France visit and more jobs stacking up

Sheep Defences and Stainless Steel in Stainless Steel nightmare

We’ve just had 3 weeks in France and so I have been low profile in the workshop.   Lots of jobs to do out there and we had 30C temperatures most days.   This can be a bit draining, particularly after an extended lunch and glass or two of red.

Two main jobs done which are interesting to report on.

First of all we regularly get invaded by sheep who in bad weather prefer to use our terrace as a sheltering location.  Sheep in France or at least our part of France do not seem to regard a fence or hedge as a barrier.   If the grass is greener on the other side they are on their way.   The owner of the sheep does not seem to care too deeply about this migration.  Compare this to my farming upbringing in Yorkshire where we were liable for damages if our stock wandered loose onto a road and caused mayhem.

Back to the plot.   The terrace has three entrances and our neighbour had helpfully taken the step of placing wooden pallets across these.  This worked in stopping the wandering beasts but did not look too pretty.   After the previous trip I measured up the entrance apertures and on return to the UK TIG welded some angle iron based barrier gates.   These are held in place by some ‘drop in’ brackets.   The TIG welding did not bare a close inspection but it created functional barriers.   The mounting brackets were CNC milled on the Tormach 440.  Image below.

For the first time ever I used some cold applied galvanising paint by Rust Oleum to coat the finished steelwork.   This would coat easily if the metal was degreased thoroughly.   I applied two coats and left it to harden.   It smells and is very heady so application in fresh air is essential.   Now I can’t exactly correlate this but I had a serious trouser clip session after using the stuff.  Could be me.  I certainly did not have a dodgy curry I can blame it on.   Beware and mask up just in case.

The second major problem to be solved was that we have a three panel glass balustrade on the balcony where two of the panels had slipped.

As you can see above, the glass is gripped in some stainless steel rubber padded brackets which are clamped by eight M8 stainless countersunk socket head screws per panel.   Due to high temperatures two of the glass panels had slowly slipped in the brackets and come to rest on the balcony tiles.  I just managed to get some expired credit cards under them.

You know what is coming next … stainless steel screws in a stainless steel body is a recipe for a bonding to take place between the two.   After some serious attempts to free these screws I was left with three out of eight in one panel and one out of eight in the second panel refusing to budge.   Added to the nightmare was my resulting own goal of total gouging of the hex holes in the heads of the unmoving screws.

The local Brico (aka DIY emporium) had some Cobalt twist drill at a reasonable price and a screw extractor set.   I drilled down the centre of each bolt with a 5.5mm drill bit until I broke through the far end of the screw.    Next step was to very carefully play a blow torch on the head of the screw (while protecting the glass) and once very hot, squirted it with freezer spray and then followed this with penetrating oil.   I then left the screws to sulk for a couple of days.

Result.  After hammering the screw extractor in place and applying some stiff force, the offending four remaining screws came out.  It was interesting that the torque on the screw would not do anything until it reached a certain point and then click it would rotate free as if to say ‘what’s your problem’.

Having loosened the screws we than had to somehow lift the two very heavy sheets of glass.   This was done with strapping tape loops at each end of the sheet and a lever rod onto the top of the adjacent post or wall.  As I lever lifted, my wife shuffled larger and larger blocks of wood under the glass until we got the panels back to the correct height.

I then fitted new shorter M8 screws into the brackets with everything smothered in DC4 silicon grease.   We left the panels sat on the wooden blocks and with the screws just tight enough to hold the glass vertical but not clamped hard.

The brackets as fitted are a bit like chocolate fireguards when the weight of glass is considered.   I am currently looking at some additional supports that will sit under the glass (to replace our less than aesthetic wooden blocks) so the weight is supported by these and not just the original edge clamping brackets.

So not quite as restful a trip as we had planned but two problems solved.

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Internet in France finally solved using SFR

As a regular reader of my blog you may recollect my frustrations last year trying to get reconnected to the internet in our house in France.   This followed failures by Orange and Free to deliver on promises.

We called in at a SFR boutique on Wednesday afternoon and somewhat apprehensively signed up with them on a new contract.   

On Friday evening we were told our line had been activated and that our router would be ready for collection on Saturday morning.   By midday on Saturday we were back on line.  Our previous router delivered around 9MB/s download and the new router is peaking around 15MB/s across the same infrastructure.  Full connectivity is now restored to all our devices in France and back into the UK.

To say we are pleased is an understatement.

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Experiences with SFR – Orange – FreeBox in France

We have been to France, hence the lack of posts.  Initially the idea was for 3 weeks to sort out the house and make sure all was good before winter but we ended up staying for over 5 weeks.

Why ?  Well there was the weather which was stunning over the whole period. Then there was our broadband connection.

Until June 2021 our broadband to the house was arranged by UK Telecom who subcontracted to SFR locally in France.   UK Telecom decided to change to Orange as the provider so our broadband got chopped in June while Orange took up the reigns …. or not as the case maybe.

We arrived in September and still no broadband via UK Telecom from Orange.   I visited the local Orange Boutique and they were keen to subscribe us directly to their fibre service which is now available in the village.  We signed up and 2 weeks later had heard no more.  Promised installation dates came and went with no contact or visit and we stayed in specially for these dates.   After my third visit to the Boutique we told them we were no longer interested and to cancel the contract. This they did without quibble.

We then went to FreeBox who are a new kid on the block.   Same routine, keen to sign us up, promises of dates etc.   Nothing further.   So we did not have a broadband connection at the house and had to depend on Vodafone roaming for the 5 weeks we were there. This meant buying another 2GB of data to keep us connected.

I am working on what the plan will be for the next visit … should we go back to SFR direct ?

We love France and we love the local people.   I don’t know what it is about businesses in Frances that makes them incapable of managing customer expectations.  We are blessed in the UK with a high probability that if you email a company you will get an answer or at least an acknowledgement of your message.   This probably spoils us when we are in France where there is an enduring black hole of little or no comms or at least no timely comms in response to messaging them.   This assumes that they give you a contact email address but usually they hide behind web based decoupling. You would think that the likes of Orange or Free as communications companies … would communicate ?

Rant over.

Back to the workshop and am I am trying to remember what was work-in-progress 5 weeks ago.

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France visit with astro photography and Canon camera CHDK hack

Like all responsible citizens we have been in social distancing since March and throughout this time both my wife and I have been concerned about our house in France.   

As infection rates seemed to be easing we decided to make a quick visit to the Dordogne to check all was well.   Normally we take a ferry crossing but we really did not want to risk the exposure this would entail.  Instead we opted to take the Channel Tunnel.  For those not familiar with this route, you drive to the terminal, check in and then get loaded in your car onto a rail transport shuttle train.  The journey through the Tunnel takes around 40 minutes and you off load near Calais in France and head south.  This route offered minimal exposure to others as we were effectively in the car from door to door and not allowed to leave the vehicle on the shuttle train.

We live in the mid south of England so there was the discomfort of a 2 hour journey to the Folkestone to board the shuttle.   Normally we have a 1 hour run to Portsmouth for the ferry.  Once in France at Calais there was a 9+ hour run via Paris (not fun) down to the Dordogne.  It was tiring but with the two of us taking shifts it eased the strain.

All was good at the house and we spent two weeks with minimal human contact and survived on the French ‘click and collect’ food supply services.  We had some very high daily temperatures and some nice wine.

We have a very close friend called John living in France and he knows our house well and envies our Dark Sky location.   He has similar interests in Fusion 360, horology, Arduino, mechanical design and relevant to this instance, astro-photography. August is the peak time for the Perseid meteor shower.  We both own Canon Powershot SX50 HS zoom cameras and he made a comment that it was a shame that these did not have a Bulb setting for the shutter or the ability for us to do time lapse to take some shots of the meteor trails.

Investigating on the internet revealed that there is a group of enthusiasts that have hacked the operating system of the Canon range of cameras.   This is known as CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit).  It allows you to load a firmware update into the camera to expand its capabilities but does not overwrite the default issued code.   The CHDK code is wiped once you switch off and the camera reverts to normal.

CHDK provides facilities for long exposure times and for time lapse routines.  This therefore addressed both the issues we had with the SX50.  It took a while for us to share notes and to get our heads around how CHDK worked and how to set it up.  I managed to get my camera hacked the day before it was time to journey home.   I had one last night of hopefully cloud free viewing to get some images.

Those familiar with all things astro will know that a long exposure time image of the sky will be degraded by the movement of the Earth’s rotation.  The result is ‘trails’ on the stars so they look elongated rather than single dots.  John is developing an Arduino based star tracker but I did not have access to  this but I did have my Celestron telescope.  When the telescope is calibrated and locked it will keep track of the star movement and not leave trails.   

I spent the day devising a mount for the Canon on the telescope and come 10 pm all was ready to run … except the cloud cover was really bad.  I waited and waited and finally I got one run of 4 shots of 3 minutes each looking at the Milky Way.  Given more time these could have been stacked in Registax or similar to enhance the images further.

Milky Way image taken with a Canon HS50 hacked with CHDK to give 3 minute exposures
Milky Way image taken with a Canon HS50 hacked with CHDK to give 3 minute exposures

I accept that the SX50 is far from ideal as an astro imaging camera.  There is too much glass in the light path and the filtering and noise will be poor but this was a first step along the road.  I was pretty pleased with the result.  I now need to compare notes with John on his Arduino based star tracker.  Another project to add to the ever increasing list …..

Next day we made the house secure and departed knowing that we now faced not just a 13 hour journey but also a 14 day quarantine period when we got home.  But of course the upside is 14 days of uninterrupted workshop time.

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Absence Update – French Leave

I’m sorry it has been a bit quiet of late but we had 3 gloriously hot weeks in France which were a nice mix of friends coming to stay, local visits and jobs …. always jobs.

Outstanding in the visits category was the trip to the Gouffre de Padirac which is an extensive cave system where you go by boat from one area to another.  The scenery was stunning.

Job wise a new set of steps for the spa dominated along with re-work of the foss septic tank ventilation system.   Just a bit smelly on this one.

The house is in a village like many other villages in France where there are few young people and young families but rather an aged population.   Houses are plentiful but mostly have their shutters closed apart from a few days or weeks in summer when family visit to cut the grass and the shrubs.   It is a reflection of French inheritance laws that require assets at death to not go to the surviving partner but to the children.   The children then have difficulty deciding what to do with a house and any associated land so it goes on the too difficult pile and the house sits empty and shuttered up.   As a result the heart slowly goes out of the villages which is only mitigated by crazy foreigners buying and renovating.    While we were there this time two more elderly inhabitants passed away and two more houses closed their shutters.   It is all quite sad.  If a head count was made of empty houses in France it would astonish.

That aside it was a good visit and the weather made it perfect.   Back to the workshop now and I am keen to install a diesel heater to give some low cost comfort over winter.   Reports to follow. 

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