Anyone with a block heater on their vehicle can relate to it, but our collective embarrassment prevents us from discussing it openly—forgetting to unplug your vehicle before driving off on a frosty winter day.
Arash Janfada (AJ) (BE’03, MSc’08) calls it the “drive of shame” with the tell-tale extension cord dragging underneath the vehicle. And that’s if you’re lucky. Damage to the block heater, cord, or, as Janfada experienced, the vehicle itself, can be costly. “I had several hundred dollars of damage to my bumper one time,” he said.
Tired of wrestling with the frozen extension cord plug and paying for the costly repair, Janfada came up with the idea for MagnoPlug, an extension cable with a magnetic safety break. “I checked to see if a product like this existed.” After an unsuccessful search, he did some research on patents and learned there was no product like this.
Janfada works with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment conducting researching on environmental contaminants while pursuing his PhD at the U of S, where he satisfies his passion for research. But that doesn’t help develop the circuit necessary for MagnoPlug to function safely. Enter Will Topping (BE’12).
A mutual friend connected Janfada and Topping after the former realized he needed the expertise of an electrical engineer to create the circuitry that will work in frigid temperatures and that will switch off when the two sides of the plug are separated—a key safety component of MagnoPlug.
The initial design of MagnoPlug is specifically for block heaters; the larger connectors are designed to be easily handled with gloves or mitts on. Janfada and Topping see lots of potential for expansion. Janfada said, “It can easily be made smaller for general household use” or around construction sites.
Referencing a line from the television show The Big Bang Theory, Topping said, “‘Everything’s better with Bluetooth,’ right? I’m looking at adding timer functionality—for Christmas lights, lamps, block heaters—that can be controlled by your smartphone.” The addition of a sensor to measure power consumption is another possibility for the future.
Janfada sees other applications for the technology too. “Why not change wall plugs, and make them safer for families? Or for hospitals or research facilities like VIDO-InterVac [at the U of S] where there would be no cracks and crevices for bacteria to grow? Our plug is sealed and never live if the two parts are not connected together, so it’s easy to clean. There is a world of designs and ideas.”
Topping added with a laugh, “AJ is the ideas guy. I tell him which ones work and which ones break the laws of physics.”
Janfada and Topping have registered MagnoPlug on Kickstarter to raise funds so the product can move from working prototype into production and, assuming all goes well, to store shelves before next winter.