Monday, February 4, 2019

In the Era of Alexa and Google Home, why Josh?


My latest blog post, “In the Era of Alexa and Google Home, why Josh?” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/joshai/

Below is a copy of the article.
Alexa and Google Home are inexpensive solutions to adding voice control to an automation system.  Given this, one has to wonder why anyone would use Josh, from Josh.ai, instead.  To answer this question I spoke with Nader Dajani, head of business development at Josh.ai. 

Nader explained that Alexa’s primary role is to increase Amazon’s revenue by selling you stuff.  Google Home’s primary role is to collect information about you so Google can do a better job targeting you with advertising.  Josh’s primary role is to control your smart home.  Because of this, Josh has a broader understanding of commands to control a home.  For example, Amazon decided that to add a new skill to your Alexa device you would use the keyword “open”.  Their decision to reserve the word “open” for skills conflicts with using it to intuitively control drapes, shades, an overhead garage door, a motorized window, and more.  So, instead of simply saying “Alexa, open the garage door”, you have to:

  1. Remember the specific hardware that was installed to control your garage door, i.e. Nexx
  2. Remember the skill that was associated with it
  3. And, say “Alexa, tell Nexx Garage to open door”.

The more unique devices added to a smart home the more complex it becomes and the harder the home is to control by voice. 

Josh goes further in trying to simplify how people control their home with voice commands.  A challenge, which I have talked about in other posts, is that different people in a household may refer to a room, or device, differently.  When you enter a home from the garage of a home and that room also houses the washer and dryer is the room called the “mudroom” or the “laundry room”?  Josh includes the ability to create aliases for any room or device so different people can call the room, or device, with whatever term makes sense to them.  Nader also talked a situation where Josh would periodically misunderstand when one customer said “foyer” and would interpret it as “for you”.  The addition of “for you” as an alias for “foyer” quickly solved the problem.

However, because Josh is dedicated to smart home control there are things you give up compared to Alexa and Google Home.  For example, Josh can answer general queries that can be answered by searching the Internet.  But, you can’t order an Uber, synch with your calendar, or perform other “concierge” services.

Josh can also be installed both as a front end for other control systems (Crestron, Control4, Savant) or as a standalone system.  On its own, Josh can control products from Lutron, Sonos, Nest, and more.  However, if, for example, you want to control a distributed audio/video system with a large matrix switcher you are going to need to a back end control system with Josh acting as the voice control interface.

Another important thing to know about Josh is that providing voice control of smart devices in a home is just the first step in the company’s plans.  Josh.ai’s goal is to provide advanced AI to so the Josh can anticipate people’s needs based on how they use the home and take actions to help them before they realize they need assistance.

The first example of this is recommendations that are available in the Josh App.  For example, the Josh app might inform a homeowner “five lights have been left on in the dining room, should I turn them off for you?”  This isn’t to say that Josh isn’t going to have competition in this space.  Amazon has recently rolled out Alexa Hunches that work very similarly. 

Finally, cost is another difference.  Amazon and Google’s devices can easily be purchased for under $100.  Josh.ai doesn’t publish prices but it will cost a good deal more and is only available through dealers.  There is both a hardware cost for the Josh micro microphone/processor/speakers and a software licensing cost based on the size of the home being automated.

Is Josh. worth it?  That depends on the price you are willing to pay for convenience, simplicity, and a company focused on providing advanced AI capabilities in their product.  Using Josh for smart home control with Sonos One speakers, that can also accept Alexa voice commands to provide additional functionality, is a perfect match for the customer with the financial resources to afford the best.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Focals Smart Glasses


It isn’t always practical to stare at your phone or tablet, for example, when you are quickly walking down a busy sidewalk, trying to make it to an important client meeting on time.  But, if you don’t keep up with your messages you are going to miss the one that tells you that the place of the meeting has been changed to a location two blocks in the other direction.  You could keep looking at your phone or smart watch, but that will result in your tripping over a crack in the sidewalk or bumping into the elderly person walking slowly in front of you.  All of this could be eliminated with a set of smart eyeglasses that displayed messages directly in front of your eye so you can see your messages and keep watch on what is in front of you at the same time.

Google Glass was a great first attempt at a pair of smart eyeglasses.  Unfortunately, Google’s choice of styling the eyeglasses as something out of a sci-fi movie relegated them to people who didn’t mind looking like the ultimate geek.  In addition, including a camera that recorded everything raised significant privacy concerns.

Learning from these mistakes North (www.bynorth.com) has developed a new generation of smart eyeglasses that addresses these shortcomings called Focals.  First, and foremost, North has done as much as possible to hide, from the casual observer, that these are smart eyeglasses.  The giveaway is that the temples of the eyeglasses are larger than normal to accommodate the electronics and the tiny projector that displays the image on the inside of the lens for viewing.  That being said, someone with longer hair could easily hide the oversized temples from view.  The remainder of the eyeglasses frames are, by design, very normal looking.

Focals include custom software, written on top of the Android operating system, which allows the wearer to:

  • View their calendar.
  • View and replying to text messages.
  • View the weather forecast.
  • Navigate to a location with turn by turn directions
  • Play Music
  • And more.

The wearer controls the eyeglasses through a ring, worn on their finger, with a built in joystick.  This eliminates the giveaway that you are wearing smart eyeglasses of controlling them through swiping along the outside of the eyeglass’s temple.

At this point you are probably saying, this sounds pretty cool but what has it got to do with smart homes.  Let me explain. 

The Focals link, through Bluetooth, to the wearer’s smart phone and use this link to access the Internet.  This is critical because the Focals also include Alexa voice control.  An extended press of the ring’s joystick triggers the eyeglasses to accept voice commands.  This allows the wearer to control IoT devices in their home from anywhere their phone can connect to the Internet.

Embedding Alexa voice control into a wearable has a significant advantage over smart speaker. It eliminates the need to yell across the room to a series of far field microphones; which any smart speaker user will tell you can be frustrating. 

Unfortunately, similarly to the Amazon Echo, Amazon Show, Google Home Hub, etc. the Focals cannot display or announce information generated by the smart home processor / hub.  In fact, one of the significant limitations of the Focals, with respect to the smart home, is that the only way to send any kind of information to the wearer from a smart home processor / hub is to send a text message to the wearer.  For example, if you home security system detects a break-in, the only way to inform you of the event is to send a text message; which could get lost among all the other text messages a person receives.  Hopefully, future software enhancements to the Focals will address this limitation.  An IFTTT service that allows recipes to send messages to the eyeglasses would be a welcome addition.

If you are thinking about running out to your optometrist to purchase a set of Focals you are in for a disappointment.  Focals are custom fitted and built for each individual user.  Currently this service is only available at the company’s two showrooms.  The first is in Toronto, Canada and the second in Brooklyn, New York.  Price for the frames is $999 USD.

Focals are a significant step forward in wearable tech and provide, yet, another reason for smart homes to include voice control.
In two weeks my next topic will be " In the time of Alexa and Google Home, why Josh?"
Thanks for reading.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Does an Energy Monitor Really Add Value to a Smart Home?


My latest blog post, “Does an Energy Monitor Really Add Value to a Smart Home?” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/does-an-energy-monitor-really-add-value-to-a-smart-home/

Below is a copy of the article.


I added an energy monitor to my electrical panel almost 10 years ago.  The unit monitors the total energy being consumed as well as the energy used by a number of individual circuits.  To be honest I found the information it provided to be of marginal value.  What it does offer is:

1)      If you look at the amount of power your home is using when you don’t have any major appliances running it gives you a picture of the baseline energy used. This is also referred to as “vampire” power as it is the power sucked up by always on devices when they are in standby mode.
2)      You can individually turn on appliances to see the energy used by the individual appliance.  This allows you to make changes to your behavior to save energy.  For example, how much energy does it take to run your air conditioner?  If you set back your thermostat whenever you aren’t home that can lead to a significant energy savings.
3)      I was able to analyze the data on the energy used by my clothes washer, clothes dryer, and dishwasher.  I then programmed my automation system to send me notifications when these appliances finished their cycles.  No more worries of forgetting that there was a load of laundry in the washer and finding it several days later after mold had started to grow or ending up with totally wrinkled clothes after forgetting the clothes were in the dryer.

Getting notifications when appliances end their cycles is a real convenience.  It also saves you hundreds of dollars by not having to step up to the added cost of a “smart” appliance.  However, I found the process of trying to save money on my electrical bill by analyzing the power usage by my individual appliances to be of little value.  There are many web sites that give you information on ways to save energy. For example, you can use a smart thermostat and set it back when your home isn’t occupied and at night.  You don’t need an energy monitor to follow these recommendations. 

But, this was the state of the art 10 years ago and technology hasn’t stood still.  I thought it was time to look at the current state of the art energy monitors to see how things have changed;

·         To see if the devices offered homeowners value

·         To see how the devices could be integrated with a smart home processor/hub to provide additional capabilities to the smart home system

·         Whether installing these devices and integrating them with a customer’s smart home was a viable business offering for integrators.

Here is what I found.


The CURB energy monitor system was released in 2015 after 4 years of development.  On the surface, it looks like a traditional energy monitor with two current transformers (CT’s) that snap around the primary power leads in an electrical box and smaller CT’s that can be used to monitor up to sixteen individual circuits.  While this is very similar to the old energy monitor I have used in my own home; there is much more to it than that. 

As with other modern energy monitors there is both a smart phone app and a web based utility for viewing power usage.  Energy usage and cost can be viewed for each circuit monitored by the CURB energy monitor.  A bar graph view is especially useful for seeing the impact when an appliance is turned on.  Through this family members can be educated on the direct impact to their utility bill when, for example, a TV is turned on.

Using CT’s to monitor the individual circuits in a home provides a very accurate picture of the energy being used.  Measurements are not subject to discrepancies from noise on the power lines or software trying to differentiate signatures of different devices that may be turned on at the same time.  Energy usage is measured, by the CURB energy monitor, 8000 times per second and uploaded to the cloud once per second.  The CURB cloud keeps this data indefinitely.  But, over time, to save storage, the granularity of the data is reduced.

I spoke with Erik Norwood, CEO of CURB.  Erik moved from a career at Boeing Aerospace to the solar industry.  He then decided to focus on a major problem faced by society, wasted energy, and founded CURB.  Erik’s focus is to help people understand how energy is used in their home so they can take definitive steps to reduce the waste.  CURB goes beyond just reporting to homeowners how energy is used in their homes.  The software behind the CURB energy monitor can take definitive steps on its own to reduce a customer’s usage of energy. 

Through the Curb app, a monthly budget can be set for the family’s electrical bill.  CURB makes it easy to calculate the cost of the electricity that the CURB monitor detects is being used.  The homeowner only needs to enter their zip code, select their power provider, and finally select their utility plan.  CURB then takes care of implementing the proper electricity usage schedule including the changing rates that may occur depending on the time of day and time of year that energy is consumed.  With this information, the CURB system will send reminders as the family approaches the amount budged for their monthly utility bill so the family can make changes to their usage behavior and keep within their financial plan. 

CURB was developed with an API to integrate with 3rd party systems.  The first smart home implementation of this integration is with a Samsung, SmartThings hub.  Through CURB’s understanding of:

  • The cost of a family’s energy
  • How it is being used in a home

The CURB software can, for example, set back a SmartThings connected thermostat during the middle of a summer day, when electricity cost is at its highest, to reduce the family’s electrical bill.  On the other hand, if a solar generation system is reducing the cost of that energy, CURB’s decision making software would maximize the family’s comfort by leaving the thermostat set point in place.

CURB provides further information to help users reduce their energy bill through weekly emails.  The email highlights the five highest energy users in the customer’s home over the last week.  Additionally, by comparing energy usage with similar homes that are using CURB energy monitors, the email also includes recommendations for changes the homeowners can make to reduce their energy consumption.  For example, a homeowner may have an older model pool pump that runs continuously; using a large amount of power.  By comparing the power the pump is using with other homes, the weekly email might suggest that the homeowner replace the pump with a newer, more energy efficient model.

The integration with SmartThings is leveraged in additional ways.  If a smart outlet that includes energy sensing capabilities is integrated with the homeowner’s SmartThings hub, the CURB energy monitor can use the data from the outlet to provide more granular data measurement than a CT in the electrical box monitoring an entire circuit can provide.  For example, a typical circuit in a home might include all the outlets in a kitchen.  By plugging a toaster oven into a smart outlet the CURB energy monitor will report, and track, the usage of the toaster oven as if it was on its own circuit.  Alerts can even be configured to inform the homeowner if the toaster oven is accidentally left on; which could cause a fire.

SmartThings integration also allows homeowners to leverage all the features of the SmartThings app to, for example, set up notifications when a device, such as the dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer, finishes their cycles.  Knowing when these devices are done is a great convenience for the homeowner. 

SmartThings is just the first integration with a smart home system that CURB has undertaken.  According to Erik Norwood, they are planning to add additional integrations in future.

While CURB does sell their energy monitor directly to consumers through their web site, their primary focus is to sell through channel partners that offer energy services to homeowners.  For example, a CURB partner may use the data collected by the CURB energy monitor as part of a data driven energy audit where they can help the customer make changes to their homes that will have a meaningful impact on their energy bills.

All in all, the CURB energy monitor is a comprehensive system that can truly help people reduce energy waste and save money on their electrical bills.



 I spoke with Mike Phillips, CEO of Sense.  Mike is graduate and research scientist of MIT and Carnegie Mellon.  He has also founded several other startups.  Mike sees Sense as the intersection of energy monitoring and the smart home.  “There is a big difference between the homeowner controlling their home vs. knowing in detail what is happening in it.  Sense provides the homeowner with that knowledge”

The Sense energy monitor is designed very differently from the Curb monitor.  It uses only one set of CT’s; which attach to the service mains and monitor the energy used in the home.  Beyond that, Sense just needs to be connected to an unused 240v circuit breaker to supply power to the unit and to measure the voltage being supplied by the power company.  This simple installation can typically be accomplished in 15-30 minutes by an electrician. 

Sense does not include CT’s to attach to individual circuits.  Instead Sense monitors how energy is used in the home and identifies separate devices by their unique energy usage signature.  To create these signatures Sense samples current and voltage 1 million times per second.  This high rate of speed is necessary to accurately create signatures for individual devices.  For example, the energy used by the heating element in an oven changes in the first few milliseconds of use as the element transitions from cold to hot.  This pattern of energy usage is what the Sense energy monitor measures to uniquely identify an oven from other devices in a home.  Sense will track when devices are used, how much power they use, and save this data in the form of a timeline.  Using the Sense app a homeowner can see the timeline, total energy used by devices, which ones are on, how often devices are used, cost per month to operate a device, and more.

Unfortunately, unlike the Curb energy monitor, a user can only enter a single value for the cost of their electricity.  Sense does not handle the complex rate structures used by many utility companies.  This means that the reports on energy cost generated through the Sense mobile, or web, app will be approximations of a homeowner’s actual bill but won’t be precise.

In addition, the Sense app allows the homeowner to set goals for overall energy usage, always on usage, and solar production.  The homeowner would then receive notifications if they exceed their goal, or are trending to exceed it.  This can help a family stay within their budget by cutting back on optional energy usage, such as different family members watching TV in multiple rooms at the same time.

The Sense app also allows the homeowner to set alerts for individual devices.  Alerts can be sent for:

  1. When a device turns on
  2. When a device turns off
  3. When a device has been on for longer that a set period of time

As I have done in my own home, alerts when the clothes washer, clothes dryer, and dishwasher finish their cycles are very useful.  An alert when the oven, iron, or coffee maker are left on too long, for example, are a significant safety feature of the Sense.  If these devices are plugged into a smart outlet that is integrated with Sense the homeowner can even shut them off remotely from the Sense app.

The Sense energy monitor’s ability to detect devices through their energy signature shows how much things have changed since I purchased my old energy monitor years ago.  However, this functionality isn’t perfect.  Devices don’t operate at independent times.  A refrigerator, chest freezer, HVAC system, and others turn on/off independently and can all be operating at the same time.  Add to that, other devices in the home that may be used randomly such as an oven, hair dryer, TV, lights, and the list goes on. 

Sense can quickly identify devices that are used frequently or that operate on an ongoing basis, such as a refrigerator.  Devices that operate, or are used, infrequently can take a number of weeks to identify.  Mike said that “the Sense system can identify about 70% of the devices it finds in a home by itself but that it will require some help from the homeowner to identify the remaining 30% of the devices it finds”. In some cases Sense can identify that a specific device is turning on/off but it won’t know what it is.  The homeowner can look at the timeline of when the device was used to help them figure out what the device is.  They can then use the Sense app to select from a crowd sourced list of names or enter their own to correctly name the mystery device.   An alert can even be setup when the device is turned on/off to help identify it. 

In other cases, Sense can incorrectly identify a device and the homeowner is left with, what Sense thinks are, for example, several ovens operating in the home.  This is because a number of devices in a typical home have heating elements in them, similar to an oven.  Even an ice maker includes a heating element to help release the ice from the form that freezes the water into cubes.  Again, the homeowner can use the timeline in the Sense app to figure out what each “oven” really is and to correctly label each device in the Sense app.

The algorithms for identifying devices are helped by users filling out the make and model of a device they have identified in the Sense app.  This feeds the Sense neural network to help it continually improve its ability to automatically identify a device correctly.

If a user has a device that the Sense energy monitor is having trouble reading the energy usage of (possibly because it only uses a small amount of electricity) then the homeowner can simply plug the device into either a TP-Link Kasa HS110 or Belkin Wemo Insight energy monitoring smart plug.  The Sense monitor will then use the readings from the plug to determine when the device is turned on/off and how much energy it uses.

There are several avenues for third party integration.  IFTTT triggers are available when devices turn on/off.  Unfortunately, these are the only triggers available.  For example, triggers when a device has been left on too long could be used by the smart home system to automatically turn the device off.  There is also integration with Phillips Hue, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and other smart home devices.  Finally, there is an API for Sense but it is only shared with select partners.  Integration with additional smart home systems is an area that Mike wants to expand in the future.

Sense provides users with a monthly email that, among other things, provides users with information on how their energy use compares with other people in their geographic region.  This information drives conversations on the Sense community forum and the Sense Facebook page where users share techniques for saving energy in their homes.

HomeCheck is an advanced feature that Sense is currently developing.  Today, when homeowners that are participating in the development program have a failure of an appliance, or electrical device, in their home, they fill out a form that tells the people at Sense when the device failed and what happened.  The development team at Sense then looks back at the customer’s energy usage data and tries to identify electrical characteristics of the device failing along with changes in electrical usage by the device leading up to the failure.  In the future, they hope to be able to analyze the data collected by the Sense energy monitor and proactively warn customers of potential issues before they occur.  Imagine knowing that your freezer is going to fail a month beforehand, being able to contact a repair person, and eliminate the risk of all your frozen food spoiling. 

Sense does sell the product through their web site, on Amazon, and through resellers; all at the same price.  Sense also has a partner program for integrators and solar energy installers. 

Again, the Sense energy monitor is a comprehensive system that can truly help people reduce energy waste and save money. Their innovative technology allows homeowners to monitor a wide range of devices in a home though effort is required, on the part of the homeowner, to help Sense through the identification process.



The Smappee energy monitor is similar to Sense in that it includes CT’s that attach to the mains in the circuit breaker panel and then detects individual devices in the home by analyzing the energy usage signatures. 

Unlike Curb and Sense, Smappee is a European company based in Belgium with offices located around the world.  There are seven distributors here in the United States.

I made a number of attempts to contact Smappee to get information directly from them for this article.  While I never did hear back from anyone at the company itself, I did finally get a response from one of their U.S. distributors and they were able to answer my questions.  Unfortunately, I still don’t feel I was able to get the same level of detailed information that I did with the Curb and Sense energy monitors where, in both cases, the CEO’s took the time to talk to me. At the same time, I wanted to include the Smappee energy monitor in this article because of the advanced features it offers homeowners. 

Smappee offers different models for residential installations with different capabilities.  The base “Energy” model just measures electricity usage, standby power consumption, and the electricity used by devices using their patented non-intrusive load monitoring (NILM) technology.  A separate “Solar” model includes added functions for homes with a solar PV generation system.  If you were to install a solar PV generation system after installing a Smappee Energy model you need to trade in your existing energy monitor for the solar model with an additional investment of almost $200.  The “Plus” includes sub-metering with 9 dedicated CT inputs that supplement the ability to learn the energy signatures of individual devices.  CT’s can be used to monitor circuits that are otherwise difficult for Smappee’s NILM technology to identify; such as variable output heat pumps, variable output air conditioners, and electric car chargers.  Unique to the Smappee, there is also an accessory to add water and gas usage measurement.

Smappee uses their patented NILM technology to identify devices in a home through their electronic signature.  The process begins with a survey where a homeowner tells Smappee about their home.  Survey questions include:

  • Whether the Smappee is located in a house or apartment
  • How many adults and children reside there
  • The number and types of devices in the home. 

The list of possible devices in the home is very detailed to give Smappee the best chance of identifying all the devices.  The Smappee will then try to match the usage it sees with the list of devices through a process that can take up to eight weeks.  Through the Smappee app, users can validate whether events where a device was detected to turn on/off are correctly matched with a device from the survey.  For devices that Smappee has had trouble identifying homeowners can use the “assisted learning” feature of the app where they turn the device on/off three times when requested by the app so Smappee can learn to identify the device.

Smappee offers both an app and web dashboard.  A homeowner can view electricity, water, and gas usage by day, week, month, or year.  A homeowner can also view the electricity used by individual devices in the home. Smappee saves a homeowner’s data for up to three years though the older the data is the less granular it becomes. For example, five minute values are saved for two weeks, day values for one year, and only month values after that. 

Smappee can also be configured to send push notifications to a user when

  • Devices are detected to be operating outside expected parameters
  • When devices are turned on/off
  • When new devices are detected

Smappee has more extensive integration capabilities than Sense or Curb.  It integrates with IFTTT, Stringify, Nest, Netatmo, Phillips Hue, and more.  Using this integration it has functionality that one would expect to see in a home automation processor/hub.  For example, using the app the homeowner can control individual connected devices and can create scenes based on time, occupancy, and sunrise/sunset.  A scene can, for example, turn on specific connected lights at sunset or turn on the coffee maker at a specific time on weekdays.  There are situations where a scene on the Smappee goes beyond what a typical smart home processor/hub can offer such as only enabling a connected air conditioner to run when the solar generation system is producing power to offset the cost.

Smappee also manufactures their own smart switch that includes the ability to measure the electricity used by the appliance plugged into it.  Not only can this be used in Smappee scenes but it can also be used to help identify the power signatures of devices that the Smappee is having trouble with.  The Smappee app can tell the system to use the energy data collected by the smart switch to create an identifiable signature.  After a smart switch has been used this way it doesn’t need to stay with that device but can be moved elsewhere in the home.  However, there are limitations to the Smappee switch.  First, it can only be used with the Smappee Plus model. Second, it has to be located within 30 to 60 feet of the Smappee energy monitor.  This is a significant limitation for larger, American homes.

Smappee seems to have embraced the integrator community.  They even have a certified installer program and online training for the professional.

Again, the Smappee energy monitor is a comprehensive system that can truly help people reduce energy waste and save money.  The addition of sensors for integrating water and gas usage is an added plus.  On the negative side a number of online reviewers spoke of difficulties when trying to contact tech support.  These mirrored my own issues trying to obtain information from the company on the product for this article.

More is still needed:

All of the above energy monitors offer much more value to a homeowner than my, 10 year old model.  It isn’t that the hardware has dramatically changed over the years as all these energy monitors rely on CT’s to measure electricity usage.  However, the investment in more advanced software is what provides the real value. 

This isn’t to say that these devices don’t have areas where they could improve.  Smappee is the only energy monitor to include the optional capability to measure water and gas usage.  This provides a more complete picture of how a family uses environmental resources.  Sense has plans to integrate smart thermostats into their system to measure HVAC usage; but it really isn’t the same. 

Clean water, especially in the western US, is becoming a very scares, and expensive, commodity.   Including the ability to track water usage down to individual devices in a home is a clear growth path for these devices.  How much water is used for cleaning dishes? Does it make economical sense for a family to replace toilets in their home with dual flush models?  Similarly to how these latest generation energy monitors allow a family to understand how they are using electricity, there is a real opportunity to help families understand how they use water.  Smappee has taken the lead in this area though they only provide a single measurement point that provides overall usage.

The Smappee system also can provide the measurement of gas usage.  Again, this is through a single measurement device that just provides the same information as can be viewed on a utility bill.  It would be a significant area of growth for these monitors to be able to measure water and gas usage to the same level of detail as they measure electricity usage.  It is only through the integration of the measurement of electricity usage, water usage, and gas usage that a family can really understand the cost of running a dishwasher, clothes washer, taking a shower, etc.

Energy monitor manufacturers should also do more to leverage the community.  Sense tells people in their monthly email how their energy usage compares to other people in their geographic region.  But, a single person living in a one bedroom apartment is going to have very different energy usage compared to a four person family living in a detached home. Just comparing energy use within a geographic region isn’t enough.  The data needs to be better normalized and people with the lowest energy usage should be incentivized to share their techniques with other community members to help fulfill the goal of these devices; reduced energy consumption. 

Smart home integration is a very important capability.  All of these monitors integrate to some extent but it really needs to improve.  For example, homeowners should be able to:

  • Receive notifications when their clothes washer, clothes dryer, and dishwasher finish their cycles.  Including this feature could save people from having to purchase smart appliances.  The savings in not purchasing a smart appliance would alone justify the purchase price of an energy monitor. 

  • Receive notifications when appliances, such as a stove, toaster oven, or iron, are left on longer than normal.  This could save a family from a life threatening house fire.  There should also be a notification through IFTTT so the homeowner has the option of automating turning the device off by connecting it to a smart plug.

  • A smart home system can include a motorized valve to turn off the water to the house when nobody is home.  This can save a family the massive cost of repair to the home from a water leak when the family is on vacation.  Of course a family wouldn’t want the water to be turned off when the leave their home and, for example, the clothes washer is running.  It would need to wait until the washer finishes its cycle and then turn the water off.  Integration of the energy monitor with the smart home processor would provide the smart home processor/hub with the knowledge of what appliances are running at any time.

These are just a few examples of how the integration of an energy monitor with a smart home processor/hub can be of value.  Curb leads the way here with their integration with SmartThings.  However, to accomplish much of the above would require a user to install, and use, the SmartThings community’s own rules engine (CoRE).  This may be beyond some users’ capabilities.

For integrators, these products can be a valuable addition to your business.  First, installation requires work inside the electrical panel; which most homeowners will want an electrician to perform.  In addition, working with a homeowner to make changes to their home based on the feedback provided by the energy monitor can provide additional avenues of revenue.  A homeowner can be much more open to replacing older appliances once they can see how much their older appliance is costing them to operate.  A homeowner may also be much more open to the installation of a smart home system that is programmed to save energy with a greater understanding of how energy could be saved.

The installation of an energy monitor can also be part of an overall energy audit of a home including an inspection, blower test to evaluate air leakage, and inspection with an infrared camera to look where energy losses are occurring.  This could lead to work to:

  • Add insulation to ceilings and walls
  • Address air leakage around doors and windows
  • Replace windows with more energy efficient models. These might even be motorized windows that can be integrated with a smart home processor/hub.
  • Installation of motorized shades that can reduce energy usage in the summer time by minimizing solar gain.  Motorized shades can also be programmed to automatically open, when the sun isn’t directly shining in a window, for daylight harvesting.  Software to do this, and more, for a Crestron automation system, can be found on my github: https://github.com/jbasen/Crestron-Shade-Automation-Manager
  • And more…

When people are building lots of new homes integrators are typically very busy with new installations.  In times of a slowing economy integrators need to get more creative to find business.  Energy services that can save homeowners money are an investment they may be open to; even in a slowing economy

For homeowners, all three products should help a family take better control of their electricity usage.  Each product has slightly different attributes that may make it a better fit for a family’s specific situation. 


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Residential Continuity Planning – Part 8 – Checklist


Again, I wanted to thank Oliver Hall, Managing Director at Ultamation, for his help on this series of blog posts.  I realized after Oliver and I had written all these posts that there was a lot of information scattered among the 7 prior posts.  To make it easier for people to follow the advice we’ve laid out I realized that a checklist of the information we provided would be very useful for readers.  So, here it is:

  1. Planning for Power Problems
    1. Install Backup Generator that Provides Power to Critical Circuits
    2. Install Whole House Surge Protector
    3. Plug Key Components into Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS)
                                                              i.      Cable Modem or Equivalent Hardware that Connects Your Home Network to Your ISP
                                                            ii.      Router
                                                          iii.      Automation System Processor / Hub
                                                          iv.      Network Attached Storage (NAS) Devices
                                                            v.      Any Other Critical Computer Hardware
    1. Plug Additional Computer Hardware into Surge Protected Power Strips
  1. Equipment Failures
    1. Walk the Line Between Cheap Rubbish, Good Value, and Over Paying to Avoid the Adage of “Buy Cheap, Buy Twice”
    2. Purchase Spare Power Supplies to Avoid One of the Most Common Types of Failures
    3. Use Schematics to Understand the Impact Equipment Failures and Develop Plans to Mitigate Key Failures
    4. Integrate System Monitoring to Make the Integrator Aware of Issues Before the Customer
  2. Software Updates
    1. Secure Remote Access is Worth the Time Setting Up and the Extra Cost of the Router.
    2. Build Contingencies into your Design to Give You Options/Fault Tolerance
    3. Consider your Update Policy for Each Element on its Own Risks/Merits
                                                              i.      “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”
                                                            ii.      Some devices will require updates to maintain service compatibility
                                                          iii.      Always update devices that pose potential security risks to patch exploits
  1. Internet Access and 3rd Party Service Integration
    1. Internet Access has Become Critical in Homes – Plan for Outages
                                                              i.      Dual WAN Port Routers
                                                            ii.      Use a Cell Phone as a Hotspot
    1. Don’t Assume Cloud Services will Always Be There – Find Alternatives; Just in Case
  1. Security – Break in / Fire / Water Leaks
    1. Break Ins
                                                              i.      Make the Home Look Occupied to Avoid Break ins
                                                            ii.      Use a Security System to Detect a Break in and leverage Sirens, Lighting, and a Monitoring Service to Scare the Intruders Away
                                                          iii.      Hide Equipment in the Top of a Closet or Locked Room to Keep Thieves from Finding it
    1. Fire
                                                              i.      Use a Security System Integrated with the Automation System to Detect Fires and Take Actions
1.      Turn on Lights to Make it Easier for Inhabitants to Exit the Home
2.      Open Motorized Shades and Windows to Make it Easier for Inhabitants to Exit the Home
3.      Turn Off Forced Air Heating and Air Conditioning Systems to Minimize the Spread of Smoke
4.      If the Fire is in the Room with the Automation System, Turn Off Power Strips to Equipment After Steps 1-3 Have Been Taken to Remove Power from Equipment that could be On Fire
                                                            ii.      Keep a Fire Extinguisher Safe for Electronics Near Your Automation System Hardware
    1. Water – If Water Lines Run Near your Automation System Components take Steps to Protect them in Case of a Flood
  1. Backups
    1. Backup Configuration Data from Routers and Other Networking Equipment Both by Using Built in Backup Utilities and By Copying Down Settings in Case it Needs to be Replicated in a Different Make / Model Replacement
    2. Backup all Automation Software Both On Site and On Site
    3. Obtain Copies of All Automation Software from your Integrator in Case they Go Out of Business or the Relationship Sours

Hopefully the last 8 posts have given you the outlines of steps to take to keep the systems in your home (or your customers’ homes) operational no matter what Mr. Murphy has in store for you when you least expect it.

In two weeks our next topic will be "Does an Energy Monitor Really Add Value to a Smart Home?"

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Residential Continuity Planning – Part 7 – Backups

Again, I wanted to thank Oliver Hall, Managing Director at Ultamation, for his help on this series of blog posts. 

It is all well and good to have taken the steps we’ve outlined throughout these blog posts and created a rigorous plan so the systems in your home (or your customer’s home) will be resilient to problems.  However, Murphy’s Law states that “if anything can go wrong it will” and my own experience has been that Murphy was an optimist. 

At some point in time a key piece of hardware in your home is going to fail.  Whether you have:

  • A backup piece of hardware to plug in
  • Need to call your integrator to install a replacement
  • Need to purchase a replacement

The bottom line is that you are going to need configure/reload software to the device to make it operational.  If you don’t have a backup of the necessary files you are in a heap of trouble.

I need to note that not every device needs a backup.  Some devices have their configuration backed up by the manufacturer and when you register the new device and connect it to your account it will automatically be configured.   But, unless you know for sure that this is the case (and for most devices it isn’t) you need to take responsibility for making sure you have backups for all the software and configuration information necessary to get a replacement operational.

Most routers, for example, have an option for downloading the configuration settings to a connected computer.  If your router fails and you purchase the exact same make and model to replace it then you can simply reload the backup and your router will be up and running again.  Unfortunately, if your router fails a few years after you purchased it then you are probably not going to get the exact same make and model so the configuration backup won’t do you any good.  The backup is really most useful to reload your existing router if there is some sort of glitch that causes it to lose its settings or you make a change to the settings that have an unexpected consequence and you want to revert to the prior settings that were working fine for you.

If, for example, your router fails and you need to configure a new router with similar settings what you will have needed to do is to make written notes of all the configuration settings that you customized so they can be reproduced on the new device.  For example some common settings that may have been customized are:

  • DNS server settings if you don’t wish to use the ones supplied by your ISP
  • DHCP address range
  • DHCP reservations
  • Port forwards (though these should be avoided if at all possible)
  • Any specific settings required by your ISP
  • SSID’s and Wi-Fi Passwords
  • And more…

For automation processors from the major manufacturers (Crestron, Control4, etc.) you want to make sure you have a backup of the custom programming that is running on your automation processor as well as any configuration settings (IP address and host name for example) for the device. 

It isn’t enough to have a folder on your computer’s hard drive with all of this as hard drives are prone to failure.  You need place your backups in multiple places.  Personally, I have backups

  1. On my laptop
  2. On my NAS drive with mirrored hard drives
  3. Off site on a cloud service

It would have to be a pretty severe disaster for all 3 of these locations to lose my data.

If you are working with a professional integrator don’t rely solely on the integrator to keep your data safe for a couple of reasons:

  1. If you integrator is just backing up your data on computers at their office then a disaster at that location could result in the loss of your data
  2. Your integrator could go out of business leaving you without copies of your data
  3. You could have a falling out with your integrator and find them unwilling to provide you with a copy of your data

Your integrator should be doing a professional job to keep your data safe but you should also have them provide you with backups of all your data as part of your business agreement with them.

In two weeks my next topic will be "Residential Continuity Planning – Part 8 – Checklist"

Thanks for reading.
  

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Residential Continuity Planning – Part 6 – Security – Break-in / Fire / Water Leak


Again, I wanted to thank Oliver Hall, Managing Director at Ultamation, for his help on this series of blog posts. 

An automation system is an expensive investment in your home.  Whether you have a DIY automation system built with off-the-shelf IoT devices or a system installed by a professional integrator using components from one of the big automation system manufacturers the investment you made is one that should be protected. 

In past blog posts I have talked about the value of integrating a security system with your automation system because it is an inexpensive way to add a significant number of sensors to your automation system.  Motion sensors will tell your system when people walk into, and out of, rooms.  If the system is armed in away mode you know that the house is unoccupied.  And, alarms can trigger the automation systems to make it easier for the family to exit the house in an emergency and for first responders to locate the house. 

But, we shouldn’t forget that first, and foremost, an alarm system is installed to protect your home from intruders so they don’t steal your valuables; including the components of your automation system.  The last thing anyone wants is to come home and find that not only was their home broken into but the carefully planned out wiring connecting all the components of your automation system is a shambles because the thieves ripped the system apart as quickly as they could to steal the valuable electronics. 

The first line of defense to keep thieves from breaking into your home is to make it look as if the house is occupied.  A Lutron lighting system, for example, includes a feature that records the actions taken by the occupants of a home to turn on/off lights for a two week period.  When your home is unoccupied the Lutron system can be triggered to play back this recording, making your home appear just as if you were there.  Similar capabilities are available from other manufacturers. 

If someone does break into your home you want to do everything you can to scare them away.

  • A siren should sound both inside and outside the home
  • Lights should be turned on removing the thieves ability to hide
  • Exterior lights should flash making it clear to neighbors that there is an emergency and making it easy for the police to find your house.
  • You should use a security monitoring service that will call your home to validate that there is an emergency.  If the phone isn’t answered or if it is answered and the proper code word isn’t given the monitoring company will immediately contact the police.  An experienced thief entering your home knows that a phone call right after tripping an alarm means that the police will be coming very soon. 

In addition, it is a good idea to make your automation system difficult to find.  For example, components can be placed in the top of a closet or in a dedicated space in your basement with a locked door. 

All of these steps will help make sure that you won’t be asking your insurance company for a large check after your home is broken into.

Similarly, a security system, integrated with your automation system can make your home safer from a fire.  If a fire is detected by your security system then it can trigger your automation system to:

  • Turn on lights to make it easier for inhabitants of the home to exit the house
  • Open motorized shades and windows to allow the inhabitants to more quickly escape if passageways are blocked by fire or smoke
  • Flash exterior lights to make it easy for first responders to find the house
  • Turn off forced air heating and air conditioning systems so they won’t spread smoke around the home.

In addition, you need to be aware that electronic components, including those in your automation system, could be the source of a fire.  Components, typically within a power supply, can fail and catch on fire.  Because of this it is a good idea to install a dedicated smoke and heat detector in the room, or cabinet where your automation system is located.  If that detector is tripped your automation system should first take the above steps to help the family exit the home and then shut off controlled power strips that provide power to the automation system; eliminating the power that could be creating the fire.  This step is only necessary if the security system believes that the fire is in the space where the automation system is located. 

Another step that can be taken to help save your system, in the event of a fire, is to place a fire extinguisher close to your system so you can quickly put out a fire if one occurs.  However, it is important to purchase a fire extinguisher that will not damage electronic components.  Fire extinguishers designed for computer installations are non-corrosive and leave no residue.  The fire extinguisher of choice for large computer installations used to be Halon.  Unfortunately, Halon depletes the ozone layer and is no longer used.  I would suggest checking with your local fire company to find what is legal and recommended in your local jurisdiction.

Finally, you should think about the possibility of your automation system being damaged by water.  If your system is located in a room directly beneath a bathroom, a room containing a clothes washer, your kitchen, or where plumbing lines have been run, there is a real possibility of a water leak that could soak your entire system. 

I had one customer, with an expensive Crestron system, that was located in a dedicated room below the kitchen in his home.  To protect the system from water leaks a pan was made out of sheet metal covering the entire ceiling of the room with the automation system that would redirect any water drips coming through the ceiling to a drain.  While not inexpensive, it was cheap insurance compared to the cost of replacing an expensive Crestron system should, for example, the ice maker in the refrigerator or the dishwasher leak. 

Protecting your automation system investment from break-ins, fire, or water leaks is neither difficult nor overly expensive.  Taking a few simple steps could save you a lot of money. 

In two weeks our next topic will be "Residential Continuity Planning – Part 7 – Backups"

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Residential Continuity Planning – Part 5 – Internet Access and Third Party Service Integration


Again, I wanted to thank Oliver Hall, Managing Director at Ultamation, for his help on this series of blog posts. 

Reliable Internet access has become critical for many homeowners and the operation of their automation systems. 

  • Many homeowners spend at least part of their time away from the office working at home. 
  • People stream TV programming, movies, and music
  • Access to social networks
  • Email
  • Gaming
  • IoT devices that leverage cloud services
  • And much more

Reliable Internet connectivity is a critical need for most businesses. The solution that businesses have taken has been to pay for multiple ISP’s and tie them into the company’s network through a router that includes dual WAN ports.  Should one ISP have an outage, the router includes the intelligence to route all the network traffic through the 2nd ISP.   This provides seamless operation for those people working at the company.  In addition, a router with dual WAN ports typically includes the capability of load balancing to optimize throughput by routing network traffic through both ISP’s when there isn’t an outage - in its basic form this would provide connection oriented load balancing, though with specialized ISP support true packet-based load balancing is achievable.

Obviously, these capabilities come with a higher price tag than the typical consumer grade, residential router.  And, don’t forget the cost of paying for Internet access from two ISP’s every month.  In addition, these routers are designed for businesses, typically much more configurable, and therefore much more complex to setup and administer.  The complexity means that a networking professional will probably be required to set one up properly in a home.

OH Interjection winking face“Jay makes a very good point here - with great power comes great responsibility, and it’s very easy to mis-configure a sophisticated router/firewall and leave yourself open to all of the unpleasantness that the Internet has to offer.  If you’re not sure, call a professional.”

The good news is that there is a simple alternative that can get a network up and running should your ISP have an outage; a smart phone.  Most smart phones have the capability to be used as a wireless hotspot.  In fact, you can connect your entire home network, including your automation system, to the Internet with your smart phone and a Wi-Fi Bridge.  While this won’t provide automated failover, like a dual WAN port router, it can be used to provide you with Internet access should your ISP have an outage. 

OH Again: “Indeed - and some routers (e.g. Draytek Vigor 2926) make it even easier by offering fail-over to a USB 3/4G dongle, along side the 2nd WAN port”.

With the growth of the Internet and IoT devices, third party, or cloud, services have become much more entwined in today’s automation systems.  Many automation systems today, including SmartThings and Wink, to name a few, are reliant on cloud services.  Even if the automation system runs on a dedicated processor in the home (Crestron, AMX, Control4, and Savant) the programming may have been linked to cloud services to add additional capabilities that were not part of the manufacturer’s offerings.

A common example of a third party cloud service is IFTTT* (If-This-Then-That).  IFTTT can be used to integrate everything from GE smart appliances to BMW connected cars with an automation system.  It is incredibly powerful.  However, in the design of an automation system you need to ask “What happens if IFTTT has an outage or, even worse, goes out of business altogether?” 

If you want a highly reliable automation system then whenever a third party service is integrated into the system, at least one alternative service should be available that provides the same functionality.  For example, Stringify (www.stringify.com) can provide very similar functionality to IFTTT.  IFTTT applets could be duplicated in Stringify and the code on the automation processor could be configured to call Stringify in the event that IFTTT stopped operating.  This would probably be a manual switch over as I personally haven’t designed a mechanism to detect if IFTTT is down.  In any case, the point is that it is possible to leverage cloud services in an automation system in a way that doesn’t degrade the reliability of the system.  It just requires up front work to plan for the possibility that the cloud service could be unavailable at some time in the future.

In two weeks our next topic will be "Residential Continuity Planning – Part 5 – Security- Break-in / Fire / Water Leaks"

Thanks for reading.

*My IFTTT module for Crestron systems can be found on my github - https://github.com/jbasen/Crestron-IFTTT-Module