The inspiration for our smarter charging station design emerged from a visit to Cologne, Germany, where we passed by one of the iconic tower displays for the Smart car brand, the microcars stacked seven high in a column of gleaming glass and steel. A marketing move par excellence as Mercedes-Benz launched Smart in 1997, the Swatch-like display at automotive stores remains a classic study in space efficiency and modern design. What better model for our stacked hack of a charging station?
In our ever-smarter homes, the number of mobile and not-so-mobile gizmos with device-specific in-wall chargers or dedicated power cords is ever increasing, ever changing, and ever energy consuming. Surely, there must be a better way to keep these devices alive and organized beyond scattering them across our desktops and countertops, or singularly plugging them into the fabled available wall outlet—a contrivance that never seems to be available enough or close enough. Enter our wall-mounted, stacked-like-a-Smart charging station.
From inspiration to final design
We cooked up the component list for our design while browsing the labyrinthian floor of a local Ikea store. As accidental tourists in the kitchen department, we stumbled upon their Variera line of kitchen organization products. We envisioned how the Variera Shelf Insert—a stackable mini-shelf unit designed to reside on top of a larger kitchen shelf—could be assembled into a framework for a charging station. These hefty metal units include detachable legs and are available in several sizes. For our repurposing application, the unit with a depth of 5 1/8 inches was just right.
In order to conceal the inevitable mess of charging cables, power cords, and other components of the station yet enable easy access, we zeroed in on the Variera Box—an open-top ABS plastic container available in several sizes and colors. These boxes have cut-out handles, making them suitable for easily routing cables and cords to a close-by power strip. They also have a scalloped front panel, wide enough to safely park an iPad-sized tablet while it charges. For our installation, we used the box with depth of 6 3/4 inches, a fitting complement to the Shelf Insert.
In order to thwart any chargers or connected devices that can be energy-consuming vampires when idle, we planned to plug everything into a single 7-outlet surge protector. A tap of the surge protector’s on-off switch would zap the power for the entire station.
To facilitate the docking and charging of more transient devices, or those with larger footprints that don’t play well with the often closely-spaced outlets in power strips, we specified the Allocacoc PowerCube. Unlike any other power distribution product, this 2-inch cube has grounded outlets on 4 of its 6 faces, and can be mounted on a desktop or hung below the desk surface.
From shopping cart to power trip
The assembly and installation of our wall-mounted smart charging station requires just a few common tools, including a Phillips-head screwdriver, a power drill capable of drilling through metal, and a few twist drill bits. To precisely replicate our setup, which was installed on the wall beneath a stationary standing desk, one would also need a 2-inch diameter hole saw. This specialized drill accessory will enable boring a hole through the desktop to route the main power supply cords for the surge protector and PowerCube to a wall-mounted electrical outlet above the desktop. In that case, you will also want to purchase a grommet for the resulting hole to maintain a clean appearance.
Here are the steps you can take to build your own smarter charging station:
- Prepare the shelf units. Our under-desk installation called for the purchase of 4 Variera Shelf Insert sets. These shelves and legs are only available in white and can of course be used as-is. In our case, we wanted the shelf unit to match the red-and-white color scheme of the Variera Box we selected, so we spray-painted the shelf portion in red. We used Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Ultra Cover in Gloss Apple Red for this purpose, a near-perfect color match.
- Assemble and join the shelf units. Once the paint has cured, assemble the desired number of shelf units into a stack by using the supplied Phillips screws. There are two lengths of screws in each package; be sure to use the shorter screws for connecting the shelves to the legs, and the longer screws for connecting one shelf unit to the next.
- Drill holes in the frame for wall screws. Using a power drill fitted with a 1/8-in twist drill bit, bore holes through the vertical legs of the metal frame to facilitate installation of wall screws. For safety, your frame should be prepared with a minimum of 2 screw holes in each of the two resulting vertical legs.
- Fasten the stack to the wall and/or desktop. Following the instructions supplied with your selected wall anchors, fasten the frame stack to the wall with the appropriate anchors and screws, using a bubble level to check your work. If you are fitting the frame under a desktop, also install the necessary fasteners.
- Install the surge protector. Select a surge protector equipped with wall mounting slots on its back, as well as enough outlets to meet your anticipated needs. Using wall anchors, install the surge protector vertically on the wall immediately to the left or right of the frame stack.
- Install the PowerCube. If you are planning to install a PowerCube, follow the instructions supplied with the product to attach the cube where desired. In our case, we used the PowerCube Extended version, a device equipped with a 5-foot power cord and designed to securely attach to the bottom or top surface of a desk. And, in keeping with our installation’s color scheme, we selected the red-and-white model.
- Place the containment boxes on the shelves and label. Drop your selected Variera Boxes into place on the shelves. As we were planning to have multiple chargers or cables tucked inside some of the boxes, it made sense to label them with the device name for future ease of use.
- Connect charging devices to the surge protector and route cables. You are almost there. Begin by plugging the power bricks or power cables into the surge protector one at a time, and routing the needed cables to the desired boxes. It is not necessary to be overly careful with cable routing inside the boxes, as their high walls tend to conceal the wire melee behind them. But we did find it helpful to label the docking ends of each cable with the corresponding device name, particularly where we had multiple USB-type cables congregating in a single box.
- Power it up. Flick the switch on the surge protector, then connect a few devices through their respective cables.
Welcome additions to the stack
So we could keep a watchful eye on the energy usage of our station, we connected the Belkin Conserve Insight energy monitor. This device shows real-time power consumption in watts through its tethered LCD display.
Due to the large size of many power bricks, you may need to choose a surge protector that is designed with more liberal spacing between its outlets. In our installation, we used a clear lighted-end grounding adapter to act as a stand-off for some of our power bricks. This provided just enough offset to enable the installation of a smaller power brick in adjacent outlets.
Given the large number of devices we tote around that are powered by rechargeable NiMH batteries in AA and AAA sizes, we purchased the SunLabz 16-Bay Smart Battery Charger. The benefits of this device for the charging station? It fits perfectly and snugly between the cut-out handles in the Ikea Variera Box, and consumes only a single outlet port in our surge protector.
Smarter charging, less energy, and preferred parking
We have been using this stacked charging station in the Digitized House Zero Living Lab Home for more than a year, and are appreciating the level of extreme organization the setup delivers. And for the process of charging itself, a necessary but mundane task, we are enjoying the efficiencies gained by no longer having to hunt for the right USB cable or power brick when a device beckons for recharge.
Moreover, as monitoring energy consumption is always top-of-mind in this near-zero net energy smart home, the capability to switch off a large batch of chargers en masse definitively prevents the connected devices from behaving badly as energy vampires.
Given the flexible and modular design of the station, you can construct one to suit your specific charging needs and available space, ranging from a simple pair of stacked shelves and boxes, to much more elaborate arrangements consisting of multiple stacks. No matter the configuration, you are sure to reap the benefits of organization and efficiency gained by parking your devices in this stacked and smart charging station.
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More info on the products mentioned:
Ikea Variera box
Ikea Variera shelf insert
GE 7-outlet surge protector
Rust-Oleum Spray Paint in Gloss Apple Red
Clear Lighted-End Grounding Adapter
Belkin Conserve Insight energy monitor
SunLabz battery charger