Thoughts on npower hometeam

I signed up for a npower hometeam 50 central heating care contract at the start of February. Knowing that boiler repair can be expensive and that my boiler hadn’t been serviced since we moved in over a year ago, £15 a month didn’t seem a bad price for peace of mind, especially as it includes an annual service worth £75. Also, as npower supply my gas and electricity, I’d be entitled to 50% cashback at the end of the year if I didn’t call them out.

Towards the end of March – coincidentally, a week before my first annual inspection and service was due – the boiler failed and I called npower out. They offered me an appointment for two days later, so I agreed with my employer to work from home on that day.

The engineer arrived and set to work looking at the boiler. He thought that either the gas valve or PCB needed replacing, although he didn’t seem to perform any extensive diagnosis in order to reach this conclusion. He then started the annual service inspection, and at this point noticed that there was a small gap between the boiler and the flue because the original installer hadn’t properly attached the bottom of the flue pipe to the fan assembly. Unfortunately the flue pipe was cemented in place through the wall of the garage in which the boiler is installed. He said that npower could fix this, but as a pre-existing fault it would be chargeable at £200 and they wouldn’t necessarily do a great job as they are not installation specialists, so I would be better off getting a local gas fitter to rectify the problem, which would probably take around an hour and cost in the region of £80. The npower engineer said that once the flue had been fitted correctly, I should contact the call centre and book an appointment so he could come back and fit a new gas valve. In the meantime, he said he had no choice but to declare the boiler as “Immediately Dangerous” and disconnect it from the gas supply.

The engineer left, and I immediately contacted Custom Heat, a local (Rugby-based) gas installation company, about whom I had previously heard good things. They were able to come out the following day after 1pm, which I was pleased with as I was eager to get the issue resolved.

When the Custom Heat engineer arrived, he took a look at the boiler and told me categorically that there was no problem with the flue installation, and that the npower engineer was wrong to condemn the boiler. He reconnected the boiler to the gas supply, charged me a £72 callout fee and left.

I got straight on the phone to the npower call centre to explain this. The operator was very apologetic and promised that she would call me back by the end of the day. This didn’t happen, and when I called the following day to chase this, I was told they had no record of the conversation. So I explained everything in detail again, requesting that the information be added onto my account notes, and was given an appointment for the npower engineer to return five days later.

The engineer arrived and, to my surprise, he had no knowledge of what had happened with Custom Heat. He was still adamant that the flue was incorrectly fitted and therefore the boiler was unsafe. He demonstrated this by dismantling the boiler and shining a torch up from the combustion chamber into the flue, and we could both see that there was an escape of light. He said that unfortunately he’d have to condemn the boiler once again and wouldn’t be able to replace any parts until the boiler had been made safe.

So I phoned Custom Heat to explain the situation. The operator said she would get the engineer to call me back as soon as possible. Around ten minutes later, he called me so I briefly explained the situation again and put him on the npower engineer who was still on the premises. The Custom Heat engineer told him that he they would come out and fix the flue with no charge, and that I should call the office to arrange this, which I did. The operator initially tried to backtrack on the “free fix” promise, saying that there would be no additional callout fee, but parts and labour would be chargeable. I didn’t accept this and they did back down and send an installer out within 15 minutes. As luck would have it, the npower engineer was fortunately still here and he was able to explain his findings.

The installer was very good and completed the work within an hour and a half, albeit with some difficulty as the boiler was installed approximately seven years ago and the fittings had started to corrode in place. Unfortunately, by the time he’d finished, the npower engineer had left, so I had to book a third appointment with them, for three days’ time.

The npower engineer arrived, was happy with the flue, and started carrying out a proper diagnosis of the original fault. He decided that the gas valve wasn’t the problem after all, and it was actually the PCB. He didn’t have one with him, but was able to pick one up from a local supplier and fit it the same day, which did indeed get the boiler working.

So, after twelve days without heating or hot water (even the shower runs from the mains water), I was finally up and running again.

Clearly the original installer was at fault for not connecting the flue correctly, but I have no recourse as the central heating system was already fitted when we move in, and we were left no paperwork showing who installed it. Also Custom Heat were in the wrong for refusing to accept that there was a flue problem, and reconnecting the boiler without remedial work when the npower engineer had declared it unsafe. I can’t fault the npower engineer for erring on the side of caution and refusing the work on the boiler until it had been made safe, but things could have progressed much more quickly if the call centre staff had logged my issue correctly, and there wasn’t such a long lead time for appointments, which would have made the situation all the more unpleasant had it happened in the middle of winter.

Custom Heat deserve some credit for eventually fixing the problem for free, saving me approximately £60 in labour, although I’d have preferred to have paid and had it fixed first time around. They were also quick to come out on both occasions, unlike npower. I would hesitate to recommend Custom Heat based on my experience though, as they were happy to leave me with a visibly unsafe boiler.

I’m glad I had the npower cover, as it saved me paying £200-odd for a new PCB (although reconditioned boards are available on eBay for around £65) plus labour to diagnose the problem and fit the part. Fortunately my employer is flexible enough to allow me to work from home when necessary, so despite the inconvenience, I wasn’t out of pocket for four separate days I had to spend out of the office.

I haven’t decided whether I’ll renew my npower hometeam contract when it runs out. Most likely, I’ll switch to the British Gas equivalent which costs an extra £2/month for similar cover (albeit without the 50% cashback option), which could be worth it if they’re able to get out to me more quickly in the event of a boiler breakdown.

Samba free mobile broadband

I recently applied for, and was accepted into, a trial for the Samba Mobile free mobile broadband service. Samba provide a 3G USB dongle for which you are able to build up credit by viewing video ads via a Firefox extension which also installs a “battery” icon in your navigation bar showing your available credit in days. The more ads you view, the more days of credit you get.

Once you’ve built up enough credit, you can browse the Internet as with any other 3G dongle. According to the paperwork that was supplied with the welcome pack, the dongle and SIM are provided by Nutshell Mobile, which in turn is an MVNO running on the Three network. The supplied ZTE MF112 dongle is the standard Three device (with a paper Samba logo sticker covering the Three logo!), complete with the same standard 3Connect software that Three supply. It all worked flawlessly on my main Windows machine (although I wasn’t able to send/receive texts or view my account details as presumably these features aren’t available on the Nutshell/Samba SIM) and I was even able to get online using my spare Linux machine thanks to the Sakis3G script.

It’s worth pointing out that there are no ads forced upon you as you use the service, so it doesn’t get in the way of your normal browsing. You just need to remember to keep topping up your credit by viewing ads, which is pretty painless and something you can easily do with the sound turned down while you’re doing something else. I would expect the service to stop working when I run out of credit, but I wonder if it would continue to allow me access to the Samba site to build up some more credit on the go.

The Samba website is fairly basic (complete with the misspelt “live alot” tagline) and sparse in information – I have no idea, for example, what the monthly data transfer limit is – but it’s early days and I’d expect that the site would be fleshed out prior to a public launch. Samba might also want to consider switching to a courier service more reliable than CityLink as it took me well over a month to receive my welcome pack!

Ideally, I’d like to see Samba develop their own multi-platform client software that provides a way to view ads and remaining credit without forcing users to use Firefox (not that I have anything against Firefox, but it’s not my primary browser), and maybe provide other ways of getting online such as MiFi hotspots to support a wider range of devices (think iPod and non-3G iPad users), but these things could come later.

I think the Samba Mobile service has the potential to be really popular with consumers, because it offers a useful service for free that would be fairly costly if  bought directly from an operator such as Three. I only hope that their is enough advertising revenue to keep the service afloat, as it would be a great shame if the service wasn’t able to get off the ground.

“Cannot save the property settings for this Web Part” error when using SmartPart in SharePoint

I recently deployed a custom user control using SmartPart on SharePoint 2007, and although everything else seemed to work fine, I came across the following error when trying to edit the properties (in my case, the chrome type and width):

Cannot save the property settings for this Web Part. Exception occurred. (Exception from HRESULT: 0×80020009 (DISP_E_EXCEPTION))

I managed to resolve this, thanks to an MSDN forum post, by changing one of my lines of code:

using (SPSite oSiteCollection = SPContext.Current.Site)

to the slightly more long-winded:

using (SPSite oSiteCollection = new SPSite(SPContext.Current.Site.ID))

I’m not sure why using SPContext.Current.Site directly (versus creating a new SPSite object) causes this behaviour, but at least it’s a simple fix.

How to make Google Chrome open .torrent files with µTorrent

Unfortunately Google Chrome doesn’t currently support opening files without downloading them, which is a pain when dealing with .torrent files which must be manually opened after downloading. I’ve been doing things this way for a while, but today stumbled across a handy feature in µTorrent which solves this minor annoyance: monitoring a directory for .torrent files.

Under Options ? Preferences ? Directories, tick the bottom two boxes (Automatically load .torrents from and Delete loaded .torrents), then type or browse to the path where Chrome downloads your files. For me, it’s D:\Downloads.

You can keep Delete loaded .torrents unticked if you like, but for me this option is a godsend as it saves me having to manually clear old .torrent files from my download directory.

To make the process as seamless as possible, make sure that Chrome’s Ask where to save each file before downloading option is unticked:

How to disable time synchronisation under Virtual PC 2007

One of the benefits of the Virtual Machine Additions for Virtual PC is that the time is automatically synchronised with the host machine. In most cases this is desirable, but I ran into a case recently where I needed to test something using an earlier date, and not realising this I wrestled with the time settings of the guest OS to no avail – it just kept resetting to the current time!

The process for disabling this feature (on an image-by-image basis) requires editing the VMC file and is detailed at Ben Armstrong’s blog.

How to increase/decrease the time your iPhone rings before diverting to voicemail

The iPhone supports ringtone of up to 30 seconds, but most networks will divert to voicemail before you gets a chance to hear the full ringtone.

The way around this is to instruct your network to increase the delay before a caller is sent to voicemail:

  1. Via the Phone app, enter *#61# and press Call.
  2. Write down the message that appears after “Forwards to”. This is your voicemail access number.
  3. Now dial **61*xxx*11*y# (where xxx is your voicemail access number and y is the number of seconds before the call should be sent to voicemail – this must be a multiple of 5 seconds) and press Call.

I have tested this tip on an iPhone 3GS on Orange and an iPhone 4 on O2, but it should work on all phones and networks as it’s a standard GSM feature.

WHSmith.co.uk – one to avoid!

Earlier this month, I placed at order at WHSmith.co.uk for the first time since 2008. 15 days later and there has been no sign of my item, so I checked my order status on the website. It’s showing as “Part-complete” which apparently means “Some of the items ordered have been sent or cancelled and the others are in progress”. I don’t understand how this can be possible, given that the order is for a single item.

The product page is showing as out of stock  and unavailable to add to the shopping basket, so it seems unlikely that my order would be fulfilled so I’m surprised that it hadn’t been cancelled automatically.

I expected to be able to cancel the order myself via the order management page, but unfortunately this wasn’t an option due to the order’s inexplicable “Part-complete” status. So, intending to ask Customer Services for a refund instead, I headed off to the Contact Us page, clicked on the top option (Contact WHSmith) and was greeted with…. an error message! To their credit, the error message quotes a telephone number for contacting the Customer Services team, but this is only open from 9am to 5.25pm Monday to Saturday. Not much use at 8 o’clock in the evening, then.

So I clicked around a bit more and found the Cancel Order page, which suggests emailing customer.services@whsmith.co.uk. I did this, and very promptly received a response. Unfortunately, it was an Invalid Recipient error from the mail server!

I searched my mailbox and found an old password reset email from support@whsmith.co.uk, so tried this address and I received an autoresponse indicating that my email had been received by the customer services team.

Hopefully I’ll get my refund soon, but needless to say I won’t be shopping at WHSmith.co.uk again.

Update (11 Oct 2010): Looks like my email has been ignored as I haven’t heard anything since I got that autoresponse two weeks ago, and my unfulfilled order is still showing as part-complete. However, the Contact Us page seems to be working now, so I’ll give that a shot!

Update (28 Oct 2010): I have finally received a response from WHSmith: “I can confirm your card was refunded on 29 September 2010, and that the order has been cancelled but, due a system error the status has not changed.”

Earn cashback on your shopping with Quidco

Quidco is a cashback site which you can use to earn rewards for shopping at your favourite sites. You can also earn cashback without spending any money, simply by signing up for free trials of services such as CreditExpert, or by switching your utility or insurance providers.

Since I joined a little over three years ago, I’ve managed to amass a cool £1300 in cashback, so it’s definitely worth doing. By way of a membership fee, the first £5 you earn per year is retained by Quidco, but after this you get 100% of the proceeds.

There are a few notable omissions such as Amazon, but most of the big retailers appear on Quidco, typically offering anything up to 10% cashback. Some of my favourites are Play.com, Tesco, Debenhams, ArgoseBay and iTunes. They’ve also started a in-store cashback programme including retailers such as Halfords and Cineworld.

Plus if you sign up via any of the links in this post, you will earn £1.25 just for joining. I’ll also get £1.25 for introducing you. Once you’ve joined you can also earn up to £2.50 for each friend you introduce.

Simple synchronised note-taking for your iPhone

Simplenote is a free note-taking app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. It was recently brought to my attention by Lifehacker, and I’ve been making extensive use of it since. As well as the iOS app, there’s a universal web application (which you can sign up for even if you don’t have an iOS device), and there are numerous third-party clients for PCs, Macs and other devices such as Android phones. I use ResophNotes on my home PC,  and the web app on my work PC (as I’m not allowed to install unapproved software).

So far, I’ve found the ads to be fairly unobtrusive, but it’s possible to remove them for a one-off payment of $4.99 (around £3), or sign up for the $8.99/year (around £5.80) premium service which also offers additional features such as as automatic backup, RSS and email features.

I’ve previously tried another Lifehacker favourite, Evernote, which provides a desktop client as well as an iOS app, but as someone who just needs to keep track of short, text-based notes, I found it bloated and unwieldy.

How to cut your own micro SIM card for free, in time for iPhone 4 launch day

I braved the queues (actually, the barrage of error messages) on Tuesday, 15 July, to pre-order my iPhone 4 direct from Apple. Hopefully I’ll save in the long run as I’m planning to go for a £10-15 pay-as-you-go or SIM-only contract deal rather than being tied in to a £30+ contract for 18 to 24 months.

Until I’ve figured out which operator to go with, I plan to stick with my current O2 contract. I’ve crossed my fingers that O2 will ship me a microSIM before I get the phone, otherwise I will be going down the DIY route, trimming my existing SIM down using this PDF template. In case you don’t read German, here’s a quick translation of the instructions:

Micro-SIM template for iPad/iPhone 4 SIM cards

The Apple iPad (and upcoming iPhone 4) uses not a standard 25x15mm SIM card, but a micro-SIM. The micro-SIM format is 15x12mm, but the contact layout is identical to a standard SIM.

Therefore, it is possible to convert a standard SIM into a micro-SIM which can be installed in the iPad or fourth-generation iPhone.

How does it work?

  1. Print the stencil at 100% – don’t shrink to fit the page. The outer black portion should match the size of your existing SIM.
  2. Cut and paste the stencil on the back of the SIM (not on the contacts!). The white area must be exactly on the reverse side of the chip.
  3. With sharp scissors, cut cleanly along the outline of the inner white area.
  4. Remove the stencil. If necessary,  diagonally trim the corners and/or grind down the edges with a nail file.

I accept no responsibility if you damage your SIM by following these instructions… in fact I’m too busy worrying about whether I’ll break mine!

There are commercial card cutters that can do the job, but I can’t justify spending upwards of £20 for something I’ll only use once or twice at most, and again there’s no guarantee that the item would be delivered by launch day.