Thursday, 26 November 2020

Issues with a Square Card Reader

 Most of our holiday cottage business is via Sykes Cottages, but occasions arise when we need to take payment directly from our guests. We generally eschew the use of cash, as there is no automatic paper trail. So we use a card reader obtained from Square.com.  This usually works well and connected to our account via our Smartphone. It also ties in with our Xero.com accounting system.

However a couple of weeks ago the Square Reader suddenly became incompatible with our smartphone which is a HuaWei P20 Lite device. The App software and the operating system is fully up to date. It was working one day and not the following day.  We contacted Square support after trying all the suggested remedies, we even purchased a replacement card reader for £19, to no avail.  Square support have admitted they've had quite a few reports in respect of the Huawei P20 Lite and have gone away to investigate.  Meanwhile the Square card reader still works fine via our Samsung smartphone.

The bottom line is that the Smart Card Reader, at present, is no longer compatible with the P20 Lite.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Cooker hood broken.

When we purchased the cottage seven years ago the kitchen had fitted kitchen furnishings already installed. This included a cooker fume extraction hood above the cooker position. We found the the last guest had managed to break the controls for the extract fan and hob light. Of course, she neglected to tell us of the damage, we discovered it during cleaning the cottage after her stay. 

Sadly the rather ancient hood is obsolete and we cannot find spare parts. It will require the purchase and fitting of a new hood. By the time the work is complete, probably £150 plus some more redecoration costs.

Unsurprisingly the guest had left negative comments about trivia in her subsequent online review, but no direct comments to us. All the more reason to increase our prices to cover the cost of damage by careless guests. 

Friday, 20 November 2020

Am I too damp in the Cottage?

 In the previous post I told some of the story of fitting an environment sensor in the Cottage to remotely monitor the temperature to help compliance with insurance requirements during Winter periods of non-occupancy. 

An unexpected side effect was that I discovered that the humidity levels in the cottage are a bit too high with a reading of 67% relative humidity. The is probably because we keep the windows closed while the place is not occupied during lockdown, but there is a certain amount of damp in the Victorian solid brick walls at the front of the house.

Humidity in our holiday cottage

So to address this issue, I've rented an electric dehumidifier machine. Within the space of the first 12 hours, this relatively small box has brought the humidity down to 55% in the cottage. It extracted a 600 ml of water from the air. At present I've set the machine a target parameter to switch off when humidity around the machine is below 50%. It is located in one corner of the cottage, so it will take some time to evenly spread the humidity across the building. If the project shows good results I'll purchase a dehumidifier.

The machine is rated at 500 Watts, though when it is running it initially has an average power running cost of about 2p per hour (£16 month). However, the energy used in dehumidifying will offset the heating demand on the gas central heating. At the moment it is removing about 1 litre of water per day from the air, walls and contents of this one bedroom cottage. It will be interesting to see whether those figures reduce as the cottage "dries out".
Pro Breeze 20L Dehumidifier



The recommendation is that humidity in the room should be between 40% - 60%; if you read the adverts/articles from air conditioning suppliers, they suggest 40%, but I rather suspect a vested interest there. If you make the atmosphere too dry it can cause discomfort for guests.

Update 22nd Nov. 

Yesterday, I reset the target humidity on the machine to 45% Relative Humidity, rather than 50%. At this setting it created 2 litres of condensate water, in 24 hours, while slightly increasing power usage. As the capacity of the condensate tank is just 5.5 litres, I'd need to visit the cottage once every two to three  days to empty the tank. So I've just ordered a condensate syphon tank. I'll make arrangements to have a continuous condensate drain via the syphon into the kitchen sink. The syphon tank releases the condensate in batch amounts, rather than a steady trickle. This is much better on very cold winter days as it reduces the risk of the external drain pipe of the kitchen sink from freezing.

The dehumidifier we're using is rated at a maximum 20 litres extraction per day, but that is with an ambient room temperature of 30C. The extraction rate is reduced at lower temperatures.

The air volume inside the building can carry about 1.5 litres of water.  Hopefully this will reduce in a few days, but in theory it could amount to 40 litres in a month.

Holiday home humidity 22nd Nov 20

Despite the higher extraction rate the Relative Humidity around the monitoring sensor remains around 54% (at 15.7C) which suggests there is some way to go before we reach stability.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Am I freezing in the cottage?

 The time has come for the annual renewal of insurance for our holiday home. One of the conditions raised by the insurer is that when the property is not occupied, we should maintain a minimum temperature of 15 degrees celsius. Presumably the logic behind this is to  prevent water pipes freezing in the winter and causing water damage when it thaws.

As a matter of course, we leave the gas central heating running on a low setting when there are low temperatures around. We've also insulated the condensate pipe from the gas central heating boiler and installed an electric thermostatic heating wire under the length of the external condensate pipe. This heater is triggered if the temperature drops below 5 celsius, preventing a build up of ice in the condensate pipe.  If the pipe becomes blocked with ice at the drain outlet, water can back up the pipe causing the central heating boiler to turn itself off.

Generally the insurers insist the property is inspected once a week during periods of low occupancy. One of the companies was looking to have daily inspections, which in our case is not feasible. There's a risk that a fault develops in the central heating leading to a loss of heating while the building is not attended. This would lead to the temperature dropping below the 15 degree threshold. 

We decided we needed to find a solution to this risk. After some research we found a temperature monitor/sensor which can provide alerts via the cottage broadband internet. The result is fairly low cost and we can check the health of our premises via a web browser or on a smartphone App. It also  can raise automatic SMS/Email alerts if a threshold is crossed.

The details shown in the graphic are: 
  • Temperature (Celsius.  Fahrenheit is possible), 
  • humidity (percentage), 
  • Light level (lux), 
  • supply battery voltage, 
  • WiFi signal strength. 

The sensor we are using can also monitor vibration affecting the device, so it can detect people causing vibration. These readings are monitored every 15 minutes (variable) and we can produce analyses over a time period. This data is held in a central database and can be interrogated via a web browser or smartphone app. If necessary we can prove to the insurance company that remote checks are performed.

We can also advise guests on the actual temperature/humidity during their stay at our cottage.

We now offer this as a rental service, to ourselves and others, at a modest cost of £10/month. It is a fraction of the cost of a single visit from our home to the holiday cottage. Alternatively people can buy the sensors, and register/sign on to the Internet of Things (IoT) to monitor their properties. There are more expensive versions which can report via GSM service. If you to buy one here's a link to an Amazon page, we have no financial interest in this link.

Edit 14th Nov 20

After a couple of days trial, the results are looking good. No cabling is necessary to install as it can be battery powered and connects via WiFi. It was just a matter of downloading a phone App and setting up the WiFi Router password on the sensor. The following images give a snapshot of some of the data available remotely via a web browser.

The monitor is sensitive to fractions of a degree. In this case I can spot when a door adjacent to the sensor is opened letting in cooler air from an unheated room.

In this example you see the relative humidity around the sensor. On the web browser you can move the crosshair cursor to check information at any time.


The sensor contains a light meter (Lux) and you can detect the amount of light falling on it at any time. I was able to detect when people come into the room at night and switch on the lights. I also ran a test to automatically send an SMS text message to my cell phone (mobile) when a light level threshold had been crossed.

It is possible to see the strength of the WiFi signal in the room. In our case we get occasional interference from vehicle mounted WiFi servers on the nearby roadside (A6 main road), which cause momentary dips in signal. Studying other monitors I can see it is the sensor losing contact momentarily with the network access point, not a genuine dip in available WiFi.  They look worse on the graph than reality because of the plotting method.

It is also possible to share a "view" of the device with other people. So one person can operate as an administrator, perhaps settings up and maintaining such devices whilst others (clients) can freely check the temperature, etc. of installed devices. The clients have the capability to set their own alert thresholds and create warning messages via email (free) or SMS texts ($0.18 in UK). Clients cannot configure the device parameters settings from their account.

Edit 16th Nov 2020
Today I decided to end the bench testing and to deploy the sensor out in the field for testing. I had to do a little work to have it recognise the WiFi  at our holiday cottage. I re-read the instruction leaflet, but had it operational within less than 10 minutes. I noticed that the cottage was a bit cold and discovered that despite us leaving the central heating running, the previous guests had turned off the radiators at the thermostatic valves. Visiting each radiator soon had them warm and toasty.  I also turned on the boiler condensate pipe heater. Someone had unplugged the trace heater..

This configuration certainly gives me an increased level of comfort that I'll be able to spot any heating problems remotely when the property is unoccupied, particularly during winter weather.  A spin-off is I'll also get a feel for how the guests use the heating in the cottage.

I also discovered today that the sensor monitor can be powered by a main USB power source while the internal batteries are also in place. If the main power goes out, the sensor will continue to record, using the internal batteries, and then when the power and Internet is restored, it will be able to automatically upload the backlog readings to the central database in the "Cloud".  Incidentally, the monitor device (set at 15 minute sample reporting intervals) seems to transmit about 2 Mbytes/day of sensor readings to the central database. The "free" allowance for data is 1 Gb/month per monitor.

 




Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Unrealistic expectations

 In these days of Covid-19 lock-downs, and the extended cleaning protocol between guest stays, we heavily subsidise each guest who stays in our cottage. Hopefully this is temporary and some equilibrium will return to the self-catering market.  This year the armchair warriors leave sniping complaints on the review websites, when in previous years the same property and services has received praise. These moaning guests don't have the courtesy to raise any issue with us during their stay and the rental agency Sykes are unconcerned as long as they get their 20% + VAT + booking fee. At times they even give discounted prices, reducing our take, without asking us first.

The latest moan was the "property seems pricey." Let's be clear about this. We are lower cost than the price of a single room at the local Premier Inn, and for that you get a whole house. In fact our pricing is similar to a private room in a youth hostel. 

We allow pets to stay, the Premier Inn doesn't. We don't charge extra for pets (at the moment),and that alone saves a minimum of £105 per week in pet boarding fees. We don't charge for our labour in cleaning/maintaining the cottage (£40/week). We don't charge any notional interest on the capital tied up in the cottage (£45/week). The extra cost of Covid-19 cleaning is around £25/rental.

At current rates we've not achieved break-even over seven years. So we are going to increase prices by at least £150/ week. We've had enough of guests who expect Ritz services at Poundshop prices. If that scares away guests, we'll just move the property to private rental which would give the same or better return but a lot less work. We see no reason to continue subsidising guests.

p.s. The latest moaning guest failed to comply with Covd-19 regulations, despite them being clearly documented in the welcome pack. The cooker hood controls in the cottage were found damaged after her departure, but not reported to us. She also complained in the review that the paintwork was dirty, I don't suppose she'd have realised we had completely redecorated the interior of the cottage a couple of months previously.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Ultraviolet lamp in operation, cleaning self-catering cottage

 In these times of Covid-19, we now use the ultraviolet-c lamp in the process of  cleaning. We first suit-up in full body PPE equipment, including a respirator, prior to entering the cottage. As part of the procedure we assume the departing guests could have been infected asymptomatically with the virus. We then progress around the rooms in the cottage giving a timed exposure to each room from the Ultraviolet-C light to help sterilize the environment.

UV-C Lamp sterilizing kitchen


Here you can see the lamp in operation in the kitchen during a recent cleaning session. We move it around during exposure process to avoid shadows and ensure even coverage. During the operation of the lamp we normally keep out of the room and control the lamp using a remote power switch. Usually before entering the room we switch off the lamp. When there is a need to be in the room with the lamp on, we wear full body protection and also a full face visor tested to be safe against UV-C light. We also limit time in front of the lamp. The lamp in the picture is 72 watts/230 VAC. Close up to the lamp, at 30 cm, you'd receive the maximum permitted dose in less than 30 seconds. We also carry dosimeter badges which are checked before and after exposure. 

We have a specialist UV-C meter which allows us to accurately measure the dosage given around the room, and also the impact of UV-C reflection from surfaces. We use the meter to "calibrate" the room and thus verify an appropriate exposure time for sterilization in each room. Typically in our case this is about 20 minutes total exposure time per room to achieve 40 millijoules per sq cm dosage.

Using UV-C light avoids the general usage of persistent biocide chemicals as a film on all surfaces and in the air. This may occur with biocide/hypochlorous fogging disinfection techniques. We don't wish to expose our guests or cleaning staff to these chemicals.  However we do supplement the UV-C by wipedown with a disinfectant on high touch areas and work surfaces. Surfaces of electrical equipment, buttons and switches are sterilized using non-conducting 100% isopropyl alcohol.

The Philips TUV discharge tubes in the lamp have a surface treatment which suppresses the light wavelength which generates ozone from oxygen in the air. However in operational use, there is a tiny amount of ozone produced. You can smell it as a faint odour. While ozone is a very powerful disinfectant, it is not good to breath in. So we ventilate the rooms with plenty of fresh air during and after the process. We also make sure that guests are not allowed in to the cottage until at least an hour after the UV process to allow any residual ozone to revert to oxygen.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Using video processing for the Self Catering Holiday Cottage.

 We been using digital video cameras for some time in our other businesses in the production of training videos. To aid that process we use Cyberlink's video editing software called PowerDirector. We then host the video on vimeo.com. This allows advert free content which can be reliably streamed to multiple devices across the Internet.

In the new Covid-19 cleaning regime for our holiday cottage, we now produce a complete video of the cottage interior after every turnaround cleaning session between guests. We use a GoPro Hero 5 for quick and fuss free filming. When we get home it only takes 20 minutes to produce the video and upload it to vimeo.com.  This video output has proved extremely helpful and cost effective in resolving any post visit guest queries. We've found recently that Covid-19 staycation guests' expectations can exceed the norm, and they look to reduce costs by threatening to post unrealistic visit comments. This change of guest behaviour often feature in comments in the cottage owners Facebook group.

One of the features of the Cyberlink PowerDirector is the ability to easily apply preset Colour Lookup Tables (LUTs) to individual  video clips. These can significantly improve the quality of the output to get a more lifelike rendering on the video. The contemporaneous video  of the cottage also supplements the inventory list of the cottage contents.