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Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, United States
A guy finding out if life really does begin at 50.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

SmartThings - Home Automation is about Ready for Prime Time

I've been doing home automation since the early 80s.  I started with an X10 (back when they were called BSR).  Back in those early days, the only neat thing I did was turn on lights inside the house (about 4 lamps) when the garage door opened.  My Ex actually thanked me for doing that, and it worked well. A few years later, I added controls to close the garage door at 11pm each night (very handy).  I followed that with turning the water heater on and off as needed.  My water heater is on for less than 30 minutes a day.  By doing that, I estimate that I have saved $20 a month for 25 years.  That's at least $6000!

About 4 years ago, I bought a Vera.  Then a couple years ago a, Vera3.  Over the life of Vera, I've purchased 3 z-wave light switches, a couple appliance modules, and a of couple security modules.  Vera was powerful, and you could program it.  It would let you control lights and appliances (any z-wave device) using your smartphone - sort of. If I was at home on my local network, it worked well enough, but if I was away from home, I had to go to a web page to control devices. It worked, but it was not ready for prime time.  Vera showed way too much of the complexities, and I found it difficult to use (but it could do almost anything, and if it didn't, you could write your own code).

Earlier this month, I bought an Arduino WiFi development board from, and that lead me to the SmartThings Maker Kit that includes an Arduino shield.  I have watched/listened to a couple of YouTube videos on the "Internet of Things"  (IoT) which SmartThings is an implementer of.  SmarterThings supports z-wave, ZigBee, and WiFi (such as Hue LED Lights by Phillips). Vera does not support ZigBee, and since I have my eye on a GE GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater which has an optional Zigbee controller, I decided to get the SmartThings Maker Kit.  The kit includes a hub that will allow me to control my existing z-wave devices and experiment with my Arduino kit.

I liked the SmartThings from the second I opened the box.  It was a snap to unbind my z-wave devices from Vera and pair them with the SmartThings hub.  Since Maryann mentioned that Joey needed a key for the house, I decided it was a perfect time to get a z-wave door lock.  Johnny and I installed the Schlage Keypad Lock With Lever and paired it to the SmartThing hub in less that 30 minutes.  It was so easy to program, that Johnny, who is 10, was able to do it on his own!  Now, the boys can use the keypad and their own personal number to unlock the door if necessary.

We're also implementing the SmartThings Presence Sensor.  I'm home when Joey gets home each day, but Maryann is in the van picking up Johnny.  Now, instead of asking me, SmartThings will notify her on her cell phone when Joey and his bookbag enter the house.

After installing the lock and programming it, I can say that home automation has came a long way since 1982 and the days of the X10.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Old Switch-A-Ru

By now I'm sure every home has 'a spot' reserved for charging our devices.   The spot was chosen because it's convenient and it has easy access to an AC outlet.  If that outlet was like mine it was pretty much dedicated to charging devices, so it makes sense to just replace a standard outlet with one that has a USB charger built it. No more power packs battling to find room to plug in.

USB charging is here to stay.  The 5V DC in the USB interface makes charging ~3V device batteries easy.  However a standard USB interface only allow 0.5 amp to be sourced which is only enough to charge lower capacity phones battery.  Today's tablets with larger capacity batteries require 2 amps or more in some cases.  There is no standard protocol on how to detect that a USB host (charger) can source that higher current.  However, since the Apple iPad is so popular suppliers are using it's charging protocol as the de facto standard for higher charging rates.

The USB charger outlet I installed is iPad (2.1 amp) compatible.   I picked it up at my local home improvement box store for $20. Click the image to view the album with the details of the install and some upgrades to my home automation.  I added some additional z-wave switches to allow automation to control the front and back yards flood lights. I also hid some wires using a cord cover.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Never Assume

My refrigerator is 30 years old this month. It's a Kenmore that I got when I bought my first house all those years ago. It's served me well. In the 30 years I've replaced the thermostat, the fan motor, and the ice maker (twice). The ice maker started messing up 5 years ago and I decided not to fix the ice maker a third time. I've been thinking about replacing the fridge ever since. I remember why I chose that Kenmore model all those years ago. It had a light in the freezer which at the time was a 'high end' feature, and the yellow Energy sticker showed that it was one of the most efficient models at that time. I knew that today's refrigerators would be more energy efficient, but I 'assumed' not so efficient to make it worth replacing the old one. I figured I'd keep the old one until it broke, and I couldn't fix it myself. That changed when I helped someone move and was rewarded with an 18 month old refrigerator;  COOL! Before swapping them I decided to measure how much energy my old fridge used, then install the new to me fridge and measure and compare the two. I used my Kill-a-Watt to measure the energy (every home should have at least one Kill-a-watt).
Well I got a nice surprise. The new fridge uses half the energy as the old one!  As the chart shows the old fridge costs $110 a year to operate, and the new one only cost $55.

I used Google Drive (aka Docs) to create the spreadsheet and chart. If you mouse over the columns the fly over text will show you the exact amounts.

The spreadsheet shows the number of hours and the average (winter and summer) cost per Kilowatt for my utility. The Kill-a-Watt has a timer, and it accumulates the energy used.  So calculating the KW per hour is simple.
There are several reasons why the new fridge is less expensive to operate.
  1. The new fridge is smaller than the old one
  2. The new one does not have an ice maker
  3. There is no light in the freezer
None of those are the major reasons. I suspect the insulation and possibly the motors are smaller and more efficient. I have another device that monitors the kilowatt hours, time (duration), and on time. I'll hook it up and create a profile of energy usage, run time, and room temperature.

I know now that I should have replaced my fridge sooner since at $50+ per year saving, a $1500 refridgerator will pay for itself in 30 years, assuming it lasts that long.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Phoenix Fence Project

While at Wally's and Carol's I helped them install 50ft of fence. We installed 6 fence panels and a gate using 8 poles. We set the poles in concrete and used 4 anchors per post. It took about 15 hours spread over 3 mornings and some early afternoon work. Highs were 102-105 in Phoenix, so about noon or so we stopped.

The fence panels themselves were only about 1/3 of the total project cost. The posts, anchors, attachment hardware and various other items (masonry bits, concrete) accounted for 2/3s the project cost so beware. But all said and done the results looked good.

We got it straight and nice and plum. Carol was very pleased.  Click the picture above to view the pictures of the project.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Anything that has to do with dirt is hard work

Handy Brush Grubber
Off and on this spring I've been pulling privet (brush) from my yard.  I've pulled most of the little stuff using muscle along with a hand held 'Brush Grubber.'  Anything too big for me I used a 1 ton electric wench on my riding mower. Anything too big for that I used the GMC to pull.  Maryann is up and doing well now from her 2nd surgery, so she took pictures and created a blog A Natural Yard Where Ferns Flourish.  You'll see the GMC in action pulling up one of the larger stumps of privet.  The clumps get big when you cut them off at the ground each year for a few years.  I've learned that it's better to pull them up than to cut them off.  I still have one more spot that requires the use of the GMC on and I'll be done with the pulling for this spring.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Entertainment Boxes and Power Drain

I've read a couple articles about energy usage around the home. One article Atop TV Sets, Cable Boxes and DVRs Drain Power - states that a DVR might use "... 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found." Since I have Kill-a-Watt energy monitor I decided to see what my home entertainment setup used.

I have a UPS plugged into the wall outlet and I have the following devices plugged into the UPS:

  • DVR
  • Google TV
  • Wireless Router
  • DVD player
  • Wii
  • Digtial delay device
  • 46 inch LCD TV
  • Surround Sound
The Wii, DVR player, Digital Delay, and Surround Sound was not used during this sample. I only use the Wii when it's too hot to run, and the other items when I'm watching a DVD movie. So I would say the DVR, TV, and Google TV devices are my typical viewing set up.

Over 72 hours (3 days) my setup used 8.24Kwh or 2.75Kwh per day and just over 1000 Kwh per year. That's about $110 a year at 11 cents a Kwh. When 'off' 85 watts per hour (2Kwh per day) is used , and the 'on' usage is 142 watts per hour (3.4Kwh per day). Like the article says you don't save much when turning the devices off. 2.75Kwh - 2Kwh = 750 watts per day for me which is less than 9 cents a day to have them 'on' for just over 13 hour per day. 750 / (142 - 85) = 13.16

The NY Times article never actually stated what a typical household used. The study the NY Times linked to never said either, but there was a table that showed 617 Kwh per year. Based on what I am using I would say that 617 Kwh is conservative when you add in the TV and the internet access needed to stream video.

I think a Kill-a-Watt device is well worth the $30 since it gives your real time and accumulated watts (watt hours) and the amount of time it has been measuring which is all you need to understand the energy usage. Kill-a-Watt are available online and home improvement stores.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bummed about some Google Decisions

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Google. I'm sitting here watching a Google TV as I type this post into Google Blogger as I wait for my Google ChromeBook to arrive. I use Google Docs for my spreadsheets and other office documents, and Google Picasa to share my pictures. I can see by looking at my Google Chrome browser that I have no new notices on Google+. Google PowerMeter tells me I've used 13.4kw of electricity today which is a little under the usage for this same time last week. And Google Health tells me my A1C is trending downward (which is a good thing).

PowerMeter? Health? Never heard of them? Exactly, which is a shame since most people care about their health and the energy they use. Google in a blog release said they “didn’t catch on”, so both projects are being sunset. Both failed for more or less the same reason - no easy access to data. Power companies weren't interested in making the data from the electronic meters available to their customers. The electronic power meter was not installed for you to know your energy usage - it was installed for your power company to know, and for you just to get the bill. I had to buy a $200 device and install it in my breaker box, and the device and not the meter sends the data to Google. The device does allow me to also display the data on my PC. +1 for Big Business and secrecy, -1 for empowering each of us by making the information we need easily accessible.

Google Health on the other hand was free, but it required you to manually input your health data. Again all the data Google Health needs is locked up in your doctor or medical provider's office. Each health care provider is 'doing their own thing', and the only attribute they all have in common is they don't give you access to your data - Again you just get the bill.

Both PowerMeter and Health used my data and provide me information. A common 'data model' for my energy usage and medical data that allowed me to track and monitor - over a long timeframe in one place. Quick when was your last Tetanus/Diphteria (Td) shot? Mine was 12/9/2009. You better call your doctor. I used 59kw last Friday which is 10Kw above my average; Why? Oh right it was 102 on Friday.

Google was just ahead of it's time. Smart devices that monitor their energy usage and wireless send that to your energy computer (I have one) are still standalone and not built into the appliance/device. Bill and Hillary Clinton attempted to streamline medical records and failed, so it's no surprise that Google failed too. Doctors and Insurance companies have no interest in standards. They prefer À la carte solutions, after all we are all individuals right?

The loss of these 2 applications will have an impact on me and my desire to rid myself of Windows once and for all, and use Chromebook and the cloud to keep and access my data. I'm different than most people. I'm less interested in the cloud as an entertainment supplier, and more interested in the cloud as a place where I live my electronic life - medical, banking, government, and yes, purchase goods and services - which is what Google's new CEO said is their core business - ads. Bummer that changing the world by innovating ways for us all to easily access information is now less important.