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!