Author Archives: James

What to Use for Conference Calls When Working From Home

I’ve been working from home regularly for a couple of years now. During that time I’ve been searching for the ideal kit to use to make conference calls to the office. I’ve experimented with a few different solutions and think i’ve finally found a cheap, well performing system that gets the job done.

Below are the various options i’ve tried….with the best at the bottom ūüėČ

1. Cordless landline phone on speaker mode

This was the first and worst solution I tried. It was so bad I thought our old cordless landline was at fault so I went out and bought another newer model…which turned out to be equally poor.

The microphones on both (Panasonic) models i tried¬†were terrible and the speaker seem to be even worse. I wasn’t sure why the Amazon reviews were so good! Conversations would tend to cut out regularly (usually at the worst time possible).

2. Routing calls to an iPhone and using the speaker

This was a much better solution. However I still found that on some calls with lots of attendees in a large conference room I couldn’t get the volume loud enough to hear all the participants. I’d find myself craning over the iphone to try and hear what was going on. The little speaker on phones is a bit tinny and not clear enough when turned up high.

3. Buying a dedicated conference call phone

These are the units we use at work and they are great. This was not something i did in the end as the high cost put me off – mainly because work wouldn’t pay for it ūüôĀ

4. Routing calls to an iPhone and using headphones

This worked quite well for a while. A cheap pair of in ear headphones with a built in mic¬†¬†allowed me to walk about when on boring calls and make a cup of tea etc. I was perfectly happy with this solution until i discovered…….

5. Routing calls to iphone and using a bluetooth speaker

Bingo! I bought one of these fantastic little speakers from Amazon and was blown away with it for playing music around the house and garden.

Simple to connect to phones and tablets, remarkably good/loud sound for it’s tiny size and a great battery life….all for about ¬£15. I’ve since bought a few for friends as I’ve been so pleased with ours.

Bluetooth Speaker for Conference Calls

Then I had the brainwave of using this little speaker for conference calls when working from home. This enabled me to turn up the volume and hear everything that was going on, even on crappy quality lines.

For speaking I continue to use the built in microphone in my iphone – it works just fine just as long as i keep the phone not too far away form me.

This solution works really well and still enables me to be mobile during calls. If i need to get up and wander to the next room I can just crank up the volume before I go. If a cup of tea is needed I just need to carry the speaker and phone down to the kitchen.

How to Improve the Speed of your Slow Broadband Connection

Over time broadband connections can slow down, typically this is caused by fragments of data stuck on the line. Over the last couple of weeks our connection slowed down to a crawl and was suffering periods of not working all together. After a call to BT I spoke to a very helpful chap in Lancashire who ran a series of checks, confirmed there was no issue on the line and seemingly sped up the connection by doing some resets.

Below is what a BT engineer told me to do that can help clear these data fragments and speed up your connection.

  1. Disconnect your router (ethernet cable) from the BT master socket and wait 60 seconds
  2. Unplug the power lead from the back of your router and wait 60 seconds
  3. Plug the router back into the BT master socket and wait 60 seconds
  4. Reconnect your routers power lead

He told me this is likely to speed up the connection for a few weeks, possibly months depending on usage. When speaking to him he performed a series of line checks that did a similar thing.

He also mentioned that the reset button on the back of our home hub can be used as a last resort to do an even deeper reset back to the exchange. However he warned that doing this regularly can result in the exchange throttling the speed on your line so not to do this more than 2 or 3 times a year.

Aqualisa Quartz Shower Not Working – How to Fix It

One of the most common reasons for a Aqualisa Quartz shower unit to suddenly stop working is an air lock in the system. If you’ve experienced a power cut or have had to drain your hot/cold water tanks recently then an air lock is likely to be¬†the cause.

The main symptom of an air lock is that when you turn the shower on no water comes out of the shower head. After trying a few times (turning the shower on and off )you may find that all of a sudden no lights appear on the control dial altogether.

Aqualisa Quartz Shower Fix

How to Fix An Air Lock In Your Electric Shower System

The good news is an air lock is relatively straightforward to fix. It should only take you a few minutes and won’t need any tools or plumbing skills.

The control unit may have to be reset if none of the lights are on and no water is coming from the shower head.  This is simply a case of locating the control unit (usually in the loft or the airing cupboard) and switching the power off for 30 seconds, then back on again.

Here’s a picture of the pump/control unit which in our case is located in the airing cupboard near the bathroom.

Aqualisa Pump/Control Unit

Before turning the shower unit back on remove the shower head from the hose and let the hose dangle to the floor. This will reduce the pressure required to get water back through the system to the absolute minimum.

Next simply turn the dial to the coldest setting then turn the shower on. Let it run for a few seconds and hopefully you’ll get some spluttering of water out of the hose. If not, turn the shower off, wait a few seconds and try again.

When you turn the shower on and assuming some water is coming out, try leaving it on for a few seconds longer each time before switching it off. You should notice the spluttering decrease and more water come out of the hose each time.

Once water is running constantly from the hose slowly turn the temperature up a little at a time. Hopefully now there will be enough pressure in the pipes to ‘pull’ the hot water through the system.

If the above doesn’t work simply try turning the dial to the hottest setting instead and work backwards to the cooler temperatures.


Radiator Lock Shield Valves – How to

Radiator lock shield valves are the small valves on the other side of the radiator from the TRV valves (the ones with the 1-5 dial on). The can be used to ‘switch off’ the radiator effectively taking it out of the heating loop such that no hot water is pumped through that particular valve.

Here’s which direction to turn the valves:

  • Turn anti clockwise to open
  • Clockwise to close

The best tool to use is a small set of mole grips. Be careful not to over tighten these valves, you don’t need much pressure at all to close them.

Ultra Light Packing for a Beach Holiday

When going on a sunny beach holiday I find I need to take very little luggage. Over the years I’ve refined my packing list and now only take a modestly sized piece of hand luggage which weighs roughly 5-6 kg.

Packing so light makes travelling much easier and quicker. It keeps me more mobile, allows me to spend more time enjoying myself and less time constantly packing and repacking.

Most days i’ll be wearing nothing more than a pair of swimming shorts with a t-shirt/polo/shirt and flip flops. In the evenings I may smarten up and wear a shirt or even chinos but mostly i’ll be going to laid back places where there is no need to dress up.

The Bag

If you’re looking to be a minimalist packer then choosing the right bag is essential. I use an old Timbuk2 Messenger bag in Large size. I’ve also got a Medium that I use daily for cycle commuting/going to the gym/photography etc.

These bags are bullet proof. Discrete, light, comfortable to wear and water proof. I’ve misused and abused both of mine for over 10 years and they both still look brand new.

Packing Light for Beach Holidays

These bags seem to have a capacity to swallow huge amounts of stuff. While that is great I try to not over fill them for the sake of it and just take the essentials. I could fit all of this stuff in the medium but i prefer to use the large and not overfill it.

Inside the main bag i use two smaller bags. Firstly a mesh packing cube into which I put all my clothes. Secondly I keep all my chargers/adapters/leads etc in a 2 litre dry-sack to stop them getting lost. This dry bag is also perfect for keeping valuables dry and sand free on day trips to the beach or by the pool.

Ultra Light Packing for Summer Holiday


I use a simple ziploock bag as a wash bag for toiletries. I can take this straight out of my main bag at airport security as it contains all of the few small liquid items that i travel with. The contents are:

  • Contact lenses
  • Toothpaste
  • Shower gel
  • Paracetemol
  • Ibuprofen
  • Antihistamines
  • Epipen (wasp allergy)

I tend to buy sun cream and/or disposable razors (if required) when I reach my destination.


Thin layers, things can can re-used in different circumsances and idealy will dry quickly if a wash is needed are the order of the day.

Up top a couple of thin t-shirts, a polo shirt and a regular collared shirt sees me right for most occasions whether it is a night out clubbing, a romantic meal or a days hiking.

Below the belt I take a pair of chinos, a pair of light hiking style shorts and a pair of swimming shorts that also double as casual shorts. Footwear is a pair of trainers and a pair of cheap flip fops.

In addition I also pack a beach towel as often hotels/apartments won’t supply these.

Naturally it makes sense to try and wear your bulky items for the journey. For me this means the trainers and chinos. This helps make the bag as light as possible while travelling. If required when arriving at my hopefully sunny destination I’ll change to shorts in the airport.

A thin Merino wool jumper is a great addition to your packing list. While being light and not very bulky it will provide welcome warmth on a cool chilly early morning walk or an air conditioned airport. I find these Uniqlo Merino jumpers are the perfect mix of cheap and good quality. They keep you warm when needed, dry quickly if wet and don’t have the weight or bulk of many alternatives. Whats more they look reasonably smart which can be useful in some circumstances.

Minimalist Packing - Packing Cube

Here’s my full list of clothes I pack for a week away:

  • Beach towel
  • Hiking Shorts
  • 3 x thin t-shirts
  • 1 x Merino jumper
  • 1 x pair of chinos
  • 1 x polo shirt
  • 1 x collared shirt
  • 5 x boxers
  • 4 x socks

Rolling the larger items before putting them in the mesh packing cube helps keep things organised and crease free.

Ultra Light Packing Accessories

Accessories / Entertainment

I like to keep things simple in this department. These days a smartphone can be most things while traveling:

  • Document storage (ie boarding passes, hotel confirmations etc)
  • Music player
  • Camera
  • Games Console
  • Movie player
  • Book

So thanks to my smartphone I keep keep accessories down to a minimum. Here’s the full list:

  • iPhone
  • Charger
  • Travel plug adaptor
  • Lipstick sized USB power bank
  • Notebook
  • Pencil & Pen
  • Bottle opener
  • Front door key for home
  • Passport
  • Headphones
  • Money clip

Money & Foreign Currency

While we’re on the subject of money….my number one tip is to use a forex app like Revolut.

If you want to avoid all the usual concerns about buying you Euros before leaving and not getting ripped off via poor exchange rates or hidden bank fees when withdrawing cash or using your card abroad maybe take a look at Revolut.

Essentially it’s a prepay MasterCard debit card that lets you exchange your money to one of about 90 currencies fee free at interbank rates via their slick phone app. No fees and no more dodgy exchange rates.

I’ve checked the rates against a Bloomberg terminal at work and they are bang on. As far as I can see the only potential downside is cash machine withdrawals >¬£500 per month incur a 2% fee so watch out if you’re a big spender or travel a lot for lengthy periods.

The beauty of Revolut is that as long as you’re near a cash machine you don’t need to worry about withdrawing and carrying around large quantities of cash. You can also use your card fee free anywhere that takes mastercard. Whats more if you do lose the card you can cancel it directly from the app on your phone.


Packing light makes it so much easier to stay mobile and active when you’re travelling. By cutting out the unnecessary luggage from you’re trip you’ll have less to worry about and more time to enjoy the experiences you find along the way. 

Perenial Sweat Peas

I’m a big fan of perennial flowers in the garden as I like to divert most of my limited time to growing vegetables. Nothing says¬†‘English summer’ quite like a sweet pea in full bloom.¬†Until a couple of years ago sweet peas were one of the few annual flowers I used to grow from seed each year. That all changed when I discovered this perennial variety.

Perenial Sweet Peas

These plants came form seeds that my father saved and gave to me. He in turn was given some seed form one of his best friends (acquiring successful plants in this way is so much more satisfying than going out and buying ready grown, established plants form the garden center).

I’m not 100% sure of the variety but I suspect it is Lathyrus latifolius.

Maintenance is very easy. As they grow in Spring and early Summer I simply tie them up against the pillars which they’re planted near. They grow vigorously and are fairly sturdy so it’s not a fiddly job.

As with most flowers once they start to flower, dead heading will help to encourage more blooms. They provide a constant stream of deep pink flowers right into autumn.

At the end of the summer the plants will dry out and die back. Before cutting them back I take the opportunity to save some seeds and pass on to friends and family.

The only downside to these perennial sweet peas is that they do not have much scent compared to some of the annual varieties I’ve previously grown. Apart from that these should be a must in any English garden.

Building a Pallet Wood Store

One of the best things¬†about the house we moved in to about 5 years ago is the fact thjat it has a wood burner in the living room.¬†We’ve been amazed how much please a fire in the living room can provide.

Of course owning a woodburner means that you need to have a constant supply of seasoned (dry) wood. For the last few years the only practical place to store our wood was down at the bottom of the garden which involved barrowing all delivered wood 50 yards and then carrying it back up to the house as and when it was needed – not ideal in the bowels of winter!

So, I finally decided to sacrifice a heavily shaded flower bed on the drive next to the garage and make a wood store from old pallets in a more sensible position!

The construction was pretty simple really after I’d managed to scavenge 3 pallets from a local garden center. The only thing I had to buy was the roofing felt used on the roof.

Pallet Log StorePallet Log Store-2Pallet Log Store-3Pallet Log Store-4Pallet Log Store-5

I’m pretty pleased with the result. I can fit roughly¬†1.25m3¬† of logs in the store which is enough to keep us going for a couple of months in winter. I’ve got a similar sized store at the other end of the house too so hopefully I’ve got enough storage next to the house for a winters worth of logs. Now I just need to find a good source of free logs…

Speeding up Leaf Mold

Leaf mold differs from compost in that it provides very little actual nutritional value to the soil…so why bother with it at all? Well it’s main benefit is that it is great at improving the structure of your soil. This in turn helps the soil retain water (and other nutrients) and provide a good environment for beneficial life such as worms, bacteria and other organisms.

Unlike compost, which can be a fickle process to get right, making leaf mold is pretty simple. Just sweep up your leaves and dump them in a pile in a shady corner of the garden and let nature do it’s work. The only down side is that it can take a while (up to 2-3 years) for a pile to break down fully from whole leaves to a fine mold texture.

One simple way to speed up the process dramatically is to reduce the size of the leaves before you add them to the pile. If you’ve got a garden shredder you can simply pass your freshly swept leaves through this.

My technique to speed up my leaf mold is to sweep the leaves into a long line on a patio or path and passing over them with a lawn mower. Doing so only takes a few minutes and the end product is a leaf pile that is already partially broken down.

Speeding Up Leaf Mould

Making Leaf Mould

Using this technique I find that the leaf mold is perfectly useable by the following summer. I use the resulting leaf mold both as a mulch as well as a general soil improver which i dig into the vegetable beds are sprinkle over established beds throughout the year.

Organic Fire Lighters

I’m increasingly keen on using what nature has to offer to replace man made and shop bought alternatives. This probably explains the ever increasing amount of fruit and veg plants in the garden.

Last summer while out walking we collected a load of fallen pine cones with some vague ideas about making Christmas decorations with them. Instead after drying out over the summer they ended up being used as fire lighters/kindling in our wood burner.

Pine cones make remarkably good kindling and I’ve found with just a sheet or two of newspaper and a few pine cones i can get the wood burner lit in just a minute or two.

So on Sunday while out walking we found a plentiful in a local wood and managed to re-stock our supply to get us through the winter!

natural firelighters-2

natural firelighters


Oh and while we talking about recycling there’s no need to buy nasty chemicals to clean the glass on your wood burner. Instead here’s how i clean it with the ash inside the burner.