Automated Home reader and contributor Ant Skelton takes us on a tale of intrigue, mystery love and automation as he installs a microchip controlled pet access system. Read on for the CCTV hilarity as the local feral population’s attempts to break and enter are foiled once and for all…
[Update] Make sure to check out our review of the SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap too.
Like any true Automated Home reader, my first indignant instinct was to head to the shed to jury-rig some sort of death-dealing automaton the likes of which the local cat population had never seen. I vowed that the micturating moggy would rue the day that he had set paw over my threshold. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and I had to content myself with intelligence gathering, so the rather excellent Y-Cam Black CCTV camera was hastily pressed into surveillance duties. At first, not all of my friends and family took this entirely seriously, but I persevered.
Eventually I was rewarded with clear footage of the miscreant in action
Now my foe had a face! A giant bruiser of a black and white tom, coming and going as he pleases, spraying with impunity, and helping himself to our cat biscuits. I designated this target ‘Bad Kitty’. By this stage I was well along the path to a good visual cat discrimination algorithm, but didn’t entirely trust it to drive the sort of industrial hardware I had in mind lest it lavish its attentions on our own friendly puss. Those sorts of repercussions might make me mildly unpopular.
I was forced to interrupt my machinations by a holiday, but I left the camera connected up and religiously checked it over the usual kinds of one-bar-of-3G-ah-no-it’s-fallen-back-to-GPRS internet connections.
Slowly, like a bad Spectrum loading screen, a new player entered the arena. I designated this adversary ‘The Ginger Miscreant’. I know he looks like some sort of ghostly laser-eyed cat apparition under the harsh glare of the YCam’s battery of infra-red LEDs, but trust me, he’s ginger. I’ve seen him hanging about, looking shifty.
Upon our return from holiday, I announced my intention to buy a crossbow off eBay and mount a series of all night vigils armed with the timecode information from my security footage, but this approach was vetoed at a higher level. I imagined our poor cat Pan terrorised in her own house, her Whiskas crunchies divied up among the yowling hordes. It was pointed out that it was more likely that she was the hostess of a string of wildly popular fully-catered cat orgyes, but I can’t imagine that’s the case.
I searched the net for a humane solution, and discovered that there are broadly two camps of feline access control technology: the cheap and cheerful variety where the cat must wear some sort of token on its collar, be it magnetic or infra-red, or the far more expensive kind that scans a subdermal microchip in the cat itself. Having had some experience of trying to get the cat to wear a collar for longer than a couple of hours, I decided that that wasn’t really an option. In the microchip catflap world there are basically two contenders: the PetPorte SmartFlap as reviewed here, and the SureFlap.
Astonishingly, there seems to be a great deal of rivalry online between the two. Accusations of copying and intellectual property theft abound, and vociferous supporters of both camps go to great lengths to besmirch the opposition. There are even YouTube videos, I kid you not. Our local vet advised that they had previously promoted the SureFlap, but had been disappointed by the results and switched their allegiance to the PetPorte, so that’s what I went for. The tantalising promise “coming soon – computer interface!” closed the deal for me.
The PetPorte comes flat-packed, and requires a modicum of self assembly. It is available in white or mock-wood finish. I am reliably informed that there is a ‘limited edition’ black version available, presumably highly sought after by collectors of electric cat flaps. The PetPorte is suitable for fitting in a wooden or glazed door, and comes with an internal extension tunnel of several centimetre’s width for thicker doors, but I didn’t need it. Further extension tunnel sections may be purchased if you want to install it through a wall.
The Pet Porte fits snuggly into the opening used by our previous Staywell cat-flap, which is handy as I’d had to have it made specially by a local glazing firm. PetPorte advise that you assemble the catflap on the bench before installing it, so that you can check that the receiver will detect your cat’s microchip. This involves a hilarious Tesco-checkout style rigmarole to which your cat will not take kindly, but eventually you’ll have it programmed in. PetPorte claim that they recognise the vast majority of modern microchips, and have a Microchip checker on their website to be on the safe side, along with a comprehensive FAQ. I’ve not yet had recourse to their support service, but it is allegedly excellent. Incidentally, the PetPorte will recognise up to 31 cats, thus catering to even the most hardcore cat enthusiast.
The two sections of the PetPorte bolt through the flap opening using a couple of hefty supplied bolts. The exterior section has a ‘porch’ perpendicular to the flap itself, which contains the big coil that does the microchip detecting. The wire from the coil requires some fiddly threading through the casing and plugging into the main circuit board, but it’s not especially onerous. As you can see from the photo, the PetPorte also requires permanent mains power via its wall-wart adaptor. You get a generous few metres of cable, but if that isn’t sufficient they will sell you a 5m extension cable. Luckily the door in which mine is installed isn’t regularly used as a throughfare and has mains power close by, but this may be an issue if your door is used often. About the best you can do is run the cable securely over a hinge. The power connector plugs snugly into the circuit board inside the plastic housing, and is routed via various plastic channels to a small opening at the bottom, which means that there’s no chance of curious paws accidentally disconnecting it.
This new PetPorte model, unlike its predecessor, also includes a battery backup facility. You can install a 9 volt battery so that your cat won’t be locked out in an emergency, although some of the more advanced features aren’t available in this mode. The PetPorte has a minimalistic two button / two LED user interface, which coupled with its many tens of user configurable options leads to a complicated ritual of holding buttons down for different lengths of time and deciphering various flashing LED patterns to achieve the desired results. This is mostly a one-time affair though, and these sorts of UIs seem to be endemic to consumer electronics so it’s unfair to single the PetPorte out. Just don’t lose the manual.
We use our PetPorte in its most basic selective entry mode, but other options are available. You can program it so that it will allow your cat to leave only during daylight hours, keeping kitty home at night. The light level is programmable. You can also set it to ‘vet mode’, which allows the cat in, but not out again. This enables you to fully enjoy the experience of chasing the cat round the house and fishing it out from under the bed preparatory to a visit to the vet’s, without the cat spoiling it by bolting for the great outdoors.
During normal mains powered operation, the PetPorte is continually scanning for both your cat’s microchip and to measure the ambient light level. When in battery backup mode, it elects not to do this. The Night Mode becomes unavailable, and ingeniously it only scans for the microchip when your cat pushes against the flap to trigger a microswitch. There is no indication of how long the flap will work on battery only. The latching mechanisms and the solenoids which drive them are fairly substantial, which is good news for me as Bad Kitty is a bit of a bruiser.
One aspect of the installation process which isn’t mentioned in the manual are the various feline psychology traumas you will have to deal with before the whole system is bedded in. Cats are an autistic lot, and view anything new with great suspicion. I proudly demoed the new setup to our cat Pan, expecting an affectionate outburst of gratitude and delight, but she greeted it with horror and suspicion and was having none of it. We manually hoofed her through it a few times, but that didn’t really help. In the end we were forced to be quite cold-hearted about the affair, and ended in a stalemate with the cat on one side of the flap and her dinner quite visibly on the other side of it. Hunger won out, and after a couple of days the cat was nonchalantly breezing through the flap like it had never been a problem. When a valid cat is successfully detected there’s a fair bit of noise both from the clatter of the solenoid and the beep that the PetPorte emits, but this doesn’t seem to put Pan off.
The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. Having installed the PetPorte, I left the YCam in place to monitor its performance. I wanted closure. I wanted justice. It wasn’t long before the results were in:
Look at him! Futilely bashing away with his paws. In your face, Bad Kitty! He’s not the only one to come a cropper either:
That’s the Ginger Miscreant on the left, and some new interloper whose larcenous intentions were shot down before he could even get started. Obviously word has got around that our house is a soft target. No more!
In summary, the PetPorte is an expensive solution, but one that is well made and very effective. The mooted computer interface is total vapourware as of the time of writing, it turns out, but the images of those furry little faces indignantly pressed up against the plastic vainly trying to gain entry is worth the price alone. However, this battle may be won, but the war is far from over. Unable to gain entry to give our carpets a good once over, Bad Kitty has taken to urinating up the outside of the PetPorte instead. But his heart doesn’t seem in it. I think he knows he’s beaten.