Solution designed, part search begins

So a solution has been found to the problem of 12v systems failing. Now I just need to find the one part I’m missing that’s required to implement the solution. I’ll be calling around locally tomorrow to see if someone has what I need, in which case I should be able to open really quickly. Otherwise it’ll have to be mail-order, and I’ll be at the mercy of whatever delivery they’ve got.

Still closed until further notice though.

For those interested in the details, or just curious:

The technical solution, which none of the professionals I’ve consulted have proposed in the 3 years I’ve owned this unit, is to get rid of the 12v system. As far as I can tell I don’t need it. I’ve always had a cooler that requires 110v AC, and needs to be always on. This means that the trailer always has a source of 110v AC, be it through an extension cord, generator, or inverter from the tow vehicle. So I’ll just be getting myself a reliable 110v AC on-demand pump and rip out the 12v system. One less thing to worry about, and I get back the space currently used by the battery pack. I don’t know where the assumption was that I needed a 12v power system in the trailer. It came that way when I bought it, and I didn’t realize that the small pump I used for water had a AC version, not just a 12v DC version. Now I know. There’s a lot of learning in this business…

Giving up… on vegetable oil

The traditional seasoning for cast iron surfaces in Bretagne is called “lardigel”. It is a mix of rendered pig lard and egg yolk. When carefully heated, this transforms into a polymerized non-stick surface that is quite durable. This has worked for hundreds of years. Yes, quite literally.

For the past three years I have tried to cater to the vegan and hardcore vegetarian clients by using the “other” seasoning, vegetable oil. Not as durable, but works for some. Unfortunately, it’s not working for me. I’m having to re-season my billig every 100-200 crêpes, instead of every 1000-2000 that lardigel offers. This extra workload is proving to be too much.

So as of the next seasoning (today or tomorrow), I’ll be going back to lardigel as my cast iron seasoning product of choice. I apologize to those who find this objectionable, but I really can’t afford to do it any other way any more.

In scheduling news, we’re open today (Thursday) until 12:30 then reopening from 17:30 to 20:00. Same again on Friday. Saturday we might be at the Glenwood centre for the Toy Run, but having trouble connecting with the organizers. More later.

Almost there?

After some more research I’ve changed a few things in how I season my griddles. Here’s how they look immediately after a 12 coat seasoning. More later on whether it sticks (literally) to the billig this time!
We will remain closed until it does! Because without a billig, there are no crêpes, and without crêpes there is no crêperie!

Newly seasoned billig
Newly seasoned billig

 

Here’s what is happening

Technical post, for those who might be interested.

Here are pictures of the peeling and delamination of the seasoning on the billig, as it happens. These pictures were taken after the billig had cooled a little. The billig on the right in the first picture started peeling WHILE I was seasoning it, while it was still hot. The billig on the left started peeling when it started cooling.

Peeling billig after cooling
Billig after cooling
Closeup of peeling seasoning on billig

Laboratory update – part 3

Results:
Max humidity: 62%
Min temperature: 7°C

Well, the seasoning seems to be stable with those parameters. So I’ve decided to open again on TUESDAY, 22 November, at Maffeo Sutton park. I’d open Monday, but since I didn’t book ahead I’ll need to do that, and I also need to arrange to get keys and other information for the park since I’ve not used that one before.  So Tuesday (and Wednesday, and possibly Thursday) it shall be, barring any further problems.

Probably from just before noon to around dinner time. Not expecting huge crowds, it’s more a “does this stuff work” set of days rather than a “let’s make money” kind of day. Not that I’d mind doing the latter, of course! Follow the Gwenn-ha-du!

Breton flag, the Gwenn-ha-du.
The Gwenn-ha-du of Bistro Breizh.

Laboratory update – part 2

The first night doesn’t seem to have hurt the seasoning, as far as I can see. We’ll see what happens tonight. Today I hope to finish the 3rd billig and I’ll leave that in the trailer as well.

The hypothesis that I’ve formed is that it’s a combination of condensation along with temperature fluctuations that causes the flaking off of the seasoning. Therefore, if I can keep the temperature inside the trailer above the dew point, I should be OK. This means keeping the relative humidity down while keeping the temperature up.

Thanks to the heater, min temp overnight was 6°C. Max humidity overnight in the trailer was about 75%. Dew point was therefore about 2°C.

Another point is that in order to prevent mechanical damage and corrosion to the equipment, I should be keeping the humidity below 55% or so. Yes, I need a better dehumidifier. Or perhaps a 2nd one. Or perhaps I need to move the one I have to a more “central” location for better air circulation? Will be testing more options over time.

Laboratory update

I was unable to maintain proper seasoning temperature when doing the billig outside the trailer. Might be due to not enough gas flow using my “outside” rig with more than one billig. So I had to design and build something to stop the smoke from the seasoning from completely choking me out of the trailer, in order to do the seasoning using the trailer gas system which is designed for much higher volume.

I managed to bodge something together after a few days, so two of the billig are now seasoned. I’ve put a heater into the trailer to reduce temperature fluctuations, and I’ve put the dehumidifier on full. Now we wait to see if the billig stay coated or if it flakes off again. If the seasoning doesn’t die after a couple of day/night cycles I’ll be re-opening. In the meantime I’ll be fixing up the third billig, which I will keep in the house as a faster (hopefully) replacement if one of the other ones suddenly stops working. I’m also strongly considering getting a 4th billig “just in case”, especially if I can find a more local supplier to whom I can then turn for repairs to my older two whose temperature control isn’t working.

When I open again I intend to experiment with Maffeo Sutton park as a week-day location (opposite White Sails Brewing) probably from just before noon to about 17h00 (5pm) depending on traffic.  I’ll also try to keep dates at Living Forest Campground and Arbutus Distillery if they want me back. But all that depends on me being able to keep my billig operating. I have a lot of catching up to do!

I’ll hopefully know in a day or two.

Tradition to the rescue

There are two ways to look at a problem. From a purely analytical perspective, or from the point of view of “tradition”.

Analytically, the “seasoning” of the billig (crepe griddle) is simply the careful polymerization – or turning into a form of plastic – of certain fats onto the cast iron surface of the billig. This thin plastic coating is highly resistant if it’s done right, including the correct types of fat and careful temperature control.

It looks like the seasoning coats I’d created might have delaminated from the cast iron subsurface due to high humidity. Having analysed this and past failures, each time I’ve had this type of failure on the billig, it’s been at a time of very high humidity and fairly broad temperature fluctuations. I have a dehumidifier in the trailer, but there was a large water leak recently which increased the humidity beyond acceptable limits.

Of course, looked at from the perspective of tradition, it’s obviously because I didn’t follow the wisdom of my ancestors and didn’t season the thing correctly in the first place. I was not careful enough in my first creation of a magic substance called “lardigel”, a mixture of pure lard and egg yolk that has been used on billig for as long as there are records of these things. Instead, my first attempts failed, so I moved away from lardigel to other substances. I should not have discarded tradition.

The problem with making lardigel in Canada is that “pure lard” is almost impossible to find. Whereas it’s available in most supermarkets in France, in Canada what is called “pure lard” most certainly isn’t. It’s been adulterated with additives and other chemicals that change it in ways that are detrimental to a good billig coating. Even the local butcher who claimed to sell “pure lard” had salted the stuff! Not so pure after all! I had tried what I thought was lardigel previously and failed. It seems that this might have been because the lard I was using was not, in fact, “pure”.  Lack of proper labelling in this country is a real detriment to doing things correctly.

So I have gone right back to basics and located a source of pure, unadulterated pig fat (leaf lard) straight from the pig. I will be rendering it into the pure lard myself. Once I have the pure lard, I’ll mix it into the substance known as “lardigel” using traditional techniques. Knowledge which I was actually taught in my training, but have neglected to my detriment.  If I do this carefully enough, it should create a well bonded polymer coating that should resist humidity somewhat better. This process is known as the “culottage” in French.

Of course, I could be wrong, in which case expect another “arrrggghhh” post in the near future. We’ll see what happens. It also won’t fix the technical issues I’m having with the automatic temperature controls of the billig. That’s going to be another challenge, to say the least, especially since proper culottage of the billig requires fairly careful temperature control as well as the correct ingredients for lardigel.

Internet Access: Part 1 – Define the problem.

Another technical post, this time as I try to determine how to get internet access at Bistro Breizh. In this post, I’m just trying to define what the problem actually is. In future posts, I’ll detail how I solved the problem.

Goal

Having internet access from the trailer this will allow me to use the least expensive credit and debit card processing options that allow use of chip-and-pin, maybe even NFC (a.k.a. “tap”).  At the moment I’ll probably be using Helcim as a credit card processor, as I’ve heard good things about them and they apparently don’t rip off us little guys. They also put their prices out front, without requiring that you talk to a high-pressure salesperson as other outfits do. That said, I’m still looking around.

Requirements

I’ve solved 2 of the 4 issues facing me:

  1. an internal WIFI network in the trailer. This is easily done, with any variety of products.
  2. access to an internet hotspot like Shaw Open or a campground WIFI. If none are available, be able to turn my cell phone into an internet hotspot. Also easily done from a single specific device.
  3. some way to connect the internal WIFI network to the selected internet hotspot. Need to be able to do it without fiddling with settings all the time. At most I should have to set things up one per location. At each one I’d just select the appropriate hotspot, enter the appropriate passwords, and never have to worry about how to set up at that location again.
  4. drive a WIFI signal through the metal cage that is the trailer, then make that signal go much further than is normal for a “standard” WIFI setup. This will probably require the use of an outdoor WIFI antennae of some kind.

internet access diagram

Murkiness ahead

This is where it gets a bit murky. Technically what I really need is “wan over WIFI”. But products marketed as “extenders” seem to do this as well. There are even several products that claim to do it all for you, but when you look at the details they’re either being misleading, or just outright lying. Or they’re way overpriced! I saw one for US$6500, whereas I know I can do the whole setup for CDN$300 or less, probably even under $100 and some extra time.

Some products come with “wan over WIFI” built in, but they seem to start at fairly high prices. An alternative would be to get a cheaper WIFI router, then “upgrade” it using DD-WRT or Open-WRT, open source firmware that allows router hardware to do much more than what was originally intended by those who made them.

The (DD / Open)-WRT trick depends on the fact that manufacturers will deliberately hobble perfectly good hardware in order to get people to pay more for extra features that already exist in the basic models, but can’t be accessed by the software provided. DD-WRT and Open-WRT give full access to all the hardware features of any model they work on. The trick is to purchase a model they work on.

But that’s only part of the problem. I also need to solve the whole “the trailer is a metal shell” issue. This will probably require some form of external antennae. I found a couple of products that are “outdoor range extenders”, but if you look closely they aren’t meant to hook into a local WIFI network, they only actually work if you hook them up to a SINGLE computer. Which defeats the whole purpose.

So I’m currently sorting through the murkiness and marketing mud and trying to determine how to solve all my requirements.

More later!

Automation – part 2

This was meant to be a 3 part post about monitoring temperature: decide to do it, describe the installation, then a bit later review how it’s working out for me. The more I learn though, the more I think it’s now going to be a serialized novel, or at least have much more than 3 parts.

In this chapter, I decided that it might be useful to go through the process I’ve used to get to this point. How am I approaching this research and design project, and why am I selecting the products I’ve selected so far.

In short, the process was:

Normally, at this point the “best” solution would present itself. The first part would simply have served as a look into the progress on a field that I’m already familiar with. However, this is a technological field that I’m definitely not very familiar with yet, so I decided to do extra research to see if my currently determined price point is valid, or to see if my requirements are either too limited, or too broad. That means that the above process is repeated several times, and I’ll stop when I stop finding new solutions or new ways to do things. So far each time I’ve repeated the loop above I’ve learned something new, so I’m still repeating the loop. I’m not counting how many times I’ve done this. Research is fun!

Looking at what already exists

So far my iteration of searches have found a real mess. The area is rife with proprietary solutions that are big on marketing, and very low on what they’re actually offering. There are also far too many providers who categorically refuse to put out even a ballpark price for their “solutions”, instead requiring that you talk to a salesperson to “discuss your needs”. This is an approach I’ve seen a lot in several industries, and each time I’ve gone ahead and talked to a salesperson, all they had to offer was a high pressure sales pitch for a fixed “solution” that might or might not meet my needs.

Individually, the sensors themselves are a commodity product that sells for $1 each, retail, and much less in bulk.  Unfortunately, they’re being re-packaged into proprietary solutions that are then being sold for anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars. I can see the reason for some of those costs – low volume, for one. But that doesn’t excuse some of the apparent attempts at gouging that I’m seeing.

So far I’ve seen three general types of companies:

  • the companies that claim they have a solution, and have beautifully crafted marketing brochures that don’t actually give any details. They also refuse to give ANY details online and want you to call to talk to a salesperson. In my opinion, these people are stuck in the pre-internet days when information wasn’t readily available. I won’t be dealing with these companies. Ever.
  • the companies that offer fixed solutions, with zero flexibility and only one or two hugely underpowered products that don’t even meet the needs of a single-person kitchen, then a huge jump to enterprise level systems meant for huge commercial kitchens.  Nothing in-between. They’ll have some information about the systems, but not a lot since there’s no flexibility. I might deal with one of these, assuming that one of their low-end systems actually meets my needs. So far, no luck.
  • the companies that offer solutions that more or less scale, and aren’t afraid to put their prices, technical data, and other information online for people to be able to make decisions on their own. These are the companies I’ll be looking at. Luckily, there are several of them out there.

Determining initial requirements

This was easy, but it’s still being decided. Count things I want to measure. Add it up. The tricky part was determining what was even possible, and what is “must have” vs “nice to have”. At the moment, my personal list is:

  • Must have:
    • Alerts to my phone (either direct SMS, or email-to-SMS gateway).
    • An alert strobe or audible alarm for when I’m actually on the trailer and not paying attention to the phone. I can then check the unit to see what set the alarm off.
    • I will take care of internet connectivity – either through a home wifi network (when the trailer is parked at home or close to a hotspot I have access to) or through a GSM mobile hotspot if I determine I need one.
    • 3 wired temperature sensors: fridge, freezer, and water system to prevent freezing in winter.
    • 1 wired motion sensor for a simplistic alarm system.
    • 1 wired power sensor: since my refrigeration is solely on the trailer and a power failure is kind of critical if I’m not there to notice, and it would be useful to have a warming before the temperatures get critical.
  • Extra safety stuff: (probably “must have” at some point, assuming I can find a vendor that sells these for less than $EEK!)
    • Propane leak detector
    • Carbon dioxide detector – esp in winter when I close the trailer doors.
  • Nice to have
    • No monthly charges. I want to buy a solution and not be charged for it over and over. Then again, a cloud solution lets me avoid having to do too much I.T. work in the trailer, I can see myself liking this benefit.
    • 1 wired air flow to alert me if venting stops
    • chlorine sensor so I don’t have to continuously remember to use test strips.
    • generator fuel level – I may need to go wireless since the generator will hopefully be located away from the trailer when possible. Still, it’s not big deal to check the level a couple of times per day, so not really required. A toy.
    • propane gas level in cylinders – this is a bit more important, as I’ll be using large amounts at certain times and running out would be bad. But this is a “later” thing, since usage is low to start, so I can check the levels manually much less often.

As you can see, just for the “must have” I’m already up to about 5 or 6 sensors and one output relay. Some rather expensive “starter” solutions assume that I’ll need no more than four. So I’m already looking at mid-level systems here, just for a fairly simple trailer. I can only guess what they consider “starter”.

Pricing out solutions

Since the companies I’ve decided to deal with aren’t afraid to put their prices online, or have suppliers that provide those prices, this wasn’t that difficult either. I even managed to find Canadian distributors for some of the solutions of interest, which saves a lot of hassle since American companies often don’t realize Canada exists.

However, pricing is odd. Many companies use proprietary connectors that won’t work with any other products. Even though the actual physical cost of the sensor they’re selling is about $1, they’re selling these for anything from $12 to $120 each! All because they use proprietary connectors, so they know that if you pick their product you have to buy sensors from them. So one company has an expensive central unit that uses inexpensive sensors, and another has a cheaper central unit that makes me purchase expensive sensors. At the minimal configurations the prices are similar. As soon as you start to build up with more sensors suddenly the price differences get really serious.

… to be continued.