Breathing new life into a Thomson Sky+ HD box

We’ve had a Sky+ HD box for the last 4 years and it has served us well until about a year ago when we started to notice intermittent problems such as not being able to receive certain channels at times, occasional failed recordings and picture break up. This progressively got worse to the point where we could only receive a handful of HD channels and recordings would fail regularly.

After a bit of Google research it became apparent that a major cause of problems with these Thomson DSI8125 Sky+ HD boxes is a failure of the on-board PSU. The numerous capacitors used on the PSU were not of a particularly good quality and are prone to failing over time.

(It’s worth pointing out that I upgraded the stock 320GB hard drive to a new 1TB drive about 2 years ago but from what I’ve read I don’t think this contributed to the problem at all)

Luckily there are repair kits available which allow you to replace the failed capacitors with new, high quality replacements. One supplier of these kits which I’d read good reports about is Satcure. So, I ordered a component kit from them for the very reasonable price of £10.95, found a local electrical repairer to do the upgrade for £20 and we now have a fully functioning and rock solid Sky+ HD box again.

Announcing a new arrival… I now have a Raspberry Pi

After following the development of the Raspberry Pi single board computer for several months, I was lucky enough to be one of the first to be able to place an order for one of the original batch of 10,000 when they were launched in February…

…And mine arrived in the post today!

All I’ve had chance to do so far is install the initial Debian Squeeze distribution on a spare SD card and boot it up connected to my 50″ plasma screen with a keyboard, mouse and Ethernet cable attached. It worked flawlessly and booted in about 10 seconds.

Once I’ve had time to have a play with it some more I’ll post again with an update. But for now, all I wanted to say was I’VE GOT ONE OF THE FIRST RASPBERRY PIS!!!

R.I.P. Nifta The Cat 1992-2012

Nifta The Cat

Today is a sad day. Our amazing 19 year old cat, Nifta, passed away.

He’d been ill for a short time after making a miraculous recovery from a major stroke just over a year ago. We thought we’d lost him back then so he’s done well to keep going for so long.

He brought so much happiness, enjoyment and love to our family over the last 19 years so he will be greatly missed.

I’m just thankful I was there at the end. He died in my arms – I felt his last breath and heartbeat.

Goodbye Nifta. Rest in peace.

Our best solar PV generation day so far

It’s been a glorious early Spring day today with continuous sunshine from dawn til dusk, and as a result it’s also been our highest solar PV generation day since the system was installed just over a month ago. You can see this from the chart produced by my automated data gathering and chart generation tool running on my Linux server:

As you can see we generated a total of 20.81 kWh of electricity throughout the day, peaking at an output of 3.17 kW at around 1:30pm. With the feed-in tariff (FiT) rate now confirmed as 43.3p/kWh for our installation and a deemed export rate of 50% of generation at 3.1p/kWh, this makes a total daily income of £9.27. That doesn’t include any savings on electricity that we were able to use ourself during that period instead of having to import it from the grid.

Although it’s still early days for our system and we are only just into Spring, things are looking promising for meeting or exceeding the estimated output for the system over the next year.

Operation Nürburgring Nordschleife – Achievement Unlocked!

I’ve just got back from a 3 day trip to the famous Nürburgring Nordschleife motor racing circuit in Germany with my good friend and neighbour Rich Hayden and some new found friends, Rich Bromley, Andy Montgomery, Nathan Bower and Andy McWilliams. And what a trip it was!

I’ve always fancied a trip out there so when Rich H asked me if I wanted to go for a long weekend and a bit of Nordschleife (German for “Northern Loop” apparently) action, notionally to celebrate his birthday, I jumped at the chance. I knew I’d enjoy it but I didn’t expect to enjoy it anywhere near as much as I actually did. I put this down to several things…

Primarily, just the whole atmosphere of the place and the whole experience of staying very close the circuit (in the Hotel an der Nordschleife, very close to the Adenau bridge), and being able to walk part of the circuit. If I’d known how easy it was to get onto the track I’d definitely have packed my can of spray paint so I could add my name next to the thousands of others on the tarmac.

Secondly, the great company I was in had a big influence on the whole atmosphere. The fact that 3 of the other guys had two Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale’s and a 360 Spider between them helped too! The drive down there through France, Belgium and Germany, and then back through Germany, Holland (via Antwerp airport), Belgium and France was like one long Top Gear road trip. Awesome.

Track time

On the second day there, we hired some race cars from the excellent rental company Rent Race Car. Rich H and I hired a Renault Sport Clio Cup (201 HP) and the other guys hired two Suzuki Sport Swifts (130 HP) between them. Now these sound quite tame but they were perfect for our first few laps of The Ring – I’m glad we didn’t get anything bigger.

We each had 6 laps of the circuit in the race cars spread out over the whole day and were also lucky enough to experience changing weather throughout the day, from dry overcast conditions in the morning, through a damp circuit early afternoon and finally pelting rain late afternoon. We also managed to get in a couple of steady laps in the Ferraris.

We saw a fair few accidents while we were on the circuit, thankfully none involving us – although Nathan managed to spin his 360 Spider at one point and collected some souvenir Ring mud around his wheel arches. Andy McW was the passenger alongside Nathan at the time and I think it’s fair to say he experienced a bit of “soiling” himself too, if you catch my drift 😉

Here are a couple of videos shot by Andy M which are up on YouTube. They were shot from one of the Suzuki Swifts – I’m driving the Clio in front in the first clip 🙂 (apologies for any fruity language – I have no control over that!)

A few words about GT5 on the PS3…

I’ve got to say that having done a lot of laps of the Nordschleife on the PS3 version of Gran Turismo 5 I had a decent recollection of the circuit, although not quite enough confidence on the first few laps for every single corner, particularly the blind ones, to be able to not back off the throttle and carry the speed through the corner.

People had told me not to place too much importance on having done laps on GT5 but I feel I definitely benefited from it. The most notable thing you lack on a virtual version of the Ring is the sheer scale of changes in height around the circuit, steep inclines and cambers and changes in road surface. After experiencing it for real, however, I did have to jump on GT5 as soon as I got home to compare… and at times I was actually back on the real circuit rather than in a console simulation 🙂

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, mug and car Ring sticker…

How could I have experienced The Ring without maxing out on merchandise!

For more photos check out my Flickr photostream:

Automated solar PV stats

Following on from previous posts about our new solar PV installation, I have now implemented an automated process which pulls stats from the SMA SunnyBoy 4000TL bluetooth-enabled inverter, stores the stats in a MySQL database and then makes a daily chart available showing solar PV generation, looking something like this:

In a little bit more detail…

  • Everything is hosted on my Debian Linux server.
  • I use the excellent open source sma-bluetooth package ( and the bluez-tools package to connect to my inverter via bluetooth. The smatool program within this package stores the data it downloads in a simple MySQL database.
  • I have a cron job which runs this data extraction every 5 minutes.
  • I then wrote a simple PHP script which uses the excellent pChart 2 library ( to generate a daily output chart which is hosted on my personal web server.

So, I can now keep track of how much electricity I am generating wherever I happen to be!

Solar PV update

Our solar PV array has been installed for a few days now so I thought I’d post an update with a few more details now that we’ve had some time to get to know it.

The PV panel array itself isn’t actually as large as I had originally imagined. It consists of 20 x LINUO 195Wp panels mounted onto Schüco Lite rails, but they are slightly smaller than some other panels and so don’t take up as much space. Here are pictures of the roof before…

and after…

I’m very pleased that we were able to install the internal components – inverter, generation meter and isolator switches – in the service cupboard next to our secondary electrical distribution board and heat pump / cylinder as it makes for a tidy and hidden installation.

In the pictures below you can see the inverter (the big red and black box) with the two DC rotary isolator switches below it to the left, and then the AC rotary isolator and generation meter below it to the right.

The inverter that we have is an SMA SunnyBoy 4000TL-20 and this features a bluetooth link as standard allowing various performance stats and configuration to be accessed remotely. I’ve downloaded the free Sunny Explorer software from the SMA web site and monitored performance over the last few days. Here’s the generation graph from yesterday so you can see it’s peaking around 3kW output – I don’t think that’s too bad for a late Winter’s day. It’s also quite addictive (I guess until the novelty wears off!) monitoring the performance throughout the day, praying for the sun to come out!

While the Sunny Explorer software is useful and easy to use, I am very keen on writing my own tools to extract this information from the inverter so that I can do more with the data in a more automated way. I’ve already started playing with some open source Java libraries for interfacing with SMA inverters via bluetooth so hopefully I’ll have something up and running soon. At some point I’d also like to look into an interface into our IVT Greenline HT+ heat pump so I can do a similar thing with that.

We now have solar PV

In the space of 6 months we’ve gone from having nothing to do with renewable energy to now having a ground source heat pump providing hot water and heating for our house, and as of today a solar photovoltaic (PV) array generating electricity for our consumption and export of any surplus back to the grid.

Our solar PV installation consists of an array of 20 LINUO 195W (peak) monocrystalline silicon panels arranged in landscape orientation on our 30° pitch South facing roof feeding back into an SMA SunnyBoy 4000TL inverter. It is rated at 3.9kWh peak and has an estimated annual output of 3,560kWh.

The supply and installation was carried out very efficiently and professionally by Greenday Renewables based at Fort Dunlop, Birmingham. Thanks to them for managing to get the installation completed before the 3rd March cut-off for reduced Feed in Tariff rates.

Within a few minutes of the installation being completed and the inverter powered up, it was generating electricity at a peak of 2.5kWh! Almost exactly on cue, after a day and half of dark skies, wind and rain, the sun came out and shone brightly 🙂