Wednesday, June 5, 2019

AI and the Smart Home


My latest blog post, “AI and the Smart Home” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.

As they said in the movie the matrix, “We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI”.  Smart speakers have brought artificial intelligence (AI) into our homes in a way that was incomprehensible only a few years ago.  The AI that is responsible for the voice recognition in these devices is amazing and has made it dramatically easier to control our smart homes. Note, that I said “control our smart homes”.

For the most part, AI’s role in the smart home has simply been a new, and more convenient, way for people to control the devices in their home; using their voice.  That is starting to change and for both integrators and homeowners there will be a dramatic transformation.

Integrators can offer homeowners true automation of their smart homes that matches the way the homeowner uses their home.  The smart home processor/hub can be programmed to, for example,

  • Know when the homeowners go to bed and get up in the morning.  It can set back the thermostat so the house is comfortable for sleeping, restore the temperature in the home when the alarm clock sounds, and brew fresh coffee.
  • Turn off lights and set back the thermostat when the home is unoccupied to save energy.
  • Restore the home to its normal temperature when people return home and turn on pathway lights if they have returned at night for safety.
  • And so much more.

But, all of the above requires a good programmer, who earns in excess of $100,000 per year, and therefore is very expensive to implement.  The alternative is a smart home that learns how the homeowners use their home and takes actions that anticipate the homeowners’ needs.  All this may sound like science fiction but only a few years ago the same could be said about voice control. 

We are just beginning to see products that include AI for the smart home.  Here are a few examples

  • Josh (www.josh.ai) is a voice controlled smart home system where voice is just the first step in the company’s plan for AI.  An example are “recommendations” where Josh will tell a homeowner that they’ve left lights on in a room if the lights left on don’t fit how those lights are normally used.
  • Like Josh, Amazon Alexa can provide “hints”, for example, to turn off lights that have been left on. 
  • Ambi Climate ((www.ambiclimate.com) is an AI powered controller for remote controlled air conditioners.  It monitors temperature, humidity, sunlight, time of day, weather, and user input as to whether they are too hot or too cold.  It uses this data to understand when people in the home are comfortable and learns to optimally adjust the air conditioning.
  • The Rachio irrigation controller (www.rachio.com) optimizes watering of a lawn.  It uses the plant types, soil type, sun exposure, sprinkler head model, weather, and more to optimize the irrigation of a lawn to lower water consumption.
  • Security cameras by Nest (https://nest.com/cameras/) that can perform facial recognition, though it requires a subscription to Nest Aware.

The first step toward a truly sentient home is migrating to individual products that use AI to provide advanced capabilities.  Unlike the smart home of today where programming costs are the responsibility of the individual homeowner, these products allow the programming costs to be shared among all purchasers of the products; which greatly reduces the cost to the individual.  This allows the cost of advanced features to be much more affordable.

However, the best AI system still needs to initially be customized for an individual homeowner’s needs.  For example, to turn on pathway lights at night the AI would need to be told which lights are in the primary pathway for the homeowners entering the home.  The AI could, at that point, learn the homeowner’s habits and take additional actions.  For example the AI might learn the following about the homeowner’s behavior.

  • The AI might learn that the homeowner had been in the car for the last hour (based on a connected car system) and turn on additional lights to the closest bathroom when the homeowner arrives at night and the house is dark.
  • The AI might, through the GPS on the homeowner’s phone, learn that the homeowner had been to the grocery store and turn on the kitchen light anticipating that the homeowner purchased groceries that need to be put away.

So, while a sentient, AI based, smart home is still years away, what steps can integrators and homeowners take today to make their home as smart as possible.

  1. Leverage individual products that include AI to make the device as smart as possible and reduce the amount of custom programming required.  This includes task based, AI powered, devices. For example, smart appliances in a kitchen that can help with cooking
  2. Wire a home for the sensors that will be necessary for a home to act intelligently as not all sensors will be wireless. 

As I touched upon in my examples of how a home could learn and take actions to benefit homeowners, a sentient home will require advanced sensors.  Ideally the home would be able to individually identify each member of a family and where they are in a home.  The AI based system could then, for example:

  • Individually adjust the temperature in rooms based on who is in the room.
  • Adjust lights in rooms based on user preference, turning off lights when rooms become unoccupied, and turning on lights as someone enters a room and the room is dark.
  • Have individualized music and video follow a person as they walk through the home
  • Open/Close shades based on personal preference, whether the sun is shining in through windows, and the need to possibly protect valuable art and furnishings from damage*
  • Shut down a home at night when people go to bed (based on their act of going to bed, not on a fixed schedule) by turning off lights and setting back thermostats to both save money and provide a more comfortable sleeping environment.

The cost of the sensors necessary for a home to be sentient is a loss, real or perceived, of privacy.  It is one thing for the code controlling a home to be running on a local processor/hub and have access to all this information about the occupants of a home.  It is very different for the code, and all the information about the family, to run somewhere in the cloud on a server owned by Facebook, Google, or Amazon.  Privacy is a topic I want to explore in more depth in an upcoming article.

Thanks for reading.

*I have code on my github that allows a Crestron automation system to automatically open/close shades and drapes based on the angle/elevation of the sun, obstacles around a home (mountains, trees, etc.) that could block the sun, the weather, and more.  The code is located here: https://github.com/jbasen/Crestron-Shade-Automation-Manager

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What to Consider When Buying a Smart Home


My latest blog post, “Monitoring Indoor Air Quality and Integrating that Information into the Smart Home” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.

You find the home of your dreams.  It is a perfect fit for your family, the kitchen is spacious with professional grade appliances, the master suite looks like a high end room in a luxurious spa, and the living area opens into the back yard creating an indoor/outdoor area to entertain.  But, you are hesitating to buy it because it is a smart home.  Purchasing a smart home is the same as any other home, with a few exceptions. 

Today, most smart home systems are not installed by the construction company that built the home.  They are installed by specialized integrators or by the homeowners themselves.  So, while the architectural plans for the home are all registered with the local government offices, documentation on the smart systems in the home are not.  And, depending on who installed the smart home technology in the home the documentation can vary from excellent to non-existent.

If you are buying a smart home the first thing to do is to request a copy of the smart home documentation.  This should include:

  1. Documents showing all low voltage wiring installed in the home (speaker wires, wires that carry control signals to TV’s and other electronic equipment, wires for distribution of video signals, etc.)
  2. Documents showing all the electronic components that make up the smart home system and how the wiring connects these components together
  3. Documents that show all the networking components, how these components are connected to each other, and how all the smart home equipment connects to the network (wired or wirelessly)
  4. Documents that show all the configuration settings for equipment so that if one piece of equipment needs to be replaced, the replacement piece of equipment can be configured to work seamlessly into the smart home system.  Simple backups of configuration settings are not enough.  If, for example, a router fails a few years down the road in all probability the original hardware will be out of production and a different make/model router will be installed.  The backup file probably won’t be able to be loaded into this new router to configure it to the necessary settings.

In addition to the above documentation you will need backup copies of all the programming that runs the smart home system.  Depending on the type of smart home system installed this can be a challenge.  If the smart home system is from one of the professionally installed manufacturers (Crestron, Control4, Savant, AMX) then the current homeowner, or the company that installed the system, shouldn’t have a problem providing this.  However, if the system was installed by the homeowner and runs off a smart home hub then the software is most likely stored in the cloud and getting a backup may not be possible. 

Next, you will want to get all the username/passwords associated with system.  New homeowners always hire a locksmith to change all the locks in a home they purchase so it is secure.  You will want to change the registration of the equipment so email notifications from manufacturers go to you, instead of the pervious homeowners.  Smart home products are all computers and like any computers there are software updates and patches that need to be applied.  It doesn’t do you any good if the emailed notification of an important patch never reaches you because the manufacturer doesn’t have your email address.

Passwords are as important to change as the locks in the home.  For example, having an app on your smart phone that lets you remotely control the house is a great feature but the prior owners’ kids/grand kids may have the same app, may enjoy opening and closing shades, or turning on lights in the middle of the night; just for fun. 

Finally, if the systems in the home were professionally installed, then you should be provided with the names of the companies that installed them.  These companies know that the smart home systems in the home are going to require maintenance and repairs over time; just like other systems in any home.  They should be willing to meet with you and walk you through everything in the home, as part of a sales call, to build a relationship with you.  They can be a great resource as you have to update the registration of products, make changes to the systems in the home so it matches your needs, and even teach you how to operate it.

If the smart home systems in the home were installed by the homeowner then they should be willing to walk you through the system, explain how the overall system works, and teach you how to operate it.  As part of the house sale process they should also work with you to update the registration of smart products to you.  Unless they followed the suggestions I made in the article “Planning to Sell your Smart Home? How will it Work for the New Owner?”, this can be a challenge.  For example, if the home includes a SmartThings hub then changing the registration of the hub will wipe out all configuration information and programming.  The current homeowner will need to reconfigure the hub after this is done to get the systems in the home operational again. 

A smart home can be convenient and fun to live in.  It can also, if designed for it, save you family money on utility bills.  Unfortunately, at this point in time, home inspectors that will tell you all about the condition of the plumbing, heating/air-conditioning, and everything else in your home aren’t typically knowledgeable in smart home systems.  Because of this you need to perform your own due diligence to make sure you have a system that is maintainable, secure, and is configured to work for your family in the years to come.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Monitoring Indoor Air Quality and Integrating that Information into the Smart Home


My latest blog post, “Monitoring Indoor Air Quality and Integrating that Information into the Smart Home” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.

Because indoor air quality (IAQ) is such an important health issue I recently wrote about techniques for cleaning the air in a home using the home’s forced air HVAC system.  That article can be found here.  However, what I only touched on in that article were some of the monitors that allow people to measure the air quality in their home.

First it is important for people to understand how important of an issue this is.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the air inside a home may be up to five times more polluted than the air outside a home and people may spend up to 90% of their time indoors.  Our quest to conserve energy our homes have become so well sealed that it is impacting the quality of air inside them.

In addition, the EPA’s AirNow.gov web site states:

“As people age, their bodies are less able to compensate for the effects of environmental hazards. Air pollution can aggravate heart disease and stroke, lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, and diabetes. This leads to increased medication use, more visits to health care providers, admissions to emergency rooms and hospitals, and even death.”

Given the above, it is important to understand the kinds of air quality issues that can exist in a home:

  • Particulates are very small particles in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs.  Particulates are divided into two primary categories, PM2.5 and PM10.  PM2.5 particles are 2.5 microns, or less, in diameter.  Examples of PM2.5 particles are soot and tobacco smoke.  On the other hand PM10 particles are 10 microns, or less, in diameter.  Examples are dust, pollen, and mold.  Exposure to particulates can cause coughing, sneezing, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.  Long term exposure can have negative impacts on people with heart and lung disease.

  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odorless and colorless, poisonous gas.  It is generated by incomplete combustion from gas/kerosene fueled space heaters, poorly ventilated furnaces, gas operated water heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces, gas stoves, car exhaust, and more.  Because CO is odorless and colorless it cannot be detected by people that are exposed to it.  High levels of CO in a home can cause death. 

  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a naturally occurring, colorless and odorless, gas that is part of the air we breathe every day.  As people breath their lungs absorb the oxygen in the air and we exhale CO2.  In a home that is not ventilated properly with fresh air, the occupants, simply through breathing, can use up the oxygen in the air and raise the concentration of CO2.  Combustion, for example, from a gas stove or fireplace can also increase the concentration of CO2 in a home.  Exposure to even moderate levels of CO2 beyond what is normally found in the air can cause headaches, sleepiness, impaired judgment, nausea, and death in high concentrations. 

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are emitted from various solids and liquids in a home.  Some sources of VOC’s are aerosol sprays, stored gasoline, cleaners, disinfectants, new furniture, and building materials.  Even cooking can release VOC’s into the air.  Exposure to VOC’s can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, and nausea.  Some VOC’s are known to cause cancer.    Sensors typically measure Total VOC’s which is abbreviated as TVOC. 


With this background it is easy to see how important it is to understand the air quality in a home and, as appropriate, integrate indoor air quality monitors into a smart home so systems can be triggered to address air quality issues.

It should be noted that the foobot evaluated for this article was purchased as part of my previous article “Optimizing Smart Home Air Quality and HVAC Efficiency”.  The Awair and Airthings Wave Plus monitors were both provided by the manufacturers for this article. 


Awair – The Awair IAQ monitor includes sensors for PM2.5 particulates, TVOC, CO2, temperature, and humidity.  The visually pleasing, wood enclosure allows the device to easily be placed anywhere in a home. A built in light sensor automatically adjusts the intensity of the display so the Awair can be placed in a bedroom and it won’t disrupt people’s sleep.  The unique matrix of LED’s provides graphical feedback of the readings from each sensor and an overall pollution score.   

Connectivity
The Awair connects to any 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network (5GHz is not supported).  Using Wi-Fi connectivity, Awair can be directly integrated with a Nest thermostat to trigger the use of the furnace filter to help clean the air in a home.  Alexa and Google Assistant devices can also be integrated with the Awair and used to obtain feedback on the air quality in the home through voice commands. 

App
There are both iOS and Android apps available for the Awair.  Besides allowing the user to simply view the current IAQ the app can provide tips for improving IAQ based on the current readings.  The app also allows a homeowner to track the IAQ over time so the user can understand how changes they make in their home are helping with their IAQ.  Finally, the app can send notifications when the Awair notices changes in the IAQ. 

The app is easy to use to setup the Awair. 

  1. Create an Awair cloud account.
  2. Select the option to add an Awair device and the app will automatically connect to the Awair.
  3. Choose the home’s Wi-Fi network from the list of available networks and enter the Wi-Fi network’s password.
  4. The app also takes you through a short tutorial, which the user can choose to repeat at any time

Once the setup process is complete the app provides:

  • A score screen to view the current sensor readings and an overall air quality score
  • Tips for improving indoor air quality and living within the current conditions in the home.  For example, the only “yellow” tagged reading on the Awair I tested was temperature and I received a tip to warm up the bed at night before climbing in with a hair dryer.
  • The “Trends” tab allows the user to graphically view the various sensor readings over time.  For convenience, in this view the app supports rotating the phone into portrait mode to make viewing longer trends easier.
  • The “Awair+” tab allows the user to easily integrate the Awair with Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, IFTTT, etc.
  • The “Notifications” tab allows the user to view any notifications that have been generated so they won’t be accidentally missed while using the smart phone for other purposes.

Integration
Besides the integrations described above, Awair includes and IFTTT service and a very expansive API.  The IFTTT service includes triggers for when any of the Awair’s sensors collect a reading above a defined threshold for 30 seconds.  Actions can, for example, be used to change the display mode of the device.  For example, through IFTTT the Awair can:
·         Tell a smart thermostat to circulate air when high CO2 is detected
·         Tell a smart thermostat to circulate the air when particulates are high so the HVAC filter will remove them from the air
·         Tell a robot vacuum to clean the home when the dust levels are high

The API covers all functionality of the Awair from setting user attributes to reading data from the device.  It is very secure with full OAuth 2.0 authentication required.  In addition, the API is exceptionally well documented. 





The foobot IAQ monitor includes sensors for PM2.5 particulates, TVOC, Temperature and Humidity.  The enclosure is modern and stylish in white that matches many other IoT devices.  IAQ is displayed through color changing LED’s that change from blue to orange depending on whether the IAQ is good or poor.  The intensity of the LED can be adjusted in the app allowing the foobot to be placed in a bedroom where a bright LED could disturb the occupants sleep. But, unlike the Awair, the LED intensity doesn’t automatically adjust based on the light level in the room.

Connectivity
The foobot connects to any 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network (5GHz is not supported).  Like the Awair, the foobot integrates with a Nest thermostat to automatically clean the air using the HVAC system.  In addition, the foobot can directly integrate with an ecobee, Honeywell, or Warmup smart thermostat.  Alexa devices can also be integrated with the foobot and used to obtain feedback on the air quality in the home through voice commands.  The foobot does not support integration with Google Assistant.

App
There are both iOS and Android apps available for the foobot.  The app provides an easy to read display of the sensor readings with the ability to quickly know whether any readings are too high.  You can also look at graphs of readings of each sensor scaled to minutes, hours, days, or weeks to see trends in your IAQ. 

The app makes it easy to walk through the setup of the foobot.  After installing the app on a smart phone the user simply:

  1. Selects the option “I’ve got a foobot”.
  2. Selects the option “Setup your foobot”.
  3. The app then informs the user to connect their foobot a maximum of 5 feet away from their Wi-Fi router/access point.
  4. The user is then informed to turn the foobot upside down (the LED’s start to blink fast)
  5. The user is then informed to put the foobot back in it’s normal orientation
  6. The user is then informed to type in the SSID of their Wi-Fi network and the password
  7. Once the foobot connects to the Wi-Fi network it blinks five times signifying that the setup was successful

The main screen of the app allows you to view the readings from the various sensors, an overall IAQ score, and a calculated value of CO2 in the home.  Touching each sensor reading allows you to dive into the reading in more detail including scoring for how the foobot determines if the reading is great, good, fair, or poor.  There is also the ability to view tips for improving IAQ.  Finally, the app allows the user to graphically view the sensor readings; scaled over time (minutes, hours, days, or weeks). 

In addition to providing information on IAQ, the app allows you to view the current outdoor air pollution level with data provided by BreezoMeter.

My one complaint is that the app displays CO2 data readings without the foobot having a CO2 sensor.  The reading is calculated using the other sensors in the foobot and my own experience has been that it isn’t accurate.  A rise in TVOC will also cause a rise in the CO2 reading when nothing has changed to actually raise the CO2 level.  CO2 is an important indoor air pollutant and the lack of a sensor is a limitation of the foobot when compared to the Awair.

In addition to the app, foobot offers a web dashboard to foobot users.  The dashboard allows a user to overlay data from multiple foobots in graphical form, download data in different formats, compare data for different time periods, and more.

API
Besides the integrations described above, foobot includes an IFTTT service and an API.  The IFTTT service includes triggers for when any of the foobot’s sensors collect readings above a defined threshold and when a new air quality reading is available.  A unique aspect of the foobot is that it can be used as a general purpose user input to an automation system.  The foobot IFTTT service includes a trigger when someone knocks twice with their hand on the top of the foobot.  Some other uses for foobot-IFTTT integration are:

  1. Flash the lights when the air quality is poor
  2. Turn on air circulation through a smart thermostat when the air quality is poor
  3. Record air quality readings from the foobot in a Google spreadsheet

The foobot API is not nearly as extensive as the API provided for the Awair.  However, it does allow you to gather the data readings from the device; which is all that is required to integrate the foobot with an automation processor / hub.  And, the API is significantly simpler to implement than the Awair because it doesn’t require full OAuth 2.0 security.  Some people might view the lower level of security as a negative but personally I don’t feel that someone potentially knowing the IAQ in a home is that much of a violation of personal privacy.  OAuth 2.0 is much more appropriate for the Awair who’s API includes features for changing all the internal settings that are managed through the app. 

To use the foobot API requires an API key that needs to be requested from foobot through their developer portal.  With the API I have written a Crestron module to pull data from a foobot so it can be used to drive actions by a Crestron 3-series automation system.  The code can be found on my GitHub. 
 


Airthings took a different approach with the Wave Plus.  First, the Wave Plus is battery operated.  Second, while it does include sensors for temperature, air pressure, humidity, TVOC, and CO2, its primary sensor is for radon. 

Radon testing is typically accomplished by purchasing a small sensor from a hardware store, placing it in your home for:

·         Two to Seven days for a short term test
·         Ninety days, or more, for a long term test

The sensor is then mailed into a lab where the data from the sensor is analyzed and a report is mailed to the homeowner.  Radon levels in a home can vary over time due to air pressure, winds, snow cover, rain saturation of the soil, operation of HVAC systems, whether the windows are open/shut, and more.  Because of this, continuous monitoring is an important tool because of the danger that radon gas poses to human health.

The Wave Plus mounts on any wall with a single screw or placed on a table.  Radon gas is heavier than air so the device shouldn’t be mounted on a ceiling; like a smoke detector would.  Because the Wave Plus is battery operated, wall mounting the Wave Plus will not leave unsightly wires hanging from the device.   In addition, because Bluetooth consumes very little power the battery expectancy is estimated to be 1-1/2 years.

In normal operation the Wave Plus is innocuous, with no lights that could disturb someone’s sleep if it was mounted in a bedroom.  Waving your hand in front of the device will cause a central ring on the device to glow green, yellow, or red for a few seconds; depending on the radon level.  My own personal experience is that sometimes it takes a couple of passes waving a hand before the device wakes up.

Connectivity
Unlike the Awair and foobot, the Wave Plus doesn’t connect to the homes Wi-Fi network.  Instead it connects to the homeowner’s smart phone through Bluetooth.  One disadvantage of this design is that the device will not automatically update itself as new firmware updates are made available by the manufacturer.  The user must perform the updates themselves using the smart phone app.

An optional hub has been announced (but at the time of this article isn’t yet available) that will connect the Wave Plus to the home’s Wi-Fi network.  This will allow the homeowner, using the Wave app, to monitor the radon level in the home from anywhere.  

Alexa and Google Assistant devices can also be integrated with the Wave Plus and used to obtain readings on the sensors in the device.  It should be noted that because the Wave doesn’t connect directly to the home’s Wi-Fi network (without an Airthings bridge) that data only reaches the Airthings cloud service through the Airthings smart phone app.  It should be noted that if the homeowner is not home or the app is not set for background refresh than the data on the cloud will become stale and not reflect the actual data readings of the device.  A work around for this limitation is to take an old smart phone, load the Airthings app, and leave it plugged in within Bluetooth range of the Airthings Wave Plus. 

App
There are both iOS and Android apps available for the Wave Plus.  Setup using the app is very simple. 

  1. First install the Airthings app on a smart phone, start the app, and press the “Next” button in the app to begin the setup of the device
  2. Next the app says to pull out the tab in the battery compartment so the battery will make contact with the device; allowing it to receive power.
  3. The user then needs to wait for the blue light to start flashing (signifying that the device is in pairing mode) or, if the device was previously powered up, to gently knock on the device to enter it into pair mode. 
  4. Once the user sees the flashing blue light, the user presses the “Start Pairing” button in the app.
  5. After pairing is complete, the user can enter the location type for the Wave Plus (Home, Workplace, etc.) and the name of the room the Wave Plus is located in.
  6. After a one hour countdown the Wave Plus displays its initial sensor readings. 

It should be noted that internal algorithms work to continually improve the accuracy of the measurements provided by the Airthings Wave Plus.  These algorithms run in the background and allow the device to learn about its environment to improve results.  According to the manufacturer, the longer the device is left operating the more accurate the sensor readings will be.

The app is pretty basic but easy to use.  The home screen displays the readings from the available sensors and a large colored ring that corresponds with the radon level detected with the same color coding as the device itself.  Pressing on the ring takes the user to a screen where a graph of the readings from each sensor can be displayed over various timeframes (48 hours, week, month, or year).

Integration
The Wave includes an IFTTT service, but at this time there isn’t a published API.  The IFTTT service includes triggers for whenever one of the sensors collects data that is above, or below, a defined threshold.  However, the Wave’s IFTTT integration has the same limitation as its integration with Alexa and Google Assistant; it requires data synching through the smart phone app because the Wave doesn’t directly connect to the home’s Wi-Fi network. 

Currently there isn’t an API for direct integration with the Wave from third party systems.  However, a Google search found a GitHub project where someone reverse engineered Bluetooth communications with the Wave and built that into a Raspberry Pi.  The Python code for this can be downloaded off of GitHub.

Summary

Device
Sensors
Connectivity
Integrations
Amazon Price
Awair
PM2.5, TVOC, CO2, Temperature, Humidity
2.4 GHz Wi-Fi
Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT, Nest Thermostat
$175
foobot
PM2.5, TVOC, Temperature, Humidity
2.4 GHz Wi-Fi
Alexa, IFTTT, Nest Thermostat, Honeywell Thermostat, Warmup Thermostat
$199
Airthings Wave Plus
Radon, Temperature, Air Pressure, humidity, TVOC, CO2
Bluetooth
Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT*
$269
*Bluetooth connectivity to the smart app is required for sensor data to be uploaded to the cloud

IoT Security

An important step I take when I connect any IoT device to my network is to use
Bitdefender Home Scanner to scan the device for vulnerabilities.  Because the Airthings Wave Plus only includes Bluetooth connectivity this isn’t an issue for this product.  Bitdefender didn’t find any vulnerabilities with the Awair monitor.  However, Bitdefender identified that the foobot has an http interface and that “http uses an insecure authentication procedure”. 

Smart Home Integration

The integration capabilities of an IAQ monitor make it a valuable addition to a smart home.  As I pointed out in my previous article, an HVAC system with a smart thermostat and the correct filter can help remove both particulates and VOC’s from the air in a home.

Radon and CO2 can only be removed through better venting in the home.  This process can be automated with window fans, or a whole house fan, and motorized windows where the fans pull air out of the home and the windows allow fresh, outside, air to enter the home.  The logic for this need to include evaluation of the outside temperature so warm, heated air in the winter is not replaced with cold air from the outside.

These are the basic steps to use an IAQ monitor to improve the air quality in a home.  However, with creativity, more interesting logic can be developed such as integrating an IAQ monitor with a particulate sensor to trigger vacuuming the floors when particulate levels rise in the home.  Another opportunity for integration is to trigger the vent hood above a smart stove if the stove is turned on and the TVOC level in the home rises, as cooking can produce VOC’s. 

Conclusion

The devices aren’t perfect and there is no single device that is a must have because of the different sensors offered by each.   The foobot doesn’t offer a CO2 sensor, and neither the foobot, nor the Awair, offer a radon sensor.  The Airthings Wave Plus misses out because it doesn’t include Wi-Fi connectivity, a sensor for particulates, and integrations can’t be triggered unless the device is within Bluetooth range of the homeowner’s smart phone so data can make it to the cloud. 

All the monitors could offer more value to homeowners by removing their temperature and humidity sensors; which are redundant for anyone with a smart thermostat.  The savings could be used to include sensors for more pollutants, as I just outlined above, and CO. 

It should be noted that I found variability in the sensor readings between all these devices.  However, without being able to test them in a lab it is hard to comment on which monitors are reporting the correct readings; and which aren’t. As long as the monitor is providing a reasonably close estimate of the air quality in the home it provides the homeowner with information they, or their automation system, can take action on to improve the situation.

Even with the above limitations, an IAQ monitor is a smart addition to any home; smart or not.  The integrations these devices offer add additional value in a smart home where air cleaning, and other tasks, can be automated. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Planning to Sell your Smart Home? How will it Work for the New Owner?


My latest blog post, “Planning to Sell your Smart Home? How will it Work for the New Owner?” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.

On average, people in the U.S sell their home every nine years.  With more and more people installing smart devices in their homes it is going to become more and more common for smart homes to come up on the market.  A few builders are even installing smart home devices in new homes they are building.

When the vast majority of smart homes used systems from Crestron, Control4, Savant, and AMX, selling a smart home didn’t require overcoming any major challenges.  All that needed to be done was to:

  1. Change passwords used for access to the system.
  2. Change the names of a few rooms that were either going to be used differently by the new owners or that included people’s names. 

In addition, the integrator that installed the system would gladly assist in the process of adapting the system for the new owners and in the process, developing a relationship with them.

Today’s smart home systems are more likely to include products from multiple manufacturers that are tied together through connections to a hub, smart speaker (Amazon Alexa or Google Home), and possibly IFTTT.  In addition, all these devices have cloud services that require password protected accounts where each of these accounts is registered to the homeowner.

In most cases there isn’t an easy way to transfer these accounts to a new owner. So, when a device is de-registered from the seller and assigned to an account setup by the new owner, all the configuration, programming and connections to other services that make the smart home function intelligently, are lost.  This leaves the new owner with lots of smart hardware that doesn’t function as a smart home anymore.  So, instead of a smart home being a major selling point to a perspective buyer, instead it becomes a detriment.

Amazon Alexa devices are a good example of this problem.  The only process for transferring an Alexa device to a new owner is to de-register the device and then have the new owner register it under their account.  If routines, groups, and even programs have been created (such as with skills blueprints) to make the home easier to operate, all of this is lost when the devices are de-registered.

A Samsung SmartThings hub is another example.  Each SmartThings hub is tied to a Samsung account that is tied to the owner of the hub.  The only way to change the owner of the hub is to reset it and this will delete all devices connected to the hub, automations, routines, etc. 

However, all is not lost and the solution is very simple; just treat each smart home as an entity with its own email account, usernames, and passwords. 

For example, an account for the smart home hub that provides connections to the Zigbee/Z-Wave smart switches and the smart thermostat might have the following attributes:

First Name of Account Holder:          My
Last Name of Account Holder:          House
Address:                                              150 Main Street, Anytown, Anystate
Email account:                                    Anystate-Anytown-150MainSt@gmail.com

Where the address used would be the actual address of the home.  Then, the same account attributes would be used for all the other cloud service accounts that are required by the smart devices in the home.   Now when the home is sold, the only change required by the new homeowner is to log into each account and change the password.  None of the configuration, programming, and interconnections between devices will be lost. In addition, the vast majority of email client applications include the ability to integrate multiple email accounts into the single reader.  So, this won’t pose any major burden on the homeowner to keep track of notifications that may be sent out by the various smart devices in the home and their manufacturers.

This may seem like a negative reflection on smart things hubs.  However, as I mentioned in my previous article on hubs, they offer an added degree of security compared to using Wi-Fi switches and outlets in a home.  In addition, a hub only requires a single manufacturer’s cloud account compared to having to manage accounts for each brand of Wi-Fi switch/outlet in a home.

I had some concerns as to whether the creation of a house account would be allowed by a company, like Amazon.  However, a call to tech support validated that this was allowable and that the process would keep all configuration and programming intact when the house account, and the associated devices, where taken over by the new owner of the home.

While this technique works very well for someone who is going to begin adding smart devices into a home, what is someone that already has an array of smart devices in their home to do?  Once devices are registered in the name of a homeowner there isn’t an easy solution.  In some cases, the manufacturer’s tech support can transfer the device to a new account without losing the data for their device.  But, the interconnection between devices from multiple manufacturers has a good chance of being lost when this is done. 

In a home with smart devices from multiple manufacturers that are integrated together and registered directly to the homeowner my suggestion is to:

  1. Document all the connections, configuration, and programming done on each device
  2. Transfer registration of each device to an account setup for the home as described above
  3. Using the documentation, reconfigure each device, its connections, and programming to make the smart home functional again

The sooner this is done the easier it will be.  The homeowner’s memory of all the details of the devices in smart home will probably fade over time, making it more difficult to document the details of the design. And, the number of smart devices in the home will probably continue to grow over time, making it even more work to do this in the future.

Hopefully this technique will save a great many people issues when selling their smart homes. 

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Living with the Sense Energy Monitor

My latest blog post, “Living with the Sense Energy Monitor” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.



In a previous article that was published in Residential Tech Today magazine and my blog, I wrote about the Curb, Sense, and Smappee energy monitors.  After writing about these new energy monitors, and the features they offered, I decided to replace my ten year old energy monitor. 

All three energy monitors included much more advanced features than my 10 year old model.  In the end I chose the Sense energy monitor as my replacement because:

  • I was very interested in trying out the technology included in their product of identifying the devices in your home that use electricity through their unique energy usage signatures
  • They had a very active user community
 Installation

For many people the Sense energy monitor will be easy to install.  For me the installation was somewhat challenging.  If your circuit breaker panel is mounted to a wall with the sides of the panel exposed and you have two unused circuit breakers then the installation should be relatively simple.  Unfortunately, my panel was mounted between two studs of one wall in my garage, the garage walls are covered with drywall, and I didn’t have any spare circuit breakers in my panel. 

To overcome this I had to install two tandem breakers, route all the wiring for the Sense energy monitor outside of the panel, and mount the Sense inside a separate enclosure.  So, instead of the installation taking under one-half hour it ended up taking me several hours.  But, in the end the installation was clean and professional.

With the physical installation done, I powered up the Sense.  Using the Sense app I was quickly able to connect the Sense to my Wi-Fi network and start the 24 hour process where the sense checks the installation and begins to learn about the devices using energy in your home. 

I also found that after completing the installation process I had received an email from Sense with useful information to get me started. 

Identifying Electrical Devices

Using the Sense app I configured the system to notify me whenever it discovered a new electrical device in my home.  Less than two days after I powered on the Sense monitor it identified its first device, my furnace.  At the same time it also started reporting the phantom power use in my home at 296 watts.  Phantom power is the power used by always on devices, such as my smart home processor, smart light switches, cable box, etc.  Given how automated my home is, and the number of always on devices it included in the automation system, I was happy with this as, according to the Sense app, the average phantom power among all Sense owners is 288 watts. 

One day later I was informed that my Sense had identified three more devices; my garage door opener, refrigerator, and refrigerator 2.  I have both a refrigerator/freezer and a separate chest freezer.  Unplugging my chest freezer for 2 hours allowed me to quickly resolve that refrigerator 2 was actually the chest freezer.

I also received notification of another heater.  This could be anything from my wife’s hair dryer to one of our countertop kitchen appliances.  Again, after setting up notifications I was able to figure out that this was our toaster oven. 

After 2 weeks with Sense it has uniquely identified seven devices in my home.  Not bad, but at the same time, it is frustrating, to me, that it hasn’t been able to identify three key appliances:

  1. Clothes Washer
  2. Clothes Dryer
  3. Dish Washer
 These three devices are ones that I had, with my old energy monitor, created notifications to my wife and myself when they ended their cleaning/drying cycles.  These notifications have been very useful as they kept us from, for example, forgetting we had a wet load of clean clothes in the clothes washer or ending up with pile of wrinkled clothes in the dryer.  Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to speed up the identification process.  All I can do is try to be patient and setup reminders on our Alexa devices every time we use these appliances.

After another two weeks I received a notification from Sense that two more devices had been found; “Washer” and “Heat 4”.  I suspect that these are the washer and dryer that I have been waiting patiently for Sense to discover.  To test this theory out, I’m going to take the drastic step of doing laundryJ. 

Sure enough the “Washer” is my clothes washer.  The only downside of the way Sense is working with the washer is that as the washer transitions through cycles and there is time to, for example, refill the tub with water, Sense sends me a notification that the washer has turned off quickly followed by a notification that it has turned back on. 

A second weirdness is that the final notification that the washer turned off was several minutes before it finished its spin cycle.  Sense’s custom notifications can be configured to handle this kind of delay but unfortunately, the triggers to IFTTT aren’t as flexible.  Trying to compensate, in my automation system, for the dropouts in power usage during the washing cycle without delaying sending an end of cycle notification to my wife and I has proven to be challenging.  

Unfortunately, the new “Heat 4” device isn’t my dryer.  So, I’ve turned on notifications for when this device turns on/off to help me figure out what it is. 

Another few weeks have passed and Sense has finally identified my dryer so my wife and I again have notifications to help us with our laundry, though I’m still trying to make the washer notifications more reliable and consistent.

The time it takes for Sense to identify devices can be frustrating.  Watching the user forum, this is the most common complaint about the product.  I understand the complexity of what Sense is trying to accomplish but, like others, I wish they could find a way to speed up the process.

Community Forum

Sense has a very active community forum and is very responsive in replying to user posts.  For example, there was a very active discussion on Sense integration with SmartThings with various people debating what would be needed from this integration.  With the large number of posts it is a wealth of information to help people troubleshoot problems and for new users to find out more about using the product.

In my previous article I talked about the need for all manufacturers to leverage their communities to help people save energy.  Sense has just announced Sense Saves; a new forum for people to share their stories on how they’ve saved money on their energy bills.  It should be noted that Sense Saves isn’t designed to replace Sense’s community forum where there are discussions on device detection, feature requests, the ability to ask technical questions, and more.  It is a much more targeted resource for people to share and learn about techniques to save energy.

Sense Saves has only been active for a very short time but there are already a good collection of user written stories on topics including “Water heater savings”, “Vacation home electric way to high for years”, and “Sense identified bad furnace relay = $750 savings”; to name a few. 

Trying to Vanquish Power Vampires

The first thing that Sense made me more aware of was the baseline energy consumption of all the electronics in my home.  My “always on” power consumption was 278 watts or about $120 per year.  Yikes!  The question is: what can I do about it?  The first step I took was to start thinking about all the devices in my home that are always on using power.

  • TV
  • A/V Receiver
  • Roku
  • Subwoofer
  • Cable Box
  • Blu-Ray Player
  • Smart Home Processor / Hub
  • Smart Light Switches
  • Amazon Echoes
  • IP Cameras
  • Sense Energy Monitor
  • Security System
  • HVAC System
  • Gas Hot Water Heater
  • Radon Abatement Fan
  • Water Softener
  • Refrigerator
  • Freezer
  • Stove
  • Microwave
  • Washer / Dryer
  • Dishwasher
  • Printer
  • Cable Modem / Router / Ethernet Switches
  • And a few more miscellaneous devices
 The first question is which of these devices shouldn’t be powered off under any circumstances. 

·         Security System and IP Cameras
·         Smart Home Processor / Hub, Smart Light Switches
·         Networking Hardware
·         Radon Abatement Fan
·         Refrigerator and Freezer
·         HVAC System (thermostat is set back automatically when nobody is home)
·         Gas Hot Water Heater (thermostat is set back automatically when nobody is home)
·         Sense Energy Monitor

In addition, my stove and clothes dryer would be somewhat challenging to power off because they are both on high current 240v circuits.  It would also be a pain to power off my microwave because I would have to reset the clock every time.  This is the same situation for my water softener.  Finally, while it is a known energy hog, I don’t want to power off my cable box because it is a DVR and I would certainly miss recording shows if it wasn’t on all the time.

My next step was to investigate how much energy each of the remaining devices use in standby mode.  A smart plug is going to use about 2 watts of power so you have to weigh this against the standby power use of each device to see whether it makes sense to use one to power the device off/on.

  • TV - .5w
  • A/V Receiver - .15w
  • Roku - < 4.5w
  • Subwoofer - .5w
  • Blu-Ray Player - .3w
  • Amazon Echo (each) - 2w
  • Clothes Washer - .83w
  • Dishwasher - .96w
  • Printer – 2w
 Clearly there is little value to invest in a smart plug to completely remove power from any of these devices when they aren’t being used because they consume so little power when in standby mode.  I could plug the TV, A/V Receiver, Roku, and Blu-Ray player (which are all located in a single cabinet) into a power strip that would be plugged into a smart outlet.  But, this adds very little value because together they only consume less than 6w.  After plugging them into a smart outlet I would save just over 3w; which would have a minimal impact on my electrical bill or the environment.

On the other hand, this exercise did a great job of raising my awareness of:

  • Vampire power in my home
  • The strides that the Energy Star program has made in reducing power usage by devices throughout a home

As I purchase new appliances and electronic devices, or replace ones that have failed, I am going to be much more watchful of the power they consume while being used and in standby mode.

To better understand phantom power I purchased two TP-Link HS110 voltage sensing, smart, plugs.  I plugged all the hardware associated with my network into one.  I then plugged the hardware associated with my A/V system and my home automation system into another.  After using the Sense app to tell the Sense system that I had added these smart plugs to my system, it only took a few minutes for it start reporting the power being used by the devices plugged into the smart outlets in the Sense app; very impressive.  I now know that my network hardware is using 50w and my A/V and Automation hardware (with the A/V system turned off/in standby) is using 74w.  This accounts for almost half my “phantom” power.

Areas for Improvement/Wish List

While I’ve found Sense to be very useful, there are a few areas where I think it could be improved

  1. You can only enter a single value for the cost of electricity.  Unfortunately, power companies have much more complex billing schemes.  In my own case there are different rates for winter vs. summer and there are three tiers of rates depending on the amount of energy you consume.  Because of this, any reporting that Sense does on the cost of your electricity is only a rough estimate and is not going to correspond with an actual bill.  I would prefer that, like the Curb energy monitor, Sense would simply allow me to enter where I live, who my power provider is, and select my plan.  Then Sense would use this information to provide a much more accurate calculation of the cost of the energy I’m using.

  1. Once Sense moves to accurately representing the cost of electricity for their users they can take a big step and assist people in managing their energy usage.  Sense, can use the knowledge of the cost of the users electricity (which may vary depending on the time of day), the cost of operating an appliance, solar production, and more to help a customer schedule energy using tasks so they minimize costs.  For example, Sense could trigger, through IFTTT, a smart electric clothes dryer to run when it was cheapest for a user or send a notification to the user if their clothes dryer wasn’t smart. 

  1. Sense is moving towards being able to predict when appliances may need to be replaced based on changes in their energy signatures.  While that is a work in progress I wish that a homeowner could flag an appliance in the sense app for capture of power on/off cycling data.  A homeowner could then, for example, go to the Sense app and graphically view how many times per day their refrigerator cycles on/off over time and see if it is trending to cycling more; which could mean it is about to have a problem or is simply getting old.  In addition, it would be nice if an alert could be set if there is a sudden change in cycling compared to the average.  This would be a great first step as Sense moves forward to develop their AI based, prediction software.

  1. Any goals and custom alerts should have a routing option so it can either generate an alert within the mobile app or be routed to IFTTT with a tag that would allow the IFTTT trigger to be passed to a 3rd party system for a unique action. 

  1. Budgets are a valuable feature but electricity usage varies considerably by month depending on whether it is winter when the furnace is in heavy use, summer when the air conditioning is in heavy use or spring / fall when neither may be used.  The homeowner should be able to setup a budget schedule that includes unique values for each month.  Without the ability to set a budget by month, I find the budgeting feature of Sense to not be of tremendous value.  And, this really limits Sense’s value as a tool to help people focus on their electricity usage on an ongoing basis. 

  1. Sense has made it clear, through posts on their blog, that they don’t feel that being able to manually train Sense to detect a specific device is practical.  However, this is a feature of the Smappee energy monitor that operates similarly to Sense.  Just because it is hard doesn’t mean Sense shouldn’t do this as they are currently operating at a competitive disadvantage to the Smappee.  Any step Sense can take to allow people to participate in the identification of energy using devices in their home would be a big help to reduce the number one frustration people voice about the product in the community forum.

  1. Sense has incorporated smart, energy measuring, outlets such as the TP-Link HS110 into their ecosystem.  The whole process of incorporating these into the Sense energy monitoring ecosystem works seamlessly.  However, to measure the energy used by specific devices and appliances users, including myself, are putting these in places where they would never want to have power interrupted by the outlet turning off.  This includes refrigerators, freezers, and in my own system, networking and home automation hardware.  It would be nice if Sense supported an auto-on feature where the devices settings could be set to automatically turn the outlet back on if, for any reason, it is turned off.

  1. I believe Sense needs a better way to monitor devices, like my clothes washer, that have cycles of operation that the Sense monitor thinks is the device turning on/off several times.  It would be very helpful if the user could tell sense to merge these segments of operation together into a single cycle.  Sense could then learn to recognize the pattern of operation (my clothes washer always ends with a high speed spin) and not trigger that the device is off until the full cycle of operation ends. 

I am told by the people at Sense that they have recently made improvements in this area.  However, the gaps in power usage by my washer are still triggering multiple notifications that it is done with its cycle so there is still more work to be done.  It is good to know that Sense recognizes this as an issue and is working to improve their detection of these types of devices.

  1. I don’t believe that Sense’s identification of devices by their power signature technology will ever be perfect.  For 120 volt devices the integration of energy sensing smart plugs is a great solution.  There needs to be similar solution for 240 volt devices; even if Sense has to build it and offer it as an accessory to the energy monitor.  This would solve the issues with trying to detect car charging systems; which seem to be problematic based on the community forum threads on this topic.  Even better would be an add-on IP based device that would allow a collection of current sensors to be added to Sense that would allow a homeowner to detect usage on a series of circuits that might otherwise not be detected by Sense.  For example, Sense continues to have trouble identifying my dish washer and this would solve that issue for me.  It would also be a solution for detecting car charging systems as described above. 

Overall, I really like Sense.  It has made me more aware of how power is used in my home.  But, Sense still is, in many ways, an emerging product.  The company is working all the time to improve Sense’s capability and accuracy in applying energy signatures to devices in a home.  I believe that, over time, the product will get better, and better; offering more features and improved accuracy to its users.