Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Small Office Updates

My gray desk with a pair of 27" 5K monitors powered by top-specced 2018 MacBook Pro 15. Philips Hue strip behind the desk.I finally got around to redoing some of the pictures of my office. Some of the minor changes are the acquisition of Sonos One speaker and a couple of nice trinkets. I love my cacti collection. A set of pots with little plants and a set of glass ones. And then there is a steampunk mask we brought from Venice.

Twenty-one panel Nanoleaf arrow on the wall.The biggest change is the addition of a twenty one panel Nanoleaf setup on the wall. This thing is amazingly hard to photograph well because of its high level of brightness, but it really is beautiful in person. I have set to turn on automatically when I walked into the office along with my Hue light-strip behind the desk.

And the back wall is pretty much unchanged.And the last change is my monitor arm setup. So in my process I went from $700 arm to $200 arm to $30 arm. And the latter is one I settled one. It’s made by VIVO. All I wanted was to position my monitors in a perfect straight line next to each other and never touch them again. This cheap arm does just that.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Smart Home — Devices

Eve Degree, Eve Motion and Wemo Switch on the office wall.In the second part of my smart homes series I wanted to concentrate on specific devices and accessories that we’ve picked and used and our experiences with them. Having said that I want to make sure that it’s understood that there are many other viable and good alternatives on the market.

Our actual use, applications and automations of these devices I will mostly leave for the next post.

Before I start I just wanted to mention that everything that we did in the house with regards to smart devices had a requirement of an ability to control EVERYTHING without a phone or voice. Everything had to have a physical control.

The idea of setting up a smart home must make things easier and not harder. Phone apps and voice triggers do provide deeper options, but everything works just fine without them at all. Neither kids nor guests have phones or access to our internal systems.

Homebridge


Homebridge sever running on Raspberry Pi and Hue Dimmer remote next to iPhone X.I’ll kind of start from the end and one of the last thing that I’ve added to our setup. Homebridge is a an open-source project supported by a large community of developers.

Homebridge allows you to add devices to your HomeKit setup that don’t officially support HomeKit protocol among other things. That expands HomeKit device list significantly.

Homebridge also allows for much higher customization of your setup by providing an ability to create such things as fake switches that you can control and monitor various things in your home with. The possibilities are vast.

I was finally pushed to get a Raspberry Pi and install Homebridge on it when I was trying to get Hue Motion sensor to do and behave how I wanted it to, which ended up being impossible. More on that later.

Having said all that I still prefer devices that do offer native HomeKit support.

Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms


Nest Protect.One of the first thing that we upgraded right after moving in was our ancient fire alarms. Since I was a long time fan of Nest I went with Nest Protect.

One thing that I didn’t realize at the time, because I didn’t know I cared yet, was the fact that none of the Nest devices support HomeKit. Nest is owned by Google after all.

However it seems that specifically Nest Protect is the best device on the market. They automatically run self-checks on batteries and sensors, they show their status with a colored ring every time you turn the lights off, they synchronize with each other and they send notifications to your phone beside the normal alarm to let you know that something is off.

Nest Protect is supposedly can tell a burnt toast from a real fire, and instead blaring an alarm it will light up yellow and tell you in a normal human voice what’s up if it is indeed your cooking’s fault. They also come with motion sensors that allows you to turn a night light on.

And even though I didn’t really need these exposed in HomeKit as I was content with them living in their own app, I did install a Homebridge plug-in for Nest. Might as well, since I had everything running anyhow.

We have a total of six Nest Protects placed throughout the house and are feeling happy and safe with these devices.

Smart Lighting


This is going to be the biggest section in this post. There are many different paths and options to go about smart lighting in your home and is probably the first thing that most people do.

I would split this into three different paths that you can take — bulbs, independent lights and light switches.

Philips Hue

Philips Hue Play on the back of our main TV.Philips was one of the pioneers in the smart lighting with their Hue series. Hue has a lot of options starting with differently shaped bulbs. They also make a bunch of different stand-alone lights and lamps and good number of really nice accessories.

One of the first things that we did in our foray into smart lighting was replacing all our living area BR30 bulbs with Hue color bulbs — total of 8 all in all. While we do have many more bulbs in the house, at $50 a pop Hue bulbs are not a cheap proposition.

When going with smart bulbs there is another consideration — light switches. For smart bulbs to work, the power has to be always on. Asking people to not touch the switches is not an option, yet I didn’t want to remove them completely.

3D printed wall plate for Hue Dimmers on top of toggle switches.The best option that I found was a 3D printed wall plate that goes right over your normal switch plate with a Hue Dimmer remote mounted inside of it. You can still cut the actual power to the bulbs, yet those switches are out of the way and are essentially replaced by smart dimmers.

As far as the operation of the bulbs, originally it felt like a fun, yet useless gimmick. But with time it actually grew on us and we do enjoy setting different moods up.

Bulbs perform well, most of the time. On very rare occasions some bulbs will refuse to cooperate, and a flick of an actual power switch brings it back in line.

We also have some other lights from Philips, specifically a pair of Hue Play bars that you can lay flat, put up vertically or mount them on something like the back wall of your TV.

We also have a pair of Hue Light Strips. They are long LED strips that can be glued to some surface to provide a nice defused light. We also have a number of strip extensions for certain applications such as a long perimeter light under our bed.

With these you want to make sure to actually hide the strip itself from view as it is ugly. Only the light from it should be visible.

Hue requires a use of a bridge for its more advanced features and for native HomeKit support.

And as I mentioned before, Philips also makes a good number of very useful smart accessories that I will go into later in this post.

Nanoleaf Aurora

Nanoleaf Aurora on the wall of my office. These are really hard to photograph well.Nanoleaf is stand-alone light option. Currently there are two types of panels in Nanoleaf’s lineup. The original triangular shapes and newer square shapes. They also announced hexagons at this year’s CES.

We decided to go with original ones. I feel that you can build more interesting designs with triangles and their squire panels have a weird cross in the center that does not look right to my eye.

We have two separate sets of these in our house. One consists of 21 panels and one consists of 12. These also come with a module that can listen to music and animate with the beat.

They are natively supported by HomeKit and unlike Hue can have all their animations initiated directly from Home app.

One small downside is the fact that you’re going to have a power wire sticking out of your configuration. You have to make the best of it, be it hiding the wire behind some furniture, or at least lining it up in way that doesn’t ruin the whole appearance.

Light Switches

Wemo Dimmer Switch.This is probably the cheapest way to get your normal light to act as smart lights. Instead of replacing each bulb with a smart bulb you take out a normal switch and replace it with a smart one.

In our house we have used switches from two brands — Belkin’s Wemo and Lutron’s Caseta. We’ve used both normal switches and dimmers from both of these lines.

Both of these require bridges to work or to work with HomeKit. Caseta uses its own proprietary protocol, so it doesn’t hog your Wi-Fi. Wemo uses Wi-Fi, but most of Wemo’s devices did need a bridge for HomeKit, although that’s changing now with newer devices.

Wemo was originally what we started with. Currently we have eight normal Wemo switches and two dimmers. Wemo switches require neutral wire, but we had it everywhere so it was not a problem.

Lutron Caseta dimmer and regular switches.Caseta has some other amazing applications. It allows you to wire up 3 and 4 way setups. It also allows you to use your old manual switch in 3 way setups, making it the cheapest option on the market. And for a 4 way setup you can use a non-wired Pico remote control that looks just as a usual switch when installed.

We have four standard Caseta switches, one dimmer and one pico remote. A thing of note is that Caseta dimmer does not require a neutral wire.

For my simple applications I still prefer simple Wemo switches. They have a nice feel to them and a pleasant click to them when they activate remotely. But if you want to “smartify” you multi-way setup, Caseta is your friend.

Note, however, that all smart switches will require you to fit a lot more bulk inside the wire box than any standard switch will. These will not fit inside all of the boxes and I have struggled with some in our house as well. But in the end I made it all work.

Smart Thermostats


Ecobee4 smart thermostat.As I have mentioned before my whole smart home dream started at the time when original Nest thermostat came to the market. So it is somewhat ironic that in the end I ended up going with another product.

I’ve done my research and still strongly considered going with Nest, but several factors swayed me to a thermostat made by Ecobee. And one of those factors was in fact a native HomeKit support that Ecobee has and Nest does not.

Another major factor was the way both thermostats work. All the information about Nest comes from reading reviews as I have no personal experience with it.

My understanding that the idea behind Nest is that you never have to fiddle with it after initial learning phase. It learns how and when you prefer your temperature, detects your proximity and just does its thing afterwards — hence learning thermostat.

Ecobee on the other hand gives you a lot of fiddling options and I’m nothing but a major fiddler, so to speak. Another very enticing option for me was the fact Ecobee logs all kinds of data on five minute intervals in a spreadsheet format for you to look over and analyze. I love that.

Both thermostats can employ remote sensors. Ecobee can handle around 30 paired sensors. When it logs the data it will save all the readings of those sensors as well.

So you end up with a file that has the thermostat mode (heat or cool), set temperature, what equipment is running or not running, outside temperature (comes from weather service), inside temperature on all individual sensors and thermostat itself, occupancy (remote sensors report on temperature and occupancy data) and a bunch of other fields. Love it.

However there is another side to all that glory — it all depends on Ecobee servers being up. And specifically at a time when I’m writing this the servers have been down for almost a week now, and your logged data looks more like a Morse code than a steady graph. I bet Nest with Google behind it would not have their servers practically down for a week.

Ecobee3 lite.We had Ecobee since early December and the performance has been stellar, but this particular week that we’re going through now gives me pause. How healthy is Ecobee as a business?

Note that even thought a lot of data logging and remote control does depend on the remote servers, normal thermostat operation and following your set schedule does not need an internet connection at all. So the actual operation is not compromised, but a regular dumb thermostat can do that too.

The only difference with scheduling versus dumb thermostats is that it can be much more granular. I can have a different schedule for each day with as many segments as I want and each segment can rely on the sensors that I select. And with my work schedule that definitely is handy.

The downside with remote sensors is that it uses the average temperature of all your selected sensors. I would much prefer if I could use the lowest reading as the target. With average you can end up with a situation of having 66 degrees in one room, 62 in another, and with a target set at 64 the boiler will not engage, since the average is also 64.

Ecobee has two thermostats on the market right now. There is Ecobee3 lite and Ecobee4. Originally the biggest difference that would matter to me was that Ecobee3 lite could not use remote sensors. But that has changed and is no longer the case.

Ecobee4 comes with Alexa built in, which I have disabled. Ecobee4 however does have an occupancy sensor built in, which Ecobee3 lite does not have.

Currently we have two thermostats in our main floor zones. The hallway one is Ecobee3 lite and the one for the bedrooms is Ecobee4. Alexa was redundant since I have an actual Echo device in that same bedroom.

Ecobee has a feature called Smart Recovery. What it does is that you don’t have to guess how long it will take for your house to reach a certain temperature. It tries to analyze your house along with outside temperature and eventually learns to start the heat so it will be at your desired point by the time that point arrives.

What that means is that when I wake up I want the bedroom to be at, say, 70 degrees and I wake up at 7am. So that’s exactly what will happen. It doesn’t start heating at 7am. It is already at 70 at that point. It’s been working fairly well for us after its initial learning period.

It has a number of other smart features which for now we have turned off. We’re tuning and adjusting things as we go, incorporating more and more things into our schedule.

Smart Sensors


There is a multitude of different sensors available. Beside providing some informational data points most of them allow you to trigger different automations based on the events created by these sensors.

To give an example — I use a space heater in my office in addition to the regular heating system, to heat the only occupied room on a whole floor. When a temperature sensor in my office reaches a certain number, my space heater turns off.

Some sensors provide a single data point, some combine multiple things and events.

Temperature

Ecobee remote sensor and Eve Degree.My favorite temperature sensor is made by a company called Elgato under their smart home brand called Eve Home. In fact Eve makes a lot of great things.

This temperature sensor has a nice screen which can display the temperature or humidity. What makes these especially nice is that it collects historical data inside Eve’s application and all that is done locally. So having that I can monitor what’s been happening with temperature or humidity not only when I’m staring at the sensor, but all throughout the day and night.

Another set of temperature sensors that we have all around our house are Ecobee remote sensors. We’re using this purely for information purposes. How is the temperature in the rooms of our kids? What’s going on in the living room? These also save historical data, but as I mentioned before these rely on Ecobee servers.

Obviously thermostats themselves also expose the temperature reading into HomeKit. However if you factor the above mentioned sensors into your current setting, thermostat starts showing the average temperature of all the participating sensors instead of its own sensor.

These also provide occupancy information, but are mostly useful for letting know the thermostat to regulate the set temperature based on rooms which people are in. But at this point we prefer to control which sensors are used manually, instead of using the occupancy data.

Interestingly enough Hue Motion sensor also provides temperature information even though you wouldn’t know it from the packing or the information on Hue’s website.

Door and Window Sensors

Eve Door & Window sensor.Currently we use a single Door and Windows sensor made by Eve in our house. It allows you to trigger an automation when a door is opened and when a door is closed.

To give an example — when our closet door opens, this sensor triggers a Wemo switch which controls the lights inside the closet. And the reverse.

The sensor is a little bit bulky, and since all Eve devices use bluetooth, sometimes it takes a fraction of a second to reach your hub. Most of the time the events are instant, but not 100% of the time.

I also have gotten a pair of Koogeek Door and Window sensors on a good sale that I have plans for controlling air conditioning and open and closed porch doors during the summer.

Both of these have native HomeKit support. In fact, Eve ONLY has HomeKit support and nothing else.

Motion Sensors

Philips Hue and Eve motion sensors.Philips has been making an indoor motion sensor as a part of their line up for a good while now. They just came out with a new outdoor model several weeks ago.

Indoor version comes with high recommendations. It’s small, very fast, sensitive and includes two additional non-advertised surprises — a temperature sensor and a light intensity sensor.

It works really well if you want to control your Hue lights with it for a typical application — turn the lights on when motion is detected and turn the lights off if the motion has not been detected for a specified amount of time.

If you want to control something other than your Hue lights, things get ugly. The delay for no-motion trigger can only be set inside Hue app and is not controllable in HomeKit. So if I want to turn off my Wemo switch on no-motion in five minutes I can’t do it.

There are hacky workarounds that people have invented and even when they work they have a lot of issues. And even those I was not able to get to work after lots and lots of trial and error experiments. I had zero luck.

This is what actually pushed me to get Homebridge going. There is a simple plug-in that creates a fake occupancy sensor. You use Hue sensor to trigger it on and off, but the off event only goes off after the delay that you specify in your plug-in configuration. And if the motion is detected again, the timer stops. Works beautifully.

While I was struggling with Hue Motion sensor I’ve acquired a motion sensor made by Eve. As opposed to Hue this sensor actually lets you set up a time-out without any additional plug-ins and works natively as you would hope a motion sensor would.

It works just as fast as Hue, but it is bulkier and has no additional sensors built in. And as with all Eve devices it keeps a local log of all events — when and for how long was the motion sensor active.

To sum up — if you are willing to run Homebridge — and there are many reasons to do so — I’d most probably go with Hue for the additional sensors and smaller size. If you care about motion sensor logs and simple set up, Eve is better.

Smart Plugs


Eve Energy, Wemo Mini, iDevices smart plugs.Smart plugs allow you to turn your dumb devices into smart devices. Plug your lamp, your fan or your kettle into one of these plugs and you can turn them on remotely and use them in your automations.

The only caveat is that you device should have an analog on/off switch. Meaning that if your lamp is on, you pull it out of the outlet, then plug in back in, it should still be on.

We’re using three different switches in our house — Wemo, iDevices and Eve.

Eve Energy, Wemo Mini, iDevices smart plugs.Wemo are probably the cheapest ones and are often on sale. They have a physical button on them, so you can still turn things off without using anything else, but your finger.

Current Wemo plugs natively support HomeKit, but since I already had a bridge for my Wemo switches it made no difference. We have four of these in our house and they work reliably.

We have one iDevices plug which has a native HomeKit support. The unique thing about iDevices plug is that it has an LED strip on it which can be turned on with any color. It gets exposed in HomeKit as a separate light which can be controlled independently.

iDevices plug as a status indicator.We’re actually not using the “plug” part of this plug. We are using its LED strip as a status light — all doors are locked, the light is green. Any of the outside doors are open — light is red.

And you can also use the brightness of the strip as a separate tracker — we have a trigger that sets the brightness to 97% and all motion sensors do nothing if this light is set to that. This is useful to prevent lights from going on and off while your cat is roaming around the house at night.

A third smart plug that we have is made be Eve. I use this one to actually track how much energy my office heater is using. It also has a physical button on it. And as with any Eve device it logs a bunch of data locally.

Smart Locks


August Smart Lock Pro.One of the things that Alёna was most resistant to was a smart lock. But for it was the last step on my mission to get rid of all the keys. Eventually she agreed it give it a go and is now is a strong believer in the convince of such things.

There weren’t many HomeKit options on the market. We decided to go with August Smart Lock Pro. One of the appeals was that it leaves the outside cylinder intact and looks like a regular lock.

The idea is that you just replace the handle on the inside. Our door happened to have a cylinder on both sides, which was inconvenient to begin with. And as a result I ended up having to change the whole lock anyhow to a more compatible version.

The lock itself is rather large which is its biggest downside. Other than that we really have no complaints. We don’t have a smart lock or unlock enabled and we control it from either our phones or our watches.

Another thing to note that it does need your phone or watch to be authenticated before it will unlock the lock. And HomePod will completely refuse to unlock it for you as a security feature. You don’t want to end up with a situation when somebody can yell loudly enough from the outside to unlock your door.

The lock keeps a complete log of the door activity in August’s own app. It shows when the lock locked and unlocked and who initiated the event. It also has a sensor which can tell if the actual door was opened as well, which is also logged.

And in the end it can be controlled fully manually from the inside by turning the ring on the lock, or via a key from the outside.

Another smart lock that we have is on our garage door. This happened by a pure accident. Our motor went bad and it ended up getting replaced with a Wi-Fi enabled LiftMaster unit. It worked with a proprietary MyQ app, but in order to add it to HomeKit another piece of hardware was required — a LiftMaster HomeKit bridge.

Both of these locks’ states can be tracked inside HomeKit and can be used in various automations.

Smart Controllers


Hue Dimmer switches.To achieve our goal of having an ability to control all our smart devices with physical devices, we had to employ a couple of different controls.

The most affordable and versatile one is Hue Dimmer switch. Currently we have six of these in use. Each of these comes with four buttons which can be programmed to control any HomeKit device.

These can be used as stand-alone remote controls or they can be mounted on the wall with a supplied wall plate.

Our kids bedrooms do not have ceiling lights and the most convenient location for the floor lamps ended up being on the opposite side of the entrance.

I was able to mount a pair of these at their doors. For Anna it turns on and off her regular lamp plugged into a Wemo plug. For Aaron it turns his Nanoleaf panels with a soft white lite. Very convenient.

Philips Hue Tap switch.Another control that I use is Philips Hue Tap. It’s a switch that works on kinetic energy without the use of batteries. It can have a weird feel to it for some people, because the buttons are harder to press than a regular switch is, but I have no problems with that.

As Hue Dimmer switch Hue Tap also has four buttons and they also can be programmed individually in HomeKit. But if you want to turn buttons into toggle switches you can easily do it with 3rd party apps such as the one made by Eve. So instead of having one button turn a light on and another turn it off you can have the same button do both depending on the state of the light.

Another intriguing remote that exist on the market is a dodecahedron shaped unit made by Nanoleaf. Each of the twelve sides can have its own setting and you activate it by simply placing that side up. I haven’t had a chance to experiment with one yet, but if I see it on sale I might pick one of these up.

Conclusion


Part of my well hidden, dusty bridge "collection".This ended up being a rather long post. That’s what you get when you put writing something like this off for six months.

In the next and last post of these series I will go room-by-room through our house and talk about scenes, automations and device application for each location and how some of the above mentioned accessories interact with each other.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Home Office 2.0

Repainted office with Hue strip accent light.It’s only been 3 weeks or so since I published a post about my office and I already have a big update. When we purchased the house we felt that one of the two garages was too small to fit a car comfortably, so we were planning to move a wall by two feet to expand garage at the expense of office space in preparation for Ridgеfield winters.

Hue lights in red.Last week we have actually completed this project and we took this chance as an opportunity to repaint the whole room in colors that I wanted to do it in for a while — orange-teal. Three walls went orange and one accent wall is teal.

National Park posters on orange wall.I also took this opportunity to fix the cabling mess behind the desk — I’ve attached 12 port power strip made by Standing Desk behind the desk which made for a pretty good arrangement of wiring. And I also have finally installed Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Light Strip that I have had since Amazon’s Prime Day.

Hue light strip in green.The hardest part was putting all the posters back up, since all the markings and nails that we put in for the first time were gone. But in the end I think the office came out very well. Extremely comfortable and cozy place to work from. I’m very happy with the final result.

Different angle view.

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