Finally… v4.00 is here!

After over a year of waiting the day has finally come, and Texecom have released v4.00 of their firmware for all Premier Elite panels.

The highlights listed on the main website include a number of interesting items, being a new API for integration with other systems, support for the home automation products which Texecom themselves are going to produce and some more technical changes including improved network speed. There is also support for the ‘SmartCOM’ combination device which is not out yet but will apparently combine an expander with wifi and ethernet interface.

One specific item which is interesting is that all new panels will have a unique ID generated in the factory, and anyone with an older panel who upgrades will have an ID generated and written to the panel by Wintex after upgrading.

There is a detailed guide to the changes available here.

I now need to dust off the firmware upgrade board and get cracking! I will post my experiences. I’m looking forward to seeing the new hardware range which will go with this and also to see what can be done with the new API and integration capabilities.

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Repairing a Spirit Folio SX rack mixer

I’ve written before about my interest in sound equipment and engineering, which mostly relates to work at my church. As part of this I do general maintenance on the equipment and where possible do repairs to keep it all working. Given the cost of pro-audio gear this is generally cost-effective and also it’s satisfying to keep stuff working rather than buying new.

We have a mobile rig and part of this is a fairly old Spirit Folio SX rack mounted mixer. The one we have at the moment looks like this:

Soundcraft Folio SX labricox images

It’s not quite the same as ours has rack ears but the principle is the same. One of the main problems with these is the power connector, which because it is a rack mount is on the underside of the desk. It is a small proprietary plastic connector which looks like this:

It’s small, flimsy and easily broken. There are three pins because the power supply is a little unusual, being 2 17V AC lines with a 0V in the middle. I’m not entirely sure why it needs this, possibly something to do with the phantom power (which is 48V) used to power stage boxes and certain types of microphone.

When I was given the desk to look at the power was flickering on and off and it was immediately obvious that the power plug was loose in the socket, wobbling around all over the place. There was a small catch on the top of it and when I tried to move it it broke off in my hand. So the first step was to replace the power connection.

A lot of other people out there seem to have had very similar problems and there are a lot of people on various forums complaining about the same thing. There are a number of ideas, including removing the connector altogether and wiring the power supply straight in as a captive lead. Other people have used various types of XLR connector. We have loads of these lying around, but I thought it was better to avoid using these in case someone accidentally plugged a microphone into the power supply!

I finally settled on a locking 3 pin microphone connector, as seen on aircraft and various amateur radio equipment (another interest for another post).

To make it a neat job I decided to bolt a suitable socket to the bottom of the desk in place of the existing one. The connectors themselves are easily available on ebay:

connectors

The socket needs a 15mm hole which is too big for regular drill bits (the largest I have is 13mm) so I needed a suitable hole saw. Once again there was a wide choice on ebay and I found this for the bargain price of £2.79:

Image result for 15mm hole saw

Great service as usual from ebay traders and they were delivered quickly. The hole saw is from a Chinese manufacturer but I was impressed with the quality of it.

The bottom of the desk is a steel panel held on by a load of screws but fortunately there is quite a lot of space between the panel and the circuit board underneath. There is plenty of space to fit the new socket and connect the wires up without it fouling the board underneath.

First step was to remove the old socket which simply pulled out, and cutting the wires. Then I offered up the socket roughly to where I wanted and made sure that there was space to connect it up. Drilling the hole with the new cutter was pretty easy – I drilled a pilot hole first, and then used the cutter with a block of wood underneath. It did a great job and cut straight through leaving a very clean hole.

The new socket bolts through from the bottom with the supplied nut and washer. Then it is a matter of soldering the wires on to the connector. As above the power supply has two 17V AC rails and a ground connection. I traced these out using a meter and wired the plug and socket to match. The only problem was that the cable on the plug end was a bit thin for the cable clamp  so I had to bulk it up a bit with some insulating tape.

 

I also found that if I turned the panel around I could cover up the hole than the old power socket was in, which finished the job off nicely. After reassembling it, the power is now rock solid and various other odd problems have resolved.

You could use pretty much any connector to do this but this one was good because it was cheap and the locking mechanism made it very unlikely to fall out. I’d definitely recommend this as a modification as the original connector is a poor design and I’m not surprised that others have had problems with it.

Repairing a Roboquad

I’ve always been interested in robots, and in recent years some of the stuff available as toys has been really interesting. One of the main players is Wowwee who have over the years produced loads of interesting stuff, perhaps most famously the Robosapien which has been through several versions over the years. However they have done others too. I bought a Roboquad off ebay a few years ago:

 

Roboquad

This is a very clever design which uses only four motors (one per leg) to move around using crab-style walk. The head and neck is also articulated, and it has light & IR sensors in the eyes. There are loads of programming options and for a toy it’s quite advanced.

It’s been put away for a few years, and when I got it out again I found that because I’d used cheap batteries in the remote control (never a good idea) they had leaked acid everywhere and completely rotted through the springs and contacts completely destroying the battery compartment. To make matters worse when I put batteries in the robot itself it was completely dead and didn’t power up.

So before throwing it out I decided to investigate further. Unfortunately given that this is now quite old a lot of the info about them is hidden away in old forums but I was able to find a basic disassembly guide.

You have to start by turning it over and removing all the screws in sight, including one in each corner which is hidden under the leg. Once you done this you can separate the top and bottom, but you need to be careful to unplug the cables which connect the sensors from the head to the main board.

Given that it was completely dead, I did a few tests to make sure that the voltage from the battery was getting through, which it was and there was nothing else obviously wrong. So the next step was to unplug all the connectors in sight and get the board itself out. You need to be quite careful doing this as there are lot of them and some of them are quite stiff, but with a bit of gentle pressure you can get them all out.

I had a good look at the board when out and there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with it. However what I have learned by now is that the most likely point of failure with modern electronics is the large discrete components like electrolytic capacitors. So I desoldered and removed the largest ones and replaced them with some new ones.

I wasn’t optimistic, but to my great surprise once I had reassembled it the robot now worked fine! It’s possible that it wasn’t the capacitors, and it might have simply been the act of disassembly and reseating all the connectors but either way I was pleased.

The next step was to fix the remote control. Whilst the battery springs were completely destroyed by the battery acid, the actual contacts themselves were OK. So I tried jamming the batteries in with some coils of unused solder as impromptu springs. This worked up to a point but it wasn’t reliable and I gave up. The only thing to do was replace the battery holder completely.

The remote uses 3 AAA batteries, and fortunately a suitable holder is easy to find on ebay and other sources:

Image result for 3x aaa battery holder

Then it was a matter of fitting it. The original remote had the battery holder moulded out of the plastic the back was made out of. It originally looked like this:

So what I had to do was break out the trusty Dremel and use it with a cutting wheel to remove the whole compartment. This turned out to be quite a job because the plastic was surprisingly thick in places. However eventually I was left with this:

The battery holder just fits through the hole, and the battery cover holds in in place perfectly. Having resoldered the wires I now have a working remote as well.

So all in all a good result – both robot and remote repaired and working for total expenditure of a few pounds. Hopefully this may help other in the same situation as I found it quite difficult to find much useful info given the age of these toys.

Texecom Connect – still waiting…

It’s been a little whilst since the last post, but I have been waiting for there to be some devleopments with Texecom to write about. My system is working pretty well now and so I’m looking forward to more developments.

However looking back I’ve realised that it’s nearly a year since Texecom made their big announcement of ‘Texecom Connect’ with promise of integration with home automation and various other goodies. However since then things have largely gone quiet and there hasn’t been a firmware update for almost a year as well.

There is some evidence of stuff going on behind the scenes including the wireless firmware upgrade, and I’ve just heard of another one which is intended to support a wireless keypad. This sounds like an interesting development as there hasn’t been a new keypad for quite some time.

So I’m keeping fingers crossed that we will hear something soon. In the meantime I am working on my home automation gear with quite a few interesting things to talk about so will post about these soon.

Integrating Home Automation & Alarm

I have been thinking lately about improving my approach to home automation, and particularly in making better use of the various technologies I’ve got. I think one of the mistakes made in home automation generally is neglecting the ‘automation’ part. I’ve seen plenty of approaches which really just substitute one set of switches for another (albeit electronic). I can’t see much point in in switching lights on and off using a phone or remote when it’s much easier to do so using the light switch! So really what you want is a largely automatic system which anticipates your needs and does what you want without user intervention.

So far as I have written about before I already have a mixture of systems with MAX for heating (currently controlled using FHEM) and Z-Wave for which I have been using a Vera Lite. I have been using a 3rd party plugin which provided an interface between the Texecom panel and the Vera, but in spite of this I’ve never been that happy with it as a controller. The interface is rather old fashioned, the newer updates (so called UI7) have had a decidedly mixed reception and I’ve never really felt I understood how to program it properly. Whilst the UI looks pretty it was also rather clunky when you tried to use it.

I’ve written before about FHEM and whilst I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea I have really got to like it because although it looks unappealing it gives you a huge amount of information and lets you do pretty much anything you want with a few command lines. I also think that it helps you understand a lot more about the devices you are using. So the obvious thing to do was to bring all my Z-Wave devices into FHEM and try to integrate heating and lighting and also build integration with the Texecom panel.

The key to all this is a USB Z-Wave adapter for my main server. These don’t come cheap and there is some choice. I eventually bought an Aeotec Z-Stick Gen5, which came recommended but pretty expensive at about £40.

aeotec-z-wave-usb-z-stick-526

 

There are others available, including the Z-Wave.Me UZB which seems rather cheaper. This should also work with FHEM and other software although the Aeotec seems slightly better established. The other and much cheaper option is to use an experimental method whereby CULFW devices can be set up as Z-Wave controllers. However this lacks some of the benefits of the proper controllers (including battery back up etc) and probably is not for ‘production’ systems just yet.

So far all has gone well. FHEM recognised the controller and configured it correctly. I had to ‘exclude’ all the devices from the Vera to reset them and then ‘include’ to the Z-Stick. You can do this either by physically taking the stick to the device and pressing the button on the stick, or else simply setting the Z-Stick into ‘inclusion mode’ from FHEM and then doing whatever is needed on the device.

I would recommend doing the latter, as then FHEM will automatically pick up and configure the devices for you. I now have a variety of Fibaro devices and a Minimote which are all available as devices in FHEM with a lot of detail about them. I have recreated a few scenes which I was using before (such as one which turns on a few table lamps in the front room).

Now I need to find a better way of integrating with the alarm. I am using an Arduino with one of the outputs from the panel to report whether the alarm is set or unset and therefore whether the house is occupied or not. I’m using this at the moment to trigger a ‘notify’ event in FHEM which sets the heating into low power mode and now sends Z-Wave events which turns off all the lights. What I would really like is to get FHEM to interface directly with the panel to read out the status of the sensors etc directly. I have been able to get some information about this so I am going to see if I can learn how to do this.

As always I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else who is exploring this kind of thing.

Ricochet Firmware Update

I’ve just had a product bulletin from Texecom which has left me scratching my head a bit:

new firmware

This is obviously something to do with the forthcoming v4.0 firmware version for the Elite panels, and Texecom have already announced that they are releasing a range of other home automation devices which will form part of the Ricochet network. However this suggests that you won’t be able to use at least some of them unless you have the latest version of the Ricochet firmware.

The bulletin then says ominously “wireless expanders are not field-programmable” and so this would suggest that you will need a new expander if you are going to use the new gear. This is a pain, as they are quite expensive and presumably the hardware is exactly the same.

What isn’t clear is what happens if you have the panels which have the built in Ricochet (Premier Elite 48-W etc) – perhaps the wireless upgrade will be rolled in to the panel firmware?

It’s a pain for me as I have the 8XP-W expander and I don’t really fancy buying a new one. However I am hoping that this announcement means that we will see the v4 panel firmware released soon.

UPDATE

I’ve now got clarity on this – the expander firmware is not upgradeable and the -W panels with the integrated expander are the same. So unfortunately this will mean replacing either the expander or the whole panel if you want the new version. It appears that some of the new devices may still work with the older expanders but that remains to be seen.

Rounding up a few updates

There have been loads of interesting comments and I’m grateful to everyone who has contributed. A couple of things to highlight:

You can get cheap and compatible tags on ebay which are much cheaper than the genuine proximity ones.

capture

I’m reliably informed that these ones and I imagine others like them work fine with the panel. They are pretty cheap too so well worth a look. I’ve not tried them before but I’ll get some in to play with. I’ve always been a little unsure about them though, someone said to me once “well you wouldn’t write your alarm code on your keys” and this is a similar idea. However I think there is value for example if you want to give a tradesmen access for a few days and don’t want to have to set up a new code etc.

You can get much better voltage regulators than the one I bought. There’s been a lot of discussion in the comments but this one has been popular:

capture

It is very hard to argue with the price, and it’s much smaller and neater than the one I  used. I still find it incredible that you can get anything delivered direct from China for less than a dollar all in.

Thanks again for all your contributions, please keep them coming!