Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Who Ya Gonna Call? – Getting Support for your Smart Home

My latest blog post, “Who Ya Gonna Call? – Getting Support for your 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.

The one thing you can be sure of is that at some point in time a product will stop working properly and smart home products are no exception.  According to Parks Associates, “33% of consumer electronics device owners report experiencing problems with their device over the past year”.  To make matters worse, because of the technology in smart home products, the issue may not be that the product is truly broken; it could be that:

  • A new software update has caused the product to not work properly
  • There is an unintended interaction with another smart home product in your home
  • An issue with a cloud service is affecting the operation of the device
  • Any number of other possible causes

The complexity of these devices, and how other devices in a home can affect their operation, will leave the average person banging their head against the wall when faced with an issue in their home.

To make matters worse, when calling the manufacturer’s tech support for the product having an issue, a homeowner can find themselves in a game of finger pointing where tech support claims the issue the homeowner is facing is really due to another product in their home.  Calling tech support for the other product results in finger pointing back to the original product leaving the homeowner caught in the middle.

To be honest, this is why people with the financial means have had their smart home systems installed by professional smart home integration companies.  They have the expertise, and experience, to create a seamless ecosystem out of products from multiple manufacturers and to support the system when there are problems.  However, that expertise comes with a price tag that puts working with these firms out of reach of many people that desire to create a smart home.

Fortunately, there are now options for homeowners seeking support for their smart home when something isn’t working properly. 

Photo supplied by Support.com


Support.com is not a household name.  However, they have been in the business of providing technical support for over 20 years and have a staff of over 1000 tech support professionals called Tech Pros.  Further, they will provide support on almost any device in a home no matter where, or when, the homeowner purchased it.  This includes smart home products, PCs running Windows (versions 7 through 10), Macs, Smart TVs, printers, routers, smart phones, home theater components, gaming systems, and more. 

Some examples of common tasks that a tech support professional at Support.com performs are:

  • Virus removal
  • Operating installation assistance on a Windows or Mac computer
  • Setting up backups on a Windows or Mac computer
  • Computer software troubleshooting
  • Home network setup and security
  • Troubleshooting problems with apps and syncing on a smart phone, tablet, or other connected device
  • Setup and troubleshooting problems with a smart home devices such as Ring doorbells, Nest thermostats, Fitbits, and more

Consumers can obtain support two ways:

  1. Using, free, online, step by step, diagnostic tools called Guided Paths ®
  2. A paid monthly subscription for unlimited support over the phone, chat, or virtual house call

I explored the Guided Paths trying several different smart home questions and found good depth to solutions they offered a consumer.  For example, in the online form on the Support.com web site I entered “My Nest thermostat isn’t turning on my heat”.  I received a number of different guides to choose from including:

  • How to reset a Nest Smart Thermostat
  • How to keep a Nest Smart Thermostat secure
  • How to install the Nest app
  • How to fix issues on a Nest Smart Thermostat
  • How to set up a Nest Smart Thermostat
  • How to connect a Nest Smart Thermostat to WiFi
  • And more

Again, I want to stress, that this online tool is available to anyone to use for free.  Support.com only charges for phone and chat support with a professional tech support person, and you can even schedule a time that is convenient to have the Tech Pro call you for support.

There are several options for phone and chat support with a professional:

  1. $59.99 for support for a single issue with a single device
  2. $9.99 a month (no minimum commitment) for 24/7 unlimited support for all the devices in your home
  3. $99.99 for a year of unlimited 24/7 support for all the devices in your home

Talking on the phone with someone only goes so far when trying to solve a technical problem with a smart device in your home.  To overcome this limitation the Support.com Tech Pro can, with the customer’s permission, perform a “virtual house call”.  The Tech Pro, using proprietary software, does a remote connection to the customer’s computer so the Tech Pro can connect to other smart devices in the home to solve issues; all while the homeowner is watching what is being done.  For solving problems with devices, such as a smart TV, whose menu system isn’t available through a computer, the Tech Pro uses Support.com’s proprietary SeeSupport software.  This software works with the customer’s phone, or tablet, to share video and images with the Tech Pro.  The Tech Pro can then lead the customer through the process of fixing the issue and can even annotate an image to help the customer through the process. 

If it is determined that a device in the customer’s home is faulty, and needs to be repaired, the Support.com Tech Pro can only do so much.  Support.com doesn’t offer repair services so the Tech Pro can only:

  1. Advise the customer to check the return policy at the store where the device was purchased
  2. Advise the customer to contact the manufacturer, or extended warranty provider, if the product is under warranty

If the device is out of warranty, then the customer has to determine if it is worth repairing.  If the device is worth repairing then it is up to the customer to find a reputable, local repair facility.  Support.com doesn’t maintain a database of repair facilities and their services don’t include helping a customer to locate one.

However, these days, the nature of smart devices is that innovations are happening so fast that if a product breaks, after the warranty period has expired, it may be better to replace the item then to repair it.  The rapid advances in technology have lead to this disposable economy we live in today. 

Photo supplied by Best Buy


Best Buy, on the other hand, is a household name.  Most customers are aware that Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” is available for in home services, such as mounting a TV on the wall.  However, most people aren’t aware that Best Buy offers much broader, subscription based, support services. 

A membership in Best Buy’s Total Tech Support provides a customer with support for all the technology in a home, no matter where they purchased it, for $199.99 per year.  A Best Buy Total Tech Support subscription includes three tiers of support:

  1. Phone support to solve problems with any technology based product in your home
  2. In store services, available by appointment, for additional services, such as installing a new radio, GPS, amplifier, or speaker in your car.  And, more.
  3. Discounted price on in home services.

Once you are a member of the Best Buy Total Tech Support program, for the discounted price of $49.99 (per service) a Geek Squad member can visit your home for:

  • Home Theater Installation and Setup
  • Appliance Installation, Setup and Haul-Away
  • Connected Home Installation, Setup, and Troubleshooting
  • Computer Support

Members also receive a 20% discount on advanced services including:

  • Home Theater – Advanced Wire Running, Advanced TV Mounting, Advanced Speaker Installation, and More…
  • Wired Camera Installation
  • Appliances – Advanced Cooktop Installation, Advanced Wall Oven Built-In, Built-In Refrigerator Installation, and More…
  • Car Electronics – Advanced Marine/Motorcycle/Off-Road Vehicle/Golf Cart Installation, and More…
  • Mobile Phones – Battery Replacement, Screen Repair, Component Repair

Finally, besides all the above services members receive:

  • 20% Off Geek Squad & AppleCare Protection Plans
  • Free Internet Security Software for Up To Ten Devices

Similar to Support.com, a Geek Squad member can remotely connect to the customer’s computer to access various devices on a customer’s network; or to address issues with the network itself.  In fact, according to Matthew Smith at Best Buy, the majority of smart home problems that Best Buy helps customers with turn out to be issues with the customer’s network; not with the smart home product itself. 

Both Support.com and Best Buy provide people with a reasonably priced, comprehensive program, of support services.  Support.com’s membership is less expensive than Best Buy’s Total Tech Support program.  However, Best Buy offers members both in store and discounted in home services for those that need additional assistance.  Which of these two programs is best for you depends on your technical expertise and your needs. 

So, if your smart home starts acting as if it is haunted, with lights turning on, and off, or your thermostat causing icy temperatures inside, you have a choice of people to call to help solve the problem and exorcise the demons.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Getting Smart Appliances without Breaking the Bank – Part 3


My latest blog post, “Getting Smart Appliances without Breaking the Bank – Part 3” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.

This is part three in my series of articles on how to add smart features to your existing appliances.  In part one of the series I covered how to make your existing clothes washer and dryer smart.  You can find that article https://restechtoday.com/smart-appliances/.  In part two of the series I covered how to make your existing major kitchen appliances smart including your refrigerator, dish washer, and stove.  You can find that article https://restechtoday.com/smart-appliances-part-2/.  In the final article in this series I will explore ways to make your small appliances, and other devices in your home, smart.

Smart Plugs



Smart plugs, like the TP-Link KP100 pictured above, can be used to automate any number of small kitchen appliances.  The best part is, the dumber the appliance is the better it works with a smart plug.

An inexpensive slow cooker, with a simple, manual control, can be plugged into a smart outlet.  You can simply load the food into the slow cooker, set the manual control to the desired cooking temperature (typically low, medium, or high on a manual cooker), and use the smart plug’s app to turn it on at the desired time.  Just be careful that you aren’t leaving food out, unrefrigerated for too long; which can promote the growth of bacteria in the food making it unsafe to eat. 

A basic coffee maker can also be plugged into a smart plug that includes an IFTTT skill.  Then, when your Amazon Alexa smart speaker’s alarm goes off in the morning, you can use an IFTTT applet to trigger the smart plug to turn on, and freshly brew, your morning coffee.  This is especially valuable for people whose job requires them to get up at different times during the week.  Instead of having to schedule a coffee maker in addition to your alarm clock, you just have to tell your Alexa device what time you need to get up in the morning.  If you aren’t a coffee drinker the same technique can be used to turn on a hot water kettle for tea.

A smart plug can also make your kitchen safer.  You never have to worry about a toaster oven being accidentally left on if it is plugged into a smart plug.  Again, using IFTTT, an applet can detect when you have left your home and the smart plug that your toaster oven is plugged into can automatically be shut off.  The same applet can also be used to turn off your coffee maker when you leave home.  No more worries about the glass carafe running dry and cracking from the heat.



Some devices can’t be automated with a smart plug because they require a physical button on the device to be pressed to operate.  This is where a SwitchBot, provides a unique solution. 

The SwitchBot is a small, inexpensive, IoT device that can mechanically operate a rocker style switch or simply press a button.  The SwitchBot is attached to the device, next to the switch, using a piece of 3M tape.  After the SwitchBot is physically installed, up to five separate timers can be configured in the SwitchBot app to operate the switch at a specific time.  The SwitchBot can be controlled through a Bluetooth connection.  In addition, an optional hub connects the SwitchBot to your Wi-Fi network and provides:

  • Control over the Internet
  • Voice control with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri
  • Integration with IFTTT

SwitchBot is battery powered.  The replaceable lithium battery is expected to last up to two years. 

If, for example, you make your coffee using a single-serve, pod coffee maker then a SwitchBot is a simple solution to automate your morning coffee; as long as you remember to fill the coffee maker with water and load a pod the night before.  Then, as described above using a smart plug, an IFTTT applet can be triggered by your alarm going off on an Alexa device to trigger a SwitchBot to brew you a cup of coffee.

SwitchBot does have an API.  However, it is designed for a Raspberry Pi with a Bluetooth adapter to communicate directly with the SwitchBot.  An API that allowed a smart home processor/hub to communicate over Ethernet through the SwitchBot hub would be a welcome addition.  It would eliminate the reliance on a cloud service and an active Internet connection to integrate a SwitchBot into a smart home.

SwitchBots are incredibly versatile and only limited by your imagination.

I’ll be doing a hands on review of the SwitchBot in the near future. 

Hopefully, this series of articles has given you ideas on ways to make your existing appliances smart and make up for the fact that you didn’t get a new set of major appliances for the holidays.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Getting Smart Appliances without Breaking the Bank – Part 2

My latest blog post, “Getting Smart Appliances without Breaking the Bank – Part 2” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.

This is part two in my series of articles on how to add smart features to your existing appliances.  In part one of the series I covered how to make your existing clothes washer and dryer smart.  You can find that article here: https://restechtoday.com/smart-appliances/.   In this part, I will be discussing ways to make you existing, major kitchen, appliances smart, including your refrigerator, dish washer, and stove.

Refrigerator

The Samsung Family Hub refrigerator includes all the features you could want in a smart refrigerator:

  • Three internal cameras allow you to view the inside of your refrigerator so you purchase the items you need instead of, for example, guessing whether there is enough milk, or not.
  • Smart display on the door of the refrigerator allows you to view schedules, plan meals, create shopping lists
  • Smart home control from the refrigerator’s smart display
  • Stream music from the refrigerator’s smart display



FridgeEYE, by Brezzl, was successfully crowd funded on Indiegogo.  It is a wireless camera specifically designed to mount inside your refrigerator.  Every time you close the door of your refrigerator, FridgeEYE takes a picture that can be viewed from the FridgeEYE smart phone app. 

FridgeEYE is designed to save you money by not purchasing items that are not needed; especially items that are perishable and will spoil if not eaten.  For example, you might have an almost full jug of milk in your refrigerator.  You go to the store, can’t remember how much milk you have, and purchase another jug.  Now some of the milk will have to be thrown out because you have more milk than you can drink before it goes sour.  According to FridgeEYE the average family throws away $1500 worth of food every year.

It should be noted that at least two FridgeEYE cameras would be needed to provide visual coverage of an average refrigerator.  One would be mounted to the door to view the shelves of the refrigerator and a second one would be mounted inside the refrigerator to provide a view of the food that is stored on the refrigerator door(s). 

While not specifically part of this article, it should be noted that FridgeEYE could also be mounted inside cabinets, or a pantry, where food is stored.  So, the number of FridgeEYE cameras you might want to fully view your kitchen food supplies could quickly add up.

FridgeEYE connects to a home’s Wi-Fi network to provide remote access to the images of the inside of the refrigerator.  The mounting bracket attaches to the inside of the refrigerator with double sided tape and can be repositioned using extra tape strips that are provided.  The camera portion of the FridgeEYE can be removed from the mounting bracket for recharging.  The camera includes a USB-C port and a USB-C to USB-A cable is provided.  But, a charger must be provided by the homeowner.  The internal battery has an expected life of 4-8 weeks between charges and, if the battery ages over time, can easily be replaced.

Brezzl is developing image recognition technology that will allow it to identify common items in the refrigerator. 

In addition to being able to view the images of the inside of your refrigerator, the FridgeEYE app will allow homeowners to:

  • View the inventory of the items discovered by FirdgeEYE’s image recognition technology
  • View recipes based on what is in the refrigerator
  • Easily buy food through stores that are partnered with FridgeEYE
  • View product suggestions based on a healthy diet
  • View the current temperature inside the refrigerator
  • Receive a notification if the door of the refrigerator is accidentally left open

It should be noted that with image recognition technology Brezzl will be learning a great deal about the eating habits of their customers.  However, as a German company Brezzl is subject to abiding by the rules of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).  So:

  1. All customer data must be encrypted
  2. Brezzl is required to obtain explicit permission from customers before sharing any data

While any wireless security camera could be mounted inside a refrigerator, FridgeEYE offers additional features at a reasonable price.  In addition, the fisheye lens maximizes the view inside the refrigerator and minimizes the number of cameras needed.

The second major smart feature offered by the Samsung Family Hub refrigerator is the large touch screen built into the door of the refrigerator and the apps available to assist a busy family.  However, today’s tablets, and the wide array of apps available for them, offer these same features and more. 

Unfortunately, it isn’t a good idea to drill into a refrigerator door. So, you can’t duplicate the convenience of having the tablet mounted to the refrigerator door.  Instead, the table will need to take up valuable kitchen counter space.

Ranges

Thermador is one of the top brands of ranges, ovens, and cooktops for the serious home chef.  Their line of smart appliances uses Home Connect™ technology to provide control and integration into the smart home including connections with Alexa, Josh.ai, Chefling, IFTTT and more.  To assist the home chef, recipe settings can be sent directly from the Home Connect™ app to a Thermador oven to assist in error free food preparation.   Additional manufacturers, including GE, Whirlpool, KitchenAid and others, are also offering smart appliances with similar features.

“Guided cooking” is the ability to:

  • Choose a recipe from an app
  • Have the app walk you through the preparation of the food
  •  Have the app automatically controlling your appliance to cook the food

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to simply add guided cooking functionality to an existing appliance.  However, there are smaller, counter top, smart appliances that include guided cooking functions at a fraction of the price of a smart range from a major manufacturer.


The June Smart Oven is one of the most intelligent countertop appliances available.  When you place food into the oven a built in camera identifies the food and, through a built in touch panel, leads you through the cooking process.   Through the June, smart phone, app, the oven will even notify you when your food is done.

Currently, the camera, and the AI behind the June Smart Oven, can identify over 100 different foods placed in the oven.  Here are a few examples of foods that the June Smart Oven can cook. 

  • Vegetables (asparagus, eggplant slices, potatoes)
  • Vegetarian (beyond meat burgers*, chickenless nuggets*, tofu steak)
  • Seafood (lobster tails, salmon, tilapia)
  • Poultry (chicken breast, whole chicken, duck breast*)
  • Meat (hot dogs, steak, rack of lamb, pork tenderloin*,)
  • Leftovers (chicken*, ribs*, pizza*)
  • Frozen Snacks (chicken nuggets, lasagna*, pizza)
  • Fruits and Nuts (apple slices, pecans, quinoa)
  • Baked Goods (chocolate chip cookies, brownies, pumpkin pie)
  • Toast (bagels, English muffins, pop-tarts)

*These foods aren’t automatically recognized by the oven’s camera and must be manually selected for cooking

The cooking programs are designed to perfectly cook each type of food.  The program for cooking a steak goes through an eight step process; even including time to rest the steak both after broiling (a Japanese cooking technique) and before serving. Upper and lower carbon heating elements sear both sides of the steak without requiring intervention by the homeowner to turn the steak over during the cooking process.  Finally, an included food thermometer makes sure the steak is perfectly cooked to the desired doneness (rare, medium rare, etc.). 

For manual operation, the June Smart Oven includes nine different cooking modes to bake, roast, broil, toast, slow cook, air fry, dehydrate, keep warm, and reheat. 

The oven can be controlled through either the built in touch panel or the June app.  The app provides true guided cooking.  After selecting a recipe it shows you the ingredients and tools you will need for preparation.  Then it walks you through the preparation of the dish, including videos to show you the exact techniques that are required.  Finally it automatically adjusts, and controls, the June Smart Oven to cook your food.  While a good selection of recipes is available for free, many more are available with a subscription. 

June is committed to continually improving their oven.  For example, when first released the oven did not do a good job of cooking bacon.  June worked with customers who shared the data from their ovens to overcome the problem.  A simple software update addressed the issue for all the users.  Initially the June Smart Oven had a single program for cooking bacon.  With the software update there are now over 60 different possible cooking programs based on the number of slices of bacon being cooked, how thick the bacon is, and how you like your bacon to be cooked (crispy, chewy, etc.).    The oven’s built in camera even automatically identifies how many slices of bacon are being cooked.

The June smart oven isn’t inexpensive.  But, even Cooks Illustrated magazine gave it high ranks and it is still much less expensive then a smart range.


The Breville Joule Sous Vide allows the home chef to explore the art of sous vide cooking in your own kitchen.  For those that aren’t familiar with sous vide cooking it is a technique where food is submerged in a precisely temperature controlled water bath and cooked slowly until it is done to the proper temperature for your desired level of doneness (rare, medium, etc.).  The food isn’t actually submerged directly into the water.  Instead, it is placed in a plastic, or silicone, bag with the selected spices for the recipe you are preparing and then placed into the water bath.

The Joule Sous Vide attaches to an existing pot.  It precisely heats and circulates the water, in the pot, for perfectly even cooking.  With 1100 watts of power the Joule Sous Vide can quickly heat up to 10 gallons of water and can maintain the temperature within .2 degrees.

The Joule Sous Vide, smart phone, app provides a guided cooking experience.  First you can use the app to browse, or search, for a recipe.   Each recipe lists all the ingredients and the equipment you will need for the recipe.  To help you cook your food to the correct doneness the app includes “Visual Doneness” where you can choose the picture of your food that matches the way you want it prepared and this is used to set the temperature of the water bath.  The cooking time is set based on other factors you can select, such as the thickness of the steak you are cooking and whether you are placing it into the water bath frozen or fresh.  Once you are ready, the app will communicate with the Joule Sous Vide to heat the water bath to the correct temperature.  Next the app will notify you that the water bath is ready so you can place your food into the water bath.  Finally, the app will notify you when your food is done.  The app also includes video tutorials and tips and tricks from chefs to help you master this new cooking technique.

It should be noted that once your food has finished cooking in the water bath, it may not be ready to be served.  For example, if you cooked a steak, to a perfect medium rare, with the Joule Sous Vide in a water bath, the steak still needs to be seared in a hot pan before you would serve it.  The same is true for any other meat that was cooked in the sous vide style.  But the long cooking time and extra step are worth it as sous vide can create delicious, tender meals.


The Hestan Cue smart cooking system and Tasty, by Cuisinart, One Top are both app controlled induction cooktops that offer a guided cooking experience.  In addition, both use temperature sensors to precisely control the cooking temperature.

Induction cooktops use magnetism to heat your pots and pans instead of the cooktop itself.  They heat much faster than a conventional gas or electric cooktop.  In fact an induction cooktop can heat a pan in a matter of seconds vs. it taking several minutes for a gas, or electric, cooktop to heat the same pan

 One key difference between the two cooktops is that for precision, temperature controlled, cooking the Hestan Cue requires special, Cue, cookware with an integrated temperature sensor.  The One Top, on the other hand, has a sensor in the cooktop that presses against any induction compatible pan for temperature control. 

The Hestan Cue can be used with any induction compatible pan but you lose the ability to precisely control the cooking temperature.   In addition, Hestan’s guided cooking experience is only possible when cooking with a Cue pan. 

Both cooktops offer an easy to use guided cooking experience for the beginner or a highly accurate cooking system for the more advanced home chef.  But, the free Hestan app is far superior to the Tasty One Top App.  First, the Hestan Cue app provides over 500 guided recipes, all with step-by-step video instruction so even an inexperienced cook can follow them.  The Tasty One Top App only offers a handful of guided recipes.  In addition, the Hestan Cue app also includes additional guided recipes for food that is cooked in an oven; not on the cooktop.  There is a separate Tasty app that includes a multitude of recipes.  But, again there is a significant difference in the quality of the recipes and the cooking experience offered by the Hestan Cue app compared to the Tasty app.  In addition, the Tasty app is not integrated with the One Top for cooking control and a complete, guided cooking experience.

The videos in the Hestan Cue app better demonstrate the preparation of the food and include a full audio track.  The videos in the Tasty One Top App do not include any audio and just provide a basic demonstration of the techniques necessary to prepare the dish you have selected.

Finally, all the recipes are also extensively tested before being released in the app to help assure high quality results. 

The last difference between the two cooktops is price.  The Hestan Cue can either be purchased with an 11-inch connected pan or a 5.5 quart connected chef’s pot.  Either option is significantly more expensive than the One Top.  But, someone who really wants a high quality guided cooking experience could easily justify the price difference.  And, it is still a fraction of the cost of a new range; especially one with induction burners in the cooktop. 



If you aren’t in the market for one of these smart, countertop, cooking appliances you can still obtain guided cooking assistance through smart phone apps.  There are more recipe and cooking apps than you can count in the iPhone and Android stores.  However, a few provide guided cooking instruction and stand out from the crowd.

Side Chef is an easy to use app with a wealth of features and a simple to use guided cooking experience.  When reviewing recipes you can quickly scan the ingredients required to make the dish as well as the steps required to prepare it.  When you decide on a recipe, the list of ingredients can quickly be adjusted based on the number of people you will be serving.  And, with the press of a single button the ingredients are added to your shopping list. 

When it comes time to prepare the food,  “Step By Step Mode” guides you through the preparation including spoken instructions, a picture that show you what the food looks like after the step is complete, and built in timers for cooking, resting meat, etc.  The one thing I found missing, compared to the other apps was that there weren’t videos included in the guided cooking instruction; only pictures.

A second app, Kitchen Stories, is also easy to use and provides almost all the features necessary to prepare perfect meals.  It includes a wide selection of videos, referred to as stories that demonstrate cooking techniques.  Once you have selected a recipe you can quickly view the ingredients, steps required to prepare the food, and videos of techniques you will need to use in the preparation.  Like Side Chef, the quantity of ingredients required can easily be adjusted for the number of people you will be serving.  In some cases, there is a high speed video that very quickly shows the entire process of preparing and cooking the recipe.  Finally, when you press the “Start Cooking” button you are guided through the preparation and cooking of the recipe including optional timers. 

A third app, the Food Network app, is easy to use and provides a wealth of content.  There are an abundance of videos that demonstrate different cooking and food preparation techniques.  There are also more recipes than could be counted.  While it is easy to send ingredients from a recipe to a shopping list, one missing feature is that you can’t adjust the quantity of ingredients by the number of people you will be serving. 

The app includes both a free tier and a premium (paid) tier.  For example, premium tier users have access to cooking classes.  Anyone can watch shows from Food Network through the app but the number of shows available to free tier users is limited compared to the shows available to premium tier users.  Finally, while each recipe includes complete instructions, guided cooking is only available to premium tier users.

All these apps offer valuable services to home chefs.  What they don’t provide is direct feedback during the cooking process.  For example, a recipe in an app might say to cook a piece of meat in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes.  What it can’t do is to monitor the temperature of the meat for you so it is cooked perfectly to your desired doneness. 

Dishwasher

The only smart technology that is practical to add to an existing dishwasher is a notification when the dishwasher finishes its cleaning cycle.  Unlike clothes being left in a clothes washer or clothes dryer, there isn’t any issue with leaving clean, dry dishes in the dishwasher for an extended period of time.  However, it is a convenience to know when the dishwasher is done cleaning so the dishes can be put away and the dishwasher is ready for the dirty dishes from the next meal

Because a dishwasher finishes its cleaning cycle by drying the dishes with an electrically driven heating element, it uses a large amount of electricity at the end of the cycle.  Therefore you can detect the end of cycle using the same technique as a clothes washer; with an energy monitoring smart plug. 

The Kasa HS110 energy monitoring smart plug with the Crestron automation processor module I wrote (available on my GitHub here: https://github.com/jbasen/TPLink-HS110) is a simple solution to add this feature to a Crestron outfitted smart home.  The source code for the module is included on my GitHub and can be used to port this capability to another smart home platform. 

The biggest challenge to using an energy monitoring smart plug to monitor a dishwasher is the installation of the smart plug.  Typically the outlet the dishwasher is plugged into is located behind the dishwasher and isn’t easily accessible.    The dishwasher needs to have its securing screws removed and to be slid out from its recess between kitchen cabinets to install the HS110.  It isn’t a difficult process but you need to be very careful not to scratch the kitchen floor or damage the water supply connection.

It is also important, before installing an HS110 to monitor a dishwasher, to make sure it can handle the dishwasher’s power load.  Most dishwashers require a 15 amp circuit and the HS110 is rated for this load.  However, it is important to double check that your dishwasher doesn’t require a 20 amp circuit.  If it does, then it is best to simply wait until you need a new dishwasher and choose one that includes a built in notification.

Hopefully, this installment on in the series of articles on obtaining the advantages of smart appliances without breaking the bank has provided some good options for the creating a smart kitchen. 

In two weeks the next in this series of articles will be published on ways to make your small appliances, and other devices in your home, smart.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Getting Smart Appliances without Breaking the Bank – Part 1


My latest blog post, “Getting Smart Appliances without Breaking the Bank – Part 1” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.

So you didn’t get an ensemble of shiny, new, smart major appliances (clothes washer, dryer, refrigerator, stove, etc.) for the holidays because you walked into your local big box store and got an immediate case of sticker shock.  Manufacturers are still charging a premium for smart appliances.  In addition, major appliances last for many years so it is hard to justify throwing away a perfectly good appliance just to get a few smart features.  But, according to a survey by the National Kitchen & Bath Association, 83% of consumers want smart appliances.

In this series of articles I’m going to explore ways to easily add key smart features to your existing major appliances.  The first article, in the series, will explore ways to make your clothes washer and dryer smart.  The second article, in the series, will explore ways to make your primary kitchen appliances smart.  Finally, the third article, in the series, will explore ways to make your small appliances, and other devices in your home, smart.

Laundry is a time consuming activity.  Getting all the laundry done as efficiently as possible can save a considerable amount of time.  Smart washers and dryers optimize the time it takes to do laundry by sending notifications to homeowners when their washer and dryer have finished their cleaning and drying cycles.  Not only does this optimize the time it takes to do laundry, it also allows a homeowner to accomplish tasks that take them out of earshot of the simple chime that a standard washer/dryer will play when they finish their cycles.

Logically it would make sense to first talk about ways to retrofit notification technology to a clothes washer.  Unfortunately, for a clothes washer, there isn’t a simple, off-the-shelf, solution.  So, instead, I will first discuss how to add this functionality to a dryer.  Then I will dive into the more complex topic of how to implement it in a clothes washer.

Clothes Dryer

Removing clothes from a dryer right after it has finished drying them isn’t just important to save time.  Clothes left in a dryer will become wrinkled.  They can become so wrinkled that they will require extensive ironing; wasting a lot more time. 

Fortunately, SmartDry, by Connected Life Labs, offers an easy to install solution.  SmartDry consists of a battery operated sensor, which attaches to the inside of your dryer with magnets, and a small hub that plugs into a nearby outlet.  The sensor communicates with the hub using Bluetooth and the hub connects to your home’s 2.4Ghz, Wi-Fi network.  It is important to note that SmartDry operates can be installed in either a gas or electric clothes dryer.

To monitor the operation of your dryer, the sensor measures temperature, humidity, and motion.  SmartDry will notify you when your dryer has finished its cycle, by monitoring the motion of the drum.  In addition, by monitoring the humidity in the dryer, it can also tell you when your clothes are dry, even though the dryer hasn’t finished its timed cycle.  This can potentially save you money by allowing you to remove your clothes from the dryer before its timed cycle is done. 

Installation is very simple.  After installing the app on your smart phone you are provided with on-screen instructions to walk you through the process.  One thing to keep in mind is that under iOS13 for the app to access Wi-Fi on your phone, you must provide permission for the app to access location services.  If you fail to give permission then the hub will not be connected to your Wi-Fi network and the system will not function properly.  The latest version of the app includes additional instruction to help make sure the homeowner doesn’t make this mistake.  Other than this, setup is very simple and straight forward.  It is important to note that once setup has been completed that once setup is complete access to location services can be turned off to protect privacy. 

Even though a battery in the sensor is expected to last a year in the average home, a second battery is included.  Also included is a tiny Phillips head screwdriver that is needed to open the battery compartment.

I was able to test an evaluation unit of SmartDry and overall it operated as expected.  I enabled notifications for delicate temperature alert. About ¾ of the way through my first drying cycle I received a delicate temperature alert that my dryer temperature was high.  This makes sense as the temperature in the dryer would have risen as the clothes dried and less energy was being used to evaporate the moisture in the wet clothes.  Then, during the dryer’s cool down cycle I received a notification that my clothes were dry.  Finally, when the dryer stopped spinning I received a final notification that dryer was done and my clothes were very dry.

The only anomaly was that my washer and dryer are very close together and share a common riser stand for storage underneath.  In addition, there is a slab of butcher block on top of them to create a work surface.  Both of these act as a mechanical coupling between the washer and dryer allowing vibrations from the washer to reach the dryer.  When my washer finished its high speed spin cycle I received a notification from the SmartDry sensor that my dryer had stopped and my clothes were dry.  I’ve made the folks at SmartDry aware of the problem and they are working to improve their algorithm for movement to better understand the difference between a spinning dryer drum and general vibration.  I can see this same issue impacting some people with a stacked washer/dryer.

There are some other areas where SmartDry could be improved.  First, notifications can only be sent to a single smart phone.  This is a real issue in homes where multiple people share the job of doing laundry.  The folks at Connected Life Labs are also aware of this issue and are working on a solution.

Second, initial versions of the sensor and hub were delivered in 3D printed, plastic enclosures.  This was highlighted in the early, online, reviews.  Now the product is delivered in professionally molded cases.  This evolution highlights that this is the first product of by a young company.  The user interface of the app also highlights this fact.  It is still very plain and basic.  A little work by a graphic designer would significantly improve it and provide additional evidence of the evolution of the organization.

Finally, every notification includes the sensor ID.  It would be much more user friendly if this could be replaced with a user entered description of their washer/dryer’s location.  These days many homes have multiple laundry locations.  For example a home might have a washer/dryer near the first floor master bedroom and a second appliance set on the second floor, near the remaining bedrooms.  Being able to include these descriptions in the notifications would make it much easier for homeowners to know which dryer has just finished.

Overall, SmartDry is an inexpensive tool for adding smart features to an existing clothes dryer.

Clothes Washer

Removing clothes from a washer right after it finishes its cleaning cycle is important to optimize the time it takes to do laundry.  In addition, one of the worst things that can happen when doing laundry is to forget that you started washing a load of clothes.  After a day, or so, the damp clothes in the washer will become a Petri dish for mold and mildew; possibly ruining the clothes. 

To date, I haven’t found any off-the-shelf, smart devices dedicated to detecting when a clothes washer finishes its wash cycle.  The folks at SmartDry have shared with me that they are working on a product to do this (no release date is available at this time).  Until that time I can offer two potential solutions.

First, for smart homes based on a Crestron automation processor I have written a module for a TP-Link HS110 energy monitoring smart plug.  The washer is simply plugged into the smart plug and the module will monitor the energy used by the washer.  The high speed spin at the end of a wash cycle (which uses much more power than any other aspect of the wash cycle) is used to determine when the washing is done.  The module can be connected with other logic in the Crestron programming to send a notification to the homeowner.

The code for this module can be downloaded from my GitHub here: https://github.com/jbasen/TPLink-HS110.  The source code for the module is included so people can port this to the smart home platform of their choice.  It should be noted that the API used by the module is well documented on the Internet but NOT supported by TP-Link. 

Another way to leverage the TP-Link HS110 energy monitoring smart plug to monitor your clothes washer is to combine it with a Sense, whole house, energy monitor.  This provides a reliable way to monitor the operation of your washer and receive notifications when it has completed cleaning a load of clothes. 

Providing notifications when your clothes washer finishes cleaning a load of clothes isn’t the primary purpose of a whole house energy monitor.  However, it is a workable solution and will provide many other benefits to a homeowner.  You can read more about the Sense energy monitor in previous articles I wrote here and here.


Another solution, available for SmartThings users, is to attach a SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor to their washer and to load the laundry monitor SmartApp onto their hub.  The SmartApp can be found here. 

The Multipurpose Sensor senses vibration and the smart app can be used to send a notification to the homeowner when the washer stops running.  Unfortunately, the logic for doing this can be challenging for a couple of reasons.

  1. The SmartApp requires you to enter the amount of time it takes for your washer to fill with water.  Today’s high efficiency washers only use as much water as is necessary to wash the amount of clothes that are loaded into the washer.  So, the amount of time required to fill the washer will change depending on how big a load of laundry is being washed.
  2. The SmartApp needs to know how many cycles the washer requires to clean your clothes.  Many homeowners use different wash settings, with a different number of cycles, depending on what clothes they are washing. 

For these reasons the SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor with the laundry monitor SmartApp may not be a reliable solution for every homeowner.  However, the Multipurpose Sensor is available for less than $20. If you already have a SmartThings hub, then experimenting with a Multipurpose Sensor might provide a workable solution for you and doesn’t require a significant investment.

Making your clothes dryer smart with SmartDry is simple, easy, and inexpensive.  The folks at Connected Life Labs are working on a similar product for clothes washers that will be available sometime in 2020.  Unfortunately, there currently isn’t an ideal, off-the-shelf solution, for making a clothes washer smart.

In two weeks the next in this series of articles will be published on ways to make your existing kitchen appliances smart.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Smart Water Management Solutions from Phyn


My latest blog post, “Smart Water Management Solutions from Phyn” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over one trillion gallons of water is wasted every year due to leaks in homes.  A leaky faucet that drips only a single drip of water per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons in a single year.  While a dripping faucet is easy to spot in a home, other leaks can go un-noticed and:

  • Significantly impact a homeowner’s water bill
  • Lead to the growth of toxic mold in a home
  • Cause thousands of dollars in damage

Phyn, a company focused on smart water solutions, is a joint venture of Belkin and Uponor.  While Belkin is a well known manufacturer of smart home solutions, including their Wemo line of smart products, Uponor is a less well known brand to consumers.  Uponor is a 100+ year old manufacturer of plumbing pipes and fixtures.  They are a leader in the manufacture of Pex; the plastic piping that is used in a majority of new homes built today. 

Phyn Plus Smart Water Assistant + Shutoff



In 2018 Phyn released the Phyn Plus Smart Water Assistant + Shutoff.  The designers at Phyn understood that a device used to detect leaks and track water usage needed to be maintenance free and extremely reliable.  So, they chose high definition ultrasonic sensors for measuring flow that had no moving parts to wear out.  Again, for reliability, Phyn included a shutoff valve in the Phyn Plus so water flow to the entire home can be halted when a leak is detected; minimizing the damage it might cause. 

The Phyn Plus’s ultrasonic flow sensors are manufactured by Badger Meter, a world leader in flow measurement.  In fact, many towns use Badger Meter’s products to monitor residential water usage for utility billing.  The sensor used in the Phyn Plus is capable of sensing a leak as small as .01 gallons-per-minute.  The machine learning behind the Phyn Plus’s ultrasonic sensor allows it to distinguish between normal water usage and a leak.

The original Phyn Plus had two, one-inch, threaded, male, plumbing connections which can easily be adapted to most residential water lines.  Newly announced at CES 2020 is the Phyn XL series which includes the Phyn XL 1.5” and Phyn XL 2”.  These two new products extend Phyn’s sophisticated technology to larger homes, new construction and light commercial properties with supply lines up to 2”

Phyn Plus is installed on the incoming water line to the home so when the shutoff valve closes it turns off the flow of water to the entire home.  The Phyn Plus’s enclosure is weatherproof so it can even be installed outside of the home.  It is important to note that Phyn Plus needs to be installed within fifteen feet of an electrical outlet and that it requires a connection to a 2.4 GHz, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi network.  To simplify placement of Phyn Plus it includes two internal WiFi antennas but there is also a port to connect an external WiFi antenna in the case where there isn’t a strong enough WiFi signal where the Phyn Plus needs to be installed.

Once installed, the Phyn Plus is connected to the home’s WiFi network using the free Phyn app.  The Phyn app is available on both the Apple and Google Play app stores. 

While Phyn Plus can be installed by a homeowner, professional installation is recommended.  Phyn offers installation through the Uponor Pro Squad, a network of specially trained plumbers.  When installed by Uponor Pro Squad, Phyn offers:

  • A home protection guarantee where Phyn will cover a homeowner’s insurance deductible (up to $3000) for damages where Phyn Plus didn’t detect a leak
  • An extension to the two year warranty on Phyn Plus to three years

In addition to automatically shutting off the water in a home when a leak is detected, it will send push notifications to phones with the Phyn app installed and optionally send SMS text messages to selected individuals. 

Phyn Plus has several other features to help homeowners avoid plumbing problems:

  • Phyn Plus runs daily plumbing checks to detect more difficult to find plumbing problems.  By shutting off the Phyn Plus’s built in valve for a few minutes the pressure sensor can detect much smaller, pin-hole leaks. 
  • Phyn Plus’s pressure sensor is also used to detect high water pressure; which can damage plumbing fixtures over time.
  • Phyn Plus can warn a homeowner of the potential for a frozen, burst pipe before it happens.  By combining measurements from Phyn Plus’s pressure sensor and temperature sensor it can detect the formation of ice crystals inside the pipes in a home and will notify a homeowner before they grow to the point where a pipe could burst.

The sensor chosen by Phyn measures the pressure in a plumbing system 240 times per second.  Pressure changes as a fixture is turned on, during the flow of water to the fixture, and as the fixture is turned off are precise enough to develop unique signatures. Through these signatures, and machine learning, the Phyn Plus can even learn to attribute water usage to different fixtures in a home.  For example, a homeowner will be able to see how much water is being used for showers, washing clothes, or watering the lawn.  And, while some other competing products charge a monthly subscription fee for this type of usage monitoring, Phyn offers it for free. 

Again, through machine learning, the Phyn Plus will notify a homeowner if it detects abnormal water usage.  If a homeowner starts filling a bathtub and gets interrupted by a phone call it could result in a flooded bathroom and thousands of dollars in damages.  Phyn Plus will notify the homeowner when it detects any abnormal water usage.

Through the Phyn app a homeowner can leverage the sensors in the Phyn Plus to monitor how much water they are using on a monthly, daily, and even on an hourly basis. 

The Phyn Plus integrates with Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT.  Alexa and Google Assistant integration allows a homeowner to use voice commands to turn their water on/off and to make inquiries about their water usage. 

IFTTT integration allows homeowner’s to integrate Phyn Plus with third party automation processors/hubs and connected security systems.  This allows a homeowner to, for example,

  • Automatically turn off the water in their home when their smart home system detects they have left the home and neither their connected dishwasher or clothes washer is running
  • Automatically turn the water in their home back on when they arrive
  • Automatically turn the water off in their home when a water sensor attached to an integrated alarm system detects a leak.  While the Phyn Plus would eventually detect this leak, a water sensor, for example, placed underneath a tank style hot water heater could detect a pinhole leak in the water heater sooner.

Phyn has now also released the Phyn Smart Water Assistant.  It is a DIY solution aimed at consumers who want Smart Water monitoring but, may not be quite ready to jump into the deep end with a solution requiring a plumber and cutting through the main water supply line to the home.   

Phyn Smart Water Assistant


The “Plus” in Phyn Plus refers to the included shutoff valve.  This valve is omitted from the company’s new Phyn Smart Water Assistant.  A second key difference between the two products is that the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is designed to be installed by a homeowner.  It easily is installed, under any sink that uses industry standard 3/8” plumbing connections.   It is important to note that, unlike the Phyn Plus, the Phyn Smart Water Assistant also requires that a pressure regulating valve (PRV) be installed on the home’s main water supply line, unless the home gets water from a well.  Many, but not all, homes have a PRV installed during construction but it is important for a homeowner to check before purchasing a Phyn Smart Water Assistant.  The PRV helps to isolate the home from pressure changes caused by events outside the home and allows the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to associate any small pressure changes it measures with the use of water at different fixtures in the home.

To install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant a homeowner would:

  1. Plug in the Phyn Smart Water Assistant and connect it to the home’s WiFi network using the Phyn app installed on a smart phone
  2. Turn off the water supply lines valves at the sink where the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will be installed
  3. Unscrew the existing flexible hoses that connect the faucets to the water supply line valves
  4. Screw the two Phyn Smart Water Assistant pressure sensors to the water supply valves
  5. Screw the flexible lines, removed in step three, onto the Phyn Smart Water Assistant pressure sensors
  6. Turn the water supply line valves back on and check for leaks
  7. Mount the Phyn device to the side of the sink cabinet
  8. Plug the Phyn Smart Water Assistant into an outlet under the sink

Phyn provides a video that demonstrates the complete installation process.  While the process may be very simple, the challenge for many homeowners will be that, with the exception of the kitchen sink where a garbage disposal is installed, most homes don’t have power outlets under their sinks. 

If you decide to install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant under your kitchen sink, you have to remember that many homes have dual, side by side, kitchen sinks and a garbage disposal installed.  With all this plumbing beneath a kitchen sink it may be challenging, though definitely not impossible, for a homeowner to install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant there.  If a homeowner wants to install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant below a different sink in their home, they will probably need to contact an electrician to install an outlet beneath that sink because there are specific electrical codes that must be followed for outlets in a potentially wet location.  Fortunately, the hourly rate for an electrician to make a house call is significantly lower than the hourly rate for a plumberJ. 

The Phyn Smart Water Assistant uses the same pressure sensing technology as the Phyn Plus to measure water flow in a home.  It also uses the same machine learning to:

  • Differentiate between leaks and normal water usage
  • Assign that water usage to specific fixtures in a home. 

The obvious downside of the Phyn Smart Water Assistant, when compared to the Phyn Plus, is that it doesn’t include a shutoff valve.  There are two potential solutions to this problem.

1.      Install an app controlled actuator that clamps to an existing, manual, shutoff valve in a home.  When the homeowner receives a notification from Phyn that a leak has been detected they can use the actuator app to turn off the water supply to their home
2.      Install an actuator that clamps to an existing, manual, shutoff valve in a home that can be integrated with a smart home hub or directly with IFTTT.  Then uses the Phyn IFTTT channel to trigger the actuator to shut off the water supply to the home.

A number of different water valve actuators are available on Amazon for prices under $100.

The Phyn Smart Water Assistant is being sold exclusively through Best Buy Stores.  However, Phyn provided me with an evaluation unit to test.

Hands on with the Phyn Smart Water Assistant

Installation of the Phyn Smart Water Assistant wasn’t difficult but certainly took longer than the manufacturer’s 20 minute estimate.  The actual installation process went very smoothly but working in the confined space, inside a cabinet, underneath a sink is a bit of a challenge. 

The Phyn app makes the installation process as easy as possible.  The app provides both step-by-step instructions and an installation video to help with the process.  The app also provides a complete list of all the tools you will need so these can be collected beforehand.

As soon as the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is installed you can perform a plumbing check to validate there are no current leaks in your home.  First you need to manually shut off the main water valve to your home.  Then, you initiate the check with the Phyn app.  After a short period of time the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will report back as to whether it detected any leaks in your home.

Very soon after installing the Phyn Smart Water Assistant you will find “water events” appearing in the Phyn App’s activity monitor.  This is a log of the water usage in your home with Phyn’s machine learning algorithms best guess as to what fixture in your home the water was used at.  Over time the Phyn’s machine learning algorithm will learn to associate these water events with the fixtures in a home.  However, a homeowner can also speed up the learning process three ways:

  1. If the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning hasn’t correctly associated the water usage event with the correct fixture then the homeowner can edit the event and change it.  For example the Phyn Smart Water Assistant might think water from a toilet being flushed was from a faucet being turned on.  In that case the homeowner can edit the event so the machine learning algorithm learns that the water usage signature is really associated with a toilet being flushed.

  1. If Phyn Smart Water Assistant correctly identifies the fixture where water was used then the homeowner can press the small, grey Phyn icon to the right of the event in the app; turning it blue.  This confirms to the Phyn Smart Water Assistant that it correctly identified the fixture.

  1. The user can edit the water usage event to correlate it with the specific fixture in the home where water was used.  For example, a homeowner could edit an event and change it to the master bath toilet instead of simply associating it with a toilet in the home. 

The Sense Energy Monitor, that I’ve written about previously, and the Phyn Smart Water Assistant use the same underlying signature technology to respectively identify the devices using electricity and the fixtures where water is used in a home.  However, how a homeowner helps the machine learning attribute a signature with a specific device/fixture is very different.  In the case of Sense it can take weeks, or even months, before a homeowner receives a notification that Sense has identified a device that uses electricity in their home.  The homeowner then sets up notification as to when the device turns on/off to help figure out which device it is.  Finally the homeowner uses the app to provide a label for the device. 

For example, after setting up notifications for a newly identified device the homeowner might notice the reception of a power on notification when a new load of laundry was placed in the clothes dryer.  The homeowner can then validate that they received a notification that the device turned off when the dryer finishes its drying cycle.  The homeowner can then use the Sense app to label that device “the dryer” and turn off receiving notifications when the device turns on/off.  The weeks, and even months, it can take for Sense to identify devices has lead to frustration among some Sense users. 

The Phyn Smart Water Assistant, on the other hand, starts identifying water usage activity immediately and logs this activity in the Phyn app.  A homeowner can then either help the machine learning algorithms learn to associate usage with the individual fixtures in their home or simply give the machine learning algorithms time to learn it on their own. 

In either case it will take time for the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to learn to correctly associate water usage with the fixtures in a home.  A user can expect for the Phyn Smart Water assistant to take a solid month before real improvement in detection can be noticed. 

It should also be noted that it can be challenging to train the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning algorithms.  Background water users, such as an ice maker, can be difficult to identify.  Similarly a dishwasher or clothes washer is going to cycle on/off multiple times and someone may flush a toilet at the same time one of those appliances is running.  While the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will eventually learn to properly identify these “overlapping” events but you can help the process along by editing the water events in the Phyn app. If you do take the step to help the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning algorithms by editing water events, it is very important to correctly identify the fixture being used.  Otherwise the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will learn to associate that water event with the wrong plumbing fixture.

After a few weeks of training, the Phyn Smart Water assistant got better at identifying the correct fixture where water was use.  Not perfect, but better.

I integrated Phyn with my existing smart home processor using IFTTT.  The integration was very simple and it allowed me to:

1.      Create my own, weekly plumbing checks.  I would close my existing motorized water shutoff valve, trigger Phyn to perform a plumbing check through IFTTT, and after a suitable delay open the motorized water shutoff valve again. 
2.      Create an IFTTT applet that would trigger my smart home processor to close my existing motorized water shutoff valve if the Phyn detected a water leak

Performing these actions through IFTTT isn’t as failsafe as having a Phyn Plus.  However, it does get you close to the same functionality if you already have a motorized water shutoff valve installed, or an actuator attached to your existing manual shutoff valve.

Areas for Improvement

While the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is a good product, because it is new to the market there are lots of ways it could be improved.

1) Unfortunately, the Phyn Smart Water Assistant doesn’t include any way to directly trigger a smart home processor / hub, or an alarm panel, without making a trip through the Internet, to IFTTT, and back.  So, an Internet outage could defeat the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s ability to trigger an actuator to shut off the water supply to a home.  A simple set of dry contacts, which would close when a leak was detected, could be wired to a smart home processor / hub or an alarm panel and directly trigger a water shutoff valve to close.  This would allow owners of the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to have the same assurance that a leak wasn’t causing damage to their homes as owners of the Phyn Plus. 

2) Similarly, the Phyn Plus doesn’t include a way, other than through IFTTT, of integrating water sensors.  These could be placed in locations where there is the highest probability of a leak occurring.  They could speed up the process of a leak being detected and the water being shut off to minimize damages.  Some locations that are at the highest risk of a leak occurring are under a clothes washer, dish washer, toilets, and under tank style hot water heater.

3) While not required, I tried to speed up the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning process by identifying as many water usage events as possible.  However, it takes several minutes for water usage events to show up in the activity monitor.  While Because of this delay I found that I had to keep a separate written log that I would later reconcile with the data in the activity monitor.  It would have been much simpler if water usage events had immediately shown up in the app so everyone in my family could have just pulled out their smart phones after using water and updated the activity monitor directly.  I think this would also provided more accurate training of the Phyn’s machine learning algorithms then trying to reconcile a written log later in the day.

4) There are lots of fixtures that rarely get used in a home – laundry sink, guest bath, outdoor hose connections, etc.  Once Phyn has identified the commonly used fixtures in a home it would be nice to get a notification when a new, unknown, fixture is detected so the homeowner can help to integrate use of this fixture into Phyn’s machine learning algorithms.

5) There are fixtures in a home that use water in the background, such as an ice maker built into a refrigerator, a  whole house humidifier, and a whole house water softener; to name a few.  It is very difficult for a homeowner to help train Phyn’s machine learning algorithms to recognize these fixtures because the homeowner doesn’t know when they are actively using water.   Instead of just relying on homeowners to train Phyn to recognize water usage, a hybrid approach that combines a similar approach to the one that Sense, might be better.  For example, if Phyn’s machine learning algorithms developed a recognition signature for a fixture that the homeowner hadn’t trained it to recognize, then it could start sending notifications to the homeowner when this fixture turned on/off.  Then homeowner might notice, for example, that the furnace was running every time there was a notification.  Then this usage could be associated with a whole house humidifier that is connected to the furnace. 

6) One thing that Phyn doesn’t offer to owners of the Phyn Plus or Phyn Smart Water Assistant is a community for users that allows them to:

·         Share water saving tips
·         Collaborate on product enhancements and suggestions

A community would allow Phyn users to go beyond simple usage data to fulfill the overall goal of Phyn; to help people save water.

7) Because the Phyn Smart Water Assistant isn’t installed on the main water line coming into a home it can only estimate the amount of water being used while the Phyn Plus can provide a precise measurement.  This makes it more difficult for a homeowner with the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to really understand how changing behaviors can help them save water.  For example, how can a homeowner use the data from the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to tell if it is better to hand wash dishes vs. running a partial load of dishes in the dishwasher when they can only see a range of water usage in the Phyn app?  An add-on, ultrasonic, flow sensor that clamps to the main water line coming into the home and provides precise flow measurements to the Phyn Smart Water Assistant would solve this problem.  This could be offered as an optional accessory to the product for people who want the added accuracy and are focused on using the product for optimizing their water usage; not just as a leak detector.

8) The water usage information that is provided by the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is very useful.  However, to be more proactive at saving water the product really could use programmable notifications.  For example, it would be great to create a notification so if the shower in the bathroom used by a teenager lasts longer than 10 minutes you can knock on the door and tell them they are clean enough.  Or, if it is the winter time and any water is detected flowing from an outdoor hose spigot you can get a notification and immediately check out what the problem could be. 

9) I’d like to see integration with local water utilities.  Then a Phyn Plus or Phyn Smart Water Assistant user can simply enter their zip code and the cost of water can be integrated into the usage reports in the Phyn App.

10) The Phyn Smart Water Assistant and the Sense Energy Monitor each provide one piece of a homeowner’s use of outside resources.  I would really like to see:
a) The development of a similar product for natural gas usage
b) A partnership so a homeowner can understand the total cost of activities in their home.  For example when washing clothes, how much water was used, how much did the electricity cost to run the clothes washer, and how much did the natural gas cost to heat the water.

11) The Phyn app doesn’t support landscape mode.  While this isn’t a big deal on a phone it is a pain on a tablet; especially when the case for your tablet has an integrated keyboard. 

Conclusions

Overall the Phyn Plus and Phyn Smart Water Assistant are valuable resources for a home.  Clean water is becoming more, and more, of a valuable and scare resource.  It is also becoming more, and more, expensive.  A plumbing issue, as simple as a leaking toilet flapper valve, can waste up to 200 gallons of water in a single day.  A dripping faucet can waste up to 3000 gallons of water in a year.  Not only can these devices from Phyn protect a homeowner from extensive damage to their home from leaks but they can help save a huge volume of a valuable natural resource; clean, fresh water.

In addition, CEPro has identified water and plumbing integration as one of the top five technology trends for 2020.  Phyn Plus and the Phyn Smart Water Assistant can be valuable tools for integrators to take advantage of this trend.