Adding CarPlay to your car without installing a new stereo system

A photo of the free-standing Carplay unit in my car

I’m someone who always has my phone doing something passively in my car whilst driving – whether it’s listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks, or giving me directions in Google Maps. Until now, I’ve just had my phone sat in a cradle with a built-in Qi wireless charger, because my car stereo doesn’t support CarPlay.

And then I found out, via Matt Haughey, that it’s possible to buy an additional screen for your car that just offers CarPlay, or its equivalent Android Auto. So I followed suit.

The three ways to CarPlay

As Matt points out, there are now three ways that you can have CarPlay in your car:

  1. It’s already built in. If you have a relatively new car, then the built-in stereo system will support it natively, either through a USB connection or wirelessly.
  2. If not, you can replace the existing stereo system with an after-market, or third-party system which supports CarPlay.
  3. Or, do what I’ve done – keep your existing stereo system as-is, but add a free-standing unit that connects to your car.

The reason why I’ve gone for the third option is that neither of the others are available to me. I drive an original Peugeot 3008, which I bought second-hand in 2019. Whilst it’s one of the higher-spec Allure models with cruise-control, climate control and a head’s up display, whoever bought it new decided to have the most basic in-car stereo system on offer.

No really, it literally just has a radio, CD player, auxiliary audio connection and a USB port that supports iPods. It doesn’t even have Bluetooth.

When I first bought the car, I did investigate the second option, of having the stereo system replaced with a Sony after-market system that supported CarPlay. However, I was advised by an installer that this would cause issues. This was backed up by various horror stories that I found online.

Annoying, many cars that were sold between around 2010-2016 put various car configuration options into the stereo menus. So, if you removed the stereo, it meant that you couldn’t amend settings for your headlights for example. I have seen some videos where independent garages have managed to get a working CarPlay system built in to a car like mine, but considering that the after-market units are usually around £300 plus additional parts and labour, it’s an expensive option.

Free-standing

So, to the third option. Periodically, I’ve tried looking for something very similar as I though it would be an obvious thing to make and sell, but never managed to find anything. So when Matt’s blog post popped up, I went straight to Amazon to find something similar. Indeed, it looks like most of these units have been on the market less than 6 months.

Matt bought his because he’s bought a new Rivian electric SUV. As Jeff Bezos was an investor in Rivian, it doesn’t support CarPlay or Android Auto. Instead, has its own touchscreen interface incorporating Amazon’s Alexa. And that’s probably okay if you just want to play music, but you don’t get access to the various apps on your phone – especially podcast and audiobook apps, or Google Maps. Sure, pretty much every car nowadays has a built-in SatNav, but Google Maps also has live traffic data and live re-planning of routes whilst driving, in case a quicker route becomes available. I understand that Tesla cars also don’t support Android Auto or CarPlay, although you’ll never catch me driving a Tesla for as long as Elon Musk is associated with the company.

Eyetoo 7″ CarPlay screen

The unit I bought was this Eyetoo 7″ model from Amazon (affiliate link). It’s a more basic model, which just supports CarPlay and Android Auto without offering much of its own interface. As well as the unit with the screen, you get:

  • a very long USB-C cable that has a 12 V cigarette lighter plug on the other end. Seriously, it’s about two metres long.
  • an auxiliary cable to plug into your stereo.

It can also broadcast on an FM frequency that you can tune your car radio to, if you want fewer wires.

There are several other models, all by different Chinese manufacturers that I’ve previously never heard of. Some of these have some additional features:

  • Built-in dashcam
  • Connection for a rear parking camera
  • MicroSD card port and media player software on the device
  • USB port for connection a phone directly

Whilst a reversing camera would be useful, it would probably need to be professionally installed. In any case, my car does at least have reverse parking sensors so I didn’t bother.

The unit comes with both a suction cup for attaching to a windscreen, and a stand with sticky pads for attaching to the dashboard. As you can see in the above photo, I went for the latter. This leaves a tripod screw on top, which you could also use to attach a dashcam, I suppose. The stand is pretty sturdy and holds it up well – it doesn’t wobble around at all. That being said, it does mean that it’s not easy to remove if you want to use it in another vehicle.

It starts up as soon as there’s power to the 12 V socket – i.e. when you turn the engine on – and takes a few seconds to boot up. Connection to CarPlay is wireless, which is good as this model doesn’t have a USB port for a wired connection to your phone. It takes a further few seconds for CarPlay to open, but it does open automatically and will even start playing your music for you.

The screen is fine – it doesn’t have automatically adaptive brightness and it’s not very high resolution, but more expensive models look like they offer this if that’s important to you. But on the whole, I’m really happy with it – it’s great to finally have CarPlay in my car without having to spend a lot of time or money on having it professional installed, and it hasn’t broken anything that affects the car’s systems. I am looking at ways of tidying up the cables though – perhaps with some right-angled connectors.

If you’re looking to add CarPlay or Android Auto to your car without needing to take it apart, I would recommend looking into this as a viable option.

Adventures in setting up Homebridge for HomeKit

A screenshot of the Homebridge dashboard

A recent project of mine has been to get Homebridge up and running. It’s a server-based program that acts as a bridge between smart devices in the home, and Apple’s Home app on iOS.

One thing, I don’t know why

HomeKit, the technology underpinning Home, is famously limited; whilst most smart devices support Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, very few support HomeKit. Indeed, out of the various smart speakers, plug sockets, dishwasher, thermostat, smoke alarm and TV that we have in our house, it’s only the TV that natively supports HomeKit.

Whilst just about everything else (except the smoke alarm) supports Google Assistant, and the Google Home app, it would be helpful to be able to use these devices with Siri. For example, when I’m driving, I want to be able to use the Hey Siri command to turn the heating on, so that we don’t come home to a cold house.

I tried so hard, and got so far

There’s a few ways to run Homebridge. If you have money to spare, then by far the easiest way is to buy a HOOBS box. HOOBS stands for ‘Homebridge Out of Box System‘, and you’ll get a plug-in device with a customised version of Homebridge that is simple to set up. You can also buy HOOBS on an SD card, that can be slotted into your own Raspberry Pi. Or, you can just download the HOOBS SD card image for a donation of £10.

I have two Raspberry Pis – a RPi 400 which is our seven-year-old’s computer, and a RPi 4 which is my Plex server. The latter runs Plex under Ubuntu Core, a minimal version of Ubuntu Linux which doesn’t include a graphical user interface, or even the Aptitude package manager. Instead, apps can be installed using Snap packages, which enforces greater sandboxing and security. There is a Snap package for Homebridge, but I couldn’t actually get it to work; once installed, I couldn’t open the browser page as instructed.

So, I’ve installed it using Apt on our child’s Raspberry Pi 400, and followed the proper instructions.

There’s only one thing you should know

When you first start Homebridge, it won’t do much initially. To get it talking to your devices, you’ll need to install the appropriate plugins, which you can do through the web UI. I suggest going with the plugins that have been ‘verified’ first, as you’ll probably find that there’s more than one plugin for some of the more popular services like Nest. Whilst installing plugins is relatively easy, configuring them can be difficult:

  • The Nest plugin, for example, has you logging into your Google Nest account in Chrome’s Incognito mode, whilst having Developer Tools open. You then have to copy and paste various data from the HTTP headers.
  • I have a series of smart plug sockets which use the Tuya Smart Life platform, but I had them registered under a different app which Homebridge can’t connect to. I had to de-register them and then set them up again on the official Tuya app.
  • Despite following the instructions, I couldn’t get my Bosch smart dishwasher to connect

Setting up Homebridge is therefore something best reserved for people who are comfortable using the Linux command line and with at least an intermediate understanding of how devices work. However, it does mean that I now have these devices in HomeKit as planned.

Homebridge even supports my Solar Inverter, although in a rather odd way. It appears as 12(!) separate accessories in the Home app, seeing as HomeKit doesn’t ‘know’ what a solar panel is. You can also make the Google Home app talk to Homebridge – again, this is the only way that I can make my Solax system work with Google.

But in the end, it doesn’t even Matter

Those of you who follow news in the smart devices/Internet of Things space will be aware of Matter, a new unified smart device standard with the support of Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung. Matter will hopefully do away with the separate ecosystems that each company offers, and any Matter approved device should work with any other. However, the final Matter specification was only agreed last year, and I’m not expecting many of my existing devices to be updated to support it. At best, my Google Nest Mini devices will be updated soon, and my thermostat may be updated. For others, I would probably have to replace them with Matter-enabled devices in due course. Therefore, Homebridge offers me the flexibility that Matter will hopefully bring as an interim solution.

Solar, so good

A photo of the solar inverter and battery in our cellar.

So, after spending thousands of pounds on a new kitchen, you would think that we’re done with home improvements for a while.

Erm, no. Because even though we’re not yet at the end of January, we’ve used the last of our savings, some money from The Bank of Mum and Dad, and a small amount of new borrowing to pay for the installation of solar panels.

I would show you a photo of them, but that’s hard to do without also sharing a photo of our house, which I’m loathed to do publicly. Instead, here’s a photo of the interior kit – namely, the inverter and the battery.

The battery is an optional add-on to solar systems and is designed to offer additional off-grid power at the time when the solar panels aren’t working – i.e. dull days or at night. It can store up to 6 kWh of electricity, and there’s a pair of plug sockets that are attached to the battery, meaning that we have backup electricty in the event of a mains grid power cut.

Here are our reasons for having a solar panel installation:

Saving money

Energy prices have increased everywhere recently, but especially in the UK where many of our power stations work by burning natural gas. Gas prices were already on the rise when Russia declared war on the Ukraine, and pushed prices even higher as countries started to reduce their reliance on Russian gas. So, switching to a renewable source of power that doesn’t cost money to generate (once the panels are installed and paid for) seems like a good idea.

A screenshot of the Solax Cloud app on iOS, showing our solar system

January is a bit of an odd time to have them installed, though. The days are short, and we only get about 6 hours of usable daylight for generating electricity as I write this – normally 9:30am until 3:30pm. Yes, it’s light from around 8am but the sun needs to have moved around sufficiently to be shining onto the panels to get more than just a few watts of power.

Last week was very, very cold but with clear, sunny afternoons. That was enough for the panels to generate around 2.5 kW – and normally, when I’m working at home without any appliances on (e.g. washing machine, dishwasher, cooker etc.) we only use about 250 W of power. So, that’s a lot of overflow to also charge the battery and there were several days where it was fully charged at sunset. That then gave us enough power for teatime and up until beyond bedtime, meaning that we weren’t paying for grid energy.

Right now, it’s saving us between £1 and £2 per day, depending on the weather and how much energy we’re using. Our savings will increase soon, once we have our Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) certificate, which will allow us to be recompensed for the excess energy that we can sell back to the mains grid under the Smart Export Guarantee. Realistically it’ll be the end of next month before this is up and running, but it means that, once the battery is fully charged, we can make a bit of money back. Not much – at best, we can earn about 16p for kWh at present, which is less than half the 34 kWh we pay to use electricity – but we would already be a few pounds up by now if it had already been in place.

The app which links to the inverter can be configured to calculate your savings, so we have an idea of how much money we’re saving.

Doing our bit for the environment

You may choose to believe that climate change isn’t real, but I’m convinced, along with something like 99% of climate scientists that it is happening. So having solar panels means that we can actually do something tangible about it. Whilst renewable energy sources are forming an increasing proportion of Britain’s mains grid energy mix, burning natural gas is still the source of the majority of our electricity, and there are CO2 emissions involved. Also, gas supplies are finite, and so regardless of whether you believe in climate change, there will come a point when we run out of gas, or have to go to greater lengths to access it. Again, the inverter’s app approximates how much CO2 we’re saving, which is over 50kg in just over a week. I reckon that’ll be half a tonne by the end of the year, which seems like a staggering amount for just one household.

We are, of course, parents, and so by doing our bit, we can show our seven-year-old that we care about the planet that they’ll inherit.

International Geopolitics

I’ve mentioned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and I suppose this could be a small act of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Whilst Britain only sources a small amount of its gas from Russia, if that could be reduced to zero then that’s a lot of money that Russia isn’t getting to fuel its war machine. I’d like to think we’re helping, even if it’s only a tiny contribution.

Resilience

I mentioned above that, attached to the battery, are a pair of plug sockets which draw power only from the battery. If there’s a power cut, then these sockets will still provide power, so long as there’s some charge left in the battery. Indeed, the inverter normally avoids depleting the battery completely – typically it’ll leave 10-20% charge behind.

Even it’s sunny and the panels are generating, should the mains grid go offline (i.e. we get a power cut), then unfortunately all the regular sockets and lights in our house will go off too. But this extra pair of sockets will keep going, and so we could, for example, run a long extension cable up from the cellar to the freezer, to keep that going. We’ve had a couple of short power cuts in recent months, but these have been no more than 10 minutes at a time thankfully.

What to consider if you want solar panels

Our system cost a low five figure sum to install, and was done by a local firm. We got three quotes and all were almost exactly the same, so this seemed to be the going rate. There’s a great guide on MoneySavingExpert about whether they’re worth it, and I suggest that you also read that, as well as my own experiences.

These are things you need to consider:

  • You need a pro-dominantly south-facing roof; ours faces south-west, which is okay but not perfect. If your roofs point east or west, then solar panels probably aren’t for you.
  • You will get more out of solar panels if you can use the energy whilst it’s sunny. So, you’ll need to use the delayed start on power hungry devices like tumble dryers and dishwashers, so that you’re using them when the panels are working. If you work at home, you may benefit more, and especially if you have an electric or plug-in hybrid car that you can charge at home during daylight hours.
  • Solar panels will help with electricity, but not with your gas bill. So, you’ll get less of a benefit if you have a gas oven, or if you don’t have an immersion heater in your hot water tank. Annoyingly, in hindsight, we ripped out our hot water tank in 2016 and replaced it with a combi gas boiler, although as part of our kitchen renovations, we bought new electric hobs and ovens. Conversely, if your heating and hot water is electrically-powered, perhaps using a heat pump rather than a gas boiler, you could benefit more from solar panels.
  • In a similar vein, to maximise your savings, you may consider boiling an electric kettle for hot water for washing up, or using an electric shower to fill a bath. Using a slow cooker during daylight hours may be more economical than a cooker in the evening.
  • The return on investment period for solar panels is about 11 years, so it’s probably best to install them in a house where you don’t plan to move any time soon.
  • It’s probably best not to borrow all of the money for solar panels. Whilst you can save hundreds of pounds per year, through less usage and selling back your excess to the grid, the interest payments on any borrowings will extend the return on investment period. We’re borrowing around £4000 to fund the panels, which I’m funding using a credit card balance transfer to keep the interest down, but the rest was savings and a parental gift.
  • You probably won’t need planning permission, unless your house is a listed building or you live in a conservation area.

I’ll aim to post again in the summer, once our Smart Export Guarantee is set up and we have some sunnier weather, to indicate how much we’re saving.

21st-ish blogiversary

Today marks 21 years since I started my blog, on the 14th January 2002. Back then, I was 17 years old, in the sixth form, a few months away from taking my A-levels and living at home with my parents.

Surprisingly, I managed to keep up with blogging regularly for 16 years, but gave it up due to a lack of time and a monumentally screwed up server upgrade that also wiped out my only backups.

So there weren’t any 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th blogiversaries, as I only restarted blogging last summer. Which means that this isn’t a ‘proper’ blogiversary. But I’m counting it anyway.

Nowadays, I still don’t have much time to blog – a combination of full-time work and being a parent – but I’m aiming to rustle up at least a few blog posts every month.

So, happy birthday blog. I would say ‘here’s to another 21 years’, but who knows what the Web will be like in 2044. And I’ll be nearly 60 years old by then.

2022 in review

Seeing as it’s the afternoon of the 31st December, I suppose it’s time to do a review of the year.

Overall, it’s been a good year. As Covid-19 restrictions have eased, we’ve been able to go out and do things, and at home we have a brilliant new kitchen.

Speaking of which…

The kitchen

I wrote in more detail about our new kitchen earlier this month, and now that our new fridge-freezer has arrived, it’s complete. It’s the first time either of us have had a kitchen that has been designed around our needs, and whilst we had to make some compromises due to the available space, it’s a massive improvement.

The kitchen was probably the biggest thing about 2022 for us; we broadly agreed the design in December 2021 but paid the deposit in February 2022, with work starting in earnest in May. This of course meant that April was spent preparing – moving everything we wanted to keep out of the kitchen and stripping wallpaper (I mean, who puts wallpaper in a kitchen? It was disgusting after years of grease and grime).

Work continued for several months and it wasn’t until September that we had our washing machine back; it then took over a week for our decorators to finish painting it. It’s done now, so we can start 2023 with a completed kitchen.

The holiday

In 2022, we had our first overseas holiday since 2019. 2020, and the pandemic, put paid to any holiday plans, and last year we decided to have a holiday in England rather than travel internationally. Note – I refuse to call this a ‘staycation’, which is a holiday you have based at home. Calling a holiday in your home country a ‘staycation’ is demeaning to those who can’t afford an overseas holiday.

We went back to France again, but to Brittany this time. Apart from driving through, I haven’t been to Brittany for many years, and it was Christine’s first time. We stayed at a static caravan site near Carnac on the west coast, and from there explored the area. We benefited from the on-site kid’s club to have some child free time, and a highlight was a visit to Parc zoologique du château de Branféré which is one of the best zoos we’ve ever visited.

We also came across the Museum of the Junkyard Poet, somewhat accidentally when looking for something else on TripAdvisor, and it’s a wonderfully whimsical place made of reclaimed junk and building materials.

It was a good break, and we’ve already booked another trip to France for 2023 – this time staying near Tours.

Work

Work has been busy this year – like most universities, we’ve experience a huge increase in applications from international students and they all need processing by admissions officers such as myself. I’ve had some changes to work – I’ve been able to delegate some responsibilities elsewhere but taken on others.

Whilst we started the year working at home full-time, thanks to scares around the Omicron variant, we were back to hybrid working within weeks and so I now spend a minimum of two days each work in the office. It’s an arrangement that works well for me; being at home some days is helpful as I can do washing or prepare dinner in the time that I would spend commuting, but some aspects of my job are easier in a formal office environment.

Things haven’t been universally positive – I applied for a couple of promotion opportunities and didn’t get them, although those that did are already showing that they’re a good fit for the roles.

I attended the AUA Annual Conference in Manchester in July, and this included graduating from my PG Certificate in Higher Education Administration, Management and Leadership in front of many of my industry peers.

Parenting

This year our child (who has a name and a gender but it’s not public knowledge, sorry) turned seven, and is now in year two (top of the infants). This meant a bigger role in this year’s Nativity play, which we actually got to see in person for the first time.

They’ve also started more extra-curricular activities; swimming, dancing and more recently karate. Considering that myself and Christine are borderline sloths, it can be a little exhausting having such an active child but we’re happy to support them in their own interests.

Days out and weekends away

As we have an annual National Trust membership, and because I’m from Yorkshire and therefore naturally tight with money, I keep a list of where we’ve been so that I ensure that we get our money’s worth. This year, we visited six properties:

  • Dunham Massey
  • Beningborough Hall
  • Tatton Park
  • Speke Hall
  • Hare Hill Gardens
  • Nether Alderley Mill

Dunham Massey, Hare Hill and Nether Alderley Mill were new properties, and Christine went to Speke Hall near Liverpool for the first time. Overall, we almost got our money’s worth from our annual family membership – just down by £6.70. It’s renewed for 2023 although we have visited almost every property within an hour’s drive of home now.

Other days out included the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, The Deep in Hull, the Blue Reef aquarium in Portsmouth (on the way to catch the ferry to France), the Tropical Butterfly House near Sheffield, Magna, Knowlsey Safari and our first visit to the Great Yorkshire Show since 2016.

We also had a couple of weekends away. November saw the return of Sci-Fi Weekender after a three year absence and it was good to see some familiar faces after such a long break. The following weekend, we had a weekend in London, including a trip to see Dippy at the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum next door, and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Health

My health has been good this year, and I’ve had the opportunity to be more active. We agreed a minor change to my asthma medication – same drugs but taken differently, which seems to result in my asthma being better controlled.

When I wrote this yesterday (31st Dec), I forgot to mention that I had Covid-19 in March. It was a minor case and I was able to continue working from home. It was probably the second time that I’ve had it, as I’m pretty sure that I had it in April 2020, but there wasn’t sufficient testing available at the time to check. I had my fourth Covid-19 jab in the autumn.

The big change is I’m now a hearing aid user. I meant to blog about this in more detail, but, you know, good intentions and all that. I have ‘moderate’ hearing loss, and have experienced issues with hearing for a few years now, but it took until this autumn to finally have hearing aids fitted. They’re standard issue NHS models, which means that they’re basic (no Bluetooth or phone connectivity) but haven’t cost me anything – even the replacement batteries are free. They’ve made a massive difference, especially when in the office at work.

Christine had her gall bladder out earlier this year, after suffering with gallstones. She’s doing much better now.

Looking forward to 2023

So that was 2022. It was a good year on the whole. I’ll aim to write more about what we have planned for 2023 – you never know, I may even finish it this side of June. I hope you have had a good year as well, and a good new year’s eve if you celebrate it (we’ll most likely be asleep).

Merry Christmas!

A photo of some socks received for Christmas as presents

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write a Christmas blog post, what with having taken a few years out from blogging.

I received a variety of presents:

  • A bard outfit for future cosplay opportunities
  • A total of 13 pairs of socks (pictured above)
  • A handmade chopping board made by a relative
  • Plenty of chocolate
  • plus plenty of other things besides

We’re staying with my parents in York, as we normally do.

Christmas past

That being said, I was intrigued by Diamond Geezer’s list of places he has spent Christmas over the years, and thought about my own list.

As a child, from as early as I can remember, we would spend Christmas at my grandparents in East Yorkshire. This continued until my early 20s, when my grandparents became too old to host us and so my parents took on hosting duties. In Christmas 2008, we just had my grandfather over as my grandmother was in a care home by that point; she passed away in 2009.

This arrangement continued until 2012, by which time Christine and I had moved into our rented flat together. As a key worker in the NHS, Christine’s work patterns over the festive period meant that we had our first Christmas just as a couple – neither of us could drive back then so a parental visit wasn’t possible. 2013 was in York again but 2014 was back in the flat.

Christmas 2015 was also very different. By now, we had bought out house and I had passed my driving test and bought a car, but Christine was also heavily pregnant and so we didn’t want to stray too far from home.

2016 through to 2019 were back to normal, albeit with the addition of a small person. But then in 2020, the pandemic necessitated remaining at ours, so we had our second Christmas in our house and a scheduled Zoom call to speak to family.

Thanks to the various Covid vaccines, 2021 and now 2022 have been back to normal. However, I was surprised that I’ve only ever spent Christmas in 4 places, in almost 40 years of life.

If you celebrate Christmas, then I hope you have a joyous and merry one in whatever way suits you.

The joy of having a new kitchen

Back in 2019, my grandfather passed away, a few weeks shy of his 99th birthday. Whilst he had generally been in good health, considering his age, he had been taken to hospital with an infection. My grandmother had died 10 years earlier and we think he decided that it was his time to go.

This might seem like a rather sad and confusing way to start a blog post about a new kitchen, but his passing meant that I inherited a sizeable sum of money once all of his affairs had been sorted. We used some of this money to renovate our child’s room, a small amount was invested and I used some to fund a postgraduate university course.

The rest was used to renovate our kitchen. We moved to our current house in 2015, which is an early twentieth century property that’s needed quite a bit of work over the past 7 years. We renovated all of the rest of the downstairs before we moved in – mainly out of necessity due to damp issues – but had only made minor changes to the kitchen at the time. These were limited to a new washing machine, new power sockets and a new laminate floor.

The old kitchen mostly dated from the 1950s, when what was presumably a Yorkshire Range was removed and the chimney breast covered up. It had some new units and work surface in the 1980s/90s, when the previous owners also blocked up the access to the cellar underneath. So in all it was very dated, and once the money and opportunity came to renovate it all, we decided it needed updating.

We actually started the process over a year ago, although it wasn’t until February that we paid the deposit, and work started in May. During May we had a makeshift kitchenette in our dining room – we moved the existing fridge and freezer out, and purchased an Ikea Tillreda portable induction hob for cooking, in addition to our existing Instant Pot, microwave and kettle. Between these, we could cook most things that didn’t require an oven.

By early June the kitchen was substantially finished, but some small jobs weren’t complete until September and our decorators only finished painting it last week. As it stands, we don’t yet have the replacement fridge-freezer but it’s on order and should be here by Christmas.

Here’s an overview of what we changed:

  • Opened up access to the cellar. We removed the kitchen cupboards and work surface that were built over the steps down to the cellar, and installed a new bannister. We could then move our washing machine out of the kitchen and into the cellar, where it’ll soon by joined by a tumble dryer which we’ve not had before. This also gives easier access to our gas and electric meters, which we also had replaced with smart models, and gives us more storage space. As part of this, we had the cellar window replaced (the old one was broken and not watertight) and a radiator installed, along with plumbing and electrics for the washing machine.
  • Opened up the chimney breast. Previously there were some small but deep cupboards that were where the range presumably used to be, but these were awkward to access. Instead, we’ve got two wide draws for cookware and utensils, along with the hob and recirculation unit.
  • Induction hob. Speaking of these, we ditched our gas-powered oven and hob unit, and replaced it with an induction hob and two electric fan ovens. The old cooker unit was small and only had four rings; it was actually smaller than the space allocated for it and so we must have dropped all sorts down the side of it over the years. The replacement induction hob is twice the width and has five zones. It also heats up pans much quicker, although we had to replace the majority of our cookware as many of our older pans were not induction-compatible (i.e. they didn’t have any magnetic material in them). Not that this was a bad thing – many of our pans were cheap ones bought when we were students, whereas we could afford better ones this time. Switching away from gas to electric is also safer (no naked flames) and better for the environment, although we still have a gas boiler for heating and hot water.
  • Ovens. We opted for two identical large Bosch ovens, each with a grill, rather than a unit with a large oven and a smaller combination oven/grill (I believe Americans would call the grill a ‘broiler’). These are built-in and mounted off the wall with drawers underneath, making it easier to get food in and out of them. The ovens perform significantly better than our gas oven did – much shorter cooking time, and we particularly appreciate the pizza mode.
  • Recirculation unit. Above the hobs is an air recirculation unit, which sucks up cooking fumes, filters them and then has an exhaust back into the kitchen. Ideally we would have the outlet leading outside but this is still better than before: previously, we had an extractor fan that was on one window, well away from the cooker, and it hadn’t worked for a couple of years anyway.
  • New fridge-freezer. This hasn’t arrived yet – we only ordered it last weekend – but we decided to have one large unit that would replace the existing under-counter separate fridge and freezer. Both have seen better days; the brackets holding the bottle shelf in the fridge have broken off and the plastic drawers in the freezer are cracked. Plus, it’s not great having to constantly bend down to access the fridge, so we’ve gone with a wider, American-style fridge-freezer with the fridge compartment above. It’ll also have a cold water dispenser, which will be useful for me when working at home on hot summer days. It’s a Hisense model which seems to score well in independent testing.
  • More storage. One major issue with our previous kitchen was small cupboards, which we filled before we’d even unpacked all of our cookware, crockery and food. This time we’ve gone for more storage; the centrepiece being a full height larder where we can store (just about) all of our food and drink. We also have more, bigger drawers; like with the fridge-freezer, this should reduce the amount of bending down required. The major benefit of having more storage is that we can put more things away and keep our work surfaces clear – before, we had to keep all sorts out due to a lack of space and so often our utensils would get covered in grease.
  • Easier to clean. By being able to put more things away the whole kitchen should be easier to keep clean, and we’ve gone for relatively simple fixtures to facilitate this. We’ve also gone for painted walls; before, the walls were covered in wallpaper which over time had absorbed grease and all sorts.
  • Better lighting. Previously the kitchen had two long fluorescent strip lights, although I replaced these strips with LED bulbs a couple of years ago. Unfortunately one strip stopped working, and so we had a small Ikea clip-on light to illuminate the main working area, which helped but also meant we couldn’t close the cupboard door it was clipped to. In the new kitchen, we have under-shelf lighting for all of the worksurfaces, and seven spotlights in the ceiling.
  • Two radiators. When we moved in, there was just a small electric fire to heat the kitchen; when we had the new boiler installed in 2016, we had this replaced with a standard radiator but it had to be small to fit the space. That radiator is now in the cellar; whilst its replacement is also small, we have a much larger tall radiator at the top of the stairs down to the cellar. Apart from when the oven was on, the kitchen was one of the coldest rooms in the house before.
  • New smart dishwasher. The old dishwasher that was there when we bought the house was terrible; sometimes, our crockery would come out more dirty than when it went in, despite our efforts to clean it out. We didn’t specifically ask for a smart dishwasher but our kitchen company provided one – I understand that earlier this year there was a worldwide dishwasher shortage and that’s what they could get. As with the other built-in appliances, it’s Bosch, and uses Home Connect, which is fully compatible with Alexa, Google Assistant and IFTTT. Mainly it’s useful for getting a phone notification for when it’s finished, or when the salt or rinse aid needs re-filling, and you can ask Google how long it has left. Most importantly, it works really well as a dishwasher, and we’re able to use it more extensively than the old one, including washing cookware.
  • Tumble dryer. This is actually going in the cellar, but previously we had to use a ceiling mounted drying rack for drying clothes – which inevitably ended up smelling of bacon or whatever else we were cooking as well as getting in the way. Whilst we have also bought a heated drying rack, it takes around 24 hours to dry a full load, and having a tumble dryer will help for bulkier items like bedsheets and towels. It will use more energy, but we’re using the last of our savings to have solar panels and a battery installed next month; this was another reason for switching from gas to electric for cooking. We’ve opted for a Grundig dryer which is a heat pump model, and therefore has much lower running costs than condenser models.

We have had to make some compromises with the new kitchen, which is namely work surface space. To be able to fit in access to cellar and the larder, we have significantly less work surface available, but the extra storage means that we can actually keep what we have clear and so the amount of useable space is about the same as before. And as mentioned, we had to buy new pans from ProCook, but those that we’ve bought are a significant improvement over our old pans anyway.

It’s been a long journey, but by Christmas it should all be finished. Back in March I actually made a short video listing all the things that we hated about the old kitchen and how we’re addressing them, which informed this blog post. We’re very lucky that we inherited enough money to be able to get a kitchen which better suits our needs; it not only looks good but also works for us. I hope my grandfather will be happy with what his inheritance has allowed us to get.

We still have more work to do on the house; the downstairs is almost done but two of the three bedrooms need work in time, as does the stairwell and upstairs landing. We’ve done some redecorating in the bathroom which has made it look less 1980s but eventually it’ll need replacing. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to save some money once the solar panels and battery are installed next month.

WordPress in the Fediverse

A screenshot of the settings page for the ActivityPub plugin for WordPress

If I’ve set up everything correctly, then you should be able to subscribe to this blog in your favourite Fediverse app, such as Mastodon, by following @nrturner@neilturner.me.uk .

You’ll need to install the ActivityPub plugin, and then it should just work where your fediverse username is @your-wordpress-username@your-domain.tld. If you’ve used a plugin to disable author archives, such as Yoast’s SEO plugin, you’ll need to re-enable it for this to work.

I found this guide particularly useful, as it links to Webfinger to test that you’ve set it up correctly.

(Update: since this post was written almost 12 months ago, the ActivityPub plugin has been formally adopted by Automattic and so enjoys wider support)

Good intentions and Mastodon

Screenshot of my Mastodon profile

Well, here was me promising to blog here more regularly, and then completely ignoring the blog for 5 months. Go me?

The main purpose of this blog post is to include a link to my Mastodon profile. As I write this, Elon Musk has taken over Twitter and looks to be unleashing his libertarian hellscape vision very quickly. Whilst I don’t intend to leave Twitter, I’ve decided to keep my options open and have set myself up on Mastodon.lol, which is an LGBTQ+-friendly server that doesn’t integrate with any servers that host fascists.

Whilst we’ve been here before with Ello, App.net, Google+, Clubhouse and innumerable other sites that have tried to compete with Twitter and failed, Mastodon seems to be the most popular ‘non-fascsist site’. Good, lord, what a thing to have to type.

We’ll see what happens, eh?

Home improvements

We bought our first home back in 2015, when my wife was pregnant. The house we bought is one that estate agents would describe as ‘having potential’. That’s not to say it was derelict, but it had dated decor and needed a lot of work doing.

We spent much of 2015 renovating the downstairs rooms – new plaster on the walls, new electrics and fixing various issues which meant that, whilst we got the keys in June, it was October before we could finally move in. In 2016, we converted a newly-partitioned room into a downstairs toilet, and had a new central heating boiler fitted.

Progress with renovating the rest of the house slowed down after this. Working full-time and having a child meant that we just didn’t have the time, and money was also an issue. But then in 2020 I inherited a sizeable amount of money from a deceased relative, and so we were able to start work again.

Whilst we had done a lot of work downstairs, the upstairs rooms had remained pretty much as before. Of the three bedrooms, the one we had earmarked for our child needed the most work, so this is the first of the bedrooms to be renovated. As with the downstairs rooms, it was a big job.

Firstly, there was a large, built-in wardrobe which had to be removed – it was falling apart anyway, and it was partly there to house a water tank which was removed when we had the new boiler fitted. Once that was out, and after stripping the wallpaper, it became clear that re-plastering was necessary here as well. We also needed new wiring – before, we only had two single plug sockets for the whole room – new floorboards, and some central heating pipes needed re-routing. Thankfully, we were able to employ a builder who could do all of this for us.

The room now looks totally different; as with downstairs, we’ve gone for painted walls rather than wallpaper. We’ve also decided to have the floorboards varnished and put rugs down, rather than carpets, so that the room can more easily evolve with our child’s changing tastes as they get older. And it’s a more flexible space, with more options for where the bed can go.

This year, we’re renovating the kitchen. I’ll write more in detail about this later, but again, it’s a big project. When we moved in, we didn’t do much work on the kitchen, compared to the other downstairs rooms – just a few extra plug sockets and a new floor – but this time it’s a total renovation. It also includes opening up one of our cellars as a utility room.

There’s still more work to be done elsewhere – the bathroom needs renovating as well, as again we only did a small amount of work when we moved in. And the other two bedrooms could do with a refresh. We’ll need some more money first though.