What does a Garden Gnome do when she is not gardening, in the kitchen or doing genealogy? Well the answer might just surprise you so read the entries to find out more. This blog focuses on everything we do to make our house a home. There will be a strong emphasis on home energy efficiency and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. At the same time there will also be crafts, knitting and crocheting projects along with any other little tips we do to create that down to earth, I want to be here home. Please enjoy your visit :)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Meet a Few of Our Home Automation Devices

Yesterday, I wrote about the brains of our home automation system, the SmartThings Hub 2.   I currently have 30 connected devices connected to the hub with more waiting to be connected.   I purposely left Nest thermostat and Sonos speakers independent of the hub although both can be used with SmartThings.  Nest requires a SmartApp but Sonos works directly through SmartThings.  I do have the Sonos speakers on smart outlets though.   At some point, I will be connecting our Sonos speakers directly to the hub though.  I have also kept all of our home automation independent of our home security system.  Home automation should not be used as a security system although it is a good compliment to existing independent systems.  The following are some of our connected devices.  Of course, we have multiples of most of these devices. 

Cree, GE Link and Wemo connected bulbs
Connected bulbs (ZigBee) are by far the easiest and least expensive of our connected devices.  The beauty of the connected bulbs are simply connect and start using.  They replace standard A19 base CFL or incandescent bulbs.  They are not suitable for enclosed fixtures or use outdoors.  Connected bulbs are dimmable as well.

Pictured are Cree bulbs (fan, bottom right), Wemo (middle right) and GE Link (upper right).  These bulbs cost between $20 and $30 when I bought them.  Each brand has pros and cons.  The Cree bulbs have a grate venting that some do not care for but I have found these bulbs have the cleanest, whiter light with problem free performance.  The Wemo bulbs made by Belkin can be used via their own hub and app or through the SmartThings Hub.  These bulbs have a nice clean appearance and are just a little warmer colour than the Cree bulbs.  They tend to lose pairing occasionally which although minor is an annoyance.  The GE Link has a clear covering and has the warmest light of the three brands.  It is problematic not only for initial pairing but also losing pairing.  My preference is the Cree bulbs so I have several in use.

SmartSense, Aeon Labs, Schlage outlets
Plug-in controlled outlets are extremely convenient and flexible but they are big, often covering part of the other outlet.  Aesthetically, these are best for use in locations where they can be hidden like behind furniture.   These outlets are for indoor, dry locations only and are rated for maximum W which determines the use.   The plug-in controlled outlets can be used for lamps and small appliances (if rated for such use.

I have a Schlage (Z-wave, 600 W incandescent maximum, top), two Aeon Labs (Z-wave,  1875 W maximum, middle) and SmartThings (ZigBee,  480 W incandescent maximum, bottom).  These plugs all have an indicator light but the Schlage is the only one that can be controlled in the app to lit when on, lit when off or not lit.  This is a plus if you want to keep light pollution in the house low.  The Schlage is has a controlled dimmable outlet on the left side of the plug and a regular outlet on the right side.  Although this controlled outlet is likely best for lamps where dimming may be desired, I'm using it for a Sonos speaker for the time being.  The SmartThings outlet gives energy usage (W).  The Aeon Lab plug-in outlets are suitable for small appliances like coffeemakers.  They also give the energy usage (W, kWh) of the appliance being used so rules can be set up based on that in addition to time or occupancy.

GE wireless switches
Connected switches are expensive at $40 to $70 depending on the switch.  Some are on/off while others are dimmable with dimmable switches being more expensive.  Three-way switches are more expensive as well.  Connected switches simply replace regular paddle switches so it is not an obvious change.  The downside is they only come in white or almond.  One brand offers both light and dark almond but no black or brown.  Connected switches are used to control non-connected light fixtures such as enclosed fixtures, ceiling lights, bathroom lights. 

I have a few wired connected switches all GE (Z-wave).  The switch on the right in the duplex outlet is a single pole controlling the bathroom light.  The middle switch in the triple outlet is a 3-way switch that also has an accessory switch (not shown).  The GE switches require a neutral wire so may not be suitable in older homes.  Each connected switch has a small blue indicator light that can be set to on when lit, off when lit or off in the app.

Ecolink and PEQ (Centralite) motion sensors
You can actually get a fair amount of home automation based simply on bulbs, outlets and switches by using schedules and rules.  However, your home automation comes to life via motion sensors.  Motion sensors can be paired with other controlled devices, turning them on or off depending on motion.  I have two styles.  The Ecolink (Z-wave, left) motion sensor is corner mount.  This limits where the sensor can be placed and hiding it is rather difficult.  The PEQ by Centralite (ZigBee, right) is a smaller motion sensor that can be set on a shelf or mounted on a bracket.   The PEQ motion sensors also measure temperature so the sensor can be configured to control other connected devices by motion and/or temperature.  It is also one of the more flexible sensors in terms of placement.  I have one sitting on a cabinet covered almost entirely by a vining plant that can barely be seen yet it registers motion just fine.  There are no extrnal indicator lights on either brand of motion sensor.  Rather the front cover is removed for pairing where a connection button is pressed and an indicator lights during the process.  Both brands have a battery indicator in the app and notification when low.  The motion sensors take one CR123A 3V battery.

PEQ (Centralite) open close sensor
A fundamental device in home automation is the open/closed sensor.  This device is mounted on a door or window.  The contact is either broken (open) or together as pictured (closed).  Rules can easily be created based on this.  For example, if the sensor is open 'notify me if rain is coming' or 'notify me if I leave" or 'turn off AC" or "turn on light".   More importantly, an open/closed sensor can be used on any item  that would cause the contact to open or close such as refrigerators, freezers and mailboxes.  There are a lot of creative uses for open/closed sensors! 

There is no external indicator light.  Pairing is achieved in the same manner as the motion sensors.  There is a battery level indicator in the app as well as notification for low battery.  The open/closed sensor uses one  CR2 3V battery.

SmartSense presence sensor and Rad beacons
Presence sensors are very useful for home automation systems.  The arrival sensor by SmartThings (ZigBee, bottom) can be used as a person or pet tag.  It can be configured to trigger a set of actions when the sensor arrives or leaves the geofence.  It has an audible beep to so is the perfect addition to your set of keys.  It will make finding them a lot easier!  The arrival sensor uses a CR2032 3V battery.  There is a battery level indicator in the app and notification when the battery is low.

Beacons are just starting to be used in home automation but they are already in wide use commercially.  Beacons can track you through malls and stores, tracking your shopping style.  If you don't want this to happen, be sure Bluetooth is turned off on your phone when shopping.

I have three Radius beacons (Bluetooth).  While the SmartThings Hub 2 does have Bluetooth it is not enabled currently.  In order to use the Radius beacons, two additional apps BeaconThings and SmartRules are required.   The beacons are small about the size of a quarter in diameter and three quarters stacked thick, easy to place out of sight and yet still work.  The beacon can be stationary registering presence when cell phone/tablet comes into proximity of the beacon or the cell phone/tablet can be stationary registering presence when the beacon comes within proximity of the cell phone/tablet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Brains of Our Smart Home

Yesterday, I shared a few more thoughts on our smart home.  I honestly would have set up my X-10 components in this house.  Even though it is an old (1970's) technology it does still work although there can be problems with dirty signals.  We bought our Nest the first year here and it was love at first sight!  Unlike traditional programmable thermostats, the Nest can also be controlled via a cell phone app which became a huge benefit.  We have no kids or pets at home so staying overnight on a whim is normal.  If using a traditional programmable thermostat, the temperature would be set to the schedule but with Nest the temperature settings is automatically set to "away" or it can be manually adjusted through the app.  Last year heading home from our vacation home, the anticipated two day trip ended up being a straight drive though so we simply used the app to warm the house by the time we arrived home.  This had me itching to be able to do the same thing with other home automation.

The brains behind the connected home automation is a hub.  Devices are paired to the hub.  The devices communicate to the hub which deciphers the signal, sends it to the cloud which then sends back a signal causing the device to perform as desired.  The hub essentially allows remote access to the devices.  When you are away from home and want to control a device manually, you open the app and tap on the desired device to turn on, off or dim.  This sends a signal to the cloud which sends to the hub at your house which sends the signal to the device to perform as desired.  All this happens in seconds.  Some hubs are propriety (Iris, Staples D-Link), some are Z-wave only (Vera) and some like Wink and SmartThings are capable of controlling multi-brand, multi-language (ZigBee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, WiFi).  It is also compatible with IFTTT app for additional rules and schedules.  Wink only controls ZigBee, Z-wave and some WiFi but be warned that its parent company has filed bankruptcy and Wink is for sale so this is not one to invest money in.   

SmartThings Hub 1 and Hub 2
My first hub was Wink and less than two weeks later I was a victim of the great Winkening.  I returned the Wink hub and immediately ordered SmartThings Hub 1 (black & white box, on right middle picture, left on bottom picture).  SmartThings Hub 1 can control a large number of multi-brand ZigBee, Z-wave and WiFi devices. Certain devices use their own hub (eg. Phillips Hue) that can also be controlled by SmartThings.  What makes SmartThings unique is the community supported SmartApps and ability to create your own custom SmartApps using Groovy.  You can even tweak existing SmartApps!  Let's say you want a device to perform a certain action like using an open/close sensor to turn on a light when the mail arrives, simply look for a SmartApp, add it then configure.  If you can find SmartApp then you can either write one yourself using the developer's tools on the IDE (website) or ask in the community forums.  They are a wealth of knowledge, always happy to help.  SmartThings support is one of the best there is too!

A smartphone (iOS 6, Android OS 4.0) and internet connection is required for the setup of the hub.   I downloaded the SmartThings App then set up my SmartThings Hub 1 (ZigBee, Z-wave, WiFi).  It came with an ethernet cord for a secure connection and power cord.  When first connected, the hub updated then was ready to connect devices.  I only had 3 bulbs at that time, a GE Link and 2 Cree.  They paired nicely so I was off shopping.  What I really liked was being able to customize.  PEQ motion sensors (made by Centralite) were on sale for $19.99 so I checked the forums to find they worked with SmartThings even though they aren't on the list.  I bought 3 motion sensors, three more Cree bulbs and three-way switch which brought immediate home automation with lights being controlled by motion/occupancy rather than just schedules.  SmartThings Hub 2 was announced shortly after I got my Hub 1, with a expected third quart release.  It was delayed but I knew I was going to buy it anyway.  In the meantime, I continued adding devices to my system. 

I pre-ordered SmartThings Hub 2 (ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth,WiFi) on Sep 9 and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived six days later.  Hub 2 (colour box top, middle left, bottom right) has an updated square design and updated features like battery back-up.  It came with an ethernet cable, power cord and 4 AA batteries.  There is LED indicator light on the front of the hub for a quick visual of hub status.  Hub 2 has two USB ports for local image storage and offers the coveted local control.  It is limited local control but still an improvement.  Like Hub 1, a smartphone (iOS 7+, Android OS 4.0+, Windows Phone 8.1+) and internet connection is required to setup the hub.  The hub software will be updated during the process before any devices can be added.  The updated app has "Smart Monitor" which can be armed (away, stay) and disarmed similar to a home security system which is a nice feature.  Devices (things) once paired can be placed in rooms making it easy to find them for control.  The devices can be controlled manually, via SmartApps, and Routines. 

Currently there is no migration tool for moving devices from Hub 1 to Hub 2.  This becomes a project with larger number of devices.  I had a problem with the app recognizing the hub even though the hub was showing in the IDE.  Despite trying several solutions, I had to get help from support.  Once they solved that problem, I had most of my 30 devices up and running.  I had to redo my schedules and rules but in one way that was a good thing as it helped clean up my configurations a bit.  Other than that, the migration was rather smooth.

Of note, you cannot use two hubs in the same location.  That means there will likely be a lot of Hub 1 for sale in the near future.  There is no need to upgrade to or even start with Hub 2 unless you want the new features Hub 2 has to offer.   Rumour has it that Hub 3 is already in the works so some with Hub 1 are holding out for it. 

Next up: components of our smart home

Monday, September 28, 2015

Moving Forward With Our Smart Home

Back in June, I wrote a few thoughts on a connected home aka smart home.   I have recently migrated our devices over to SmartThings Hub 2 from SmartThings Hub 1.  I'll post pictures of some of our devices with their pros and cons but in the meantime, I would like to extend my thoughts on a connected home.

A smart home consists of the use of technology and certain devices to automate actions in the house but it is so much more.  Even a small amount of home automation can save you time and money as has already been shown by refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines.  These appliances are automated, they save both time and money but in the true sense of a smart home, they really are standard issue.  The devices used in smart homes, talk to each other via ZigBee, Z-wave, BlueTooth, or WiFi.  Even the older X-10 can be incorporated into smart homes.  In order for the devices to communicate with each other they require a hub and that is where things can get confusing.  If you want dependable smart home control of lighting, music, alarm systems and monitoring then it is best to go with a professional service like Control4 or Homeseer.  If you want a dependable but limited DIY home automation system then Staples D-Link, Loew's Iris or Vera (Z-wave) propriety systems are a good choice.  If you want to have complete control and flexibility, then SmartThings is the winner hands down.  Wink owned by Quirky was a contender but Quirky has filed for bankruptcy and Wink is up for sale so it's future is unknown.  There are some stand-alone devices (thermostats, speakers, lights) that do not require a hub and can be controlled via their own app.

I started with X-10 years ago and have been dabbling in home automation ever since.  These are exciting yet frustrating times for many in the home automation field.  The reality is, home automation especially inexpensive DIY is in its infancy.  Now, that 'inexpensive' is relative as your investment can really add up.  Sure the hub only cost $99 but a single 3-pole Z-wave switch costs $65 plus installation if you can't do-it-yourself.  That single 3-pole switch really is automated although it can be controlled via SmartApps in the app, like a rather fancy timer with remote access.  The real magic comes from adding proximity and/or motion sensors so that switch which controls those lights works without touching the switch or app based on occupancy or proximity.  Each motion costs about $40 and bulbs $20 so a quick calculation reveals that it doesn't take long to have $1,000 plus invested in your home automation system.

I currently have 30 connected devices (bulbs, wired switches, plug-in outlets, bulbs, motion sensors, open/closed sensors) not counting my iBeacons plus the hub.  The Nest thermostat, Sonos speakers and security system are independent of our home automation system.  I highly recommend not incorporating your existing security system into your home automation for several reasons but both Nest and Sonos can be connected if desired.  Some of my devices have multiple functions reporting temperature, humidity, light level and/or energy use, and battery levels in addition to their main function.  Rules can be set up based on these additional functions so a switch that is used to turn on or off a small appliance can also be set to turn that appliance off once a certain amount of energy has been used.  Most of our lights are now controlled in some manner, mainly presence but also scheduling.  We receive notifications if there are weather warnings in our area or if the windows have been left open and rain is coming.  We get notifications when the temperature reports of a couple of the motion sensors are too hot or too cold.  These could also be set to turn Nest on or off.  We get notifications when the motions are triggered when we are away so we know when the house has been checked or plants watered.  More importantly, we know if there is an issue like a water leak at the house that needs to be checked so we can get someone there.   The house is genofenced so certain actions and reports are based on our proximity to our house rather than proximity within the house.  I have three devices (switches, bulb) to connect yet and plans for more shortly.  With each addition, our house gains function working for us, making things more comfortable. 

All this said and as pleased as what I am with what I've been able to accomplish thus far with home automation there are some drawbacks.  DIY home automation is certainly not plug and play, forget about it.  The DIY home automation has been cloud based meaning you must have internet for it to work.  That can be problematic in many areas where the internet connect is not stable.  SmartThings just introduced limited local control with Hub 2.  Prior to that if the internet when down or SmartThings was down, then schedules and app control did not work.  Now, if either is down those devices using SmartApps under local control will remain functional.  A device is paired to the hub in order to control it.  Some devices (especially GE Link bulbs) lose their pairing so have to be manually paired again.  Another problem is poling where the app will show a light is on when it is actually off and visa versa.  The only time I notice poling problems is when the hydro flickers off.  This is not a real problem with the bulbs as they are LED so low energy use but it can be a problem with switches used to control small appliances.  Many are using the smart switches to power their televisions on and off but this is similar to hitting the power button on your computer rather than shutting down.  There are reports of damaging televisions using smart switches so I wouldn't recommend using one.  I also don't recommend using a smart switch on an already smart appliance (programmable appliance).  Use a smart switch to make a dumb appliance smart but not a smart appliance smarter. 

My biggest pet peeve with home automation is I don't want to see the devices.  In other words I want the convenience and effects without seeing the how-it's-done.  The connected bulbs (Cree, GE Link, Wemo) are the same size and shape as an incandescent light bulb.  The Cree has a vent system but otherwise looks like a normal bulb.  Wired in outlets and switches are great but they do have a little LED indicator light some may not like.  Otherwise, they fit right in.  Plug-in outlets are bulky and while versatile, suitable only for areas where they won't be seen but can still pick up the mesh network.  Motion sensors and open/close sensors are the most problematic to hide.  Both have to be accessible to change batteries as well.  Cameras have the wires that can be problematic to hide as well. 

Next up, I'll introduce you to some of our smart devices and tell you how I'm using them to make our home a smart home. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Thoughts on a Connected Home aka Smart Home

As mentioned previously, I have been interested in home automation for as long as I can remember.  In many ways, homes have been automated for a few decades thanks to washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and timers.  Even small appliances quickly became automated simply by the addition of timers.  Aside of plug in timers and timer equipped small appliances, home automation was and still is not very much of a DIY.  Strictly speaking home automation is the control of lighting, heating, cooling, and entertainment via devices that go through a main contoller, usually wired.  The new generation of home automation takes that a step further by using smart devices that can control each other via means of a hub and controller (eg. smart phone, tablet).  More importantly this new generation allows the control of your devices wirelessly from anywhere you have internet connection.  In most cases, only the hub is connected to your router although at least one hub connects to the router wirelessly.

We have had a Nest thermostat for about three years now.  It has its own app.  The Nest is a treat to use, has paid for itself and it has been virtually problem free except when the Wink hub booted Nest offline even though Nest was always kept separate from Wink.  We've had Sonos for about a year and a half with no problems at all.  It has its own app.  Both Nest and Sonos are smart devices that don't talk to each other and have separate app controls.  Wink was a huge disaster so I switched over to SmartThings which controls Z-wave and ZigBee devices.  It has added control for Belkin Wemo (WiFi) as well as numerous other brands like Aeon Labs, Ecolink and GE.  Both Apple and Google are doing their version of home automation and then there is Lowe's Iris and Staples Connect, both using a propriety version of ZigBee.  Herein lies the problem and it is a huge problem for consumers.  It doesn't take long before you have four or five apps just for home automation taking up a lot of valuable space on your space limited cell phone not to mention the aggravation of having to click one app for HVAC, another for music, another for lighting and yet another for locks. 

We currently have Nest thermostat, Sonos 3, Sonos 1, 5 motion (1 Ecolink, 4 PEQ), 1 GE bulb, 3 Wemo bulbs, 5 Cree bulbs, GE 3-way switch, and GE on/off switch installed as part of our home automation.  We have 2 PEQ motions, 1 PEQ tripper and 1 Cree bulb to install yet.  Two GE plug in switches and a GE on/off switch are on their way.  All rooms are automated to some degree, some more than others.  We have two Quirky products: egg minder and spotter.  We use four apps: Nest, Sonos, SmartThings, Wink; but that will go to three quickly the way Wink is going.  SmartThings can control Sonos but not Nest yet.  So here are a few tips:

  1.  follow home automation forums, Facebook pages, Twitter - These resources can be a wealth of information especially for the how-tos and troubleshooting.  They are also ideal for keeping up to date with what's new in home automation and where the great sales are.  Twitter is especially useful for outage notifications.
  2. do not buy all your devices at once -  Buy the hub and one or two devices.  Add to that as the need arises.  Focus on need first then fill in with your wants.
  3. shop the sales - If you are willing to wait, some of the sales can be quite good.  I picked up the PEQ motion sensors for half price at Best Buy!  The plug GE plug in switches were also $50 off on Amazon.  Keep an eye on Best Buy, Lowes, Amazon and eBay. 
  4. avoid Wink like the plague - This all talk, broken promises company is nothing but a headache with the hub continuously going down, having to reconnect devices multiple times often daily for some, dwindling customer support and failure to deliver.  The second major outage was just last night, on the heels of the first a month ago!
  5. opt for a hub that supports numerous protocols (eg. Z-wave, ZigBee, WiFi, Bluetooth) - SmartThings is quickly proving itself to be stable as is Vera.  SmartThings allows the most as far as customizing with SmartApps using your own code or templates as well as published SmartLab apps.  Be aware there are a lot of home automation brands coming onto the market but they haven't proved themselves. 
  6. stay away from any propriety protocols (eg. Staples Connect, Iris) - Some components will work with other systems while others won't.  If that system is eliminated like Revolv, you will be left high and dry with a bunch of devices that won't work with anything else.  Some of these systems have monthly subscription fees as well.
  7. keep home security system separate - Home automation devices will increase your home security but do not use them as a security system and do not tie your existing home security system into your home automation.  The last thing you want to deal with is doors that are unlocked when the app says they are locked!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Meet Mr Chicken

I have been a huge fan of home automation ever since seeing the Jetsons eons ago.  Over the years my home automation skills have grown with available technology.  By our third home, I was heavily into X10 so most of our lighting was automatically controlled by that, turning on and off depending on occupancy.  Over the winter, my project became move from X10 to the newest of the new 'smart things' that can be controlled from anywhere using our cell phones.

One of the first places I started automating was the kitchen.  I'm using SmartThings hub and non-propriety Z-wave and ZigBee devices.  The ceiling fan is now equipped with ZigBee bulbs controlled via motion.  Each bulb can be controlled separately or as a group and they can be dimmed via the app.  I have different modes set up in the app as well.  A mode is simply a high tech, customizable timer that allows me to set up lighting depending on certain events.  The motion device in the kitchen also tracks temperature which is quite handy.  If the temperature gets too hot or cold, I have it set to send me a notification so I can then turn on fans or HVAC.  I could have this happen without the notification which will come once I get the system fully functional.  In terms of energy savings, there will definitely be some however I don't expect a payback for a couple of years especially when I am still adding to the kitchen.  I have a Z-wave switch for the under shelving lighting on the way and the next purchase will be leak detection devices.

Quirky egg minder
There are a lot of practical IoT devices available.  The biggest barrier is getting your devices to talk to each other.  This is where certain hubs come into play, basically acting as translators so Z-wave can control a ZigBee device or vis-a-visa.  Early on and without doing the research I bought a Wink hub.  That turned out to be a huge mistake!  I was part of the Winkening in April which left a rather nasty taste in my mouth.  Wink has/had devices that works with the hub and a few that didn't.  I originally had a few bulbs that needed the hub.  Those bulbs were switched over to SmartThings and I haven't looked back.  It's a good thing as Wink who owns Quirky has announced that Quirky will not be putting out more devices; they aren't fulfilling orders and basically both are taking a huge downward slide into a bottomless hole of no return.

However, even though I returned my hub, I kept the egg minder which does not require the hub.
Our egg minder, affectionately named Mr Chicken, works on WiFi.  Seriously, this is a fun but useless gadget.  The original retail price was $79.99 but the usefulness drove the price down to $12 when I purchased mine (with free shipping).  It is now going for $9 and quite frankly is really worth about $2 but it is fun!

Quirky egg minder as seen in appOnce the egg minder is connected to your WiFi, you simply fill it up.  The egg minder does the rest.  If working properly, it will indicate the oldest egg to use first by an illuminated blue light.  The eggs are recognized by the tray as they are added not by actual age of the egg so it is not accurate as far as egg age.  Sometimes it loses connection or doesn't register an egg.   As the eggs are used, you can set it to send a notification.The egg minder status is visible in the Wink app on your cell phone or tablet.  The oldest egg is indicated by a blue circle with 'pick me'.  Empty spots in the egg minder show on the app as an empty spot. 

I have the egg minder set to send notifications when I'm down to three eggs.  A few days ago, I decided to make egg salad.  Hubby (at office) got a notification for each of the last three eggs.  He promptly sent me a text with several chicken emoticons.  Well, then it was a texting war with hubby still laughing when he came home.  Mr Chicken had redeemed itself!

Wink itself is not doing good so at some point the app and support for Mr Chicken may cease to be unless SmartThings can use their API.  If that doesn't happen, then we have a fancy egg carton.  I could always take the egg minder apart and re-purpose it in another home automation project.  I'm sure some of the fine home automation tinkerers will come up with a way to use the egg minder.  For now, we are enjoying a few chuckles!

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Big Wink More Like Yawn

Over the next few posts I will be discussing my home automation project, making our home a smarter home.   Before I do that, I want to share a company to stay away from.  Given my very negative experience with Wink [wink.com] I cannot in good conscious recommend using any of their products especially the hub.  Avoid like the plague!

After using Wemo for a week, I realized I really wanted to get back into home automation the way I had been with x10.  With x10 fully set up in our third house, lights were fully automated using motion, a camera watched over our ponds and various small appliances were automated.  While I still have most of my x10 devices, I really liked how Wemo devices could be controlled from any location so doing a little research, I settled on trying a rather inexpensive option of Wink. 

Wink's parent company is Quirky.  Quirky partnered with GE, the with an exclusive to sell both Wink Certified and Quirky products through Home Depot.  So on the surface, this seemed like a solid choice.  Boy was in for a lesson the hard way!

Wink uses an app to control hub dependent and hub independent products, mainly Quirky but a few others.  I bought a Quirky spotter and egg minder, two of their hub independent products.  Both are incredibly useless!  They look nice but they don't live up to their expectations.  Had I researched further, I would have discovered all of the negative press regarding these two products.  At the same time I bought the Wink hub, one GE link bulb and three Cree Connected bulbs.  The hub was a nightmare from the start!  It connects to the modem/router via Wi-fi.  It took me two days to finally get it connected but after that the hub seemed stable so after some fiddling I paired the GE bulb.  The Cree bulbs connected without a hitch.  My negative instinct was subsiding.  A couple of days later, Nest (our learning thermostat) kept losing connection.  We've had the Nest for almost two years and had never had this problem.  Then my iPhone would not connect to Wi-fi and finally my laptop kept losing connection.   I checked all the settings on the modem/router but the problem persisted.  I called my provider who did troubleshooting and finally after a lot of tech work, sent out a new modem/router.  With a day Nest was again losing connection so we went through their tech support.  Nothing seemed to work, with each Wi-fi connected device randomly losing connection except the Wink hub.  You can set Wink to control Nest but I had left Nest control to it's own app and there was no apparent interaction between Wink and Nest.  Finally, the app showed no hub paired devices as both Twitter and Facebook lit up with the current Wink hub problem.  Trust me, there have been a lot but this was the worst one so far!

According to Wink, someone forgot to renew their security certificate so no hubs could connect.  Essentially they bricked their hubs.  Their solution was to get everyone to send in their hubs so they could fix it and they would return it within a week.  As of this date some are still waiting for their boxes to return the hub to Wink!  Second, Wink immediately offered a $50 discount code that was abused within about two seconds so they issued personalized codes sent to customers via email but many of those codes don't work and the majority of products the codes can be used with are mysteriously unavailable.  In the meantime, Wink offered a way to unbrick the hub by changing the DNS on your router for those that were able or wanted to.  As hubs started coming online new rumours began circulating that the reason for the hubs going offline was an untested update that would prevent rooting the hubs.  Since Wink is cloud only meaning your app sends a signal to the cloud via the internet and the cloud sends back the signal to the device to respond in the desired fashion.  That is all well and good until Wink's servers go down then your devices don't work.  Rooting the hub gave local control so it didn't matter if their servers went down.  Now, the vast majority of folks using Wink were not using rooted hubs and for many it was their first step into home automation, buying into a promise that could not be fulfilled.   I tend to believe the second scenario of Wink trying to prevent rooted hubs from connecting to their servers.  If it was just updating a security certificate there is no need to return the hub.   Clearly they uncovered a physical problem in the hub that they were being quick to hide and get the hubs back.  Either way Wink was 100% negligent in causing the bricking of the hubs.

As a company, Quirky has a reputation for putting out products that really have not been tested so it was no surprise that Wink does the same thing.  The Wink hub is larger and aesthetically intrusive in comparison to other home automation hubs.  Everything is done via the cloud with no local control.  During this latest outage, folks had lost automation of lights, motion sensors, triggers, switches, and locks.  The site informs the user to not depend on Wink for security even though the implication is there for using as DIY security.  The funny thing is during this fiasco, I unplugged the hub and suddenly all of my device Wi-fi problems were gone!  I left the hub unplugged for a day, plugged it back in and one by one watched my devices get booted off of Wi-fi.  That was it for me.  I took the Wink hub back and moved onto to another brand home automation hub.  Luckily, I did not buy into the Wink environment significantly so my light bulbs made the switch over just fine.

Lessons learned from my Wink experience:

  • don't buy into the hype - pretty does not equal function
  • don't buy propriety - make sure all of your devices will work with alternate connection devices
  • insist on local control
Warning:  Do not use home automation especially cloud based as a security system.  Do not tie your home automation system in with your existing security system.  I personally do not recommend using home automation for entry locks or garages. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Loving Our Eclipse California Shutters

Window treatment always presents a problem when you first move into a new home.  You either have no window treatment at all or what was left behind is not to your liking.  The former owners of our home left behind vertical blinds in the kitchen, office and games room.  There were mini blinds in the master bedroom and two lower level bedrooms, and sheers on the Great Room window.  There were no window treatments on the two half circle windows or one bedroom.  All window treatment left was at best suitable for a bit of privacy until replacing.

California shutters in Great Room
We live in southern Ontario so energy efficient window treatment is a must during the heating and cooling seasons.  The uncovered half circle windows presented a bit of a problem as far as treatment but I had visions of California shutters in mind for the Great Room before we even moved into the house.  About this time last year, we had California shutters installed on the Great Room windows and half circle window over the entrance door.

We chose Eclipse 2 1/2 - inch ultra satin with gears in cotton (white).  We had them professionally installed.  They transformed the room with the clean, crisp lines.  More importantly we quickly realized these shutters were quite energy efficient.  There are ten sections on the window pictured.  Each can be controlled individually giving a lot more options than other types of window treatment. 

games room California shutters
Last week, we had the same shutters installed on the games room windows on the lower level.  These windows originally had vertical blinds with one missing vane.  Each window has four sections that can be controlled individually.  The look is clean and crisp,  amplifying the natural light into the room when opened.  They increase the privacy level and energy efficiency.  The California shutters are basically maintenance-free other than dusting.  They won't shrink, warp or fade and never need painting.

Overall, I am very pleased with our California shutters.  Not only do they look good while saving on heating and cooling costs, they have increased the value of our house!  We have one on order to be installed in the soon-to-be completed home gym and we plan on installing California shutters in the three upper level bedrooms.  When all is said and done we will have invested about $8,500 in shutters for all but the patio door and pantry window, all professionally installed.  Now, that sounds like a lot of money and it is but consider that these blinds will be saving us money year round in both heating and cooling costs AND they have already increased the value of our house.  If we average an energy savings of $30 per month, the payback period is 283 months or 23 years, not exactly good but better than no payback.  However, the payback period will actually be less than that given the ever rising cost of heating and cooling.  If we were to sell in the near future, we should recoup the entire amount of the shutters according to the realtor we spoke to.  She said the shutters should also help our house sell quicker.  I say 'should' because there are never any guarantees with real estate.  As long as we own the house, the California shutters will make our experience more enjoyable.  In short, the California shutters are more of an investment that started paying off as soon as they were installed!