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For those who think that their hamster should be put to work instead of just playing around all the time iRobot is apparently working on a version of the Roomba which can be driven by your skilled rodent. I think we'll stick to the computer based cleaning algorithm for the moment although I can see the leap to toddler driven devices to harness some of that endless energy.


   



Cleaning is one of those things that needs to be done but generally isn't high on the list of fun things to do. In recent years there have definitely been more than a few people looking at technological solutions to reduce or eliminate our need to clean.

Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Self-cleaning showers. Okay, so there's the somewhat gimmicky "Shower-Shower" from Intelligent Consumer Products which is a rather expensive misting device designed to coat your shower with a shower cleaner of your choice at the touch of a button. It has three different cleaning levels (light, normal and heavy) and all kinds of sensors to ensure it doesn't accidentally spray cleaner around your bathroom or dump it all over an unsuspecting shower occupant. Kind of a neat idea, but only if you have a separate shower stall, and only if you like shower cleaning fluid. Even if we didn't only have tub/shower combinations, we have brass fixtures which tend to be incompatible with most shower cleaners on the market. Not to mention that the "Shower-Shower" simply wouldn't blend into our bathroom decor.
  • Self-cleaning tiles. Although we're still waiting for this technology to make it into the consumer market, some of the self-cleaning material research being done in this area is pretty interesting. Wouldn't you want a self-cleaning bathroom tile?
  • Self-cleaning underwear. Okay, so the nifty fabrics that are now being developped aren't limited to self-cleaning undergarments, but it seems that's what captures the imagination of most journalists... Mary can't wear 90% of them - many synthetic materials just make her feel miserable, but who can resist the idea of high tech clothing that doesn't need to make a trip to the laundry machine every time you wear it?
  • Self-cleaning house. One creative solution that we read about many years ago involved a lady who had completely redesigned her living space, removing all fabric and replacing it with water proof synthetics. All the cupboards, bookshelves and other storage locations had doors which could be closed. Then (and this is where it gets really fun) she had a gigantic sprinkler system installed throughout the entire place and drains put in the floors of every room. At the press of a button all the doors would close and the water would turn on. This was her solution to cleaning (and apparently also served as a unique way to shower and wash dishes). The article in question has since been lost, but it's possible that the woman in question was Francis Gage, the designer of the self-cleaning house. The only problem is that none of the information I've seen on Francis Gage talks about the showering part, which is a detail we remember quite vividly! (So efficient!)


   



How they used to do things

Pipes? What do pipes have to do with technology? As it turns out quite a lot really. Owning a 100+ year old house apparently means that one's plumbing is likely not to work as it ought to. See the problem is that 100 years ago people used very different materials compared to today. Back then what they had was essentially a choice between clay or cast iron pipes. They used clay underground where cast iron would have rusted away. Above ground they used cast iron because it is much sturdier in an environment where things are constantly shifting around (wood frame houses all move to some degree). All things considered these pipes where quite advanced for their time. The clay pipes where strong and are actually still used in underground applications today. Cast iron while very durable had an unfortunate side effect. Over time the insides would rust. These pipes were thick enough that they didn't tend to rust right through but rather caused another problem. The rust would cause the inside of the pipe to become rough and in turn this would allow other gunk to stick to the now rough sides of the pipes. This gunk would build up until eventually there would be so much stuff built up on the inside of the pipe that you could no longer get waste down the drain.

The way we do things now

Today we have platic pipes at our disposal. These pipes aren't quite as strong as the cast iron pipes but still quite strong enough. They do however have a couple of other advantages. They are way lighter than the metal equivalent and much easier to install. You just cut them to the right length with almost any handy saw, sand / clean the ends, slap some glue on and stick them together. The real advantage however is that they are smooth on the inside and they don't corrode.


   



Typically used in showers these valves automatically adjust the amount of cold and hot water being let through the valve to keep the output temperature more or less constant. The idea being that when someone flushes the toilet or starts the washing machine while you are in the shower you don't get burned. Having grown up without these great devices we were somewhat skeptical but extremely interested in seeing how they worked. When updating some plumbing in our house we decided to give them a try. After debating for a long time as to what sort to get we ended up going with the standard American Standard model (not the super fancy one). We've found that American Standard seems to produce very good quality plumbing fixtures but you certainly pay for the quality. After finally installing the valve and finishing the shower off we got our chance to test it. With the shower running we reached over and flushed the toilet... You could hear the valve make a quick clicking noise... And the water stayed the same temperature. What do you know? These things really do work.

Now the problem is that we've become so used to having these that when we travel we sometimes get a rude shock.



   



After rewiring our home on the electrical side of things we knew that we should take advantage of the holes in the house to also run network wiring. While this was rather a large pain in the posterior we wanted to be able to push all kinds of content throughout the house and wireless just wasn't up to the job (think recorded television shows, music, webcams, VoIP and whatever else the future might bring). So we set about wiring the house with Cat5e (for data and voice) and Coax (for television signals).

 

We decided not to use one wire for more than one jack (even though you could get two jacks off of a single Cat5e cable when using 10/100 mbps networking) because we were looking forward to having a Gigabit network one day (which uses all four pairs of wires inside the Cat5e cable). With a "server room / wiring closet" in the basement as our starting point for all of the wires we set about running two pairs of Cat5e and one Coax cable to the bedrooms and misc cables to just about every other room in the house. We spared the bathrooms (look if you really have to surf on the throne you're going to have to use wireless - okay) and the dining room but that was about it. The office and the living room got a few extra runs for good measure.

 

We used a good chunk of two 1000 foot rolls of Cat5e, Solid copper core RG6 Coax, Leviton wall jacks and mounting brackets and many, many drill bits and saw blades. For the server room we used old IBDN jacks that we had lying around with the plan being to replace them with a patch panel one day. All in all we have found the setup to be quite functional. We can patch analog or VoIP phone service, data connections and TV from just about any room to any other room simply by swapping a few cables down in the basement. We figure that by the time we're done we'll need an entire 48 port switch to keep all the jacks live.

 

Some notes on installing your own wiring:
Get at least as many spools / boxes of wiring as you are planning on running to each room. That way you are only pulling the wires along the same route once (I.e. pull both wires at the same time for two jacks). While pulling the wires try not to put too much strain on them and make sure that you don't bend them anywhere too sharply. Sharp bends will mess up their ability to transmit their signals without noise. You should also try not to run them too close to your main electrical wiring. When crossing electrical wiring make sure you do so at a 90° angle so as to reduce the chance of interference. Pick a wiring standard and stick with it. We use T568A for all of our wiring. If you mix and match your cables won't work and you brain is liable to explode.

 

Make sure you test your cables right away with a good quality network tester. We found a great tester at LANshack.com that has a really neat design. It comes with multiple remote units. That way you can run some wires, punch them down to the jacks and hook up the remote units. You go to the other end and terminate them as well. Then you just test each cable one after the other without having to go back and forth between the two ends. If you are running multiple cables to a single location this saves a ton of time. Since each remote has a unique number associated with it you can even tell the cables apart using this tool.

 

For actually terminating the cables we would highly recommend getting a real punch down tool with a cutting end. This is way easier to use compared to the cheap little plastic tool that Leviton includes with the Quick Port jacks. We would recommend using 110 style punch down components (the Quick Port jacks are 110 style) because it is by far the most common these days and you can get a good punch down tool without spending a fortune on it (unlike BIX style punch tools).

 

If you are using DSL you should make sure that you run your phone line directly to your splitter and then from there to whatever other phone wiring you have in your home. By going to the splitter first you make sure that you will get the least interference possible and will ensure the best speeds and stability from your modem. You may even get better sounding phone calls. Instead of having filters all over the house you just have one. If you have the added joy of an alarm system you want to make sure that the phone lines goes to the DSL splitter first. Then one line comes out from the splitter directly to the DSL modem. The other line goes to the alarm system disconnection jack and then to the rest of the phones in your house. This way your interent access won't be interrupted by the alarm system communicating with the monitoring station but you will still have the safety of the disconnection jack. The DSL splitter won't interfere with the alarm system. Most alarm system installers don't have a clue about this sort of thing.

Equipment

We are currently using the following equipment:
  • Switch: 3Com Baseline Switch 2848-SFP Plus - 48 port 10/100/1000 copper (3C16486)
  • Network Jacks / Wall plates: Leviton quick port series
  • UPS: Tripp-Lite SMART 900 LCD
  • Cabling Data/Voice: Cat5e twisted pair
  • Cabling TV: Solid copper core RG6 Coax
  • Wireless Access Point: Linksys WRT54G
  • TV Signal Amplifier: Some ancient old Radio Shack thing
  • DSL Signal Spliter / DSL Filter: Westel
  • Patch Panel: Trendnet 48 port Cat5e patch panel (TC-P48C5E)
  • DSL Modem: Alcatel Speedtouch Home
  • Firewall: Home built LINUX box running Debian


   



One of the great jokes during our rewiring project was that "There's a lot to be said for wireless networking". While we did feel strongly that we really did want a good solid wired network in the house we did finally decide that wireless had its place as well.

 

So oneday when there was a sale too good to pass up we picked up a Linksys WRT54G (for a whopping $25) from one of the local Future Shop's. We set it up with a hidden SSID and WPA2 encryption so as not to provide free internet for the entire neighbourhood. We actually tried using WEP for a short while when we were testing a WiFi VoIP phone and found that the Linksys would stop passing traffic after a few days. In WPA2 mode it worked fine though...

 

The WRT54G was (and still is) one of the most common access points out there. Being such it had lots of people hacking it and developing alternate firmware for it. We looked briefly at alternate firmware but since our version of the hardware (version 5) didn't easily support these alternate firmwares we decided against spending the many hours needed to update ours to use a 3rd party firmware.

 

The range on the WRT54G is quite acceptable for our purposes (3 story home with a basement - WAP in the basement). While at the top of the house sitting over top of the ductwork (metal + wireless = poor reception) the signal can be a little flaky. Otherwise though it seems to work well and deliver a reasonably strong and steady signal. The CISCO Aironet at our office does seem to work a bit better but at over $1000 you really can't complain about the Linksys. We also had a D-Link DWL-2100AP at work for a while and let's just say there is a reason we got the CISCO. The D-Link would roll over and play dead every once in a while. A good poke (and a power cycle) and it would come back to life for a few weeks. Eventually it ceased to come back and just lay there lights on but nobody home.

 

Recently with a few students making heavy use of our trusty old WRT54G we had some problems with it dying on us every week or two. Flashing the firmware to the latest version seems to have taken care of this issue though. All in all it has been great. Especially for $25.



   



When we first setup our home network we needed a firewall to do NAT for the network (to allow everyone to access the internet without having to pay our ISP more money). Back at the time NAT was still kind of new and was generally a pain to get working just right (but at least then hadn't come up with PPPoE yet). So in went the standard LINUX firewall that we had no idea how to setup or look after. Several times over the next year routine upgrades to the system broke things resulting in much spending of time standing in front of the filing cabinet in the storage room which had the firewall computer on top of it. Yep - the keyboard was about 5 feet off the ground. Can you say comfortable.

 

So then Microsoft come up with this concept of Internet Connection Sharing (ICS). Out goes the linux box. In goes a windows machine running ICS and everyone is happy for a couple of years. I know, I know, what were we thinking...

 

Well we finally came to our senses and ditched the Windows box and put back a LINUX box. This time though things had made some good progress in the LINUX world. No more ipchains, hello iptables. NAT was now much easier to setup and general system updates didn't tend to require a degree in linxology.

 

At this point we are still running LINUX (Debian) quite happily. It keeps the bad guys out and lets our growing hoard of machines on our home network speak to the rest of the world in a controlled manner. Still not the most comfortable of working environments but at least it doesn't break as often now. We are planning to turn this into a nice rack mount setup when we renovate the basement one day. But for now it does the trick and stays nice and cool.



   



Why Bother With Backups

One of the most often overlooked aspects on any computer based system has got to be having a robust backup solution. In most cases backups are only even thought of when something has already gone wrong. On the other hand some say that there is no point since they can't afford expensive tape systems or simply have too much data to make tapes a viable solution. Indeed there does seem to be a serious issue for the average consumer who has a growing collection of digital information in their home. Yet, with more and more of our day to day records, information and priceless memories going digital every minute can we really afford not to have some sort of reliable backup mechanism in place?

Solutions?

  • Tapes - They are slow (comparatively) and expensive.
  • CDs/DVDs (Optical discs) - Way too small these days. You can't even fit one trip's worth of photos and videos on a single DVD.
  • Secondary hard drive - Connected to your system a virus could wipe these out at the same time as the original
  • Flash drives - Gettting bigger but never as fast as the hard drives you are trying to backup
  • External hard drive - Not too bad but if you move it around a lot you may have issues with longevity
So what are we to do?

Coming up with a plan

With no obvious solution we decided to think outside the box. We started by analysing our data and our data usage habits.
  • In most cases we didn't tend to generate more than a Gigabyte of data at a given time and usually far less.
  • We had approximately enough data to fill somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of the largest hard drive available at any given time.
  • We tended to need access to old information about once a year.
  • Otherwise access to old information was generally a case of "Did I really just delete that?"
    In other words we normally just wanted access to yesterday's data not something from a month ago.
  • We wanted to keep snapshots of most of our data (about 30 percent of the total volume of data) on a monthly basis for one year.
  • We wanted to keep records of certain data for seven years (about 30 percent of the total volume of data).
So do a little number crunching (using a max hard drive size of 1 TB):
10% of 1 TB = 100 GB
30% of 100 GB = 30 GB
30 GB * 7 years = 210 GB
30 GB * 12 months = 360 GB

Add that all up and we get:
100 GB for instant online access to yesterday's data
210 GB for 7 yearly snapshots worth of archives
360 GB for 12 monthly snapshots worth of archives
= 670 GB

What about growth? Looking back over last last few years we've seen growth of about 10 percent per year on the overall figure.

The plan

So knowing that we currently need 670 GB of storage and factoring in the 10 percent growth we should be able to fit everything for this year and and following 4 years on a 1 TB hard drive. Ah, but didn't we say there are problems with using hard drives. Sure you can't really transport them regularly without risking data loss (raise your hand everyone who has had a laptop hard drive die in the loud noise sort of way). Right, so if we don't want to move the data off site manually how else can we ensure that we are getting off site backups? Well in our case we don't generate that much new data on a day to day basis. So we figured we could probably push just the new data over the internet every night. Setup a computer at two different sites (our home and our office) with a 1 TB hard drive in each and we are good to go for storage. Add to that some custom software we wrote to backup the contents of all of the machines on the local network (or at least everything we care about), bundle up that changes and sync them between the two servers in both directions over an encrypted tunnel and presto you have an instant backup solution. This gives us roughly the same data protection that you would expect from a good tape based strategy. However, the big difference is that our setup cost 2 x 1 TB hard drives (about $280 total right now) instead of several thousand for tapes and a drive. Not to mention that our setup does not required changing tapes or remembering to take them off site every night. We also get instant access to yesterday's data - No finding the right tape and waiting for it to seek.


   



Our network is really the hub that most of our technological toys hang off of. In order to allow yourself maximum flexibility as you add more devices to your home over time you need to spend some time planning out your network in advance. Take the time to get the basic design right and you won't need to get a toupée before your time. However, you don't want to go overboard. Look at what technologies are relatively stable, what's coming down the pipeline and what's gone the way of the dodo in the last decade or two. You don't want to be the guy who ran coax networking cables throughout his entire home only to have coax die off and be replaced by twisted pair a couple of years later.

 

Once you are past the basic infrastructure questions and design phase you get into looking at the network as a whole. Each piece has its own role to play but they will all interact to some degree. What you need to do is think about when, how and why they will interact. Don't limit yourself to conventional thinking either. We are seeing new ideas popping up every day. Ten years ago no one would have dreamed of having their washing machine call them to tell them that the laundry is done. Game consoles didn't talk to the internet. Phones were their own distinct network. Times are changing and the possibilities are virtually endless. If you ask us soon almost every electronic device will be networked in some form or other.



   



Any house is made up of a number of different components which provide the essential services for the house to function. In a given house you would expect to find:

  • Electrical service
  • Heating / Cooling systems
  • Water supply and waste management systems
Many homes often also have an alarm system to and in a few cases even access control systems. In a geek home you must of course add network infrastructure to this list.

Together these systems work to provide all of the services that you have come to expect in a modern home.

Home Maintenance

Figuring out what maintenance tasks you should be doing on an ongoing basis to look after your home can be a pain. One of the best technology-based solutions we've tripped across is the Home Manager program offered by Sears.

 

Manage My Home is a website with quite a lot of tips and "how-to" information related to home renovation. Their Q&A section is a bit Sears appliance heavy, but useful if your appliances are Kenmore brand or something that Sears sells. My favourite part is the maintenance plans from Home Manager. If you sign up, you can enter information about your house which tailors the tasks Home Manager suggests you should do. What we particularly like about the application is not just the fact that it reminds you when to deal with various tasks, but the email notification is well put together, explaining the logic behind the suggested maintenance as well as how to do it (pictures etc).



   



One of the key components of any technology aflicted home is a good solid power supply. Every piece of technology these days needs power and while we have been trying lately to minimize how much of it we use you really can't have too much of it available to you.

 

So... after moving into our new (to us) home in 2003 we completely rewired the house. This involved lots of destruction, sparks, fire and mess. Over the course of a summer we rewired the house. We started by deciding that a couple of really old fake candle light fixtures and some push button switches needed to go (Ah how little we understood at the time).

When the alarm system installer was putting in wiring for the alarm he casually mentioned "Hey you guys have knob and tube wiring. You should get that replaced." Right... With some recent news about how insurance companies were giving people a week to rewire their homes or have their insurance cut off. One of our parents neighbours homes burning to the ground due to an electrical fault. We decided to rewire.

When planning to do this it was pointed out to us that we should upgrade the electrical service from 100 amps to 200 amps while we are at it (you can see where this is leading). So we called hydro and they said "Sure no problem - but you'll need to move where the wires come into your house". The can of worms was officially open.

 

Several months of mess and lots of money later we had a new 200 amp 40/80 breaker panel, wonderful new wiring running throughout the house and more power running to the kitchen then there used to be for the entire house. Oh, and it really is just a coincidence that the blackout happened at exactly the same time we were getting the house ready to connect up the new panel. Honest.



   



We had an alarm system installed when we first moved in and we've been pretty happy with it. Having located a copy of the installer's manual (and noting the installer code through close observation at the time of install) we are able to make any changes we want without involving the security company.

 

The peril of alarm systems is that false alarms annoy the neighbours and can result in a bill (yech). In five years we've had only a couple of false alarms; a loosely installed contact in the basement window, an oversensitive motion sensor and premature failure of one of our smoke detectors. Only one of these resulted in a bill. Our monitoring service includes free replacement of defective hardware, so we were able to get the smoke detector replaced without too much hassle. The bonus? We discovered that we have pretty awesome firetruck response in our area - the trucks arrived before we were even able to finish letting the alarm company know that there did not appear to be smoke or a fire.

 

Since we have a lot of people come and go in our house, having the alarm system is pretty handy. We can figure out who was home at what time, as the system keeps track and emails a report. We're even contemplated having the alarm update our phone system to redirect phone calls from home to cellphone when we leave and from cellphone to home when we come back.

 

When planning the system we tried to look forward towards our goals long term. Instead of limiting ourselves we spent a little extra cash and installed keypads all over the place. One by each door and one upstairs as well. We made sure that system had lots of room for expansion and have been adding to it steadily over the years. We also made sure that we could tie it back into the rest of our systems by having it network enabled.



   



Any house is made up of a number of different components which provide the essential services for the house to function. In a given house you would expect to find:

  • Electrical service
  • Heating / Cooling systems
  • Water supply and waste management systems
Many homes often also have an alarm system to and in a few cases even access control systems. In a geek home you must of course add network infrastructure to this list.

Together these systems work to provide all of the services that you have come to expect in a modern home.

Home Maintenance

Figuring out what maintenance tasks you should be doing on an ongoing basis to look after your home can be a pain. One of the best technology-based solutions we've tripped across is the Home Manager program offered by Sears.

 

Manage My Home is a website with quite a lot of tips and "how-to" information related to home renovation. Their Q&A section is a bit Sears appliance heavy, but useful if your appliances are Kenmore brand or something that Sears sells. My favourite part is the maintenance plans from Home Manager. If you sign up, you can enter information about your house which tailors the tasks Home Manager suggests you should do. What we particularly like about the application is not just the fact that it reminds you when to deal with various tasks, but the email notification is well put together, explaining the logic behind the suggested maintenance as well as how to do it (pictures etc).



   

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