Sunday, 2 May 2021

"Booked last minute as a cheap few nights ..."

 The title says it all. It is part of the title of a comment from a "guest".  That person then goes on to moan about the cottage in the comment section. Most of the person's comments are unjustified but difficult to disprove, such as the cottage smelt musty.  The cottage had just undergone full deep cleaning including carpets, plus a Covid secure clean a couple of hours before their arrival. Prior to the deep clean, the cottage had been fully redecorated on the interior. We've since taken to videoing the entire interior of the cottage after each cleaning session to help counter these types of allegation. Cleaning for "Covid Secure" adds four man hours to each turnaround cleaning session. Guests are not currently charged for cleaning man hours.

The person fails to mention in their comment that they'd demanded  a discount on the already discounted price. We'd turned down the discount demand. The comment was posted after the rejection, but as their title says, they wanted "cheap".

They probably don't realise that we effectively subsidise every guest stay as annual expenditure on the cottage exceed the income at the rental rates charged by Sykes. That expenditure does not include the cost of the capital invested in the property, in effect a nominal interest rate. Over eight years we have yet to break even on the cottage. Indeed, if we'd taken the capital we've invested and put it into financial investments over the same period we'd be about £80K better off without the hassle of rude guests who expect discount on a holiday home rental at half the price of the nearby Premier Inn. We also let guests bring their pets for no extra charge, resulting in them saving on animal boarding fees too.

Holiday home owners really need a reverse Trip Advisor where we can pass comment on how good/bad the guests were during the stay.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Painting the front of the cottage

 Our holiday cottage  was built in 1905, probably as low cost accommodation for a local quarry worker family. It is part of a terrace (row) of cottages on what would have been the Southern edge of the town on the road leading to Derby. It was built with solid brick walls that have no damp roof course of slate or engineering bricks. As a consequence of the cheap construction method we get some rising damp at the front ground floor room of the house next to the road. 

The original plaster on the walls in the lounge has probably been replaced during the early life of the house. It was probably originally gypsum based rather than lime plaster, and gypsum plaster does not cope well with rising damp.  There is a plenty of evidence that previous occupants have tried various measures to reduce the damp, including injected water repellent cream and also ceramic breather tubes embedded in the wall. The real solution is to cut through the base of the wall and install a proper damp course layer to break the water path, but this would be a very expensive process.

Road traffic splash and rising damp have also damaged the brickwork at the base of the wall as frost action on the damp bricks and road salt have cause some brick crumbling and salt efflorescence. A previous occupant attempted to reduce the amount of water entering the the brickwork by painting the surface of the bricks with an oil based paint. This is probably the worst thing they could have done, because all it does is to prevent the evaporation of water from the exterior brickwork. Cracks and holes due to the paint flaking and salt efflorescence soon let water trickle in to the bricks. The only escape route for the water is to the interior walls and plaster.  After running a dehumidifier in the lounge over the winter we discovered we were extracting litres of water from the room every day, we decided it was time to fix the problem.  The external oil paint had to be removed!

The oil based paint sinks into the porous brick surface making it very difficult to remove. After talking with the neighbours we discovered that the paint used was a cheap interior quality paint used to paint ceramic clay tiles. We have the added complication that the property is within a Conservation Area which is quite rigorously policed by the local authority, so changing the appearance of the house is not a real option.

We investigated the use of paint stripper to remove the paint work. We had to be careful, a solvent based stripper such as Methyl Chloride might dissolve the old paint and force it deeper into the brick work. Eventually we found a product designed for use on painted brickwork so we purchased 5 litres and set to work. Initially on the badly flaking areas it worked well, and we were able to remove the treated paint with a stripping knife. However an underlaying layer of paint proved quite resistant, and also other areas of the top coat were not stripping well. It was not leaving a good surface for subsequent treatment. Using a wire brush was unsuccessful and a blow torch caused damage to the fragile bricks. 

Paint stripping commenced Warmbrook cottage

After research, we found a "scotchbrite" nylon pad disk that can be mounted on a powered angle grinder. It is designed for paint removal. We used these, about 15 in all at a cost of £2.50 per disk, to remove the paint and the surface of the bricks where paint had penetrated the porous surface. The objective was to leave a porous brick surface which would allow water to evaporate into the atmosphere. This would allow the wall to dry out. The process took several days to complete as we had to choose times when few people were using the narrow footpath and when the noise of the professional angle grinder would not disturb others.

We found several horrors during the course of the work. In several places the original lime mortar between the bricks had failed and previous "workmen" had used some kind of plastic filler to fill the holes in the mortar. In those areas the brickwork was sopping wet. There was substantial salt damage and flaking to the brickwork in other places, again a mastic or plastic filler had been used to "repair" the brickwork, but this just trapped water and would worsen damage.  In any event after we completed the stripping process and cleaned off the mastic, it was obvious we couldn't leave the brickwork bare. It was just too unsightly and in places too crumbly to leave untreated.

We spoke with several paint vendors to find a paint that would be porous to allow evaporation and was also suitable to protect damp brickwork. We had wanted avoid using plastic/latex based paints, but to use a limewash paint to give a traditional finish. However we couldn't find one with pigments that would match the existing wall colour. We settled on Hydron Nu-guard, from Rawlins Paints, which is a porous water based paint and had a 5 litre can tinted to BS04D45 colour. It is not a cheap paint, coming in at about 100 pounds for the 5 litre can.

To harden the surface of the crumbling bricks we sprayed the brick surface with two coats a 5% solution of Sodium Silicate (water glass) in water. This is absorbed into the porous brickwork and gradually hardens by chemical reaction by absorbing Carbon Dioxide from the air. It does not produce an impervious barrier, but stabilises the brick surface to accept a coat of paint.

To repair the wall pointing we sourced a traditional lime mortar, suitable formulation for a mortar gun and tinted to match the existing mortar.  We raked out the dead mortar from the wall and then repointed the joints with lime mortar using a combination a mortar gun, of specialist trowels and a hard brush to pat the mortar down hard in the joints. We left the wall for a couple of days before painting with the Nu-guard paint. Being water based and porous it will not affect the hardening of the mortar. After two coats of this paint we now have a reasonably good looking but porous surface.

Paint front wall cottage

UV-C Dosimeter badges for use in Holiday Home Covid cleaning

 I've had an update email from one of the suppliers that we contacted when we were seeking UV-C dosimeter badges.  These work by changing colour when an appropriate level of exposure to UV-C radiation hits the surface.  More detail can be found here:

We use this type of tool when we use our UV-C lamp to sterilise the rooms in our holiday cottage after guest departure.  The photochromic patches can be used to check the effectiveness of a UV-C lamp if you do not possess an appropriate UV-C meter. Given the large number of fake Chinese LED UV-C lamps on the market it is worth running a check if you buy one from Ebay or Amazon.  

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  This usually works well and connected to our account via our Smartphone. It also ties in with our 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.

Edit: 9th December 2020

The P20 Lite now recognises the Square Card Reader. No update from Square support.

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.