Second CurrentCost display has arrived

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Happy to report that my second CurrentCost display has arrived, just a day after ordering it off eBay from CurrentCost themselves. A bargain at just £15 plus postage, it enables me to have this unit on our kitchen worktop, while the other is connected to my server ready to connect to the web service I am developing.

A quick update on that: having had so much fun so far creating an infrastructure capable of handling the current cost data, I have decided to extend it so that other users from around the world can publish and share their sensor data, not just from the current cost. I know, I know… there’s also the very good Pachube out there for those who are inclined to use it, but I figured what I’d like to do is offer something a bit more consumer friendly, with graphing and social features as well.

If anyone is interested in helping me test this out (or even in lending a hand with the design and build), do get in touch. More on the current project progress soon…

Logitech WiLife – Wireless Professional CCTV

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I heard about Logitech’s digital video security system today: WiLife. It’s a wireless, ‘professional quality’ digital home/small business security surveillance system. It is aimed for non-professionals (or non-geeks) and looks to be truly plug and play.

The examples that I’ve seen look to be reasonably high quality (if a little staged!), and the system itself looks very easy to install – just insert the cd, install the software, and locate and plug the wireless cameras into the mains electrical system. Bingo.Job done.

The system supports up to five cameras, I believe, and you can mix both indoor/outdoor cameras in any combination. Interested? If the price were to come down a bit, I think I would be. Right now, the “master kit” costs £211.91+VAT, and each indoor or outdoor camera costs £169.36+VAT (www.dabs4work.com).

The CurrentCost web space is now up and running

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Now all I gotta do is build something….

In Getting CurrentCost to talk to the web: planning, I provided an outline of some of my thoughts with regard to building an application and website/web services for connecting my CurrentCost to the web. I took another step in realising that goal today by taking out a hosting package.

It’s been over a week since I ordered my CurrentCost and it still hasn’t arrived yet; but I have already started building the serial library necessary to extract the XML packet from the unit on a regular basis.

For those of you who haven’t been following, I’m going to build a small Windows Service to read the data from the CurrentCost, and push it to my web service. From there, I’ll start with a simple web front end with some graphing capabilities as well as some data archive/retrieval stuff. And we’ll go from there… 🙂

I’m designing it with scalability in mind, from a multiple user/multiple device point of view, so if anyone’s interested in trying it out/helping me to develop it please get in touch.

Thanks… more to follow soon.

Getting CurrentCost to talk to the web: planning

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Getting it talking to the webI decided that now would be a good time to start planning for the arrival of CurrentCost. Who to invite, what food to serve … gosh, the list goes on! 🙂

Joking aside, I thought it might be beneficial to start thinking about what I want to do with the data I will collect, and, crucially, how I’m going to collect it.

Locating the CurrentCost on my network

I plan to connect my CurrentCost to my Windows Home Server. To do this, I have purchased the CurrentCost data cable direct from CurrentCost. This came with a serial connection, which the Home Server does not have. I also purchased a Serial-USB adapter from eBay for about £3.00 (let’s hope it works).

Hopefully that takes care of the connection to the server, so now I just need to start thinking about how to extract that data from the unit and store it.

I have decided to write a small, low-footprint Windows Service that will receive the data from the CurrentCost and post it via a web service to my web server. Following this, I will need a simple web service on my web server to a) authenticate the  Windows Service and b) insert the received data into a database.

I will then write a very simple web site, initially, to provide access to the data collected from the CurrentCost and offer to graph it in some way or another.

That should take care of the ground work, then it’s just a case of using my imagination to do some other cool stuff. Not sure how that will go 🙂

Hopefully the unit will arrive next week sometime and I can make a start on all this.

Watch this space for more updates.

My home network setup

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I spent some time today taking care of something rather mundane: I produced a home network diagram. Although it didn’t take long, I found it quite a useful exercise. I actually feel somewhat relieved that I don’t have to maintain any of this stuff in my head anymore, as it’s gradually getting more and more complex.

Most home networks grow in an organic fashion, with bits being added or changed depending on what takes your fancy at any particular moment. When we moved into our new home though, I was determined I wanted to make the most of the empty house before we moved in and carefully thought about how I planned to use it at first, and how I might need it to adapt. I didn’t want it to be obvious or intrusive, so most of the hardware is completely out of view.

In a nutshell, here’s some of the things I have done:

  • ‘Node 0’ is a custom built shelf unit in the office. It is passively cooled and also has surge protection.
  • Each room has at least two RJ45 sockets embedded in the wall. The living room has 4 outlets, 2 by the TV and two in another corner.
  • Each room is cabled with a telephone outlet and the BT master socket is at Node 0.

And here’s a brief equipment listing:

  • Netgear 24 port 10/100 Switch
  • Netgear FVS 124G VPN Firewall/Router
  • Be Box (Thomson Speedtouch) ADSL2+ Modem Router

In the living room, we have the XBOX 360 Elite and an HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server with 1TB of storage hooked up to the network, and an IP network camera (however this isn’t in use as yet).

In the office, we have:

  • Evesham Solar Quattro Quad Core PC with triple 22″ widescreen LCD’s (wall mounted). This is my development PC, and where I do most of my work.
  • Low cost Packard Bell PC for my partner to use for university etc.
  • 2 printers: 1 x Lexmark E120 Laser Printer connected to an Edimax USB to LAN converter, and 1 x Brother Multifunction 5860CN Colour Printer/Scanner.

Home automation

Each of our rooms is fitted with at least two Domia Wall Dimmers. These are X10 controllable dimmer switch units with ‘soft start’. Our living room is the only exception at the moment as the low voltage lighting doesn’t have dimmable transformers at the moment (something I still need to get around to).

We also have an X10 control pad by the bed so that we can control all the lights in the house from there, along with the dimmable spotlights above the bed for reading etc. Our lamps are also X10 enabled.

Finally, our Windows Home Server is running Harmony Home Automation Server. I have yet to invest in wireless remotes etc because I haven’t seen the need for them right now. Our home is pretty small, so the wall switches are never more than a few feet away at most.

We also have a ViewSonic Wireless alarm system, which doubles as an X10 controller. There are three PIR motion sensors and two door switch sensors and the alarm system is connected to the telephone line so we are informed of any unusual activity. Of course, our PIRs are pet safe because we have two cats 🙂

So that’s it, in a nutshell, my home network and small HA setup.

Measuring electricity consumption, the geek’s way!

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CurrentCost – The Beginning

Having just purchased our first home, and realising for the first time just how expensive everything actually is, I started to go on a ‘cost cutting’ excercise. Fuelled largely by a desire to reduce the overall amount of waste we produce and increase the amount of recycling we do, it wasn’t long before we were able to adapt our lifestyle to meet those goals. What really interests me though is our energy consumption… How much electricity and gas do we use, what are the worst offending appliances in our home over time?

This was back around winter of 2006 and what I really wanted to find was a consumer-targeted product that I could connect to my conventional electricity meter and that also connected to my PC, somehow. The goal was to start logging my energy usage into a database where I could more easily query all the data.

Unfortunately, either because one didn’t exist or because I was hopeless at searching, I couldn’t find one. It wasn’t until Christmas 2007 that I heard about a domestic product called the Owl wireless electricity meter that I had rekindled my interest in this topic once again. I placed my order for the meter in the early part of the year and it has been happily running since then, gently reminding us to turn off our lights when we’re not using them, to be more conscious about using our electric oven more efficiently and just how much it costs to run our dishwasher.

In the mean time, I had spent a lot of time diligently installing X10 home control units into various light fittings, appliances and even our alarm system, all controlled via our HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server.

This is all very well and good, but I still really wanted to start getting some useful data on our energy usage into the computer and I had been reading lots about extremely clever people with very large brains creating all manner of gizmos in their garages that could do just that. Realising that I probably couldn’t do the same, I started to search again for a consumer product that has these capabilities and finally, my long journey looked as though it had come to a successful conclusion: the CurrentCost meter. Not only did it look much better than the Owl meter I was using, but it also had a datalogging facility.

A few minutes on the CurrentCost web site and the CurrentCost wiki convinced me that if I didn’t order it soon I may possibly explode with excitement; and I promptly parted with a very reasonable £28. Later that same hour, more reading on the wiki turned up very interesting links (mostly to site’s owned by very clever people who work for IBM but also share a passion for, uh, gathering data, particularly from this very cool device) and it wasn’t long before I started reading about people who were very curious about the RJ45 socket on the bottom of the meter.

Like early pioneers, the electronics gurus set out with their multimeters and soldering irons and very quickly it seems, somebody had worked out that the CurrentCost unit diligently spits out an XML packet every six or seven seconds. Amazing. There we go: I had struck gold. Now if only I knew how on earth to make me one of these cables (this was my thought process anyway, although right now you have to remember I don’t actually own a CurrentCost yet – I had only just ordered it!).

After reading about breadboards, 9-pin D-SUB sockets and what not, I started to convince myself that actually, with all the clever guides out there, I could probably hash one together of my very own and could be ‘living the dream’, too.

Suddenly though, another article on that fantastic CurrentCost wiki told me that ‘those in the know’ could purchase a ready-made cable direct from CurrentCost themselves, all for the princely sum of £11.12, including VAT and delivery. Kerching! Approximately seven seconds later, my cheque book was flung open and the cheque was in the postbox on it’s merry way to CurrentCost in Surrey.

Ahhhh. So now all I have to do is sit and wait. Which, I’m not very good at.

You see, all this happened yesterday – which as all geeks know, is an eternity – especially when you’ve just ordered some very sexy gadgetry that you cannot wait to get your hands on. So, not wanting to leave the world of CurrentCost, I started to read around about things other people were doing. And then, I came across Arduino and Freeduino.

Both these boards appeal to me because they are specifically aimed at electronics novices, but they seem to be expandable and robust enough to be the gadgets that experienced pro’s love to use as well. So, what is it? Well, in a nutshell, the Arduino is a little electronics prototyping board that has a small processor and a series of digital inputs and outputs, and a connection to your computer. Bingo. Now we have a way of wiring up my whole home to my computer.

And I’m good with computers! As a programmer, I love writing software to do cool things. And what on this earth could be cooler than somehow getting all of this data from the ‘physical world’ of my home into a digital format I can pump into some software?

If you answered ‘lots of things’, then I am simply stunned that you have kept on reading through this geek-oriented babble! But, since you’re here, you might as well read on.

The day before ordering my CurrentCost and data cable, I had also splashed out on a USB 4 PORT CCTV capture card. It had to be USB, because I planned to be using my HP Media Smart Windows Home Server to capture all the imagery.

And that’s where I’m going to leave this post. Thanks to all the wonderful people blogging about the CurrentCost unit (as I have said, they all mainly seem to be IBM or ex-IBM employees!), and the super work they have done so far, they have rekindled my interest in this topic and I plan to write some software of my own, to sit on the MediaSmart Windows Home Server and do all sorts of wonderful things (of course, not quite sure what they’ll be yet).

From the next pay cheque, too, I think I’ll go out and buy all the cool Arduino bits because I really want to find a way to build my own gas meter reader! Watch this space…