CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO

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Ah, the pop bumper. The ultimate ball randomizer. It was once the centerpiece of nearly every pinball table, but as technology changed and playfield layouts became more complex, the pop bumpers became somewhat of an intrusion, leftovers from a bygone era, and were tucked away in dark corners and hidden under elaborate ramps. Take Williams Demolition Man, for example. Not only was one pop bumper assembly completely removed from the layout, you’d be actually hard pressed to notice they exist at all, blocked from view by a series of ramps, wire forms and plastics. This is a far cry from the days when bumpers all but dominated the woodrail era games. Ask any pinball aficionado, though, and they’ll tell you that it ain’t a pinball machine unless there are pop bumpers on it! As the bumpers themselves moved to the periphery, it became obvious that the single light contained within the assembly itself wasn’t enough to draw attention to the unit. Faceted caps were employed in some instances, as in many modern Stern games, or covered up completely with molded plastics, as they were in Data East’s Simpsons and Williams’ White Water. However, for the most part, pinball companies old and new have resisted perfecting new lighting techniques for the pop bumper, and have stuck with the same old single bulb in a single socket.

The recent surge in enthusiasm for LED lighting has allowed aftermarket companies to offer up solutions for the tired looking, and somewhat forgotten, pop bumpers. Love them or hate them, LEDs are common place in today’s pinball landscape. So much, that every game that leaves Stern Pinball’s factory now comes with a full compliment of LEDs.  To move your old game into the 21st century, you could just remove the carbonized 555 incandescent that currently sits inside your pop bumper and replace it with one of countless LED designs on the market.  However, the minds at aftermarket lighting companies in the pinball landscape have dreamt up other designs that take lighting the pop bumper cap to the next level. In the next week or so, I’m going to try and wade through the sometimes confusing world of pop bumper lighting options, and weigh the pros and drawbacks of each solution. I’ve rounded up pop bumper lighting solutions from three of the biggest names in the hobby—Comet Pinball, CoinTaker and BriteMods—in an attempt to explore the different options out there. If you are a staunch supporter of incandescent bulbs, this series may not be for you. If you constantly strive to make your machine look its best, brightest and most colourful, I’ll try my best to help you make your pop bumpers really…um, pop.

Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO Series

When in doubt, start with the most expensive option, right? All kidding aside, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO pop bumper light has to be considered a front runner in the race to light your pops. It isn’t just a lightbulb, it’s an entire lighting solution. Available exclusively from go-to parts supplier Pinball Life, the BriteCaps EVO (which stands for Enhanced Visual Output) provides a visually pleasing experience while giving customers bang for their buck in extra features not available from the other aftermarket lighting companies. The BriteCaps EVO was born from BriteMods’ first foray into pop bumper lighting: the original BriteCap. The original design, which is still available from Pinball Life, was a unit consisting of 31-Surface Mounted Diode (SMD) lights mounted to both the top and bottom sides of a ring set inside a pop bumper cap. Since the unit came “pre-capped”, the end-user removed their old pop bumper cap and simply installed the new one with the BriteCap pre-installed in it. The BriteCap EVO takes the cap out of the equation and ups the LED count to an astounding 40 points of light: 24 SMDs on the topside available in a wide array of colours, 10 white SMDs on the bottom to illuminate the playfield, and 6 center SMDs that can be adjusted (via a switch) to always be on, or to react to the vibrations of the pop bumper. Your original pop bumper cap is used in the EVO application.

Background:

I had the opportunity to speak to Dan Rosen of BriteMods recently, and he was nice enough to fill us in on the company’s history and involvement in pop bumper modding:

“BiteMods has been around since 2013. I started designing and selling mods to folks on Pinside, but soon became overwhelmed by the response and needed a retail partner. Pinball Life was my immediate choice as partner, as they have a great reputation for quality products at fair prices, as well as exceptional service. I now sell exclusively through their web store. [Lighting pop bumpers] began with the original BriteCaps design and was simply an automotive accessory adapted for pinball. I wanted to design the ultimate pop bumper lighting from the ground up, and that’s what BriteCaps EVO represents.”

What You Get:

Each BriteCaps EVO unit comes individually boxed. Inside the box, you get the BriteCaps EVO itself, a set of installation instructions and two pop bumper screws that are longer than the traditional ones to account for the extra height the BriteCaps EVO adds to the bumper. The BriteCaps EVO is a single unit—it’s built like a tank—and has no wires or other external hangings. The unit has a brightness adjustment dial, that can be manipulated with a Phillips screwdriver to set the brightness to your liking. Pinball Life gives you the option of adding on pop bumper caps to your BriteCaps EVO order, but from what I can see, they are just standard Williams/Bally caps that are offered.

Price:

The BriteCaps EVO experience isn’t a cheap one. Each EVO unit will set you back $12.95USD. That puts a set of three at $38.85USD. It still comes in cheaper than its predecessor the original BriteCap, which retails for $14.95USD each for a standard cap, and $16.95USD for a jeweled cap.

Palate:

The BriteCaps EVO brand comes in red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, warm white and cool white. Note that this colour choice is for the 30 lights on the top of the EVO only, the bottom ten lights are white across all colour choices.

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Application & Installation:

The EVO will work in any Williams/Bally, Stern, Sega or Data East game that uses a standard pop bumper body. Standard, unfaceted, unjewelled caps seem to be suggested (and encouraged) by BriteMods and Pinball Life, as they are offered as an add-on to your EVO order. The unit itself is pretty much plug and play. With the machine off, remove the bumper cap and 555 bulb, choose your Flash React™ setting via the switch on the bottom of the unit, carefully insert the EVO into the bumper socket, and reattach the cap with the two screws provided.

Review:

I really like the construction of the EVO unit. The base that plugs into the socket has incredible substance. The most frustrating part of LEDing a game is dealing with those little wire connections on the plastic stem of the bulb assembly. They need to be wiggled, adjusted and bent in a very particular way so that a solid connection is made with the socket. Hoping that connection is sustained, and doesn’t mis-align during normal game play, is a worry as well. The EVO design completely eliminates all this fiddling around. The connection point plugs into the pop bumper socket with ease and gives a robust connection on the first attempt.

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Base connection points of the EVO versus the standard 555 LED/SMD bulb.

The side-fire positioning of the top SMDs make for a visually pleasing experience. The theory behind the side-fire mounting is that the light is directed outwards, rather than directly up toward the player. This achieves maximum light throw without burning the retinas of the player. I was able to colour match red EVOs to the red pop bumpers in both Williams Pin*Bot and Rollergames. I prefer the look of matching the colour of the EVO to the bumper cap, rather than letting the colour of the bumper cap do all the work with a white light beneath it. The latter gives a washed out feeling, while colour matching gives a much more full and rich result (as it does when colour matching an LED with a playfield insert).  The picture below of the EVOs installed in Pin*Bot may not illustrate this completely, but the middle bumper with red EVO emits a far truer red than the bottom bumper does with its warm white EVO. The BriteMods website suggests that the user may also consider replacing coloured bumper caps with clear ones, giving the chosen colour of EVO a clean palate to work with. I swapped in a clear cap momentarily for the test in Pin*Bot, but it was not a look I was fond of. The light was much too harsh on the eyes and less visually pleasing than colour matching with a red cap. Admittedly, my eyes have a hard time processing LED/SMD lighting, and when I wear my glasses to play, it just gets worse. I installed the red BriteCaps EVO with a red pop bumper cap on full brightness on both Pin*Bot and Rollergames, and never had an issue with the light being harsh or distracting (we can thank colour matching the cap with the SMD and the side-firing for that, I believe).

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Pin*Bot Application: Top bumper contains a standard 555 incandescent, middle bumper contains a red EVO with Flash React enabled, bottom bumper contains a warm white EVO with Flash React disabled.

The 10 bottom white SMDs do a great job of completely lighting up the pop bumper area. The results were stellar in Rollergames, a pinball machine notorious for leaving the rear half of the playfield ill-lit and hidden under black plastic coverings. The light cast by the bottom SMDs work to illuminate the once gloomy area and in doing so bring to life the art around it. It also worked to brighten up the playfield area beneath the mini-playfield on Pin*Bot, nicely catching the sheen of the freshly clear-coated playfield I had installed.

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Rollergames application: A set of red EVOs are installed. The photo captures how well the EVOs light up the surroundings, compared to the dim incandescent bulbs near the rollovers.

The six center SMD lights, armed with Flash React™ technology, are a neat little bonus you get with the BriteCaps EVO brand. Some may use this interactivity to help justify the expensive sticker price of the unit itself. On the bottom side of the EVO, there is a small toggle button. If left in its original position, it disables the trademarked feature and the six lights stay on with the other 24 top lights. If depressed, the lights will remain off until vibrations from the game (moreover, the pop bumpers) are detected, which will light the six center lights briefly. It makes for a neat light show when the ball gets bouncing around in the pop bumper nest. I would have liked to have seen more than just six of the thirty lights react to pop bumper hits, but I’m sure it walks a fine line—too many would have created unwanted strobe. I can’t help but think that there seems to be missed potential with the technology as it is employed here. However, Flash React™ is not a necessary feature that needed to be included, but makes for a nice interactive, customizable bonus and is a feature that may work to set EVO apart from its competitors.

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Flash React in action

One unavoidable downfall with the EVO is that it adds 5mm in height to your pop bumpers. The circumference of the EVO is just as big as the pop bumper cap itself, meaning the EVO will not nest inside the cap like an original BrightCap ring would have. It’s an unavoidable issue: the inner plastic lip of the pop bumper cap traditionally envelops the outer edge of the pop bumper body, however the EVO sits flush on top of the body, thus, the pop bumper cap may only rest flush on top of the EVO. A word of warning: be ready for frustrating clearance issues and making an endless amount of adjustments for any game with pop bumpers that have ramps, wireforms or mini playfields that rest on top of or near them. On test, Rollergames was able to handle the extra height of the EVO, however, Pin*Bot’s mini-playfield posed fit problems after EVO installation. I already had the thicker Classic Playfield Reproductions mini-playfield installed, and those extra 5mm really threw everything out of whack, even creating a ball hang-up on the mini-playfield where there was not one before. As stated above, each EVO is shipped with a set of longer pop bumper screws that take into account the extra height added, which is fantastic forethought, but short of grinding out that inner pop bumper lip with a Dremel, there is a high probability of fit issues in many modern games. BriteMods also warns of using the EVO in games where partially cut bumper caps are necessary (think Addams Family’s single sawed-off cap next to the side ramp).

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A warm white EVO installed in Pin*Bot

Bottom Line:

If you can justify spending the money, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO provides an excellent lighting solution and a quality product that will make the pop bumpers, and their surroundings, stand out. The build quality of the unit is truly exceptional. The first product reviewed in the series looks to be a front-runner for top of the class. That said, the extra interactivity provided by the Flash React™ is a fun and unique attribute to have, but the result of six small lights reacting in time with the firing of pop bumpers may not be enough for some to consider the feature “value added”.  The extra height is a major downfall in an otherwise fantastic product. Fit issues will prevent me from keeping the EVO in my Pin*Bot, but the extra splash of light and colour they add to Rollergames makes for a welcome change to the dull 555 lighting.

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Check back for Part Two in the series, where CoinTaker’s AfterBurner pop bumper lighting solution is tested and reviewed.

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Credit Dot Pinball/BriteMods Contest!

Two BriteMods prize packages are up for grabs! The prizes were generously donated by Dan Rosen at BriteMods. The first randomly selected winner will receive a set of three BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons flipper buttons. The second randomly selected winner will receive a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “EVO” in the subject line. One entry per person please. Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes July 1st, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!

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HARDWARE: The Elusive “Bally Side Rail”

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Quite a lot of Bally System 11 games have dented side rails.  It’s almost an epidemic.  Read any For Sale description of an Elvira and the Party Monsters, and more often than not, you’ll get a mention of damaged side rails from an errant backbox drop.  They seem be dented and left unfixed in high numbers due of the lack of new (or NOS) replacement rails available in the marketplace.  The rails are an oddball size and only appeared on a handful of games, so parts manufacturers have neglected making them.  Drop the backbox and dent the rails on your WPC machine and it’s a $50 mistake that is easily remedied with an order through Pinball Life.  Dent the rails on your Mousin’ Around? You’re pretty much screwed.  The dents will be a constant reminder of your stupidity.  Might as well get out the hammer and try to bang out the damage, because these rails are pretty hard to source.

The games bearing these rare rails are Truck Stop, Atlantis, Transporter: The Rescue, Elvira and the Party Monsters and Mousin’ Around, and the reference number for the elusive part is A-12359-1 (the parts catalogue mentions that Bally Game Show may also use these rails, however, I cannot find definitive photographic evidence of this–Game Show was the first Bally game to employ the external rounded hinge, which leads me to believe a different shorter rail was used.  If you have leads, or photos, please let me know.)  All of the above mentioned games were manufactured under the “Midway” banner (despite bearing the “Bally” name on the backbox) during a time when Williams had just absorbed the struggling Bally/Midway brand.  The rail length for these games, from end to end, for a System 11 Bally Rail runs 51.5 inches, making it nearly 5 inches longer than the identical looking in every other way WPC side rail (A-12359-3).

Blackwater 100, the first appearance of the thin "Bally Rail"

Blackwater 100, the first appearance of the thin “Bally Rail”

The reason for the extra length is that the backbox on these five Bally games sits on a built-up pedestal of sorts, and the side rails run underneath the backbox to the backside of the cabinet.  The hinges on the backboxes are not external, but rather contained within the backbox pedestal, allowing the rail to run undisturbed to the rear of the cabinet.  Bally games that followed Mousin’ Around had their backboxes sit flush with the cabinet and employ a set of external rounded hinges (similar to other late model Williams System 11 games), thus the side rails had to terminate at the backbox.  (It is interesting to note that Bally Midway’s  March ’88 release Blackwater 100, pre-Williams takeover, appears to be the first “modern game” with the thinner and longer 51.5 inch rail incorporated into the design, however, this version of the rail is affixed to the cabinet with a series of nails running its  length, whereas the later version of the rail we are speaking about here is affixed to the cabinet with double-sided tape, a Torx screw on the back end and a bolt on the front near the flipper button.)  To complicate matters more, rails on the games from the same era bearing the Williams logo, such as Fire!, Earthshaker, Jokerz! and Black Knight 2000 to name a few, were wider in height and incorporated the flipper button right into the rail itself.  You could almost cut two thin Bally rails out of the metal used on one of the Williams games.  Less metal meant cost savings: thus, it should come as no surprise that Williams adopted the thinner Bally-style rail when a standard design for all pinball machines was adopted for the WPC platform in the 1990s.

A quick search shows that Bay Area Amusements has the A-12359-1 rail advertised on their page for purchase; however, like many other desperately needed niche parts listed on their site, they are currently out of stock.  I have checked the page for the last five months, and I have never been lucky enough to find the item available for immediate purchase (if in stock, retail price would be $59.00USD+shipping).  The Ministry of Pinball, the Netherlands-based pin retailer, also lists the rails for purchase (retail price: 29.95 Euro), which remains an option for our Euro friends, but those stateside would pay dearly for shipping due to the awkward size of the parts (you’d have to add another 35.00 Euro for shipping to the US or Canada…it gets cost ineffective pretty quick).

In some rare instances, the rails do pop up for sale.  Not two months ago, a set was offered, and quickly purchased, on Pinside for $125USD (shipping included).  A search of the rec.games.pinball newsgroup shows that a few sets have sold over the years with the asking price ranging between $150USD-$200USD.  RGP also mentions the existence of a user named “Timathie” who manufactured the rails for the RGP community years ago.  As per a post from 2011, it appears that the user is no longer making them.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI bought an Elvira and the Party Monsters game late last summer, and wouldn’t you know it, it had dented side rails from an errant backbox drop.  It was disclosed to me in the original description and photos of the game, so I knew I would be (possibly) snookered if I ever wanted to replace them.  The ingenuity of the pinball collector took over.  I was able to locate a set of new, uninstalled Williams System 11 side rails within the community marketplace at a very reasonable price (the wide ones that incorporated the flipper buttons, which turned out to be a set of these: Pinball Life’s Williams Stainless Steel Side Rail Set – Circa 1989-90, pictured right).  I bought them hoping that they could be precision cut to fit my needs.  Unlike the other Williams System 11 wide rails, this 1989-90 version has no extra nail or screw holes that would be left behind once the excess was trimmed off, and they met the length requirements of 51.5 inches.  I contacted a nearby metal fabrication outfit (CIM Metals Inc. , of Burlington, Ontario, Canada) and for $45CDN they were able to cut both rails, using laser technology to replicate the look of a thin Bally rail for my game.  I pulled off an original dented rail for them to use as a template (they only needed one, each Bally rail is interchangeable with no characteristics or markings that require specific left or right side installation).  They were able to match the original tapering and square screw holes faithfully, which made installation a breeze.   For about $85CDN, all told, I had a new set of undented rails on my EATPM, which was a bit cheaper than finding a NOS set, and a bit less frustrating than waiting around for a North American company to stock them.  I had to jump through a few hoops to get it done, but I’m happy with the results.  I’m not one for total perfection on my games but when an opportunity presents itself, I can’t pass it up.  Here’s hoping someone takes the lead on this and starts producing the Bally rails for the community, in sustainable quantities, as they are sorely needed.  Until then, keep those backbox bolts nice and tight…

Further Reading:

Pinside – For Sale: 51-1/2″ side rails (EatPM, Atlantis, Mousin’) – SOLD
Pinside – WTB- set of Side Rails for Eatpm
Bay Area Amusements – Metal Side Rails (pair) – System 11, etc
Ministry of Pinball – Elvira and the Party Monster Side Rails
rec.games.pinball – EATPM side rails


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NEWS: Vintage Flipper World Showcase In Review

Vintage Flipper World is situated inside of an unassuming white panelled building, along a country dirt road on the outskirts of Brighton, Michigan. If you are not looking for it, you’ll miss it. If you didn’t have prior knowledge of what the building looked like, you’ll probably drive right past it. Therein lies the charm of the VFW, brainchild of Clay Harrell and his merry band of pinheads. The location makes sense–serene, unobtrusive, subdued–given that Mr. Harrell has a long and arduous history with disparagers, detractors and backbiters in the pinball community at large. The VFW literally puts space between those people and Mr. Harrell’s dream of a pinball oasis–acres and acres worth of space.

Inside the hall is much less serene, as you’d expect an old Veterans-hall-cum-arcade filled with around 200 pinball machines to sound like. Not to mention the ever present sound of classic rock emitting from the hall’s public jukebox. I walked the aisles and let the sounds of the different decades wash over me. From the soft clamour of Electromechanical chimes, to the electronic squawk of early Solid State technology, to unforgettable call-outs you’d recognize anywhere (“Move your car!”, “The Ma-Mush-Ka!”, “Ooh, nice organ!”). This is an arcade on steroids, with no stand-up video games in sight. In short, it is what many of us picture the afterlife to look like.

I attended the Saturday of the three day event. I had a ticket pre-purchased and with good reason–a crudely written sign hung above the door: “Sold Out”. Selling a limited amount of tickets in advance gets the thumbs up from this reviewer. It kept crowds extremely manageable. I had to wait to play a game once (Big Bang Bar). All other games I wanted to play were free at one point or another during the seven hours I spent there and in every case, I had the option of having a couple games in a row on any given machine (there was never anyone standing by waiting for their turn). Free posters were given away so everyone could leave with a small souvenir to pin up in their gameroom. Other, more traditional concert style posters, were sold for $3USD each.

The area immediately to the left and right of the entrance is filled with woodrail pinball games, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time there. I played a few games on a woodrail called Niagara, but that was it. The rest of the facility held too many other treasures that kept my attention for the entire day. The main hall has games lining each wall and three rows of games lined up back to back, creating four aisle ways that run the length of the building–thus games flank you on either side when walking down a desired row. The game selection is organized very well, for example all of the Bally Solid State games and Williams DMD games are grouped together in the same aisle. The Williams DMD aisle was rocking the entire time I was there, and with players shoulder to shoulder playing (sometimes two-player) games, it got very crowded, so much so that it was hard for someone to walk the length of the aisle without elbowing someone. If you have a wide leaning stance while playing, like me, be prepared to be nudged, bumped into, and stepped on in this area. The other aisles were much more airy and easy to navigate. There is also a back room of games, containing more high-profile WPCs (Twilight Zone, Monster Bash) and other oddities (Safecracker, Joust), as well as the aforementioned Big Bang Bar. The playfield “art” that lines the hallway to this back room, I’d like to add, are probably in better condition than some of the playfields in my games currently. This is only one aspect of decor. Everywhere you look in the entire facility there is neon…it’s a stark contrast to the vintage dark-stained exposed wood beams and plaster of the aging hall, but it helps create the arcade mood.

Game selection was overwhelming. The line of ealry-Solid State Stern games is unbelievable, and probably the most complete on display in the entire world. The row of Electromechanical Gottlieb games ran the length of the building, in nearly chronological order and ran from early offerings like Slick Chick and the “Flipper” series all the way through later wedgeheads like Neptune and Golden Arrow. The classic Bally solid state games were an impressive sight to behold lined up next to one another. The obvious draw was the Williams WPC area, as I stated above, and I would be hard pressed to name a game that was glaring from its exclusion (they didn’t have a Popeye, but I don’t think anyone was hollering for a refund because of its exclusion).

All games were exceptionally clean and fully functioning. Outlanes opened to the max, pitch set high, and playfields waxed to a high gloss…all making for very fast, very punishing games. The games included looked to be choice examples from their respective runs: no lifting mylar, no broken ramps, and every bulb shining bright. There may have been one feature that wasn’t working on one game that I played, but that was on a Strange Science, and I’m not at all familiar with the rules of the game, so it could have been my ignorance, not a mechanical glitch. Techs wandered about and had playfields lifted amongst the players flipping away, themselves fixing on the fly. One minute a Whirlwind is out of order with two VFW staff pulling the glass off…ten minutes later, I’m playing the game, fully operational. I actually witnessed staff pulling a Demolition Man out of the lineup on a pin dolly, and brought back to the workshop for further diagnosis and repair, as the problem looked to be much more severe than a lame flipper or disconnected wire. No “Out of Order” sign needed here.

The staff was friendly, courteous and altogether welcoming. You could see the club members beaming with pride to have a world class facility like this and witnessing so many visitors enjoying themselves within the confines of their stomping grounds. I swear, at one point over the course of the day, there looked to be more staff members in their orange shirts than there were paying patrons at the facility. It must have been an “all hands on deck scenario”, knowing a full week in advance that the VFW would be at prescribed capacity. I saw Mr. Harrell briefly out in the furthest reaches of the parking area, but never again over the course of my visit. However, as much as I wanted to shake his hand and say thanks, I was having a banner day playing some games I had not played, or had played only once or twice before.

Just as I did in Allentown this year, I spent a minuscule amount of time with DMD era games, as most of them can be found in private collections close to home. I ventured down the aisle with classic Bally and Stern games first, and I couldn’t pull myself away, spending nearly half the day awash in Solid State bliss. I have very little experience with older solid-state Sterns, and was able to get schooled in a clinic of what the company was doing back then with an almost complete oeuvre to choose from. Iron Maiden was absolutely punishing as was Viper, I laughed off Split Second on first glance, but it ended up being the Stern machine I played most. I had my first go at Orbitor 1, and I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s the pinball equivalent of the morning after a wedding with an open bar. I had some pretty decent scores on Harlem Globetrotters On Tour, Centaur and Nitro Groundshaker, and I now want to own them all. A game that I had not played all that much, Vector, also stood out as a deep, well designed game with a seemingly endless amount of shots and gimmicks. I played EM games Neptune and Lucky Hand for an insane amount of time, as they are add-a-ball Gottleib classics and the “Wow’s” just kept on ringing up. I didn’t fare so well on the System 11 games I love so much. I drained my pants off on Fire! and Elvira and the Party Monsters, which didn’t give me too much hope as I currently own one that I am restoring and the other is at the top of my want list. I’ll have to chalk it up to the games being setup on “extra unforgiving”. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I got to play the super-rare, super-wide Williams Algar, but as I expected, it played much like all the other Williams games of the era. I had a go at my childhood “sweetheart” that is no longer in my collection, Solar Fire, and followed it up by playing its other three siblings in the Williams dual-level game series (Jungle Lord, Pharaoh and Black Knight). Jesus, these are all basically the same game. No wonder pinball was in such trouble back then!

Not having the velvet rope of “THE TOURNAMENT” at the facility was a nice change of pace. All games were accessible to all paying customers. Two games–Bally Strikes and Spares and Williams Fun Fest–were the “tournament” options. Drop a quarter in the coin slot, and if you beat the previous score posted on a sticky-note on the backglass and have it stand all day, you win the money in the cash box. Honour system applied, and the games were on free-play, so if you just wanted to play and didn’t want to “enter” the tournament with a quarter, you didn’t have to. Scores, early in the day, were quite modest, and I forgot to return to check their status before I departed. Mr. Harrell’s insistence that the focus be on playing games and having fun rather than competing rubbed some from the “It’s More Fun To Compete” community the wrong way, but I don’t think that was the type of crowd he was looking for anyhow. This was a showcase for collectors and folks who wanted to pay a small amount of money with nothing to take away except the fun and excitement of playing amongst a well-kept collection of vintage machines. Egos and holier-than-thou attitudes were checked at the door. I say this being a world-class flop at playing pinball. Maybe if I were a ranked player, I’d have my panties in a bunch, too. But it didn’t look like the club needed the support of the tournament players. Everyone had a smile on their face, and there were WOMEN! GLORIOUS WOMEN! More women than I’ve ever seen before at a pinball event! If they key to getting women to come out to these events is to axe the tournament characters, I say it is a path we should follow to pinball equality!

In all, it was well worth the 7-hour, round trip drive. It is nice to have a facility such as this within driving distance, however, the frequency of the facility being open to the public remains unknown. The VFW collection rivals that of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Yet, the VFW collection wins hands down in the category of organization, atmosphere, and general game maintenance. The tech area the club has organized looked to be world class, and stocked every pinball part imaginable. The club members donating their time to making the show run in a smooth fashion, from those parking the cars to those soldering loose wires, should be proud to have a hand in such a project. After years of floundering in pinball flux for a viable location to house his immense collection, Clay Harrell now has the VFW. He has shared it with the community for one weekend, and hopefully he chooses to do so on a regular basis. It felt like being at a town hall meeting in small town America, and pinball machines forever held the floor. If you didn’t experience it for yourself, I guarantee you would have been in awe of the passion and excitement that exuded from this unassuming pinball Mecca on the outskirts of Brighton.


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TECH: WPC Resets and the WPC MPU Daughterboard

I spoke of the annoying reset issue in a post earlier in the day, and promised a follow up interview with Rob Kahr, whose WPC MPU daughterboard designed to stifle resets has caused quite a stir in the community and has brought many troublesome WPC machines back online. When I first saw the daughterboard, I’ll admit, I dismissed it immediately, taking the stance that it was one step above a hack solution that just ignored a larger problem in the machine. After doing more research, and corresponding with Mr. Kahr, I was wrong to be dismissive. The daughterboard has the potential to be a powerful device to own (even more so if Mr. Kahr implements some possible enhancements, outlined in the interview). Perhaps one doesn’t belong in every WPC machine just yet, but it would be handy tool to use for troubleshooting reset issues or a temporary fix on league night when your machine craps out. I’d like to thank Mr. Kahr for being gracious enough to provide answers to my questions with absolutely no notice at all. That’s the Credit Dot way. Future interviewees be warned. Mr. Kahr’s daughterboards are available through his website, and can frequently be found on Pinside with user ID “rkahr”.

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Credit Dot: I briefly discussed, in layman’s terms, HOW resets occur in the prior post. Maybe you could briefly give some information as to what your product does to solve or ease the reset issue?

Rob Kahr: Glad you covered “how” because there seem to be a million ways resets can occur and my daughterboard does not address all of them. For example, I had one guy [private message] me explaining how his transformer was out of spec – he had it re-wound and his resets were cured! Fantastic creativity. My board won’t fix grounding issues. It won’t magically deliver power if either the 18-volt or the 12-volt digital supplies are shot. It doesn’t fix battery damage on an MPU. It does offer relief to a very common situation where the game will play sometimes but reset when load is heavy or supply voltage drops. Note I dubbed the board the WPC MPU Power Fix Daughterboard–not the WPC Reset Fix Daughterboard.

My daughterboard specifically addresses power supply-caused resets and is designed based on my analysis of the linear 5 Volt supply on the Power Driver Board (PDB). The load on the power supply spans multiple boards and multiple functions on those boards. I measured the 5Volt load of the MPU board, DMD, and the sound board empirically via current measurements to determine individual board power use. I tabulated over 90 PDB connection points to the linear 5 Volt supply. I don’t have a Fliptronics board so I reviewed the schematic to determine it likely draws a small load compared to the other boards. Additionally the linear 5 Volt supply can be passed to the backbox and playfield via PDB jumpers J117 to J119. There is A LOT of demand on the linear 5 Volt power supply.

Anyone who has read about or worked to solve reset problems recognizes the many sources for weakness in the supply itself – what I call the foundation of the 5 Volt supply. Best maintenance practices are well documented in this realm and I’m not looking to discredit any of those maintenance strategies. Indeed, one needs a functioning linear 5 Volt supply in your WPC pinball whether or not my daughterboard is installed. Taking a system view, however, there are a myriad of permutations that weaken the overall ability to drive 5 Volts from the supply. Worse, issues that may not alone frequently drop voltage levels to trigger resets are additive so a combination of problems within the foundation and/or the load may contribute to the reset. And nothing is static in real-world operations. Power draws change through the cycle of a game; environmentals such as temperature fluctuate.

All of this means there is going to be some variability in the 5 Volt supply and at some point those variations will trigger resets via the watchdog circuit on the MPU board. [The watchdog chip] serves a valid purpose and should not be disabled. Its board (the MPU board), however, should be offered the cleanest power signal possible and in designing my daughterboard I set out to do exactly that.

The daughterboard literally removes the MPU from the PDB linear 5 Volt supply. All of the functions on the MPU are instead driven by a new, switching regulator supply included on the daughterboard. The watchdog circuit, as a 5 Volt function on the MPU continues to serve it’s role of protecting the ASIC, the processor, and the PROM chips by monitoring the new switching supply. Because (1) the new supply develops a very reliable, clean, temperature tolerant voltage and (2) the MPU load when isolated is more static, the watchdog is no longer driven to reset for off-MPU board fluctuations. Further, the reduced loading on the linear 5 Volt supply allows for more tolerance to imperfections in the foundations of the supply. Again, the linear supply needs to be maintained but it now has more capacity or “give”. No longer does the pinball community have to worry about every hundredth of a volt when conducting WPC repairs.

CD: What do you say to critics who dub your product as a “Band-Aid” solution? That it ignores a much larger problem by temporarily patching it up and ignoring it?

RK: I get that logic, but I really think I attacked this problem from a more holistic viewpoint. This little daughterboard fundamentally changes the calculus that is power distribution within WPC era games. Why do NASCAR drivers change tires mid-race? If they would just slow down they could get a lot more miles out of those tires! Obviously they are pushing the limits of the tires on every turn to eek out a faster time. The WPC 5-volt rail is similar in that it runs close enough to design thresholds that when it is not pristine problems surface. By reducing the 5-volt load, my daughterboard backs the design away from that bleeding edge and that is better for the MPU and everything that remains on the PDB-derived 5-volt supply.

In any case, in between soldering and shipping daughterboards, I have been tinkering with a couple of ideas to better address this concern. I have developed two prototype circuits for detecting the pinball machine’s reset condition directly on the daughterboard. The idea would be run your game with this enhanced daughterboard – if your PDB 5-volt rail is stable, the daughterboard burns a green LED. If, at any point the daughterboard detects what would have driven the MPU to reset, the daughterboard turns off green and burns a red LED. I latch the indication, so once the machine has triggered the daughterboard to turn red, the only path to get back to green is to turn the game off and reboot. All this detecting and latching happens without interrupting gameplay so you get the benefits of the daughterboard without losing the “early warning” indicator. If all goes well with prototype testing I could start shipping such a device this summer.

So, what would I say to critics? Thank you for challenging me to be better.

CD: When using your daughterboard, will other components of the power supply come under stress, which could lead to failure over time?

RK: Electrically, no. The 12-volt digital is so lightly loaded in the WPC design that you could easily run two MPUs simultaneously via two daughterboards without issue.

Thermally, no. The 7812 will run a little bit warmer because a larger load is being driven. I’ve run some tests that show the 7812 with the original WPC-design heat sink easily stay within the device’s spec while driving the daughterboard and MPU.

Mechanically, maybe. The daughterboard attaches where there was previously just a header connector. Either is a lever that could damage the header pins connection if fussed with over the long term; the daughterboard extends that lever by about an inch so you could more easily disturb the MPU power pins. Most backboxes remain closed so there really isn’t a lot of opportunity to apply force to this lever.

CD: What is your technical background?

RK: I am a degreed electrical engineer (Bachelors from Penn State; Masters from Virginia Tech). As a pastime I have a long history of reviving electronics. I got my first fixer-upper pinball machine in 2008.

CD: How did you devise this plan of attack on resets?

RK: I’ve been fighting resets in my Party Zone (which I revived from completely dead) for about 2 years. I did get the 5V to be quite stable through re-pinning, crimping and new caps, but would get occasional very brief collapses in the voltage down below 3V and immediately back to 5V. These were about 10 [milliseconds] in duration so you couldn’t see them on a meter but I could see them clearly on my O-scope (which, I also revived from the dead a few years ago!). Anyway, I found that I could eliminate this collapse by unplugging the GI power from the PDB -or- unplugging power to the sound board. Either would eliminate the collapse, so I reasoned that neither caused it; rather the load of both caused it. I replaced the LM323K on the PDB and even did the 11 ohm jump-up to mitigate it but neither solved the resetting, so I lived with no GI on my PZ… at some point I’d rather just play the game! But, being twice degreed in electrical engineering and an avid tinkerer, I never wholly got over my failure.
Kahr's o-scope Now, one of my goals in working machines is to leave no exhaust–meaning whatever I do should be able to be undone in the future. For example, when I did the resistor trick/hack, rather than cut any traces, I isolated the heat sink from the PDB using vinyl nuts/bolts and I soldered the 11 ohm resistor to the ground test point… both easy to undo. No way was I going down the watchdog bypass or computer power supply routes.

Thus my requirements–to get beyond the PZ reset problem without damaging the machine for the next guy. It hit me shortly after leaving the York show (where I almost sold the PZ) that I need to take a complete systems view of the problem. I’ve studied the WPC schematics many times. I measured the power consumption of the boards downstream from the PDB on both 12V and 5V. And I thought hard about all the best practices. And of course, the regular flow of “reset problem” threads on RGP routinely reminded me the problem is rather widespread. I concluded the 5V rail at the SYSTEM level just doesn’t have enough tolerance built into the design. The connectors, the caps, the rectifier, the watchdog, the heat-spewing regulator, the overall loading – the whole system is just fragile. How could I add more tolerance?

Looking at the schematics, the 12V line is much more lightly used and I started thinking of ways to shift the extensive 5V load to the 12V rail. Eventually it hit me that a plug-compatible (and thus completely un-doable) solution that generated a unique 5V supply to drive only the MPU could be very effective. So, in January I built my first prototype. It used an LM7805 to generate the new 5V supply from the 12 V line. This prototype worked but it required a significant heat sink as linear power supplies simply burn off extra voltage to drive their output – the step-down from 12V to 5V is quite large. Not pretty, but I did learn the 12 volt line had enough power to drive the 5V for the MPU and generate quite a bit of burn off heat.

I considered making the daughterboard so that it plugged into the output side of the PDB instead of the input to the MPU but that moved a lot more load to the 12 volt line – I wanted to achieve better balance. In my measurements the MPU pulls about 2 watt (about 0.4 amp at 5 v) – that’s a nice chunk but not overwhelming.

I did some research on voltage regulators and dug deep into Mouser and Jameco’s extensive library of data sheets and came up with a couple of switched charge pumps that are drop-in replacements for 7805’s. These puppies are pretty cool – because they don’t burn off extra power they can deliver a lot of current without needing a heat sink. The one I ended up choosing (the ezSBC) isn’t available at either supply house but it can deliver 1 amp at 70 deg Celsius without heatsinking. And, I’m only loading it well below capacity. 1/4 watt at 12 volts is about 0.17 amp – that’s the current impact to the 12V rail and I can measure that with my meter so I’m confident in the calculation. Prototype 2 is what is in my youtube video [below, ed] – it is a home-etched board with male and female connectors and it works swimmingly.

By now I knew I was on to something pretty good. It doesn’t eliminate the need for sound maintenance practices but it does (1) reduce the load on the PDB 5V rail, (2) reduce sensitivity in the 5V system, (3) stop in-game resets on systems that are “almost there”. This can greatly reduce the temptation to hack boards which is great for the future of pinball and I can offer them at a fraction the cost of replacement boards… or a fraction of the value of the time spent chasing gremlins… I saw a niche.

CD: You also offer a 12 volt regulator to replace the 7812 on the power driver board. Can you describe, again in layman’s terms, the need for the 12 volt regulator and how it works in relation to the 5 volt reset issue?

RK: The ezSBC switching regulator is a direct, pin-compatible replacement for the 7812 on a Power Driver Board. Do look at the pictures on ezSBC’s web site so it don’t get installed backwards. The 7812 (and like it the 7805 for 5 volt loads) is a linear regulator. In the pinball machine it takes the 18 volt supply as an input and provides a very stable reference voltage at 12 volts for loads up to 1 amp. It accomplishes this by “burning off” the difference between the input and output voltages as heat. The load is important because a 7812 with very little load (and thus very little current draw) will not produce a lot of heat. As the load grows however, the amount of heat expelled increases because more current flows through the regulator. Essentially the input and output are wired together through a semiconductor (silicon) and are always connected. The ezSBC switching regulator operates differently in that it rapidly connects and disconnects the input and output to transfer power to the load. Because the device is either “on” (i.e., conducting) or “off” (not conducting), it does not burn power like a linear regulator and therefore does not need a heat sink. Think of a fire in a fireplace. You burn logs and the room warms up. But heat also goes up the chimney instead of into the house. That’s analogous to a linear regulator. Now think of ventless gas log fireplace. No longer is heat going up the chimney. That’s analogous (sort of) to the switching regulator. It would be more analogous if the gas log set had a chimney that opened and closed 300,000 times per second… but it’s the best analogy I’ve dreamt up so far. All that said, switching out the 7812 for a switching regulator is just a “nice to have”. I was kinda expecting some nay-sayers when releasing the daughterboard (I’m used to RGP moreso than Pinside) and I wanted to have a good answer as a mitigation for the increased load on the 12 volt line. So, in some ways it is more of a “political afterthought” rather than an imperative. Or, think of it like driving a Prius instead of Camry. Both get you from A to B, but the Prius does so with less gasoline. Your pinball will play the same whether or not you swap out the 7812; will you feel better knowing it burned a little less power when the DMD flashes “Game Over”?

CD: Who do you see as the main buyers of your daughterboard? Casual players? Tinkerers?

RK: Based on feedback from purchases the spectrum spans from folks who have never opened their backbox to professionals repair shops who maintain machines for others. Some are sitting in tool boxes waiting for a need; others are installed in machines and forgotten about. One was returned because the individual still had resets – he used my board to rule out a 5-volt rail problem, fixed a diode problem elsewhere and then sent the daughterboard back. Go figure.

I personally think it is more interesting to ask where along the well-documented path of best practices for addressing WPC resets should different experience levels reach to my daughterboard. Said another way, if I were the author of Pinwiki, where would I insert “install a daughterboard”? For some it would be very near the end (if at all). For others it should be inserted before a soldering iron is plugged in. And for yet another subset it should be shortly after the “open the backbox” step. I am confident that for everybody it should be ahead of the resistor hack – especially if traces are being cut to separate the regulator from ground. Otherwise it’s debatable – I don’t know where exactly I would insert it into Pinwiki.

CD: Can you give me an idea of how many boards have been sold thus far?

RK: 324 daughterboards have sold as of 24 April; 42 of those 324 were sold with the switching regulator add-on. Aside from North America I have sent boards to Europe, South America, and Australia. There was a smidgen of interest from an individual in Africa but to my knowledge none have hit that continent yet (nor to Asia). I have just under 200 ready for the 2014 Allentown show but that number could drop if there is a run on sales prior to the show. I haven’t really thought too much about post-show, so if I sell out at the show I may be out of stock for a week.

CD: Are you a regular attendee at the Allentown show?

RK: If you watch TNT Amusements videos from last year’s show, he does a tour where he goes around complimenting machine after machine after machine. Then he gets to my machine – an Elektra playfield I had installed in a Mata Hari cabinet and he just kind of pauses. He doesn’t say anything mean but he can’t come up with anything good to say either. It is flipping hilarious! Anyway, I completely assembled that machine from spare parts that came from other acquisitions. It’s the only machine I’ve ever sold (and I might have done so just to prove I’m not a hoarder).

CD: How do you handle production? Do you buy the individual components and solder all the boards yourself?

RK: I build and test all the daughterboards myself. Pre-build, I test each regulator with a small load in a jig I created that mimics the 12 volt PDB supply. Post build, I test each assembled daughterboard in another jig with a heavy load. A sampling also end up in my Party Zone for a one-game test prior to being released.

The soldering itself isn’t very exciting to write about – the fact that I have components on both sides of the board would make it more difficult to automate the assembling. At the rate I’ve been selling it doesn’t make sense to automate anyway and although repetitive I still enjoy making them. Not sure I would feel the same about soldering if it wasn’t my idea I was building.

The upstream supply chain is a little interesting – you need parts on hand but you don’t want a ton of cash tied up in inventory. I order the components from online supply houses (mostly Mouser, but they sometimes run out of stock which sends me scrambling), I get my shipping supplies from papermart.com, the boards themselves come from a experssPCB.com (high quality, but high priced). And the regulators I use are from ezSBC.com – a great small business in California. I frequently have partially assembled boards waiting for something that is “in the mail”.

Packaging and shipping is less fun… bubble wrap, paper, and tape – oh my. I really want to find a better way to ship overseas (eBay global shipping is a total ripoff from the customer viewpoint) but I haven’t come up with a solution yet. Anyway, why is the Engineering team worried about shipping? Oh yea, all of this is just me.

CD: All good pinball interviews ask this, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t–what do you have in your current collection? Obviously the WPC test patient Party Zone, what else?

RK: My wife bought me my first machine for me in 2008 as a 39th birthday present–she wanted to hold out for 40 but she knew I was trolling Craigslist pretty heavily for a machine. She got me a Cue Ball Wizard–best present I’ve ever gotten. About a month later I got a Mata Hari out of an estate sale for $60. No back glass and completely dead. Looks and plays great now – I put a CPR playfield in it last fall. I got a Bride of Pinbot from Ebay for a song, from a guy located in Atlanta, and met up with him at my first Allentown show back when it was the Pinball Wizards Convention–2009 I think? I have a Firepower I got in September 2013 that I had to completely rebuild the cabinet and the electronics. Did a Max2K clear coating on the playfield and it is really nice now too. And I have a Xenon that I might bring to Allentown to see if I can sell… I just don’t like it that much. I also got a skee ball machine about 2 years ago. Most guests walk right past the pinballs and go directly to the skee ball.

CD: This daughterboard is turning out to be quite the project! Sounds you are actually getting people back to what matters most–playing pinball! Thanks for making time for me on no notice.

RK: These won’t make me rich but the pride I have in creating something that others actually want is a tremendous treasure for me. I am grateful to Pinside itself for connecting me to my first customers and to the wonderful users of Pinside who so warmly welcomed my daughterboard. Thank you!

Further Reading:
KAHR.US – WPC MPU Power Fix
KAHR.US – Detailed Technical Discussion
Pinside – Announcing new product to help resolve resets in WPC era games


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TECH: WPC Resets, the bane of our existance!

If you own a WPC game, its almost a given that you have experienced a reset problem at one time or another. My most recent experience with this annoyance was with my White Water. I had “5X the Fun” running and had just started multiball. Big points were coming my way. Sure enough, with coils firing and flippers flipping, the machine’s power supply collapsed under its own weight, and I experienced the dreaded reset. I hung my head and softly cursed, knowing I had a long journey of troubleshooting ahead of me.

To dumb it down a bit, a reset occurs when the +5 volt power supply, which runs the “brains” of the machine, diverts from an acceptable range of voltage. This normally happens when the flippers are fired, stressing the +5 volt line and causing a dip in voltage. To protect the brains of the pinball machine, a watchdog chip was inserted in line with the +5 volts. When this chip recognizes a flux in power that doesn’t agree with the +5 volts range it should normally be getting, the game automatically restarts, thus easing the load. The flipper stress on the +5 volts is caused by a weak link upstream in the chain…and its a very long chain with a lot of elements that could be out of order. In the end, the watchdog chip congratulates itself on a job well done…however, it turns into a vicious cycle of resets and much weeping and swearing will commence on the part of you the owner.

With my reset issue, I luckily had Clay’s WPC repair guide and PinWiki as references, not to mention helpful colleagues over on Pinball Revolution. I guess the first advisable thing to do is not panic. Do not immediately assume the worst. For those who like to jump to conclusions, there is a stigma that these resets are caused by components located at BR2/C5. To quote PinWiki on their introduction to fixing reset problems:

“A long time ago……in a pinball galaxy far, far away…a kindly fellow was playing a nice game of pinball, hitting all the shots, and earning multiball after multiball. Just as he was about to beat the game’s high score to date, the WPC game MPU reset. “Not-A-Finga” he yelled in some ancient, dead, language. A visitor, from the neighboring planetary system noted that, “I once fixed that by replacing BR2 and C5”. And lo…the mantra was born. Fortunately, through advances in both our knowledge of these game systems, and the application of clearer thinking, we’ve come to realize that leaping to the “solution” of replacing components before doing real testing is not advisable. Most pinball owners do not possess the skill, experience, and tools that would allow them to work on circuit boards without damaging an expensive, and sometimes irreplaceable board.”

After troubleshooting with PinWiki (highly recommended) and my multimeter, I was able to determine that it was a simple connector issue between the power driver board and the CPU.  A relief indeed! Reseating the connector fixed the problem temporarily, however the pins and connectors were swapped out to fix the solution long-term. If I had taken the board out and blindly replaced the BR2/C5 as the mantra above states, the issue probably would have been “fixed”, not because I swapped out the above components but because the connectors would have been reseated in the board removal process. The resets would have resurfaced and I’d be right back at square one.

Without a doubt, resets are an absolute pain in the ass. With so many novices joining the hobby, myself included to a certain extent, everyone is looking for a one-step, easy solution that requires less work than removing boards and intricate soldering. No easy solution does exist, resets occur for thousands of different reasons. However, a piece of technology is now on the market that appears to ease the burden on that overtaxed +5 volt power supply and has become the reset elixir for many hobbyists. This product is called the WPC MPU Power Fix Daughterboard and has sprung from the mind of Rob Kahr.  Its introduction has not come without criticism. I had the opprotunity to speak with Mr. Kahr about his new product, the “power” it harnesses, and what it can do for the community through an email interview and can be found in a post appearing later this evening.

Further Reading:
PinWiki – WPC Game Resets
WPC MPU Power Fix Board – kahr.us