Investigating the timer on a Hoover washing machine

20.07.2018 17:47

One day around last Christmas I stepped into the bathroom and found myself standing in water. The 20-odd years old Candy Alise washing machine finally broke a seal. For some time already I was suspecting that it wasn't rinsing the detergent well enough from the clothes and it was an easy decision to just scrap it. So I spent the holidays shopping for a new machine as well as taking apart and reassembling bathroom furniture that was in the way, and fixing various collateral damage on plumbing. A couple of weeks later and thanks to copious amounts of help from my family I was finally able to do laundry again without flooding the apartment in the process.

I bought a Hoover WDXOC4 465 AC combined washer-dryer. My choice was mostly based on the fact that a local shop had it on stock and its smaller depth compared to the old Candy meant a bit more floor space in the small bathroom. Even though I was trying to avoid it, I ended up with a machine with capacitive touch buttons, a NFC interface and a smartphone app.

Front panel on a Hoover WDXOC4 465 AC washer.

After half a year the machine works reasonably well. I gave up on Hoover's Android app the moment it requested to read my phone's address book, but thankfully all the features I care about can be used through the front panel. Comments I saw on the web that the dryer doesn't work have so far turned out to be unfounded. My only complaint is that 3 or 4 times it happened that the washer didn't do a spin cycle when it should. I suspect that the quality of embedded software is less then stellar. Sometimes I hear the inlet valve or the drum motor momentarily stop and engage again and I wonder if that's due to a bug or controller reset or if they are meant to work that way.

Anyway, as most similar machines, this one displays the remaining time until the end of the currently running program. There's a 7-segment display on the front panel that counts down hours and minutes. One of the weirder things I noticed is that the countdown seems to use Microsoft minutes. I would look at the display to see how many minutes are left, and then when I looked again later it would be seem to be showing more time remaining, not less. I was curious how that works and whether it was just my bad memory or whether the machine was really showing bogus values, so I decided to do an experiment.

I took a similar approach to my investigation of the water heater years ago. I loaded up the machine and set it up for a wash-only cycle (6 kg cottons program, 60°C, 1400 RPM spin cycle, stain level 2) and recorded the display on the front panel with a laptop camera. I then read out the timer values from the video with a simple Python program and compared them to the frame timestamps. The results are below: The real elapsed time is on the horizontal axis and the display readout is on the vertical axis. The dashed gray line shows what the timer should ideally display if the initial estimate would be perfect:

Countdown display on a Hoover washer versus real time.

The timer first shows a reasonable estimate of 152 minutes at the start of the program. The filled-in area on the graph around 5 minutes in is when the "Kg Mode" is active. At that time the display shows a little animation as the washer supposedly weighs the laundry. My OCR program got confused by that, so the time values there are invalid. However, after the display returns to the countdown, the time displayed is significantly lower, at just below 2 hours.

"Kg Mode" description from the Hoover manual.

Image by Candy Hoover Group S.r.l.

That seems fine at first - I didn't use a full 6 kg load, so it's reasonable to believe that the machine adjusted the wash time accordingly. However the minutes on the display then count down slower than real time. So much slower in fact that they more than make up for the difference and the machine ends the cycle after 156 minutes, 4 minutes later than the initial estimate.

You can also see that the display jumps up and down during the program, with the largest jump around 100 minutes in. Even when it seems to be running consistently, it will often count a minute down, then up and down again. You can see evidence of that on the graph below that shows differences on the timer versus time. I've verified this visually on the video and it's not an artifact of my OCR.

Timer display differences on a Hoover washer.

Why is it doing that? Is it just buggy software, an oscillator running slow or maybe someone figured that people would be happier when a machine shows a lower number and then slows down the passing minutes? Hard to say. Even if you don't tend to take videos of your washing machine, it's hard not to notice that the timer stands still at the last 1 minute for around 7 minutes.

Incidentally, does anyone know how the weighing function works? I find it hard to believe that they actually measure the weight with a load cell. They must have some cheaper way, perhaps by measuring the time it takes for water level rise up in the drum or something like that. The old Candy machine also advertised this feature and considering that was an electro-mechanical affair without sophisticated electronics it must be a relatively simple trick.

Pixel sampling locations for the 7-segment display OCR.

In conclusion, a few words on how I did the display OCR. I started off with the seven-segment-ocr project by Suyash Kumar I found on GitHub. Unfortunately it didn't work for me. It uses a very clever trick to do the OCR - it just looks at intensity profiles of two horizontal and one vertical line per character per frame. However because my video had low resolution and was recorded at a slight angle no amount of tweaking worked. In the end I just hacked up a script that sampled 24 hand-picked single pixels from the video. It then compared them to a hand-picked threshold and decoded the display values from there. Still, Kumar's project came in useful since I could reuse all of his OpenCV boilerplate.

Recording of a digital clock synchronized to the DCF77 signal.

Since I like to be sure, I also double-checked that my method of getting real time from video timestamps is accurate enough. Using the same setup I recorded a DCF77-synchronized digital clock for two hours. I estimated the relative error between video timestamps and the clock to be -0.15%, which means that after two hours, my timings were at most 11 seconds off. The Microsoft-minute effects I found in Hoover are much larger than that.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »