Steak stones

hot stones in cupboardFuelled by recent bloggery and yesterday evening’s delicious steaks, I want to tell you all about my steak stones. I was first introduced to the concept of cooking my own steak at the dining table by a visit to the Pistenklause on my first trip to the Nürburgring.

Essentially you get served chips, sauces and general sides as usual, and your steak arrives raw on a sodding hot stone. That way you get to cut it up and cook it on the stone, exactly as you like it. Not only does this add an extra slice of fun to mealtime, from the restaurant’s point of view it also means customers can’t complain their steak has been cooked incorrectly!

hot stone baseNow I like steak. Indeed I like having people over for dinner. Yet I fear I’ll cook their steaks incorrectly. So I’ve managed to acquire a set of six hot stones so we can play this fun game at home!

My stones came from Black rock home grill via eBay. Bizarrely that site doesn’t carry the stones I bought at the moment, but an eBay search for ‘hot stone steak’ does. Be warned: they weren’t cheap at over £200 for six, but they do indeed do the job.

hot stoneOperationally I do struggle to get the stones hot enough. While my (non fan assisted) gas oven will do it on full power if the stones are left on the top shelf for at least an hour, I face a couple of issues.

First, I can only fit four stones on the top shelf. So if there are more than four of us eating, some stones aren’t as hot as others. Second, steak should in my view always be accompanied by chips, and the cooking dynamics of my oven seem to change dramatically when there’s a pile of granite on the top shelf.

Exotic meats on hot stones All this said, once I’ve got organised enough to cook a big pile of oven chips and produce some stinking hot stones, this set really does provide a top-notch home dining experience. To add further to the experience, I ordered a bunch of exotic meats from Kezie Foods. That was a fun and tasty evening!

Getting back into sound and light

The last six months or so have seen me getting back into sound system and light show engineering. I emerged from school as a bit of a DJ with the requisite tools and a basic sound system, and while my primary profession turned out to be software engineering, I continued to grow my sound system and complemented it with a bit of lighting.

Neil, Ben, and 8 M2 boxesAt its peak, in around 2003, the sound system looked a little bit like this. I was also much thinner, as you can see. I actually built another couple of these bass bins for the more demanding drum and bass events we did. It was a nice little system. Around half that lot stacked up smartly enough for corporate functions, and the whole lot made a reasonable impression on Guildford’s old Civic Hall.

In the ten years since much has changed. In 2006 I sold all those speakers, my amplifiers and my lights. I put the money towards kicking off the E30 M3 project which established readers will know all about.

This rise and fall of interest coincided with that of a good friend of mine. Jon Evelegh, a school friend at first, had built up a rather larger sound system, and sold it as his primary interest turned out to be marine towage. So after his departure from the scene in 2002, and my complete sell-out in 2006, my world became a much quieter place. Recently however, that situation has been completely reversed.

In 2010 Jon re-acquired his system. Having overhauled it completely, and greatly increased its size, he’s ready for business. His system is custom built, unique, and devastatingly good in a way that’s very hard to quantify. On the date of this article, Jon’s RC1 Sound System has 1,132 Facebook likes. That’s an awful lot of people, many of whom are big name DJs, who follow his movements and just want to know more.

Last May, Jon asked me to come along to a gig he was doing down in Bournemouth. He was putting a 16 box system in a nightclub called The Old Firestation for a night called Dub Optic.

It was at this point I realised how much he had moved the game on. For a start, when I had a 10 box M2 system, Jon had a 12 box RC1 system. The RC1s were already considerably louder and generally more capable. Yet here he was wandering around with a 16 box system. Here’s a picture of me in front of a stack.

Neil in front of 8 box RC1 stack

Bass at head height! The sound was incredible. Not just powerful, but so musical and such high quality. I left that night knowing I’d just got the bug again.

Which brings us in a long, rambling way back to the present. I’m very excited by sound and light engineering again. I’ve built up another small sound system and a much larger light and laser show designed to accompany the RC1s on their journey to stardom. I’ll blog about my light and sound separately. I’ll probably blog more about RC1 in the future too come to think about it!

I’ll sign off though with a picture of Jon atop one of his 13 box speaker stacks at the London O2’s IndigO2 bar just before Christmas. That was quite the gig!

Jon on a 13 box RC1 stack

Solar PV installation – second review

Elsdon PV

In August 2011 I had a 3.9kW solar PV installation popped on the house roof. I was fortunate enough to get that in before the government reduced the Feed in Tariff (FiT) payout from its initial £0.43 per kW hour generated. That said, PV installation costs soon dropped along with the FiT, so by today’s standards I did pay over the odds for the installation.

I now have both a full year’s worth of data, from August 24th 2011 to August 23rd 2012, and a full calendar year of data for 2012.

Full year data

In the first 365 days of service my PV array generated 3,690kWh of electricity. That’s a significant contribution! Financially, with inflation and export top-up, it amounted to just shy of a £1,700 payout, or more than an eighth of the installation fee. I’m pretty pleased with that – I’ll have paid this off before I turn 40!

2013 review

The graph below shows house consumption in blue bars, and generated power as the green line.

2012 solar PV

The trends are pretty much as I’d expect. We consume a lot more power in the winter. I think December is higher than January and February mainly because I was around the house more, and doing quite a bit of work in the garage which required heating. The major step down in the spring and up in the autumn mark the points at which the storage heaters are switched off and on. We naturally generate a lot more power in the summer.

I’m sad to note that we don’t produce as much power as we consume even in the summer months. I’m certain this is because our hot water is stored in an immersion heater which is charged at night. This year I will investigate solar thermal water heating, although with such a massive PV array already in place, locating it may be quite a challenge!

Subaru Impreza Wagon Bass Enclosure

Wow it has been a long time since I’ve blogged! An email out of the blue has reminded me that I’ve done a bunch of work on the Impreza since I got it, and what better place to start than to cover the audio situation. I’m not looking for any car show worthy mega-bass, but I am of the opinion that the standard audio system leaves a lot to be desired at the lower end of the audio spectrum. Without fail I’ve been able to do a reasonable job of improving matters by adding a bass enclosure and reducing the low frequency burden on the standard speakers, so I chose to pursue that avenue again.

I started one sunny day in late March. Having owned BMWs for a decade my first hurdle was rather novel; the battery was in the engine bay! BMW tend to pop the battery in the boot for weight distribution purposes, so I haven’t needed to breach a bulkhead for a very long time. After much rummaging around in the passenger footwell having removed the fan assembly I found a boot to feed the power cable through and sealed that all up nicely.

Next I ran that power cable and the ‘stereo is on’ signal from the head unit to the boot.

Eventually I ended up in a position to test I could power and switch an amplifier in the boot.

That took a day – a considerable amount of faff breaching the bulkhead took the majority of this time. For my next trick I measured up, ordered a 12″ driver, and cut a sheet of 12mm thick MDF to size.

Looks pretty awful until it’s painted.

After some research I managed to find a 12″ driver with a relatively low mounting depth in Halfords of all places.

Guess what? It fitted a treat – “Slick” indeed! So I mounted it and the amplifier to the board.

The final product looks nice and smart, and of course is totally hidden when the upper boot floor is in place.

At first I wasn’t so excited by the result until I realised I’d got the polarity wrong. Once I’d corrected the phase it was obvious we were in business! A great, rounded sound, and no compromise at all on boot space and functionality. Result! :)

 

 

Wyedean rally 2012

Yesterday I made my annual trip to the Welsh border to see Alex and spectate at the Wyedean rally. I think this is the sixth consecutive year we’ve been, and the first time I’ve not taken a BMW.

I took the Impreza, and as you can see, we had another snowy event. I must now wax lyrical about that car’s practicality. We arrived in the snowy car park to find it full, so we simply made the car park bigger by parking on a frozen, muddy bit of bog-land on the edge. When we needed to leave I popped the car in reverse and it happily chomped back onto the then ice-rink-like car park, and we naffed off, leaving others in two wheel drive vehicles spinning their wheels and generally rueing the day they failed to acknowledge the glory of proper all wheel drive, no matter how unsubtle it may appear.

So, back to the rally. With well over 200 cars running at (we guess) 60 second intervals we figured two special stages should be about right for the day. We chose to spectate on Serridge 1 & 2, basically because we’re a bit lazy like that. As ever, we hunted down corners that were most likely to provoke mistakes. As it turned out we can’t have done such a good job as previous years, as we didn’t so much as need to push anyone, but we certainly saw some action.

Now here’s another testament to four wheel drive and good tyre choice. After a 360° spin, this Evo rolls backwards off the track. Both rear wheels are suspended over that ditch; the front wheels are on sheet ice. Did it need pushing? No. They just boiled it up, and the Evo dragged itself forward on its belly panels to the point where the rear wheels could get a good purchase on the edge of the ditch, whereupon it leapt out, ripped up the ice and shot off back on track.

Even so, my real heroes are of course those who manage all this, quickly, with just rear wheel drive. Legends, one and all.

In the afternoon we carefully located a really slippery 90° corner. It didn’t disappoint!

I’m annoyed that – yet again – I took too many stills and not enough video. The juniors and classics run though the course first, but then the open competition come through. The top seeds – cars potentially worth hundreds of thousands of pounds – come storming through the forest like monsters. It starts with popping and cracking exhausts in the distance, escalating rapidly to a full roar accompanied by dump valves hissing, straight-cut gears whining, tyres scrabbling, hot brakes, flaming exhausts and general rage. Car 21, a Lancer Evo IX, sounded absolutely terrifying and only after it had passed it occurred to me to take some video. Sadly by then the real animals had been and gone, but hopefully this selection gives a good idea of the atmosphere.

Here’s a wonderful bit of RWD from a MkII Escort. Note I’m silent during filming, but one of the other spectators was clearly getting a bit nervous!

And now an Impreza turbo demonstrating superior traction up the hill, but perhaps a little too much pace into the corner.

An Impreza digging itself out of a small ditch:

And finally, taken from slightly further round the corner, a general demonstration of the ice-rink conditions competitors had to handle:

Overall a very interesting (and cold!) day out. 45 miles of special stage in the forest on mud, snow and ice. I was fascinated to learn that while the winner was a WRC Focus, and second place went to a Lancer Evo, third place was awarded to a 1.4l Vauxhall Nova, proving that the conditions really were a playing field leveller.

All my stills from the day can be found here – note that’s a 40MB page though. ;)

2007 Subaru Impreza GB270 Wagon

Back in July, with the impending arrival of my daughter, I sold the M5. It really wasn’t getting used much (less than 4,000 miles a year), and without isofix points for child seats or room for Snoop that situation was unlikely to improve. The plan was to cut down to a single car – the 330d does every we need, after all.

Except it doesn’t. It has two major failings.

First of all, it can’t be used in two different places at once. This limits our progress through various chores at weekends, and means that if one of us goes out in the car, the other is marooned at the house. Also, were it to break down, we would be well and truly stuffed.

The other problem I’ve got with the 330d is that, capable as it is, it’s a bit dull. I really like cars, and I like them to be interesting – a bit special. There’s nothing special about the 330d in the way that my previous 5 ‘M’ cars had a certain following and inherent entertainment value.

So a second car was required, and it had to be capable of both entertaining me and carting the family around. E61 M5s were out of budget, and I just couldn’t get excited about an Audi. I’ve had an itch for an Impreza for about a decade, and when I found out about the run of just 100 limited edition GB270 wagons produced in 2007, I got more than a bit interested, and bought one. I’m its third owner, and it arrived with just 29,500 miles on the clock.

Yeah, so it’s a bit brash. Twin spoilers and a massive zorst on display there. The GB270 has the Prodrive Performance Pack giving it 270PS and 420Nm, along with different suspension and a bunch more bling. The power figure isn’t particularly impressive when stacked up against the M5’s 400hp, but at only 1,425kg and with four wheel drive this is faster to 60mph in just 4.9s.

From the side the lack of subtlety in the colour scheme becomes apparent, as does the frankly ridiculous bonnet scoop.

Inside it is all a bit flimsy compared with a BMW, but it is all so light. The bucket seats don’t offer much adjustment but are certainly very comfortable and supportive. The car came with a standard CD and cassette (yes, cassette, in a 2007 car…) head unit. Fortunately Ben Smith still had his touch-screen head unit from his 2004 Impreza, so today he kindly both donated and fitted it. Thanks Ben!

This car is an absolute hoot to drive. It makes a fantastic sound, delivers power in such a playful yet competent way, and grips and grips and grips. It won’t oversteer, which in many ways is probably for the best! It’s certainly a welcome addition to the driveway.

iPad ownership

When Apple’s iPad was first launched I was openly skeptical about it. What was the point of this device? It wasn’t as mobile as my phone, or as powerful as my trusty laptop. A satirical video spoof of a man out jogging with an iPad strapped to his arm, and of course all the gaffes about the name better representing a sanitary towel amused me greatly.

A colleague (and long established Apple fan) was quick to snap one up, so it wasn’t long before I got to see an iPad in the flesh. Then, still, I mocked the device, and (carefully!) used it as a iBeerMat.

However, last Christmas I was fortunate enough to be gifted an original 32GB wireless iPad. Given my previous iPhone experience it didn’t take me long to get everything set up. After an initial period of fascination with what is certainly a very interesting gadget, its real benefits started to show.

A year on, this device (yes, this post has been written on my iPad) is used far more than the workstation, laptop or my mobile while I’m in the house. It doesn’t do any single thing well enough to warrant its price tag, but it does so many things that I’d now swiftly replace it if it ever broke.

On that topic, the screen is (understandably) fragile. I managed to crack mine during a spectacularly malcoordinated mishap. Fortunately I sourced a replacement screen kit for around £40 (thanks, eBay!) and while the outer edges of the device show the signs of my rudimentary intrusion, it’s all working okay.

Use cases

The various catch up TV apps mean I can watch television no matter where I am in the house, from the bedroom to the bathroom and of course the kitchen. On the subject of the kitchen, the web browser there is incredibly useful for recipes, and while the iPad is mounted on the wall the touch screen means the talented among us can even navigate the web with our noses while our hands are covered in sticky ingredients.

An iPad is substantially easier to take on holiday than a laptop, and is just as good if like me your only needs are to stay on top of email and social media while you’re away. Oh, and for taking your own films to watch (try CineXPlayer) on the plane or in the hotel room.

I’ve used the notepad feature a great deal, while studying or taking measurements etc. When our daughter came along, the iPad became an essential part of the baby feeding kit during the early days when it was important to note down all her intake – we still know the details of every feed she had during her first month at home!

While watching TV I’m often distracted by questions such as “what other film have I seen this guy in?” or “surely that’s not factually correct!” – well, the IMDB and Wikipanion apps come straight to the rescue there. Sure, I could look this up on the phone or the laptop, but (and I can’t believe I’m saying this now) the laptop is too big and slow to get going, and the mobile does have a rather poky screen.

The battery life is good too – the iPad craps all over both the iPhone and my laptop in that department.

I use the reminders application a lot to keep on top of my domestic to-do list. If I think of something while I’m out and about I can add the task from my phone and it’ll be waiting for me on the iPad when I’ve got time to crack on with things.

It’s also my home device of choice for staying up to date with Twitter and Facebook, although the lack of synchronisation between Twitter apps gets quite tedious (ooh I’ve got a new mention; oh no, I saw that hours ago on my phone). Some web sites are better to read on their free iPad app than the original web version due to fewer adverts – Mashable is a good example here.

Finally (for now!), it’s a great portable radio which I use a lot for radio 4 and cricket commentary.

 

Overall then, I can’t believe what a fan-boy I’ve become. The iPad is a great device. There, I said it.

Solar panel update – shortest day review

On this, the shortest day of 2011, I mark a third of a year since my solar panel installation. Solar PV has been in the news in the meantime because the government made a fairly dramatic U-turn on the FiT (Feed in Tariff) on the 31st October, announcing that only systems registered before the 12th December would get the then established rates of payback for the full 25 year period; all systems registered after that date would see the FiT almost halved depending on the size of the installation. Just yesterday the Friends of the Earth and a couple of installation companies managed to obtain a high court ruling that this change was unlawful as the government hadn’t finished their consultation on the matter, so we shall see where this goes!

The government claimed that the FiT scheme had been so successful that it had brought down the cost of installations to the point where they are far too profitable. They wanted payback to take about 16 years, but reckoned some systems would payback in only 8 years. Fortunately for me, my solar system has been registered well within the approved period, so unless the government breaks their existing agreement, I’m tied in to the more favourable rate of payback for the next 25 years. Time will tell as to how long it’ll take to reach payback!

Consumption

My wonderful Wattson energy monitoring system has been measuring both our consumption and generation since the PV system was installed. In the graph below, it should be noted that the values for August and December are not complete, as the system was brought online late on the 23rd August, and the last measurement was uploaded yesterday morning.

The blue bars are our consumption, and the green line is our solar PV generation. I’m pleased to note that in the final week of August, we very nearly generated enough power to meet our needs – hopefully that’ll be the case in from May to August.

Our consumption has increased month on month due to the fact that a part of the house (a north facing extension) is heated by electric storage heaters, so as winter has drawn in it has been necessary for us to put a lot of energy in to keep us warm. The remainder of the house is heated by gas fired central heating, which isn’t included in our consumption here, but we need to use that surprisingly little – my theory here is that a combination of a heated northern edge and the heat from kitchen appliances goes a long way to maintaining a comfortable temperature.

Another key change in our consumption has been caused by the arrival of our daughter in mid-October. Suddenly we need to run bottle warmers, sterilisers, and electric heaters on cold nights. Also we bath her nearly every night, and as our water is heated overnight we generally need to run the booster immersion heater for 15 minutes or so every evening – something we rarely used to do.

On the other hand, when compared with the same period last year, our consumption is well down. This is partly due to a milder winter so far (we had snow twice by this time last year!), and also due to the solar generation offsetting our consumption. These two factors are reasonably easy to separate as our night readings are down 40% (milder winter) and our day readings are down 54% (due to solar PV assistance), causing an immediate saving in outgoing bills before the generation payouts listed below are taken into account.

Generation

Generation has faded as I’d expect as we slipped into winter. Given an even spread of cloud throughout the year I’d expect the green line to be roughly sinusoidal, with a peak in June and a trough in December.

On the 23rd November I submitted my first quarterly generation reading: 817kWh. There’s an agreed 3.1ppkWh export payout, plus the 43.5ppkWh FiT. The trouble is there’s no export meter – when we are generating more than we are consuming my consumption meter simply stops, so there’s an assumption that we use half and export half of what we generate. I’m therefore paid (3.1/2)+43.5=45.05ppkWh, so was pleased to receive my first cheque for £366.42 this month.

If every quarter gave an identical yield (which of course they won’t), I’d achieve payback in a little over 8 years. Nice. Perhaps though things are even more optimistic: the majority of that quarter was actually winter-side of equinox, so it should be below average. Time will tell – perhaps the government were right to make a hasty change after all, although I am inclined to suggest that 6 weeks notice wasn’t at all reasonable on both prospective consumers and those businesses that had cropped up around this industry.

Winter tyres on the BMW e46 330d at last

Some 15 months ago I embarked on a project to have a set of winter wheels and tyres for the 330d. Naturally I didn’t get around to it for last winter, so we had lots of snow. This year however, I am ready! So this week as temperatures seem to have dropped below the magic 7°C mark, I’ve taken the 18″ MV2s off for the winter.

Getting the rear wheels off the 330d was a real bitch, a combination of the cold and a lack of copper grease ensured this job took me hours. The new tyres are 225/45 R17  Pirelli Sottozero Series 2s which I mail  ordered from Oponeo. Below the difference in tread style is obvious when compared to one of the 255/35 R18 summer tyres (Falkens).

The tread blocks are much bigger and further apart, which should make them far less liable to clog up with snow. Also the rubber is slightly different – far softer at lower temperatures.

So the car doesn’t look quite as purposeful on these smaller wheels, although the brakes really do look like they’re bulging out of the wheels now! The ride quality has certainly improved thanks to the higher profile tyres, but then the 18s demand such skinny tyres that even the M5 rode better.

I can’t be too critical of the performance just yet as the tyres haven’t had a chance to bed in, but so far things feel pretty good. There’s slightly less stability when I grab the car by the scruff of the neck, but any misbehaviour is entirely controllable as breakaway is less sudden that on the 18s. When out and about in the wet in near freezing conditions, the car is certainly at least as capable as on the 18s. Due to the camber matters have always noticeably improved as tyres bed in on the 330d, so I’m hopeful for some serious winter performance. I’ll report back when I’ve got some mud, snow and ice experience!

e46 window regulator replacement

Recently I made the mistake of lowering a rear window while a window blind was stuck to it. The suction cup disappeared down into the door, so I went to raise the window, at which point it all went horribly wrong! There was a sound like breaking glass, and the window got stuck. Fortunately it transpired that no glass was broken, but the window regulator was, and that needed replacing. So the most obvious question is, what the hell is a window regulator?

So in the above photo, the top item is a replacement window regulator, and the lower item is the broken one I removed. There’s a steel cable that’s wrapped around the central drum, and that had burst off the drum, and the noise I’d heard was it flipping around the drum and hitting the window glass.

Replacing the item isn’t especially hard. I found a good guide here: http://www.bmwgm5.com/Rear_Window_Regulator.htm

The part is BMW B51.35.8.212.099 which currently retails at £75.84 ex VAT.

 

 

 

 

 

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