Combined Gas and Electricity Monitor

I have been working with a nice electricity device called CurrentCost to see if I could combine it with my gas monitor. This is proceeding but a little slowly because of some specification issues. Anyway, just as I thought I was getting there came a total distraction: the arrival of a new electricity meter from Landis + Gyr (see pic). This is not a “smart meter” as such but it’s a pretty useful device given that it has an LED indicator with a strong and clean pulse representing 1/1000 kWh. An LDR is easily taped over this indicator and fed into a microcontroller.

Excuse the scruffy taping job. I’ll think of a nicer way to hold it in place. A key feature is the opaque tape (not visible in pic) to maximise the contrast and therefore the input voltage swing.

This is now plugged into the same Arduino that’s watching my gas consumption and the software is modified appropriately. The device keeps track of the readings and sends updates periodically to the server over the Internet. The server can then, on demand, produce a record of what’s been consumed and how much we’ve spent. Once we build up a few months’ history our patterns of consumption should be clear so we can also see the broader trends and better refine our usage.

Online report - first day

The use of power at night is a known problem since we (foolishly) allowed electric underfloor heating to be installed in part of our extension. At the moment we’re on a single tariff for electricity and this is costing about 9p/KWh. Iwill now do some more accurate sums to see if we should be on a dual tariff.

The other thoughts I’ve had all along with this project are to benchmark our consumption against those of comparable properties and also to invest in (even) more insulation and airtighting.

To facilitate that I need to finish the design (e.g. to add external temperature and re-calibrate the internal temp which is over-reading). Then I’ll see about building more robust prototypes for others to use. Let’s see what time allows. PS. Ext. temperature added (image replaced).

Online Forums (sic)

I think I’ve almost got used to the use of an English plural on a Latin word. Now where was I? Oh yes, Bulletin Boards, Discussion Boards or whatever.

In theory these should be major tools for collaborative organisations such as associations and charities, especially now that “Web 2.0″ is de rigeur for presidential campaigns. However, not that many associations are using Forums and some of those that are would admit that they function more as a broadcast medium than as an interactive tool.

There are many tools out there. I’ll only mention vBulletin and phpBB here but they are numerous as stand-alone tools and can also be found embedded within other tools such as Content Management Systems like Joomla! and Drupal.

If you are considering adopting one of these tools or even just evaluating them for a pilot project here are some of the considerations that may be relevant:

  • Reliability – this is a combination of professional hosting and a great support community. The more popular offerings generally have the best support behind them. Volunteer support is often as good or better than its commercial counterpart. A combination of the two is ideal.
  • Usability – this is of course very subjective so you will want to evaluate a few to see when you like.
  • Functionality is becoming less important as most of the available tools will do the job. Many features such as the ability to adapt the look and feel are generally avaialable. Watch out for features such as topic threading and see mention of integration below.
  • Look and feel/ branding – most of the available tools can be “skinned” with your logo, colours etc and there are plenty of off the shelf themes that you can at least use as a starting point. However, in order to properly match your branding you will usually need to have a custom skin produced. This need not be expensive.
  • Security – assuming professional hosting your information will be safe. There are many ways to control access to individual parts of a forum. Good discipline on passwords is important unless you are using some more powerful method of authentication. A number of products have plugin authenticaion options.
  • Integration – this could be a deciding factor as many of these products suffer from a lack of integration options. This means that you could need to replicate information about contacts and groups that are already held in other systems, creating a maintenance problem. In a project we are currently doing for a leading trade association we needed a single database to determine access control to their members’ website and associated forums. To minimise developmant and maintenance costs we chose a forum with a separable authentication system.

So. We haven’t gone as far as to recommend a specific tool because the best choice will depend on your existing installation. Hopefully the above will at least help you to make an appropriate choice. Should you need any help with that please let us know.

Meeting Schedulers

I’m not on many committees these days but I well remember the problem of scheduling meetings, whether face to face or by phone, video, IM or whatever.

Inside an organisation there are some obvious options such as provided within Outlook. However, it’s increasingly outside an organisation where the real challenge lies. It cannot be assumed that a single piece of infrastructure is shared by participants and, even if technically possible, there would be insurmountable security barriers.

So tools like Meetomatic and Agreeadate promise to fill an increasing need. There are several of these so one should also consider Timebridge, Timetomeet, Tungle, Jiffle, Doodle and probably others.

These are all web-based tools that operate outside your organisation. The key functions include sending invitations out and collating and presenting the responses so that you can pick the best date and time for a given meeting. Additional features such as updating your personal or corporate calendar are useful.

The main drawback of this approach relates to the time it takes to get responses back before the dates offered have been booked for something else. It would be useful if responses could be prioritised somehow, such as by setting your filters to mark these messages urgent. Each tool has it’s own take on this.

There’s also the question of which medium to use with some people having mobile email and others relying on SMS for urgent messages. This should be flexible if possible. (NB. Twitter decided it could not afford to use SMS in the UK; suppliers of free tools might take the same view.)

As with any new online system there will be a learning period. My colleague David reminds me that patience is required while people recognise how this kind of tool must be used if the expected benefits are to be realised..

Obviously these schedulers have a relationship to other group collaboration tools and this is where they could give us a very pleasant surprise by providing integration points. Say that you have a group set up for a given committee. At the moment it would typically be necessary to set up profiles for the members of this committee in each of several collaboration tools such as for document sharing, project management etc. When any contact detail changes you would need to visit all these systems to change your settings. Some software makers are beginning to respond by building tools that can share profile data. That will be welcome. Let’s hope!

CurrentCost Electricity Usage Monitor

Got the device yesterday. It seems very well put together and has a serial digital output (although I don’t yet have the cable for it). There’s a wiki at currentcost.wetpaint.com with information about this. Compared to the OWL, two other differences are immediately obvious. The OWL came with a handy bracket for wall mounting whereas CC has a sticky patch. Given that the wall in question is bare brick (in the meter cupboard) this is a nuisance – a managable one. Second and more serious the CurrentCost has runs on plug-in power not batteries. Both devices are otherwise wireless so you can measure from where any appliance is situated and flick the switch to see the power that device is consuming. However, that’s easier with a battery-operated unit. So I’m going to keep both units, one for its output and the other for its mobility. More on this when I get the serial data hooked up to monitoring central.

PS. That wiki has some confusing info on it. There have been various versions of the CC unit with different serial output specs. I have made a few comments there.

Expensive Sunday

Family here yesterday so I had to let the bolier kick in around mid-day. Not such a cold day so the house reached target temperature quite quickly. Out in the evening (at James McMurtry gig) but it was chilly – could nevertheless have left it off for an hour or two. Need to add external temp measurement and find where all that heat is going!

gas consumption plot