Gas station without pumps

2014 July 31

College tool box

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:33
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It is getting late enough in the summer that we have to start putting together packing lists and figuring out what stuff we’ll need to buy for our son’s trip to college.  Because he’ll be taking the train to college, we won’t have the problem some people have of him bringing a Ford Expedition full of junk and not having room in his dorm for it all.  We have to be much more selective than most families in deciding what he should pack.

Of course, there are some large shopping areas within an easy bike distance of UCSB, including K-mart, Costco, and Home Depot, so it isn’t necessary to pack everything he might need. (Though the Yelp reviews for K-mart indicate that it is a very badly managed store—I don’t know if that is a K-mart universal or specific to the Goleta store.) But some things are worth having around because when you need them, either there isn’t time or it isn’t worth a 5-mile round trip to the store.

My wife will take care of ensuring that he has the bedding and clothing he needs—I’ll try to make sure that he has the tools he needs.  So what tools does he need?  Let’s break it down into categories:

  • Study tools: computers, calculators, writing implements, books, paper, …
  • Bike tools: helmet, lights, patch kit, …
  • Dorm repair tools: hammer, pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers, …
  • Electronics tools: soldering iron, wire strippers, …
  • Living supplies: fan, refrigerator, …

In each category, we’ll need to look at what he has, what he’ll need, and whether he should take it with him or buy it there.  I’ll probably come back to edit this post later on, crossing out stuff he decides not to take and adding stuff I think of later.

Study tools

  • Small laptop for note taking+charger.  He already has a Chromebook that is adequate for this task.
  • Larger laptop to use as a desktop machine+charger.  He selected and we just purchased a Unix laptop for him (a 17″ Kudu Professional from System76)—in fact, UPS tried to deliver it today when everybody was out—he should get it tomorrow.  The laptop has VGA and HDMI ports, so he should be able to connect up to data projectors (though there are often problems with not having the right drivers on Unix distros).  The laptop comes with Ubuntu, but he is considering installing a different distro—he’s got about 2 months to play with that before college starts.
  • Calculator. He has several graphing calculators that he won in grade-school and middle-school math contests—he’ll take one with him, in case there is an exam that allows calculators but not computers.  He usually prefers using a computer for calculation these days, when he has a choice.
  • Ethernet cable (the dorm rooms have both wireless and Ethernet, but I bet the Ethernet service is better—they are not, however, allowed to add routers to the Ethernet connections).
  • Printer I think that a printer is too heavy to be worth carting around.  He gets a fair amount of free printing on campus.
  • Back-up drive? He doesn’t store much on his Chromebook (using it mostly to access the web and storage on the cloud), but he may need a backup device for his new laptop. A small drive is not very expensive.
  • USB flash drive.  He already has a moderately good one and we can supplement that with a a couple of old cheap ones, for when he has to lend a file to a friend, so that he doesn’t lose his good flash drive.
  • Laptop lock?  We have one, but is it worth the trouble of using it?
  • Cell phone + charger.  He has one that he uses rarely (usually to call us when we require him to check in) and we’ve bought a pre-paid AT&T plan that costs $2 a day to use, but only on the days he uses it, and then it allows unlimited talk or messaging, but data is 1¢/5kB.  The biggest problem is that the prepaid amount expires after a while, unless you add more, so the plan costs $100 a year whether you use it that much or not.  Given how little he uses a phone, that was the cheapest rate we could find.  If he starts using the phone a lot more, we can add more money to the account easily.
  • Pens, pencils, and markers.  We’ll send a few random ones with him, but expect that he’ll buy what he really needs at the bookstore.
  • Pencil sharpener.
  • Dry-erase markers?  (He can buy pieces of marker board at Home Depot and get them to cut it down to carryable sizes.)
  • Clipboard?  I like carrying a pad of paper on a clipboard in my backpack for note taking, doodling, and writing drafts of things. I don’t know whether he would want one or not, but having something to write on when studying outdoors or in a place that doesn’t have convenient tables can be handy.
  • Binders, composition books, folders, ruled paper, post-it notes, … and other heavy paper items should probably be bought once he gets there. We’ll probably send him with a small pad or pack of paper, so he has something to write on until he buys what he needs.
  • Ruler
  • Scissors for paper
  • Protractor?
  • Stapler and staples
  • paper clips
  • push pins?
  • Transparent tape (buy there?)

Bike tools

He doesn’t do major repairs on his bike, and there is a bike shop not far away in Isla Vista that he could walk his bike to, but he’ll need to take a few things with him:

  • Bike helmet.  They’re not fashionable in UCSB, but he normally rides with one, and I’d be happier if he brought his with him, rather than counting on getting one there.
  • Bike headlight + charger. He has a nice rechargeable LED headlight that can serve as a flashlight also.  It is small enough and expensive enough to be worth carrying rather than getting a new one.  He will have to remember to bring the light and the helmet home for holidays, though we probably have a spare helmet at home he could use if he forgets.
  • Bike taillight.  These are cheap enough that he might want to leave his here and get a new one once he gets a bike at UCSB—he’ll probably have to get a new mount for the tail-light anyway.
  • Bike lock
  • Patch kit
  • Tire levers. We have good stainless steel tire levers, which we’ve found much easier to use that the fat plastic ones that seem to be all most low-cost bike shops carry.
  • Frame-fit or smaller pump.  There are some good floor pumps scattered around the UCSB campus.  According to a news article, there were four bike tool stations installed in 2012 “located adjacent to the De La Guerra Dining Commons, Santa Catalina Residence Hall, San Rafael Residence Hall, and San Clemente Villages graduate student housing complex.”  None of those are very convenient to Manzanita Village, where he hopes to live, so unless the dorm he is in has a floor pump, he might want to buy one there.
  • Allen wrench set (3mm, 4mm, 5mm, 6mm)
  • Small adjustable wrench?
  • update 2014 Aug 3: bike panniers

I don’t think he will need to bring a chain tool, a spoke wrench, cone wrenches, sprocket removers, or any fancier bike tools.  First, he probably doesn’t know how to use most of them, and second, he can go to the Associated Students bike shop in the center of campus and borrow tools (and get instruction in using them) there.

Dorm repair tools

One can buy tool kits specifically marketed to dorm residents (like the Apprentice Tool Kit), but he already has a tool box and many of the tools he would need, so I’d only use a kit like that to suggest things that might be handy to include in the tool box he takes.

  • claw hammer
  • Allen wrenches
  • screwdrivers (Phillips and slotted—maybe with a bit set)
  • jeweler’s screwdrivers
  • mini level
  • adjustable wrench
  • socket wrench set (metric and English)?
  • ViseGrips?
  • tin snips?
  • measuring tape
  • spring clamps (plastic or steel)
  • razor knives
  • Leatherman pocket tool
  • machine screws and nuts
  • wood screws?
  • nails?
  • calipers?
  • micrometer?
  • zip ties
  • velcro cable straps
  • duct tape
  • Elmer’s glue?
  • Sewing kit: packet of sharps, spools of buttonhole twist (black, white, grey), small embroidery scissors, needle threader?, spare buttons?

Electronics tools

This will be a little different from the ones I specify for my applied electronics course for bioengineers (see the Winter 2013 or Spring 2014 list) , but we have a lot of the things on hand.  The initial list is almost certainly too much stuff.

  • needle nose pliers
  • diagonal cutters
  • tweezer set
  • wire strippers (should I give him one of the self-adjusting ones like I use?)
  • solder
  • soldering iron and stand (my old Unger iron, or perhaps he’ll take the one bought for his company)
  • solder sucker
  • solder wick?
  • PanaVise Jr? for board holding?  Or just a cheap alligator-clip 3rd hand?
  • breadboard
  • multimeter
  • USB oscilloscope??? (Is there one that plays nicely with Linux boxes?) Small pocket oscilloscope?
  • resistor assortment
  • ceramic capacitors
  • electrolytic capacitors
  • electrical tape
  • heat-shrink tubing?
  • spools of 22-gauge wire for breadboarding
  • jumper wires for headers? (female-female or male-male)
  • double-sided breakaway male headers
  • Arduino boards? Freescale KL25Z board? Power supply for boards?
  • USB cables
  • Small, closable tackle box for keeping bags of small parts sorted?

Living supplies

  • Power strip with surge protector
  • Extension cord?
  • Small room fan
  • Refrigerator (definitely a “buy there” item—needs to coordinate with roommate)
  • desk lamp?
  • bed lamp? (perhaps one that mounts on the bed posts)
  • alarm clock
  • laundry bag
  • book ends? (probably better to buy there, if needed at all)
  • Rolls razor
  • shaving brush and soap
  • coat hangers (buy there?)
  • first aid kit: band aids, larger gauze pads, antibacterial ointment, paper tape, medic scissors, thermometer, ibuprofen, antacid, simethicone
  • nail clippers
  • lock box for passport, insurance card, and other important papers?
  • backpack (he and I both need new backpacks for carting books around)
  • knife, fork, spoon
  • bowl
  • mug
  • resealable food containers (to avoid rodent visits)
  • Can opener (on Swiss Army knife?)’
  • umbrella


  1. Sounds like you could be enjoying this more than your son! If your sons does not like the Gnome interface of Ubuntu then install OpenSUSE which comes with KDE as default. For docs and stuff use LibreOffice and for CAD work DraftSight. For the oscilloscope buy this and install the software

    All the best with the studies!

    Comment by Herman — 2014 July 31 @ 23:34 | Reply

    • 708 Euros is a bit too much for a USB oscilloscope, I think. He rarely uses an oscilloscope now, since he is doing mostly digital work and debugs his stuff through software interfaces. A cheap oscilloscope for his toolkit might be worth getting, even if he rarely uses it, but not such an expensive one. (He’ll probably be able to get access to teaching labs in the EE department, if he really needs good equipment, though he’ll probably have to convince some faculty of his need for the access.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 1 @ 08:23 | Reply

  2. The CircuitGear USB scopes at all say that they have open source software for Windows, Linux and Mac; $100-$230. The PICO scopes are windows-only for the scope software but since XP is listed as supported, I’d think that Wine would be likely to work; Crossover reports it working:;details=1

    I haven’t seen whether the software for,842,1018&Prod=ANALOG-DISCOVERY works under Wine, but the hoped-for Linux software hasn’t appeared as far as I know. Unfortunately the student pricing requires taking a course that requires the board, not merely being a student; $99 would be a wonderfuly attractive price. I don’t even know whether the $159 academic pricing would be available. But even the $279 full price isn’t obviously completely out of line with the others.

    Comment by Michael K Johnson — 2014 August 1 @ 16:05 | Reply

  3. I noticed that you had ‘heat shrink tubing’ on your list – is it possible to get heat shrink tubing that’s all one size? I’ve browsed,, and my local hardware store (Ace Hardware) and the only thing they seem to offer are variety packs of different sizes.
    I’m playing with Arduino a bit and would love to heat-shrink some tubing onto the 20-guage wires; I do NOT need the rest of the sizes.

    If you find such a thing & wouldn’t mind posting it here I’d love to know about it! :)

    Comment by Mike Panitz — 2014 August 3 @ 21:27 | Reply

    • Well, there is fat heat shrink tubing like (¼” shrinks to 1/8″ diameter). is an assortment (like you found elsewhere).
      Digi-key lists about 8619 different heat-shrink SKUs (stock-keeping units) and stocks about 2956 of them, which you can search by size, shrink ratio, and other parameters:

      20-gauge wire is 0.8128 mm diameter, but if you have a crimped pair of wires soldered together, you’ll end up with about twice that diameter, so you’d want something that is larger than 1.9mm to start and shrinks to less than 1.6mm. at 60¢ for 4′ and a shrink ratio for 3-to-1 looks good.

      You might also like the 4.5-to-1 shrink with adhesive of endcaps like

      Note: Digi-Key is rarely the cheapest source for items like this, but they have good search capabilities and an extensive stock. Their service is also superb and their shipping fast and cheap, so if you only need a small quantity of something, they are an excellent source.

      Mouser tends to be somewhat cheaper, but their web site searching is a mess (very sloppy data entry and limitations on how you can do filtering), so I generally only use them if I need a lot of something that they have a significantly lower price on.

      Direct-from-China suppliers are often much cheaper (like $14 for 100m of 4mm tubing). Try if you want to try that route. Getting decent specs from those suppliers is nearly impossible, so you need to either not care or know what you are likely to be getting.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 3 @ 23:09 | Reply

      • Wow! Thank you for the incredibly thorough (and helpful!) reply!! Thank you especially for the specific advice & links – the Digi-Key site looks very, very comprehensive, and very, very intimidating :)

        Comment by Mike Panitz — 2014 August 4 @ 12:02 | Reply

        • I’ve found the Digi-Key site to be comprehensive, but the easiest of the electronics supplier sites to use. They have better search support and better data entry than the others, and they are good about notifying customers when a part that has been ordered reaches “end of life”, so that you can either stock up on spares or redesign. Although they do a lot of wholesale sales, they treat little customers like me well and their pricing is transparent. There are some things that Digikey does not have good prices or good selection on, generally the mechanical parts like enclosures, motors, screws, and stuff like that. But for the stuff they carry, they are my first-choice site.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 4 @ 12:13 | Reply

          • Digi-Key does look awesome, and knowing that they’ve got great customer service is definitely a big plus (especially since I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing).
            (I think the ‘intimidating’ comes from me not knowing much about electronics generally, and seeing lots of options on the page overall. Hey, can I say thanks again for those direct links? :) )

            Comment by Mike Panitz — 2014 August 4 @ 12:17 | Reply

            • No problem. I’ve been thinking I needed to get some more heat-shrink tubing myself (I have some fat stuff, but I think I’d rather have some smaller stuff with a higher shrink ratio), so it was worth taking a few minutes to look at what was easily available. I don’t think I want 100m from, even though the cost is very low.

              I’ve found that looking at what parameters DigiKey has pulled out as important to people selecting parts is often quite informative. If I don’t understand why a parameter is important (like the X7R rating on ceramic capacitors or ripple current on electrolytics), I do some Google searches and read up on the concept. and are good tutorials on capacitors, for example.

              DigiKey does a good job of providing links to datasheets for their parts (most electronics distributors do, but some doa better job of it than others).

              I’ve found that different manufacturers have very different quality-control standards on their data sheets—when I see a ludicrous parameter, I find it useful to compare to other manufacturers’ data sheets for similar parts. It is really bad when manufacturers change mA to µA or use mV for a parameter that should be in mA. I try to avoid buying parts from manufacturers with poor quality control on their documentation—if they can’t describe the part right, it is unlikely that they can make it right. Having lots of manufacturers making essentially the same part simplifies the comparison between the data sheets. Well-established companies (like TI) often have superb data sheets and application notes, while some of the new Chinese companies have data sheets that lack even the essential information needed to use the part (maybe they have a Chinese-language data sheet that is more complete, but I wouldn’t be able to read it if they did).

              Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 4 @ 12:37 | Reply

  4. One other quick thought – I wonder how many of the ‘living supplies’ could be picked up cheap at a second-hand store? I think ‘living cheap’ thing is a core part of the college experience, and the kitchen-related stuff especially doesn’t need to match/look nice/etc.

    Comment by Mike Panitz — 2014 August 3 @ 22:51 | Reply

    • I checked, and UCSB does not seem to have a decent thrift store nearby. (There is one in Goleta, but it gets terrible reviews.)

      We do a lot of thrift-store shopping in Santa Cruz, which has some great thrift stores, but UCSB seems to be more of a Costco culture. Buying stuff in Santa Cruz would be easy, but then schlepping down to UCSB would be a pain. He’s going to have to make some decisions about how much to carry, how much to buy there, and whether to store stuff over the summer, bring it home, or give it away. I think I’ve convinced him that it would be better to buy a beater bike there than to carry one back and forth by train (though I’m not 100% sure I have, and changes to Amtrak cars may change the equation).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 3 @ 23:18 | Reply

      • Good luck with the convincing!
        I don’t know if it would help to point out that colleges aren’t always the most…secure… places ever, and having something useful (a bike) that he won’t be too upset about losing/getting stolen/getting vandalized/etc (i.e., a _beater_ bike) may be a good strategy. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend hundreds/thousands of dollars on something that I normally leave outside my dorm room.

        Comment by Mike Panitz — 2014 August 4 @ 12:07 | Reply

        • Since he has already had two bikes stolen in his life, and he had to pay for the replacement of the second one himself, I think he is already well aware of theft problems in a college town.

          The tradeoff is in comfort and safety (good gears, good saddle, good brakes, bike rack for panniers) vs. cost. I suspect that he can get a cheap bike and get it tuned up for substantially less than buying a new bike. UCSB is flat, so a rugged 3-speed would be a good choice.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 4 @ 12:16 | Reply

  5. Suggestion number 1: Does your school year begin before Labor Day? If so, take as little as absolutely necessary and use the 3-day weekend for a parental transport or shipping opportunity. (Never overlook the value of FedEx ground.) The first week of class would be when he find finds out whether he has access to an electronics lab nicer than what he already owns and whether he will have the time to do those things rather than other things. Several other things you list appear to be standard for most dorm rooms. Has he seen one? Corresponded with his roommate?

    Suggestion number 2: A backpack suitable for the Pacific Coast Trail (only joking, but college textbooks weigh more than what you need to hike for a week) and can be used on a bike (if he bikes to class) that converts to rolling luggage.

    All of those bike repair tools suggest a bike that will need more than one lock, and most locks can be defeated in seconds by the professional thieves. (I have students who bring a wheel to class.) Unless he can store the bike in his dorm room, it will be much more vulnerable at school than it was as a resident in a college town because it will be exposed for a longer time. And it needs to be locked even when in the dorm room. Unless he rides distances on the weekends, a used 3 speed that has been deliberately beaten up could be the best deal.

    The dorm repair list seems extreme. Repairs are someone else’s problem. The only things I recall using were a screwdriver, hammer, spackle to patch nail holes before moving out, and a set of those highly unusual screwdriver bits that places like dorms use to keep you from removing screws they think you shouldn’t remove.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 August 9 @ 10:50 | Reply

    • His move-in day is Sept 28 or 29. We won’t know until the beginning of Sept, when he’ll find out what dorm he is in and who his roommate is.

      He is unlikely to have easy access to an electronics lab at UCSB, since he is a computer science student in the College of Creative Studies, not an electronics major in the College of Engineering. The EE labs are about a mile form where he hopes his dorm will be, which would make working late at night after homework is done rather difficult—especially since he most likely won’t have a key to the labs.

      We are planning to buy him and me new backpacks this year, but he expects to ride his bike and use the bike panniers most of the time, with the back pack more for organizing the panniers than for carrying heavy stuff. We generally go for modest day-pack sizes in heavy-duty cloth—my worn-out one is a Jansport 1 lb 4 oz / 0.6 kg, 1900 cu in / 31 L. I’d like something with better zippers and without the suede bottom (the two points of failure on the pack), but I don’t want something as big and heavy as the backpack I travel with (a Tom Bihn Brain Bag 2 lb 15 oz / 1345 grams, 2200 cubic inches/36 liters), though the Tom Bihn pack does have good zippers and much better construction than the Jansport (at 3 times the price, it ought to!).

      He is not planning on having a good bike at UCSB—a beater bike that costs under $300 used is more what he is looking for—but used bikes often take more maintenance than new ones, hence the need for tools. I’m also recommending he get a used 3-speed (though it seems like the standard bike on campus is a one-speed beach cruiser, with the bad brakes and extra-heavy weight that entails).

      Major repairs are certainly the university’s problem, and we’ll probably pare the toolkit down to what he really expects to use. There is a Home Depot a couple of miles from campus, so he can get more tools when he is there, as needed.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 9 @ 11:26 | Reply

      • I went to college in a 10-week quarter system. That goes by in a flash with a 15 or 16 credit load and all of those new people to meet and places to explore and maybe professors to impress so you can join a research group or a software startup in the winter term. He can always bring more down in January if he needs it and it will fit in the room, or just design in a bound lab notebook and build that embedded quad copter guidance system (or whatever) over break.

        Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 August 11 @ 06:31 | Reply

        • I’m familiar with the pace at quarter-based schools, having been associated with them as both faculty and student. I don’t expect him to do a lot of building, but given the current status of his startup company’s product, he’ll probably need to have a little electronics stuff with him for programming the devices and some debugging, as I doubt that he’ll have everything done before classes start. (Probably just enough for a Kickstarter demo tape.)

          There are some social advantages in being the guy with tools in a dorm, but they’re fairly small. He and I will discuss what he wants to bring, trading off the inconvenience of carrying it from home with the inconvenience of having to go to a hardware store to buy what he needs. I suspect that he will opt for a much smaller tool collection than I’ve been thinking of, but perhaps a bit bigger than you had in mind.

          He doesn’t do design in a bound lab notebook—more’s the pity. He sometimes sketches something on a whiteboard or the back of an envelope, but mostly he does his design work on the computer. Since a lot of his hardware design involves custom PC boards, there is a bit of a lag in getting them made. The high cost of prototyping also makes him fuss with the design for a long time before committing it. I’ve been doing the same on my summer project—though it is just as well, as I found some serious problems with the design I initially sent out for quotes on assembly. In any case, he’ll probably find the quarter breaks too short to do much in (2 weeks for winter, 1 week for Spring).

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 August 11 @ 10:02 | Reply

  6. […] selecting what he would take to college. He ended up with a somewhat smaller set of tools than the rather large list I had put together, rejecting the socket wrench set and the screwdriver security bit set as too […]

    Pingback by New bedroom furniture | Gas station without pumps — 2014 August 17 @ 12:59 | Reply

  7. […] College tool box […]

    Pingback by Blog year 2015 in review | Gas station without pumps — 2015 December 31 @ 17:07 | Reply

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