Posts tagged home improvement

Just got unifi-ed

When Telekom Malaysia (TM) announced their Fiber to the home broadband initiative, I was rather excited as broadband speeds in Malaysia have stagnated over the past couple of years. Initially when I jumped on to the DSL bandwagon in 2001 with a paltry (by today’s standard) speed of 384kbps down and 128kbps up. It was a big improvement over any 33.6 or even 56kbps modems of the day. Fast forward 10 years and internet speeds have doubled or tripled many times in neighboring countries and all we’re stuck with is 2mbps DSL. 4mbps is available but few areas could even qualify with the poor quality of cabling or exchange equipment. My home couldn’t even get past 1.8mbps due to the distance from the exchange.

It took TM about a year plus to reach my backwater housing area. The good thing is many others have sacrificed their effort and time to enable TM to iron out the kinks in the system and to improve the roll-out, delivery and implementation service. After all, there are thousands and hundreds of thousands of homes to install.

The good is that they no longer need eight guys to install like for my parents home, a year back. The bad is that they still are not coordinated with their contact center and appointment scheduling system. It still takes an entire day but most of it will be spent waiting and waiting or cleaning up. If you’re lucky, everything goes well after install otherwise, you’ll end up waiting for new modems, BTUs, and more technicians.

For me, the install was a breeze. Minus the five hours waiting for the installers to show up. When the appointment time said 9:30am to 2:30pm, I assumed the install will complete within that window rather than start at 2:45pm! Anyway, my install was through the ceiling so all was needed was a hole drilled through the outside wall to get into the ceiling, pull the fiber and drop it into my central cable drop. My home, fortunately for the TM installers, had a central cable drop where all ethernet, phone, cable TV, etc are laid down so drilling through the wall took the longest time. The Brits build houses to last in the 60s.

Fortunately for the installers, I also provided the ceiling light and ladder otherwise they would have come to grief with such a miserable ladder of theirs. Also to their benefit, my entire house is wired with CAT5e (long story why it’s not CAT6) so again, the rest of the setup was a breeze. Plug the Fiber BTU here, LAN to WAN port, IP TV out to Port 2 (next to my TV), Phone out to Phone Distribution panel and viola, IP TV works, we got internet and the rooms have phone lines! Hallelujah!

Since I had a Cisco VPN Router & SPI firewall going, I wanted to junk the crappy DLINK DIR615 that came with the package. The router has caused grief to many users due to it running custom firmware, lack of security (all wide open settings), poor wireless and network performance, and more. The problem with using your own router is that the incoming network has three VLANs and if you didn’t care about the IP-TV, you can go ahead. I paid for all services so I damn well want the access.

Solution was simply replace the DIR615 with a VLAN bridge. I used a MikroTik RB250 for this purpose. If anyone wants a pre-configured RB250, drop me an email. I have the RouterBoard Rb750GS as well but for the moment, I wanted to continue using my Cisco router.

Here’s the TM Fiber Broadband Termination unit (BTU)

The crappy D-Link DIR615 which was quickly replaced…

My Cisco VPN and IPS/IDS Firewall

The Huawei IP TV Set-top box (STB). Still a bit laggy when watching internet streaming content

The awesome MikroTik RB250 VLAN Bridge.

I really need to fix my cabling mess! For now, Yellow is WAN link, white is Internal network, Blue is POE, green is for Voice and now Red for IPTV.

 So how does it perform? The good is that it works pretty much as it is advertised. No complaints until the service starts going down or becomes unreliable but overall, my satisfaction is high. Minus the setup, installation part of course. Your mileage may vary and depending on your home and where you want certain components, i.e. IPTV, Wireless, phone, etc, the process might cost you a fair bit and be more trouble than in my case.

Renovation hell or heaven

Just had a friend move into his renovated (or as the Americans would say “remodeled”) home a few weeks back. It’s kind of interesting to see how much thought goes into a project of this scale or magnitude. It also reflects a lot of our own personal experience with our current and previous dwellings as well as our current requirements and situation. For example, he has three kids and all girls so the bathroom for the girls has separate cubicles for showering and doing your business in addition to the sink and mirror — in tech speak, single-core triple-threaded bathroom! Some of the little things you wouldn’t really notice or want can get pretty handy down the road such as two-way light switches – done reading? flip that switch by the bedside to go to sleep. Want to prevent anyone with a cheap radio transceiver from opening your auto-gate at night? Put a switch and turn it off at night. Well, the list goes on…

I’ve just done up my house a about a year and a half ago. It is a 45-year old house that used to sell at about RM10,000. During that time, I had other friends and colleagues doing up their own homes at the same time so it was good to share experiences with each other. We could have written a book! Or should have! Anyways, here are some things that we found we had in common.

1. The price quoted to you will never be the price you finally pay.

The lowest bid usually has a bunch of assumptions that are generally wrong or worse yet, you’ll get smacked with a bill for every little change. The highest bid usually covers all the bases but still you will end up paying more. I ended up choosing the middle quote but I still paid more. Some things are unexpected of course such as a friend’s home had a car swallowing sinkhole under the living room and cost him two weeks and a loaded cement mixer to plug it. More reasons below!

2. Buying the stuff yourself is always cheaper but not always

You can always get cement, aggregates (sand, gravel, etc for mixing into concrete), steel, etc cheaper but you’ve gotta let the contractor make some money. It’s also not so practical to obtain a truck-load of sand every week for example. Plus remember, you’ll bound to have some pilferage. These “foreign” workers building your home are bound to sell a bag of cement here or there. Unless you are on-site daily, you can’t tell the usage rate. Plus, exterior work have require remedy or re-doing if it rains while they start the cement or plastering work for example. I decided on ONLY getting the slightly more premium or aesthetic type of things. We went to Niro for tiles (and they have great customer service – read why). We also went to Han Lim (near Niro, Jalan Tandang, PJ) to get bathroom fixtures like my rain shower, sinks, mixer taps. Then off to Mectrades, KL, Jalan Pasar, to get those fancier light switches. While you’re at Jalan Pasar, might as well get some lights too. Rest of the stuff, we let the contractor provide — already too much to handle to sweat the basics.

3. As with point 1 and 2, do get a sanity check

My boss at that time was quoted RM120 per down light fixture and another RM120 per point for the wiring. That was simply absurd. If you don’t know the price of things or would like a second opinion, always check the quote. My electrician quoted only RM100 per point including the fixture, light bulb and wiring. He was also quoted RM5,000 for a 7-foot wide kitchen counter top. The going price at that time was only about RM120 per foot-run and RM250 per side. We’re looking only at the total RM1,340! Even if it included tile-work (going at RM4.50/square foot) it wouldn’t come close to 5K!

4. Sometimes, you gotta put your foot down and insist on things done right or your way

My wife and I are taller than the Malaysian average. We also wanted a counter top at a comfortable height for us. Contractors like to do things their way not because it’s best for you, but because it’s easier and cheaper for them. Of course this is not always the case but it actually is quite likely the case from mine and other friends’ experience. Sometimes, you let them because it may not be a big deal for you but always remember that you’ll be living in that home and for a decent amount of time too. Since we were doing our wiring (45-year old electrical wire is ripe for disaster), I insisted on several things, some being fully galvanized rigid electrical conduits to run my wires to and from the main switch/circuit block. I also insisted on star-topology (which costs more but a blown fuse only affects that small circuit vs the whole room for example) and of course, proper sharing of the three phase power so that a failure of any phase meant only partial loss of power in any room or area. Even if such things didn’t cost more, it’s more work but if you want something, you got to insist on it.

5. Things never get done your way when you’re not around

You want your project completed on time? Show up randomly. Once I just circled around a few blocks after a visit and caught the previously hard-at-work crew lazing in the shade and smoking. Constant checks also allow you to spot certain things that aren’t done right and correct them. Also, invariably (see number 6) you will change things so seeing the progress allow you to sometimes fine-tune certain things. Generally, the tops of windows match the tops of doors but in cases of ground floor bathrooms, you might want otherwise.

6. You will definitely change your plan while in progress

This is almost a given. It also of course depends on the size and scope of the work. For someone who’s building a house from ground up will have more changes that one who is just remodeling the kitchen. I think I had over a dozen changes from window heights to where some windows will be. Bathroom layouts and switch placements were changed. Roof-line, roof-style and even slope were changed. I know everything is a compromise of sorts unless you have unlimited funds but hey, get the best you can. We even changed the color of our kitchen tiles (Thanks to Niro, at no charge!). So, going back to point number 1, yes, buffer for a 20-30% cost above and beyond the quote.

7. The project time line is always too short

Isn’t this like everything else in life? Anyways, most contractors will give a more optimistic time line and not include things like material delivery delays or most of the time, weather related issues. The older the house, probably some additional surprises like that hidden beam or some other delay will crop up. Again, factor in at least 50% more time required. We were told 4-5months. It became about 9 months. Like giving birth. Goodness!

At the end of it all, just be patient, try to enjoy the process (even though you feel like going postal!) and best of all, try to share that experience with friends. It makes the whole thing a bit more bearable.

If you’re currently or have renovated or remodeled your home and have a tip or story to tell, or plain disagree with what I said above, drop me a line here! Would love to hear them experiences – good or bad!

Home Wiring

24 Cat 5e cables and more…

Wanted to post this much earlier but didn’t have the time to. When it was time to replace all the old wiring in my new home, it made sense to lay enough cable drops to various rooms and areas in the house. I used Cat 5e cabling because I had a box of it lying around. Cat 6 would be better but no point throwing a thousand feet of good cable away. A few hiccups happened for the wiring contractor conveniently forgot to add a drop near the kitchen and dining so those areas will need to be wireless now and means they can’t get Satellite TV either via Cat 5. All cables were home-run (star topology) into my “home office” room. I didn’t want a standard Rack occupying the space so I turned Ikea-hacker. An Ikea PS cabinet was modified with my dremel tool to mount a 24-port patch panel and patch block to distribute phone lines. Since I had a DSL link, I patched all phones behind the DSL splitter which makes things cleaner.

Ikea PS. Just what is needed!

Data-links were patched to a Linksys (Cisco Small Business) SRW2008 managed gigabit switch which in turn is fed off my dual-WAN Linksys RV042 VPN router. Also connected is a DLink DIR-655 wireless router and a Netgear 10/100 8-port POE switch to power my IP cameras distributed around the house. It all fit somewhat nicely into the Ikea PS cabinet with space for two Belkin power strips fed off an APC UPS with extended run battery. That’ll give an approximate three hour runtime for my cameras, broadband and network during a power outage.

Improvements? I’ll need to add a few more cable drops for IP cameras sometime this year and since my NAS will be coming soon, I’ll probably need another patch panel. I’ve three data ports in each room, that makes 9 plus my “home office” has 4 ports so I’ve already used 13. My living room and common area has another four ports so that goes to 17. I’ve 3 POE ports outside the home (to be increased to 5) so that’s 20. My phone line distribution ends up take another three so I’m effectively out of ports! The picture below is not the latest one as I’ve added a modified shelf to hold my router to make space for a 16-port 10/100/1000 switch below and will be color coding the patch cables for easier maintenance soon.

Cabled up and running!

BTW for those interested in laying their own Cat 5 or 6 cables to connect to Telekom Malaysia’s demarcation point such as a telephone pole, here’s a quick guide depending if your cables are new or not. Newer cables are usually color coded. Mine are blue/white and white/blue and typically, you’ll use the same matching blue/white & white/blue center pair in the Cat 5 cable. The good thing about Cat 5 is that you can carry more phone lines on the same cable using another pair (up to 4) so your one single Cat 5 cable can then be split internally (hence my patch block & patch panel) to multiple incoming phone lines and devices (fax, line 1, line 2, etc). Typically, white/blue (white cable with blue stripes) is the positive cable but do verify with a voltmeter to be sure. In older areas sometimes the color is red and green where green is positive. If you have all black cable, a ridge (feel for it) marks the side of the twin cable that’s the positive wire.

p.s. Sorry for the photo quality — all taken with my iPhone 🙂

Hot-water finally after 4 weeks!

Finally — I think I’ve also gotten used to cold water! And the weather’s bloody hot too boot with! Anyways, everything is pretty great except our usual Malaysian installer-worker attitude. I wonder what’s wrong with them. Anyways, they’re like your ceiling is so low, your water pump outlet is too far, call your own plumber. Damn. Just set the damn thing up. What’s wrong with additional installation fees? Business too good? Never mind them though because I do have a super-duper plumber and he’s up there making right what these guys didn’t do in the first place.

Ikea-itis and the vanished weekend!

When I got into the office this morning, and was making my coffee brew, a colleague asked me “How was your weekend?”. A very ordinary question, to which I think many ask that out of habit and not because of genuine interest. Anyway, my response was “What weekend?”

Friday started with a frantic trip to Ikea to ensure that we get all our stuff for the house. Of course, I was also migrating WebAperture the next day so I had to start the file replication (there’s gigabytes of data) on Friday as it take a couple of hours to finish plus I had to do verification. Anyways, off to Ikea for dinner and a frantic rush through the store to get things such as my new work area desks, bookcases, and storage racks. Looking at the size of the bookcases and the desks plus the fragility of the glass doors, we decided to split the load and come back on Saturday.

To cut the story short, by the time Saturday rolled in, we’ve had the second trip and lunch and the assembly started. Well, it didn’t end until Sunday evening. Of course we took time out to have a simple dinner, go to Church on Sunday morning and did some groceries too.

Truck load #1

Truck load #2

My fave tools, and enough to assemble everything from Ikea.

Look, no need to refer to the instructions!


Well, the year is coming to an end and I cannot wait to get out of my box and move into a real home…