Saturday, July 4, 2009

CatGenie rocks

Well, sure enough - my contributions have been sad and enemic (actual, non-existent) since starting this blog, but I'm going to make another go at it.

Although this post has nothing to do with my professional software endeavors, it does involve technology.

I want to relate my satisfaction with a recent purchase, the CatGenie self-cleaning litter box (

We recently go a second cat, resulting in a change in the litter dynamics. Now you first need to understand that:

(1) In our household, the duty of cleaning the litter box falls on me.
(2) The only/best place for the litter box is in our Master Batch.

With just our first cat (Asia) - who is rather petite, and therefore does not produce a lot of, shall we say, solid waste - this was not an overwhelming chore. The litter box needed to be cleaned maybe twice a week and Asia is quite delicate and tidy. Our new cat, El Diablo Rubio (The Blond Devil), is the opposite. He eats a lot, produces a lot of "waste", and runs, jumps, and trounces all over the place. It also turns out that, when we initially got him, he had some kind of digestional bug which resulted in frequent, loose stools. A dirty litter box led to him preferring to go on the shower floor or even our bed!

Litter box maintenance became a daily chore. This was unacceptable.

Sooo... I decided to automate. I first tried the PetSafe Simply Clean™ box (available at the Petco, or PetSafe website). This unit is essentially a rotating basin which moves so slow it doesn't freak out the cat, and a sort of a conveyor that moves clumped waste into an enclosed hopper. Although elegant in it's simplicity, this box didn't work out so well - it had a tendency to break apart Rubio's loose waste into a gillion little fragments that stank and mucked up the conveyor, rather than conveying it to the hopper. In retrospect, this was probably more a factor of his digestion problems (which have cleared up), but still - that's a situation that is going to exist and is something the box needs to be able to cope with.

So, rather than giving in, I decided to throw more money at the problem. We blew another $350 or so on the CatGenie. This box, though a lot more expensive, is pretty sophisticated. First, you hook it up to the water supply (fittings are included to T-in to your toilet or other water supply) and a discharge tube hooks over the toilet rim and can be fed into, say, your washer discharge. On demand, or at pre-determined intervals, it runs through a cycle where it scopes out solids, fills the basin with water mixed with "SaniSolution", then drains and flushes it all out. The cleaning cycle repeats a few (3) times, then it essentially blow-drys the litter. (see a video here)

This thing is awesome!

Now, it took some effort to train the cats to use it (training tips are included), and we have to run it frequently to keep it clean enough to prevent the cats for looking for "alternative locations", but once we worked through these issues, I found myself in the much better situation of never cleaning the litter box!

So, you've probably realized the caveat by have to buy special litter and consumable SaniSolution cartridges, which aren't cheap, on an ongoing basis. Hmm.. not seeming like quite as great of a deal (although, in my opinion, still worth it :-) The special litter granules are only gradually depleted, but the SaniSolution cartridges cost about $15 a pop. Each cartridge has a chip in it which keeps track of how many "doses" of SaniSolution have been consumed. Each one is good for 60 washings, which if you use the maximum frequency of four times per day, lasts a couple of weeks.

HOWEVER, this is where The Technophile goes to work. Turns out, these suckers have already been hacked. There are Instructables for refilling the cartridges and resetting the chip. I bought a pre-assembled interface kit on ebay, which worked almost flawlessly (more on this shortly). The kit includes a syringe for putting new cleaner into the cartridge, and a serial-attached interface and related programming software for resetting the chip.

Two minor issues I ran into:

You have to be careful with your choice of cleaning solutions you use. I didn't want to use Simple Green, as suggested in the Instructable, since it is jsut a surfactant, not a disinfectant. Also, concentrated surfactants aren't great for the environment. I first tried some watered-down Clorox toilet bowl cleaner (I know, Clorox ain't great for the environment either, but cat crap ain't great for my sanity, so too bad). This stuff reacted with the small amount of SaniSolution left in the cartridge and produced some chlorine gas. Probably, this could have been avoided by flushing the empty cartridge first. The instructions that came with the programmer suggest Formula 409, which I am trying out now and seem not to react.

The other issue was that the DOS batch file, GenieConnect.bat, installed by the software installer seems to be flawed. It seems to use the "find" command to scan a dump file of the data read from the chip for certain strings (much like unix 'grep'). I didn't really even know that 'find' existed, but on my Windows XP system, it didn't behave right. maybe the syntax has changed since he made the script or something, but I wound up replacing all occurrences of 'find /c' with 'findstr' and that seems to have fixed it. You can also use the PonyProg executable manually, load the script via the menu, and manually write to the chip - you just have to kind of know what you're doing a little more.

Anyway, I give the CatGenie two thumbs up and am (almost) completely happy with it. The one remaining issue I have gives me something else to hack, though! Basically, the interval timer works on a fixed interval. So, for example, if you set it to run four times a day, it runs every 6 hours. Period. Including in the dead of night. When we're trying to sleep. 'Nuff said.

I've already got a bunch of Insteon home automation devices in my house, so my plan is to tap into the manual run button, probably with a Contact Closure module, then program it to run a specific times more relevant to our cat's digestion schedules. Actually, I may use a hybrid approach - leaving it on a twice-per-day schedule, but adding another cycle in both the morning and evening via Insteon control, or something along those lines. That way, if there's an Insteon hiccup, it still runs a couple times a day. Anyway, I'll like post specifics of that hack here before long, so check back if you're interested!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Jumping on the Bandwagon

Well, I finally broke down and I'm going to take a stab at this whole blogging thing.

Until recently, blogging wasn't really something I'd considered. In terms of technical trends, although I'm probably as aware of them as you're average technical geek - and certainly more so that your average consumer, when it comes to adoption I tend to stick to the 'knee of the curve'. I think this is a good place to be in terms of adopting technology in general. As interesting as the bleeding edge can be it is, as many smart people before me have pointed out, a good place to get cut. My attitude is, if I can wait for a more mature product/device/service/framework/whatever without suffering any negative effects by waiting, then I will. This invariably results in a much more cost-effective investment in terms of time, money, or effort. I'd recommend that everyone follow this course, but if they did, the knee would never come. We need mad scientists, hackers, dabblers, visionaries, and people with to much time on their hands to push the bleeding edge out and chase the bugs and monsters out of newly claimed territory.

Anyway, blogging is a technical trend that I've certainly benefited from but, like online social haven't had a compelling reason to jump on board with personally. If you're a technophile like me, you've have certainly benefited from other bloggers as I have. Probably half the valuable hits I find when googling for technical information winds up being on some dude's blog. My attitude regarding blogging has changed from thinking of it as either a dalliance or an activity practiced by more seasoned writers to thinking of it much more as a social collaboration tool.

So why jump in? Well, the way I see it, social collaboration works better the more people participate. Not that long ago, there weren't that many people blogging and all the useful online info in terms of software development was coming from more formal online documentation or message boards. So I figure, hey, I've benefited many times from some geeks blog, why not join them. intent is to post articles about tough technical problems I work through, as well as some that maybe aren't so tough, but lack a predominance of information on the web. Also, I'll probably babble on about cool stuff I've encountered, or others geeky things. We'll see if I stick with it. The reality is, it takes time to type this stuff up, and I often have things I'd rather spend that time on. Then again, I work through challenging development issues all the freakin' why not "give back" some sage advice from time to time? Also, I readily admit, my memory just ain't what it used to be, so I figure it can serve as a useful personal archive.

Happy reading,

Andrew (Andy) Coulson
Software Developer, Consultant, and Technophile