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Archive for March, 2012

The Forthcoming Postal Increases

The more I think about this, the more I think we should be banging on post office doors with banners and slogans and…

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it –post office want to put up the price of stamps by a whopping 30%.   Who cares, we all use email, right?

Wrong.. think about all the cheap little goods that people buy, say on EBay every day. Small businesses working at home making jewellery perhaps might be constantly buying small quantities – I could probably sit down and come up with a list of 1000 different reasons which SMES or individuals would be sending off for stuff costing a couple of quid… I just bought a package of 20 small nuts and bolts for £1.50 for example…

EVERY one of these purchases is now going to cost more. If the seller is offering free postage they’ll have to put the price up – if they’re charging for postage, they’ll have to charge more. Not only that but if they had to buy they stuff in, in the first place, they’ll have to charge EVEN more to cover that.

The entire chain – that’s right from manufacture down to you and I the individuals, will be getting added costs – and quite often you’ll just think everyone is getting greedy whereas in fact it’ll be due to the post office.

Small companies and individuals all over the UK are smarting with this recession, our standard of living is effectively dropping by the day and the post office gets away with WELL past inflationary price increases as do other large organisations such as power companies….  WHY? Well because we’re Brits and we sit there and put up with it…  and this will continue until we finally get off our BACKSIDES and start complaining NOISILY.

But of course that won’t happen. Fuel is at a record high – last time it went this high we did… erm, nothing – this time we’re doing – erm, nothing.  What we should be doing it getting our act together, getting people to go to the cheapest suppliers and boycott the more expensive ones – but we won’t. Of course you can’t do THAT with the post office because for smaller stuff they are a monopoly just as BT are effectively a monopoly in many rural areas – and monopolies are BAD, BAD, BAD  – they just don’t work for anyone except shareholders.

Rant over, I don’t feel much better..

Cottage Thermostat

If you’ve been keeping up I’ve spent all my spare time recently getting to grips with the Arduino – which is in essence nothing more than a single-chip Micro with bootloader and a decent library of routines.

We needed a better thermostat for Hollyberry Cottage and decided to “give it a go” – here’s the results so far after MANY blind alleys and the smell of fried plastic on more than one occasion…

Arduino-based thermostat

So essentially what you’re looking at on the right is a prototyping board with a microprocessor on the right and associated parts (the little long grey chip on the right), at the top of the board – the blue sub-board is an Ethernet (internet) interface, at the bottom a mains relay. Off the board to the left is a control pot (user heating control, to the top are some LEDs  and on the right is the cable I use to program the lot – that’s not part of the project.

So the idea is simple enough – the unit via a remote head controls the temperature in the place with two options – normal and standby… in standby the temperatures drop, in normal they are suitable for having people there.. in each case there are 4 timezones and the level of control the pot has is controllable… so we might let people vary the temperature by +-4 degrees from the setpoint for example….

tmp6261So why the Ethernet interface – well, Maureen and I are out and about, perhaps even in Spain and we need to be able to handle last minute cancellations or indeed last minute bookings.  Instead of driving over to the cottage to change the heating, we want to be able to do this from anywhere… and that means on a mobile phone. There are TWO different and incompatible Ethernet Interfaces for the Arduino board and I made the mistake of spending a lot of time working with the cheap one using the ENC28J60 chip – it’s cheap – but it simply does not work reliably. I then moved onto the standard board which uses a Wiz5100 chip – and that worked perfectly except for inexplicable hang-ups which were pretty predictable – turns out the standard library that everyone uses has a bug – that sorted the board is now working utterly reliably (up to now, longest test 24 hours – I plan to give it a couple weeks next).

tmpBBE7The interface has to be simple.. As you can see on the left I’ve stuck with large buttons. Typically you would log into the site and press NORMAL or FALLBACK to control the heating – but you can also set up the time, set the temperature zones and even view a graph of historical temperature (stored locally in EEPROM). The graph will get more sophisticated in time but for now it merely shows historical data. The chip has enough spare EEPROM for around 900 points (to the nearest degree, much smaller if you want fractions – though thinking about it I could store to the nearest 0.5degrees just by doubling the figure and getting the 8-bit equivalent – if the temperature hits 128c we’re in BIG trouble – or minus for that matter internally).

Instead of an expensive LCD display at the user end I’ve gone for 3 simple LEDS – red, green and blue. The GREEN light simply flashes to let you know the unit is thinking – when the heating is ON it flashes far more obviously…. the red and blue are optional and give a varying indication of HEATING (red) or COOLING (blue) depending on the setting of the pot.. they may or may not make it into the final unit.

I’ve incorporated delays to stop someone madly fiddling with the controls and setting the relay on and off rapidly….. and the settings will survive a power loss – though right now the time won’t… my next job is to get the board to send me an email if the power dies so I can reset the time – cheaper than using a battery and more useful as I need to know if power cuts occur! Maybe I’ll get it to send a TWEET…. more as things progress.

Update 29/3/2012

The email was not that easy – turns out it’s quite hard to have the board do a server/client on it’s own web pages AND handle something else – so email, even twitter is out (I did get the code running to send TWEETS!) until I can find out how to do 2 things at once. On the upside I’ve now added a real time clock board so it knows the time and can keep it if the power goes off. The board is essentially done, it now needs to sit on test to make sure it’s reliable. NOW I can get back onto working on Maureen’s SAD light… which will also get the real time clock treatment!  I’ve ordered more of the Ethernet boards – I can see lots of applications for this stuff.

Update 24/9/2014

See other posts on the subject of home control – amazing how far this project has come on in 2 years! The first follow up to this original article occurs here – my UberBareBoard project.

Sunny Scarborough

This week I’m in Scarborough for the week – the FSB’s annual conference – it’s my job as IT Chairman to ensure we report everything that is going on – and I have a team of staff to do that but the really techy stuff – video on demand, imagery etc. is run by a small group of us (I’m the first here) and involves high speed broadband, gigabytes of video and a lot of hard work – and fun.

But that’s for another set of blogs – I got up this morning and started snapping photos to give delegates a feel-good factor – the weather here is great (as someone who’s now done about 11 of these Conferences I can tell you that’s not always the case in March – indeed usually the opposite).

So here they are, some of my late evening and early morning photos of Scarborough! By all means click on the images for larger versions…

6am Scarborough sunrise

View from the Crown Spa Hotel

Parking's an issue already

The beach

Copper the Catalyst and Nail Varnish Remover

This may well not be new to you – or you might not be the experimenting type – in which case look no further.

Copper is a catalyst, that is something that speeds up a reaction but does not suffer in the process… so examples like platinum catalysts in cars come to mind.

This one is new to me – and is a great, fun and relatively safe way to demonstrate the use of a catalyst.

IF YOU BLOW YOURSELF UP OR GAS YOURS IT’S NOT MY FAULT. Acetone (Nail Varnish Remover) is flammable and the fumes set fire relatively easily (hence the requirement to use a tiny amount)).

Copper glowing hot above AcetoneGet a piece of copper wire, let’s say earth wire out of one of those 2-core+earth mains cables… and wrap one end around a nail so as to make a coil, maybe half an inch (12mm) long… with slight air gap between the turns..

Get a short glass – like a half-pint glass or less and arrange something non-flammable (like the rest of the wire – or a drill, or fork so that you can put the item across the top of the glass and use it to suspend your coil just off the bottom of the inside of the glass.. maybe 1/2 inch or less.

Put the tiniest amount of nail varnish remover (has to be the type that uses acetone as that’s the bit we’re interested in.

So, you have your coil on the end of your wire, dangling…… just above the acetone…  take the arrangement away from the glass and with a cigarette lighter, heat it until red hot… replace the arrangement in the glass…. and watch.

Without flame, the copper will continue to glow red hot… experiment with layout, size of coil etc. but always near but not touching the surface, the idea being to get air and acetone fumes on the copper.

There are plenty of places on the web to explain this – I can’t help thinking there has to be a way (while venting waste fumes) of making a neat heater with this. With thicker cable I managed to keep the thing hot at just below red glow level… The example you see here was thick earth wire, one coil within another – to keep the surface area up… but a MUCH simpler arrangement works just fine , even a thin copper WIRE with no coil works fine but tends to turn off quite easily.

Life as Normal

Petes relay control panelI’m looking out of the window and wishing I was in the sun… though to be fair, it’s not that cold today, yet.  In-between bouts of database work for the Fed, I had a trip to the docs as my foot keeps giving me trouble, so now I’ve a load of exercises to do, reckons I’ve damaged something.

I’ve been working on my relay board… this is a board that talks to the Internet and serves up a web page by which I can turn up to 8 mains relays on and off at a distance – like – any distance.  I need these to control stuff in Spain when I’m here and so it has to be very reliable.

As you can see on the right, the interface (web page) is pretty basic but I wanted it that way as I have to control this from the iPhone.

Microprocessor-Controlled Relay BoardProgress so far is good… I built a pre-prototype using an Arduino board and this model here is done using a little Arduino Nano. Most of my time was taken up figuring out why one of the pins didn’t respond as normal – I figured it out – CHINA! And so now, all’s well and it’s one test where it’ll stay for a couple of weeks to make sure it’s crash-proof.

Next stop is to add a couple of temperature sensors (inside/outside).