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 :)

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!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Briggs & Stratton Simplicity 1226L Snowblower

We have been talking of buying a snowblower ever since our third house that had a huge driveway.  Our fifth house was rural with a very, very long driveway so before our first winter hit there, we discussed it again.  However, one of our neighbours cleared all the driveways on our short street with his tractor so we never did buy one.  We've been in this house almost four years.  Each year gets rougher clearing the driveway so until now we have hired it out even though a couple of our neighbours have cleared it for us a few times.  We are getting older, noticing both the cold and work of winter.  Yesterday, we bit the bullet and bought a snowblower.

Briggs Stratton Simplicity 1226L snowblower
Mother Nature decided to grace us with an abundance of snow Superbowl Sunday.  My husband shoveled enough of a path to get to the road then walked to work.  He called to have our guy come out to clear it but his truck was broke down.  On to plan B, a snowblower.  The time to buy a snowblower is not when there is almost three feet of snow on the ground and folks are still trying to dig out!  He made a few phone calls. 

One of our friends had a snowblower for sale.  It had only been used three times so my husband bought it.  He went over with the truck and they both brought it back on a trailer.  The snowblower is a Briggs & Stratton Simplicity 1226L dual-stage, self-propelled  model.  It has an electric start with recoil back-up.  The clearing path is 26 - inches (66 cm) and 40 ft (12.19 m) maximum throwing distance. 
The guys gave me a brief tutorial, left the snowblower running then left as I set about clearing the drive.  The snowblower is heavy, much heavier and considerably bulkier than a lawn mower.  It took a bit of getting used to but once I got the hang of it, the clearing was fairly easy.  Then it ran out of gas so I texted my husband who had just left from dropping off the trailer when the brake lines blew in the truck so I had to go rescue him.  He dropped me off then went for gas.  We had gas tank but no gas since our lawnmower is battery operated.  Once back, it was time to finish the driveway.

The snow was quite deep.  I had cleared the sidewalk portion (bottom right) by hand.  The worst part to clear was at the road where the plow had gone buy pushing a lot of snow into the driveway.  I was rather pleased with the final results especially since we have interlocking brick that is not quite as smooth as an asphalt or cement surface. 

It started snowing again last night and by morning there was a fair amount of accumulation so my husband cleared out the driveway again with the snowblower.  Then he cleared our elderly neighbour's and a friend's driveways.  It took about 45 minutes to clear the three driveways.  Although the snow held off during the day, it was back to snowing in the evening.  At this rate, the snowblower is going to get a lot of use!

I found the snowblower easy enough to use in theory but harder to use in practice.  I'm petite so even though the snowblower is self-propelling, I sure felt the effects.  Much of the soreness was more than likely due to hand shoveling as I had done a fair amount, the sidewalk and almost half of the driveway.   I can't advise on what to look for when buying a snowblower other than buy quality.  A snowblower will need both maintenance and repairs but should last a number of years when cared for properly.  Size does matter as a friend of ours bought a small snowblower that can barely do his short driveway after heavy snowfall but is suitable for lighter snowfall.  A snowblower will lessen the need for manual snow removal although some hand shoveling will still be needed.  At any rate, a snowblower is definitely a worthwhile investment!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Easy Indoor Clotheline Follow-up

We replaced the existing indoor clothesline with an easy DIY clothesline when we installed the dry bar cabinets.  Our solution was simply a removable, heavy wooden dowel spanning the distance between the closet and furnace room walls set into brackets.  The total cost for this quick project was under $10.  The true test to whether this solution would meet our needs came with the first couple of uses.

easy DIY indoor clothesline in use
We don't hang a lot of clothes but certain items for one reason or another are always air dried, usually on plastic clothes hangers.  There may only be four or five articles that need hanging in our average sized dark load unless it is athletic wear that comprises the entire load.  Once dried, the clothes are easily transferred to the appropriate closet. 

My concern was reducing the drying space from the existing 30' to about 4'.  Even though we never used the entire 30', the space was there if needed.  I hung nine articles of clothing from a large dark load which is about the average.  There was plenty of room for the clothes.  By morning, the clothes were dried ready to be put away.

Overall, this very simple, low cost, DIY solution meets our indoor drying needs nicely.  I leave a hanger on the rod to hang wet T-towels and dishcloths that are then placed in the laundry basket until there is enough for a load.  We have extra capacity, front loading washer and dryer so I do a load of laundry about once a week to ten days.  It takes awhile to accumulate enough whites for a full load! 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New Entrance Ceiling Fan

As much as I liked our new house when we bought it in 2011, the existing light fixtures were much to be desired.  Some were plain Jane basic fixtures and all were dated.  The only one I decided to keep for the time being was the kitchen ceiling fan.  The classic black ceiling hugging design looks good in the kitchen.

entrance chandelier
The front entrance lighting was a large drop chandelier.  I was so impressed with this horrid fixture complete with plastic prisms, that I couldn't find a picture of the full fixture!  The closest I could find was this picture take in July of 2014 before painting the doors and trim.  The door is now red on the exterior with white interior and trim (more on that to come).  Either the builder or previous owner liked plastic prisms because they are also on three more fixtures in the house, two in the upper level bathroom and one in the dining area.  The fixture in the dining is just all kinds of wrong including location but that is another project.  Back to the front entrance fixture.

Shortly after moving into our home, I saw a gorgeous ceiling fan that I thought would look great in our entrance.  I showed the picture of it to one of our kids who found a similar but smaller one for us.  They brought the new Banvil ceiling fan down but it ended up sitting in the box for over a year while we decided if that is what we really wanted.  We started working on the room that we are turning into a home gym.  The ceiling fan in the box was in there so my husband decided to install it this past weekend.

new energy efficient ceiling fan
Updating light fixtures is not difficult if you are comfortable working with electricity.  We turned off the breaker to the fixture, tested to make sure the power was off then my husband installed the ceiling fan in four stages.  The base was installed first then he assembled each blade and installed them on the base.  Once the blades were installed, he assembled the light and finally attached the chain pulls before turning on the power.   We are very pleased with the end result!

The ceiling fan is energy efficient.  Given it's location, it will push warm air from the upper level to the lower level in the winter months.  In the summer months, we will reverse the blade rotation so cool air is pulled from the lower level to the upper level.  This will save us on heating and cooling while making the house more comfortable.  We used two 13W CFL bulbs in the light but will change those to LEDs at some point since this fixture will be tied into our home automation.