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Wednesday
Dec072016

Shopping for a Panasonic hi-fi?

Panasonic SC-PM250EB [click to see]How hard can it be to buy a mini hi-fi? I was looking for a small Panasonic CD player with DAB radio, as the one that caught my eye had good reviews for sound quality, was very compact and easy to use and I’ve got on well with the Panasonic brand for forty years.

Having picked a model, then the fun began – comparing specs., shopping for prices and (last but not least)  checking that I’m buying the right product.

Digging around on Amazon I found the Panasonic SC-PM250EB-S  Micro Speaker System and then I saw the identical-looking Panasonic SC-PM250BEBS DAB Micro Hi-Fi System.  What's the difference?

Some reviews said the system had DAB, others said it didn’t work very well [No signal? Poor aerial? I mused...] whilst others said it did NOT have DAB radio. Eventually I deduced that the current model [-BEBS] does have DAB and some customers must have bought (or been sold) the older FM-only version.

Checking the Panasonic website to confirm the specs then, and I was shocked by how woeful it was. All I could see was the (old spec.) Panasonic SC-PM250EB and the SC-PM250BEBS did not appear anywhere at all.  A none-too-helpful Panasonic reviewer said the DAB doesn’t work – maybe because his didn’t have DAB anyway, or maybe he’s as confused as I was.  Worse was the fact that product manual PDFs could not be downloaded, though I did find some specs. here.

Argos were as bad, and I found their website had a useless search engine with no details of Panasonic’s stereo at all. I eventually found this Argos link on Google - aha! It’s the SC-PM250B model alright (with no ‘E’ in it?) but to their credit at least they had a PDF manual which might give me some idea of the spec. – or would it?

Well, it got worse: Argos claimed it had an FM/AM tuner [ie the old 2014 model]. However the PDF manual claimed it has 30 FM and 20 DAB+ presets! The Argos customer reviews were very mixed: although most agreed the sound was good for the size, one claimed he’d been sold a non-UK version, one claimed it was FM only and several stated theirs did not have DAB as advertised. Later I would learn that the UK model has ‘EB’ in its name.

Clearly the web site data, descriptions and manuals were all out of sync. and to be honest, I ended up more confused than ever. Looking around, John Lewis had a Panasonic SC-PM250BEBS as did Currys. So it was evident that I should pick the UK DAB version with the ‘BEBS’ in the product part number.

Last resort, I logged into Tesco’s website here and – lo and behold – they listed the DAB+ version and (even better) the website knew that I had some unused Tesco vouchers on my account that I could use. I could order and collect from my favourite store, which is exactly what I did, 48 hours later.

It goes to show how you have to cross-refer and double check before buying, and not rely on a single source of information. Both Currys and John Lewis did a good job of presenting these Panasonic units online. Sadly, Argos and Amazon between them failed to offer accurate information. If anything, customer reviews made things worse, but if nothing else they highlighted a problem in the spec. that needed investigating.

Panasonic’s website I found pitiful, hard to navigate around, too many slidey, fancy graphics and inadequate data to help prospective purchasers. As a discerning buyer who knows what I’m doing, I want to see a 360 degree view of a product (sockets, knobs and all) and download a proper manual with a full tech. spec.

Full marks went to Tesco for offering the right product at a right price, spending my Clubcard vouchers at the same time and offering the most seamless checkout experience. John Lewis, though, states they include a 2 Year guarantee.

After delivery

The Panasonic SC-PM250EB stereo unit itself is as you’d expect in this price bracket. It looks smart enough sitting on a shelf and does the job, having a surprisingly decent sound quality (10W per channel) for its size and good DAB and FM reception. The main box is an all-plastic construction with hardly a shred of metal in it and it’s very lightweight therefore: you can pick it up between finger and thumb.

The CD drive is a typical lightweight plastic affair and a bit noisy at times. It will play MP3 CDs. The DAB+ tuner responds quickly and the bookshelf speakers are standard-fayre vinyl-coated chipboard (an idea invented by Alan Sugar!), hosting a single loudspeaker.

Rear view of the SC-PM250EB. It has a proper F-connectorOn the rear are stereo speaker terminals, a proper threaded F-type antenna socket and a mains a.c. input socket – and that’s it.  Allow several inches of spare space behind, to accommodate these connections.

Remote control [click to see]The remote control is very simple to use with high-legibility printing. The control legends on the silver front panel, though, I found to be poor contrast and hard to read. The LCD display is a basic alphanumeric scrolling single line with a narrow-ish viewing angle and sometimes hard to read. It can be dimmed one level for night-time use.

Having stuck the T-shape DAB aerial wire under a nearby wooden rail,  I could tune in and skip through DAB+ channels, storing presets with the (must-have) help of the instruction sheet. Unlike some stereo systems, a separate indoor aerial could be connected using the threaded F-socket.

A USB port will handle the playback of MP3s.  I was not able to pair Bluetooth with a TV soundbar although it was within the 10m operating distance. The most surprising omission is a headphone socket which ruled out my using a separate audio Bluetooth transmitter to hook to the soundbar.

Overall, it’s a decent lower-end stereo system that looks smart on a shelf and it's simple to use. It has all the features you need in a compact CD/ DAB+ radio. If you definitely want to use headphones, though, you’re out of luck unless you have some Bluetooth ones.

  • Note the part number on the rear panel still shows just SC-PM250EB. The 'EB' means the UK model. When buying, look for -BEBS- in the part number - that's the later DAB model.
  •  A link to the previous (FM, not DAB+) version is here: http://www.panasonic.com/uk/consumer/home-entertainment/hi-fi/sc-pm250eb.html
  • Details were correct at the time of writing, December 2016. Links and availability might have changed.

 

Friday
Jul082016

How to get rid of spider mite on greenhouse crops and houseplants

Summer’s well on the way and my greenhouse tomato and cucumber crops are looking promising, but this year I’m noticing the early onset of a greenhouse pest that has the potential to totally devastate everything it attacks: spider mite. These are very tiny pests that feed off the plant’s circulatory system, literally sucking the life out of them. Their ability to destroy large plants is out of all proportion to their size – they are smaller than grains of flour or dust particles, and are barely visible to the naked eye. I have seen very large specimen plants (such as an exotic banana plant) almost wiped out and left unchecked spider mites will happily destroy tomato plants and, in my case, threaten this year's cucumber crop too.

Healthy cucumber leaf [click to see]

Cucumber spider mite damage [click to see]

Foliage death caused by spider mite [click to see]Yellowing caused by spider mite sap damage. Fine webs will be visible in the area shown [click to see]Misting with water reveals the webs [click to see]

It's war! Spider mite can destroy a large plant [click to see]The first signs of spider mite are usually on foliage. It starts to go dappled and yellow as the chlorophyll is drained away by the sap-sucking pests, and it may result in totally desiccated patches of greenery as though the plant has been scorched.

Spider mites tend to gather more on the underside of leaves, between the veins. They also group on the base and stalk of the leaf, and if you look very closely you may see tiny, dust-like particles moving around. The presence of spider mite can often be revealed by spraying leaves with a fine mist of water: this will highlight very fine cobwebs that form on the ‘valley’ of leaves around the base and stalk. If you see these tell-tale signs, then it’s important to act straight away before they spread and destroy the whole plant in a few short weeks (which they will!), then spreading to other plants nearby.

Old-fashioned remedies include spraying with a water/ washing-up liquid (a drop or two only), or regular misting with water as spider mites thrive in hot, dusty conditions. At most, this might set them back a little, but it's not 100% effective and it’s necessary to use a more aggressive treatment to deal with the problem thoroughly.

I find many common amateur pesticide sprays have little effect these days. Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, pesticide resistance is now very high making pest control (aphids, whitefly and spider mites especially) far more difficult than it ever used to be.

Start by removing heavily infested foliage and destroy it. Two products to start with (remember, as we’re treating a food crop, sprays must be food-safe) are Bug Clear Ultra for flowers, fruit and veg, and Resolva Bug Killer. Be sure to spray the undersides of leaves and leave axils/ stems where spider mites flourish. There are steep restrictions on how often you can spray food (2-3 times maximum, say), and how long you have to wait before harvesting crops.

The problem of spider mite has plagued my greenhouse for a couple of years, and I have to say I’ve tried both of these products with limited results: in fact they are not specific for spider mite but can provide some useful control. Of the general garden-centre products, Scott's Bug Clear for Fruit & Veg is probably the best bet. It's a rape-seed oil based product that is 100% natural and is worth a try: mix it with water in a pressure sprayer.

Otherwise the next stage is to try specific products to kill spider mite. One suggestion is Spidermite Control (SMC), a natural, oily spray that claims to suffocates spider mites on contact (the same way Scott's Bug Clear for Fruit & Veg does). It is organic, natural, friendly to bees, safe for kids, wildlife. It also claims to beat whitefly and aphid.

An alternative is Safer’s Trounce, a Canadian product that's a contact insecticide with a natural chemical formula. It claims to be the only product with pyrethrins (insecticide) and fatty acids (breaks down pests on contact). A 500mL bottle of Trounce makes up to 10L, and a 1L RTU spray is also available. I would suggest this is likely to be a better all-rounder, especially for use on indoor plants.

A third way is to use a natural predator that dines on spider mites, and Phytoseiulus is sold in packs but they have been very heavily criticised for being very expensive and performing poorly.

I have wasted a small fortune on ineffective Ready To Use (RTU) sprays sold by garden centres. As SMC points out, one mature female spider mite can produce up to one million offspring in a month, so now it’s time to press the nuclear button – I’ve opted to try Trounce and I’ll keep you posted how well this spider mite pesticide does in my greenhouse, so be sure to check back.

At the end of the season I'll empty the greenhouse and fumigate it with a sulphur candle or two (if I can get any - they seem to be banned by the EU now), to kill off any overwintering pests. Below are links to the above products on Amazon, plus technical info links.

Wednesday
Jan202016

How to stop fence panels from rattling

Fence Panel Grips are a unique way of stopping fence panels from rattlingWith wet and windy weather fast approaching, British homeowners who own those attractive fence panels held in place with slotted concrete posts will probably start to notice them rattling in the wind.  In fact those expensive slatted panels cope better with high winds than solid panels do – the open construction with gaps lets the wind pass through, unlike solid so-called feather-edge board, but fence panel rattling is a perennial problem especially at night time: the sound can be as bad as a long train rumbling in the distance, and it can keep you and your neighbours awake!

There hasn’t been a simple but reliable way of dealing with this nuisance until now. Various DIY remedies include trying to bash wedges into the top, but that won’t secure them at the bottom, or somehow screwing fence panels into the concrete posts.  That’s a hit and miss affair as they are probably pre-stressed concrete posts having at least two iron cores. You don’t want to be drilling them in case they crack or you hit the iron cores inside, though I have got away with drilling smaller holes in the centre for Rawlplugs to enable small hooks to be screwed to them.

Fenceclip stops wooden fences rattling (click to see)Eventually I found the best answer to stop fence panels rattling is to use a special spring clip specially designed for the job. They are made of stainless steel wire and marketed exclusively by Fence Panel Grips Ltd, a small startup firm based in Redditch (not surprising as Redditch is the home of spring clip manufacturing in Britain).

Fitting these fencing clips is easy – simply press them flat and slide them into the gap. They will expand again to take up the gap between the fence panel and concrete post. As I found, larger panels really do need six clips each, to prevent the panel from being buffeted and the spring clips working themselves out. So use three clips down each side. Another benefit is that they can be fitted from your side of the fence, without needing to access your neighbour's property.

In practice, I fitted clips to some fifteen 1800mm panels during Winter 2015 to see how well they worked. There have been several storms and generally I found the clips held up well. The problem of fence panel rattling had been cured. I did however find that one or two clips loosened a little after severe storms, but it was simple to slide them back in again.

I found very rarely that one or two fenceclips sprang out after severe storms, but it's simple to secure them again (click to see)It's a shame that the clips can’t be screwed down to the panels or maybe stapled in, which would stop them creeping sideways and coming out. But that’s nit-picking as there is nothing else like these clips on the market and I’ve been glad to install them. They can only help with security, too. Overall, if fence panel rattling is a problem then this is the best solution to date, but I recommend checking them every few weeks.

The only alternative I’ve seen are some cheaper screw-down brackets that clamp the panels to the concrete posts, but these may or may not be suitable depending on dimensions, and if your posts are an 'offset slot' style you might only be able to do it from your neighbour's side.

Wednesday
Jan202016

Wooden (Euro) 1800mm fence panels hints and tips

After repairing a long run of wooden fence panels I learned quite a lot about fence panels that's not widely understood. I’ve written this piece to help anyone thinking of replacing or buying wooden fencing, especially those modern 1800mm Euro panels.

6' Feather Edge panels

Typical feather-edge panel (bowed top)In Britain, traditional solid ‘feather edge’ panels are manufactured in 6-foot lengths. That’s 1828mm in new money. They’re usually quite robust, but they need securing to equally robust fence posts. Some people might use wooden posts driven or concreted into the ground for this. Others have used Metpost or similar metal sockets for mounting wooden posts, but opinions about them have been mixed and personally I'm not sure they are robust enough.

A more convenient way is to cement concrete slotted posts into the ground. Their H-profile allows panels to slide in and out like bread in a toaster; panels can then be replaced easily in years ahead. Also it’s worth using “gravel boards” – these cement panels slot between the concrete posts at the bottom and raise the wooden panels off the soil. This protects fence panels from damage and stops e.g. soil from borders (or your neighbours) piling up against the fence panels. The combination of concrete slotted posts and gravel boards is probably the best way of erecting wooden fencing panels to cope with Britain’s variable climate.

Various heights of gravel board are made with smooth or textured treatments that give a pleasing appearance. It’s very important to watch out for the correct length of gravel board though – for typical British feather-edge fencing, double-check for traditional 6’ / 1828mm lengths and ensure you don’t buy metric 1800mm gravel boards (see later) by mistake.

I found that although some catalogues claim their fence panels are metric 1.8m/ 1800mm wide, in practise they were NOT. They can be 6’ / 1828mm wide so you should double-check the size carefully.

The low-down on Euro 1800mm fence panels

Things are more complicated when considering these more expensive fence panels (sometimes called “Euro” panels). They have various attractive lattice effects and patterns as well as straight or bow (arched) tops, and strung together in long lengths they can produce a striking and distinctive garden feature. Unlike traditional British feather-edge panels though, they are not 6’ (1828mm or 1.83m) but are metric 1800mm instead, an inch smaller. Although a number of UK timber merchants market them, the metric size gives us a clue: in fact they are made by just a handful of manufacturers in Eastern Europe (Poland I believe). UK merchants simply import them and get them own-labelled: they are all the same stuff.

I first used them back in 2007 when the designs were new in the UK, but these earliest fence panels were often stapled together rather than screwed (depending who made them) and mine haven’t weathered very well at all. From experience, the slats started bowing along their lengths and generally they sprang themselves apart and gradually self-destructed. Nor did they take well to kids banging footballs against them which loosened the slats even more! Overall the quality of these early panels was very disappointing and after 8 years I decided that mine need replacing. If you’re thinking of buying these Euro 1800mm fence panels then read on...

Euro 1800mm fence panel sizing - hints & tips!

Details of how to install H-profile concrete slotted posts are widely available on the web. It’s then simple enough to swap the panels in the future. I found I could (with some help) slide out the old ones and slot in the new ones easily enough. Before you buy replacements, here are some key points to bear in mind.

  • Sizing:  all ‘Euro’ panels are 1800mm wide but they are made in various heights. In the case of bowed (arched) panels, the height is the peak at the apex not at the side (shoulder). This is relevant as you need to set your concrete posts to the shoulder height, which is obviously lower than the peak of bowed fence panels. Catalogues don’t show the shoulder height unfortunately.
  • The earliest bowed panels such as “Elite” almost towered over you, with apex heights of a whopping 1.95m and a 1.8m shoulder. Today, they are universally 1.8m apex with a ~1.65m shoulder (approx as measured). This size reduction was sneaked in and not even timber merchants noticed. So if you want to keep your existing concrete posts and replace earlier-type bowed panels of 1.95m peak height, you’re almost certainly out of luck. You’ll have to use 1.8m square panels instead, or put new (shorter) posts in.
  • I had similar sizing issues when I wanted to swap some smaller Elite panels having bow-shaped lattice tops. The original concrete posts were set to 1.0m height, but I only found one single lattice panel that would match – Earnshaw’s Florence 1.2m (peak), which happily had a 1.0m shoulder.
  • Ensure your fence panel slats are screwed not stapled. Stainless steel screws are now used to screw the slats together, and staples are a cheap no-no that will spring apart eventually.
  • The newer preservatives are arsenic-free (but less effective, it’s said), but I found I’m allergic to them! I suffered a terrible itchy rash when installing them, so it’s best to wear workgloves when handling them.
  • If you find yourself fitting 1800mm Euro panels into a legacy 6’ (1828mm) gap, you can sometimes buy 14mm fillet strips to screw to the panel sides to add 28mm and make them fit.
  • Again, if installing gravel boards or other types of fencing, be sure to double-check sizes – either 1800 or 1828mm. I can't believe my builder cut 28mm off 15 6' gravel boards to make them fit, but he did...

After shopping around, easily the best choice of fence panels was offered by Job. Earnshaw's Fencing Centres.  Established 150 years ago they make a lot of their own fence panels but Euro panels are imported in vast quantities into their Yorkshire depot. Outside of their local delivery area, you would have to arrange transport. I found them substantially cheaper than e.g. Jewson's ‘Elite’ for what amounts to pretty much the same product. I found Earnshaw’s to be first class and highly professional. They also cut and frame panels to bespoke sizes for a very nominal charge.

Tanalised timber preservative

Many such panels are made of ‘tanalised’ softwood timber which involves placing the complete panels into a vacuum chamber to draw out any moisture, then reverse the process and drive a wood preservative into the wood grain under pressure. It’s what gives the timber that light green pallor (the copper sulphate and other compounds are an anti-fungal treatment). They staple little squares of wood here and there to act like ‘feet’ that allows the gases to circulate around the panels stacked up in the chamber.

Problem was, old tantalised preservative contained arsenic which was subsequently banned. That’s also a major reason why old tanalised timber cannot and must not be used for e.g. bonfires or in barbecues. It is also said that such timber panels should not be used adjacent to food crops or allotments, due to the risk of heavy metal seepage and poisoning.

Hard to believe but my original British pressure-treated/ Cuprinolled wooden fence is still holding up after 35 years. Today's tanalised fence panels should be good for, say 7+ years but after 2-3 years they discolour and start to go silver-grey until they look very dull. Some owners paint them with a timber coating (best of luck). In my view, timber-preservative like Ronseal Fence Life is better brushed on as you can brush it into the woodgrain; it can also be sprayed on although this has resulted in legal spats against neighbours due to wind carrying the overspray and paint spattering everywhere (house, cars, windows...)

Hopefully the above practical tips will help prevent making any mistakes when sourcing and buying wooden panels.

Separately I write about how to stop wooden fence panels rattling in the wind.

 

Sunday
Dec212014

Sealing draughty uPVC windows - Tesamoll fits the bill (gap)

The next best thing to new windows

A uPVC window repairer (‘no job too small’) swapped out the hinges on our upstairs uPVC windows for ‘fire escape’ ones just like we requested. Trouble is, some of them didn’t fit too well afterwards and the seal isn’t that good. We’re left with draughts in some places and stormforce rainwater sometimes gets driven through the gap. The fitter blamed the seals ‘drying out and shrinking’ just before he rode out of town on his horse.

Various replacement uPVC window seals are sold online or on ebay, all made of black rubber but there are many different profiles and sizes, so matching and swapping the right uPVC window seals looks to be an onerous and very time-consuming job. There’s also no guarantee that new seals would be much better than the old ones.

Tesamoll is supplied in triple extrusions. Split them apart to use.As the next best thing, I decided to tackle my draughty windows with good old draught excluder – but I needed a high quality weatherproof one that will last for years, preferably in white which won’t stand out like black rubber does. It needed to fill a gap starting at 2mm or so.

After much searching around the answer came in the form of German-made Tesamoll weatherproof draught excluder. The ‘Large’ size suits gaps of 2-5mm and it’s claimed to last 8 years. The shapes are described as D, E, I or P-profile, depending on the cross section. I could have used ‘D’ profile but P-profile was available and seemed just the ticket. It’s made in white or brown rubber, and is also weatherproof, UV and ozone resistant so you know it will last.

Tesa specialises in making adhesives and is a well-known manufacturer in industry and consumer goods. Their P-profile tape comes in lengths of three extrusions side by side, to make 10 metres in total (6m and 25m rolls may also be available.) Simply tear off one strip as needed, and I found they easily stuck along the edges of windows and would meet the existing black seals to form an excellent seal. As the windows are closed far longer than they’re open, sticking draught excluder on the window frame this way wasn’t a problem as the ‘open’ appearance did not really matter much, and the white stick-on rubber seal would look OK when viewed indoors; nor would the repair show from outside.

Tesamoll P-Profile, Rubbing Alcohol and lint-free cloths are neededPreparation is key to success, so for maximum adhesion the windows and seals must be clean and grease-free. It’s best to wipe them down with some eg Rubbing Alcohol (Isopropanol and 30% distilled water) on a lint free cloth. Then try a small piece of draught excluder to judge how it ‘mates’ with the existing window seal once the window is closed.  The aim is to get a good fit between the two surfaces and fill any gaps.

Then simply apply the excluder along the edges, peeling away the backing paper as you go. Don’t press it down hard until it’s in place and you’re happy with it. You can lift and re-position it so it doesn’t squash out too much when closed. Then firm it down with the palm of your hand. It will stick better in warmer weather.

Tesamoll sticks strongly to clean uPVC windowframesAfterwards I found that the windows closed easily and the seal was now perfect, rainproof and draughtproof too. Being white, it is also barely noticeable.  Tesamoll has given these windows a new lease of life at next to no cost. Note that the adhesive will get stronger as time goes by, and the profile will squash down as a matter of course. 

The white seal is barely visible indoorsTesamoll weatherproof draught excluder is available on Amazon in white and brown. You can learn more about their products on Tesa’s web site.  Rubbing Alcohol is cheap and readily available online and is a useful general purpose solvent cleaner and also a medical aid.