use energy," he said. "We self-flagellate sometimes about our carbon footprint, but we don't even realize what that means."

Of course, the Big Rig and Pedal Genny can't do everything efficiently. If you want to brew a cup of coffee or toast something, heating devices require far more energy than someone would likely expend on a bike. The current designs also don't necessarily take into account the average tabletop height, which could end up being a knee-bumping issue.

But other functionalities are surprisingly breezy. The average adult, after all, can generate 75 watts in two hours, which can charge a laptop for 3 to 6 hours or phone for 30 to 40. "Cellphones are easy," Wekin said.

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  • John Schubert

    [part 4] There are some delightful instances when human power is a great way to get power. Riding a bicycle, and powering the bike's lights with small dynamos, are the best two examples. Why? Because the bicycle replaces other vehicles that are far less efficient. But a food blender isn't any more efficient when it's hooked to pedals than when it's run by an electric motor. A stationary work station, used in a first-world environment full of wall outlets and cheap electricity, is a poor example of how to use human power, and certain to not be popular. Recommended further reading: the very erudite book "Sustainable Energy — without the hot air" by David JC MacKay, and available without charge from his web site at www.withouthotair.com [end]

  • John Schubert

    [part 3] I pay about 12 cents for a kilowatt hour of electricity. At that rate, I'd pedal this device about 50 minutes to produce a penny's worth of electricity. A dollar's worth of electricity would take me 83 hours. Ten bucks' worth of electricity would require 830 hours, or 2 1/4 hours per day for a year. You'd really have to love sitting and pedaling to want this. Weigh this against the up-front cost ($2,000!) and energy expended during manufacturing of the "Big Rig" and it isn't economical or even particularly ecological. It's privation for its own sake. [continued]

  • John Schubert

    [part 2] Today, eBay sells a suitable 100-watt motor for $30. The cost of electricity has risen, but the fact remains that a lifetime of use of that motor will still cost only a buck or two. I use 100 watts as my benchmark because (a) it's a convenient round number and (b) I think it's at the very upper end of what people would do. That's about the power output I produce during casual bicycle riding, and more than I'd want to sustain while indoors, without a cooling breeze, since this roughly doubles my body's heat output. [continued]

  • John Schubert

    History repeats itself. In the 1970s, Rodale Press embarked on a program to build and sell a nearly identical line of products they called the "energy cycle." One looked like a school desk, with the pedal stuff underneath, and a power take-off which you could attach to a generator, a food mixer, or whatever. Other Rodale designs included a pedal powered grain grinder, two versions of pedal powered log splitters, and I forget what-all else. I "road tested" several of these devices, and came away thoroughly unimpressed. The grain grinder spent some time in my living room, where it was a source of great bemusement to my friends. Rodale sunk a lot of money into this project before it face-planted on the realities of physics and economics. Back then, you could buy a good medium size electric motor for $10 from the ads in the back of Popular Mechanics, plus enough electricity to use the motor for many years for another dollar. [continued]

  • Robert Huckabee

    Saying "The average adult, after all, can generate 75 watts in two hours" is gibberish. It does not make any sense at all.