Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Why Sonos One is the Best Wireless Speaker for a Smart Home in One Word…

My latest blog post, “Why Sonos One is the Best Wireless Speaker for a Smart Home in One Word…” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.




Sonos has been a leader in wireless speaker technology for almost 15 years.  Their wireless speakers are a standard for price, performance, design, and ease of use.  The Sonos One, released in 2017 integrated Alexa voice control into a Sonos speaker and in 2019 Sonos added support for Google Assistant.

Amazon and Google have their own, well known lines of wireless, smart, speakers with voice control.  But, there is one feature that separates the Sonos One from the competition: integration. 

Both Amazon and Google smart speakers are great choices for a smart home if you don’t plan on using them for playing music.  Don’t get me wrong.  It isn’t that Amazon’s and Google’s offerings don’t provide quality sound.  Every generation of their speakers have provided significant improvements in the sound quality they produce.  Where these products fall down, compared to the Sonos One, is their lack of integration with third party smart home systems.

Yes, Amazon and Google smart speakers can be used as control points for other smart home products.  But, unlike the Sonos One, other smart home products can’t control the music played on Amazon and Google smart speakers; and that tremendously constrains their value as a whole house music system in a smart home. 

Here are a few key ways a Sonos One can be integrated with other products in a smart home that highlight the failings of their Amazon and Google competitors:

  • Integrating Sonos speakers with RoomMe personal location sensors gets as close as possible to the panacea of having your favorite music follow you from room to room as you walk around your home.  RoomMe sensors are mounted on the ceiling of the rooms in your home.  The sensors then track your location in the home; not by detecting you but by detecting your smart phone using Bluetooth. 

Each occupant of the home can, through the RoomMe app on their smart phone, create “charms” that execute when that person enters, or exits, a room.  For example, through RoomMe’s integration with Sonos speakers, a “charm” could be created that either plays a specific playlist, plays a specific TuneIn station, or simply starts the Sonos speaker playing the previously paused selection.  When leaving a room a “charm” can stop the music playing. 

RoomMe “charms” can also include date and time criteria.  So, a charm to start music playing wouldn’t run late at night when it could disturb people sleeping.  Or, just for fun, a special playlist could be scheduled to play when a child walks out of their room on their birthday. 

RoomMe even includes a sophisticated priority scheme to handle the situation when multiple people are together, in the same room. 

  • Crestron has provided some very easy to use integration modules for their proprietary, SimplWindows, programming tool that provides control of a Sonos system.  I’ve created a basic example program showing how an alarm system could be integrated with a Sonos system to automatically pause all the Sonos speakers in a home when the homeowner arms the alarm system and leaves the home. Compare this to Amazon and Google smart speakers that require you to walk from room to room issuing a voice command to each smart speaker to stop playing.  Not a lot of fun when you are running late for work and your family has left audio streaming around the house.

In addition, the Crestron program demonstrates how, when the homeowner returns and disarms the alarm system, the Sonos system can start playing their favorite music.  This example program can be found on my GitHub here: https://github.com/jbasen/Crestron-Sonos-Example

Another way that Sonos speakers could be integrated with a Crestron system is to stop Sonos speakers in a room playing when an occupant leaves the room and presses the off button on a Crestron keypad at the door to turn out the lights.

  • For those that don’t have a Crestron automation processor running their home, a SmartThings hub is a much more affordable option.  After installing the SharpTools SmartThings SmartApp, you can easily create sophisticated if/then rules (no computer programming experience required) to control Sonos speakers in a home.  For example, a rule could be created to stop all the Sonos speakers in a home when the GPS in your smart phones informs SmartThings that you, and your partner, have both left.  Similarly a rule could be created to play your favorite Sonos preset when you arrive home.  A different preset could be played when your partner arrives home.  SharpTools has both a free and premium plan.  The free plan supports unlimited rules and will probably meet the needs of many users.  One feature that may entice users to upgrade to the premium plan is the ability to send SMS messages based on triggers.  So, if you are a working parent, you could receive an SMS message when your children arrive home from school; assuming they have smart phones that are integrated with SmartThings.

  •  IFTTT (If-This-Then-That) can be also used to create simple automation rules to control Sonos speakers.  For example, an IFTTT applet can easily be created (no programming experience required) to pause all the Sonos speakers in a home when the phrase “Alexa, trigger goodnight” is spoken.  Similarly, using the IFTTT location service you could pause all Sonos devices in your home when, using your cell phone’s GPS, the IFTTT location service detects that you have left your home. 

All of the above functionality could be implemented using Amazon and Google smart speakers IF they opened up their products to third party control. Unfortunately, both companies vision appears to be to make their products the central controller of a smart home and only allow control of their speakers through voice commands.  This limits their usefulness as a whole house music system in a smart home.

Unfortunately, even the Sonos One isn’t a perfect smart speaker.  For example, if you issue a voice command to execute an Alexa routine, it will execute most commands but you will receive a verbal response that audio actions are not supported on this device.  Some common routines that many people user are:

  • Good Night – To set back your thermostat and turn off lights.
  • Good Morning – To restore your thermostat to its normal set point, turn on lights if it is dark out, start your coffee maker, and play your news briefing on your Sonos speakers
  • Good Bye – To set back your thermostat while nobody is home and turn off any lights left on in the house
  • I’m Home – To restore your thermostat to its normal set point and turn on pathway lights if it is dark

These four routines will probably be executed every day.  The goodbye and I’m home routines may be executed more than one time a day.  Listening to the response that audio actions are not supported on this device, possibly 1500 times in a year, will become very annoying.  The issue has been reported to Sonos so I’m hopeful it will be addressed in a future software update. 

Additional limitations are that the Sonos One doesn’t currently support guard mode, Alexa messaging, drop-in or calling, and mixing Sonos Ones with Amazon speakers in music groups.  While using your smart speaker as a speaker phone may be convenient for some people, almost everyone carries their cell phones with them these days so I don’t believe that is a significant detriment.  However, if you are going to use Sonos One speakers as a whole house audio system, the lack of support for drop-in (which allows Alexa devices to be used as an intercom system) is a feature I believe many people would miss.  While drop-in isn’t currently supported, the Sonos One does support making an announcement that will play on all the other Alexa enabled speakers in a home including Sonos One, Sonos Move, Sonos Beam, Amazon Echo, and more.  At least a parent can make an announcement to inform the rest of the family that dinner is ready.

The lack of support for mixing Sonos One smart speakers with Amazon speakers in music groups requires a homeowner to be careful how they design their whole house audio system with these products.  You simply can’t thrown the speakers here and there in a home and create a cohesive audio system.  For example, in a great room you might have three audio zones (living area, kitchen, and dining area).  If you mixed Sonos One speakers and Amazon Alexa speakers in these three zones you couldn’t synchronize playback among all the speakers.  As I said, it is just something you need to keep in mind when you plan your whole house audio system.

Similarly, there are limitations when Google Assistant is used as the voice service on the Sonos One.  First, hands-free calling is currently not supported.  In addition, voice match and purchasing are also not currently supported. 

While the Sonos One is fairly priced at $199, not every room needs the audio quality that Sonos builds into their products.  In, for example, a master bathroom or laundry room, where you might want to have a voice control point for your smart home and a speaker that is adequate for listening to the news or a podcast; the Sonos One is overkill.  It would be great if Sonos released a smart speaker that competed with the Amazon Dot and Google Home Mini, and included the integration features of a Sonos speaker.  A product that fit into the Sonos ecosystem, with reduced audio quality, and a more competitive price point, would be great for consumers that build their whole house audio system around the Sonos One and other Sonos speakers.  For that matter, a Sonos One with a small, integrated, clock display would make a great bedside alarm clock. 



Monday, December 2, 2019

Smart Home Magic with RoomMe

My latest blog post, “Smart Home Magic with RoomMe” 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 challenge of developing a true smart home has always been for the systems in the home to anticipate the needs of the occupants.  Actions in a smart home have typically been triggered by time and motion.  Unfortunately, time based actions are inflexible and motion sensors can only go so far because they aren’t capable of identifying individual people in the home.  After a successful Indiegogo campaign and almost two years of development, Intellithings has taken a significant step forward in this area with the release of their RoomMe Personal Location Sensor. 

RoomMe sensors are mounted on the ceiling, at the entrances to each room in a home, where smart devices are located.  Typically this would include bedrooms, the living room, the kitchen, an office, and other primary living spaces. RoomMe will then monitor the movements of people within the home.  Scenes can then be programmed, through the RoomMe app, to be triggered when individuals enter and exit the rooms where RoomMe sensors have been installed.  These scenes can include personalized changes to lighting, temperature, and music. 

For example, RoomMe could:

  • Trigger smart lighting to turn on, to a specific level, when a homeowner enters a room and turn off once the room is no longer occupied. 
  • Adjust a thermostat to set the room’s temperature based on the preferences of the occupant.  The thermostat could also be set back to save energy after everyone has left the room. 
  • Play an individual’s, personal playlist when they enter a room.  A person’s personal music could even be programmed to follow them as they walked through their home.

Obviously, conflicts can occur when multiple people are in a room.  RoomMe handles this through a priority scheme.  There are three tiers of priority:

  1. Child
  2. Parent
  3. Room Master

If a child enters an empty room then the lighting, music, and temperature can be set based on their preferences.  If additional children enter the room the settings of the first child that entered will be maintained.  However, if an adult, who has a higher priority, enters the room then the settings will change to the preferences of the adult.  Similarly, if additional adults enter a room, then the settings of the first adult that entered the room will be maintained. 

The exception to the above rules are that if the person designated as the “room master” enters a room their settings will take priority over anyone else in the room; even if they are a child and there are adults in the room.  This is useful for giving a child’s preferences priority in their own bedroom or in a designated play area.

This system is well thought, out but not perfect.  For example, if children are playing in the living room and a parent walks into the room, just to see if they would like a snack, then the music the children were listening to will be shut off and the parent’s music will start playing.  This will occur even if the parent had no intention of interrupting the children’s activities. 

RoomMe does all this by detecting the presence, not of the actual person, but the person’s smart phone using Bluetooth.  This means that for RoomMe to operate the occupants of a home need to always carry their smart phones.  According to Oren Kotlicki, founder and CEO of Intellithings, 90% of the people between the ages of 24 and 45 have a smart phone with them 22 hours a day.   However, it is important for someone considering installing RoomMe to understand that they will need to keep their smart phones with them for the system to operate.

Some people might feel that having to carry their smart phone all the time for the system to work is a burden.  However, being able to stop RoomMe from sensing a person simply by putting down their smart phone is also an advantage.  The problem of an adult entering a room and disrupting their children because their priority is higher can be solved by the parent simply putting down their smart phone before they enter the room.

Installation

The RoomMe sensors easily mount to the ceilings of a home with a small bracket.   While physical installation is simple, RoomMe requires careful planning to determine the optimal locations for sensors in a home.  Intellithings created a video to help people with this process.  Up to 32 RoomMe sensors can be installed in a home. Under ideal circumstances this would translate to RoomMe being able to monitor people’s locations in 32 different rooms.  However, large rooms with multiple entrances/exits will probably require a RoomMe to be installed at each doorway.  So, the practical limit to the number of rooms that can be monitored by RoomMe, in a home, will typically be smaller than 32.

Positioning of RoomMe sensors in doorways is dependent on the height of the ceiling at that location.  The higher a ceiling is the farther apart RoomMe sensors need to be placed, or conflicts will occur between sensors, and there will be confusion as to where an individual is in the home.   To avoid these conflicts, RoomMe sensors need to be separated by 1.2 times the ceiling height.  So for example, if the ceiling height is 10 feet then RoomMe sensors need to be placed 12 feet apart.

It should also be noted that RoomMe sensors must be mounted horizontal to the floor to operate properly.  If a sensor needs to be mounted to a vaulted ceiling, a wedge shaped bracket will need to be fabricated. 

Integration

RoomMe includes a wealth of integration possibilities.  Even though this is the first release of RoomMe Intellithings has integrated with:

  • Phillips Hue
  • Ecobee
  • Sonos
  • Lifx
  • Sensibo
  • Bose
  • HomeKit
  • Wink
  • Control4
  • Elan
  • RTI
  • URC

In addition, Intellithings has released a public API so additional integrations can be created.  I have developed modules to integrate RoomMe with a Crestron automation processor that are available to readers on my GitHub here

The RoomMe app provides the ability to create “magic charms” that will execute when person enters, or exits, a specific room.  The charm defines a personalized scene including lighting, temperature, and music settings.  

However, when RoomMe is integrated with a smart home processor/hub much more sophisticated actions can be programmed.  For example:

  • The light from sunlight shining in through windows can be used to determine if turning on lights is necessary when someone enters a room.  Lights might only be turned on a night or could be turned on during the day if the weather is cloudy.

  • When a homeowner enters their bathroom, in the morning, on a work day, a TV could be turned on and tuned to their favorite news channel so they can catch up on what is happening in the world before heading to work.

  • Shades could be opened when someone enters a room to take advantage of sunlight; but only if the sun isn’t directly shining on the windows to minimize glare

  • Data can be integrated from other systems in decision making.  For example, if GPS data from your car says that you have been to the grocery store, and RoomMe senses that you have just entered the home, pathway lights to the kitchen could be turned on instead of the typical lighting scene specified in your preferences.  This will alleviate the challenge of trying to turn on the kitchen lights when you are carrying bags of groceries. 

  • Scenes could be modified based on time.  For example, when RoomMe detects that someone enters a room, late at night, the lights in the room could be turned on to a very dim, night light level. This would allow the person to safely walk through the room but the lights would be low enough not to disturb other people in the home that are sleeping.  In addition, music, based on the individual’s preferences, would not be played.

  • To keep scenes from being executed when a person is simply walking through a room to another destination in the home, a delay could be incorporated.  The delay would require a person to stay in a room for a period of time before their personal lighting/music/temperature scene executed.  This would, for example, keep a thermostat set point from being adjusted multiple times, triggering the furnace or air conditioner to start, when a change of the room’s temperature wasn’t needed.

  • Digital artwork is becoming a popular addition to a home.  Products, such as the Samsung’s Frame TV, have helped homeowners leverage their TV’s as art pieces.  RoomMe’s ability to detect who is occupying a room could be used to match the artwork being displayed with the preferences of the people in the room.

Hands on with RoomMe

Intellithings provided me with a RoomMe starter kit for writing this article and to facilitate development of a RoomMe Crestron module based on their API.  I found that the product worked well.  I was able to easily integrate the 2 sensors with a pair of Sonos speakers and come very close to the magic of having music follow me from room to room.  

Most of the magic is accomplished by RoomMe app on your smart phone (in my case I tested it on my iPhone).  A negative is that not only does the app have to be installed on your phone but it must be running in memory with background app refresh turned on.  If you were to swipe up on the app, removing it from memory and stopping its execution, the system would stop working. 

As I stated earlier, careful planning is required when deciding where to install the RoomMe sensors.  They can only be mounted on the ceiling facing straight downward and adequate spacing is very important.  Once installed, there is a calibration process for each cell phone that will be tracked by the RoomMe sensors.  First, the person needs to hold their cell phone directly beneath a sensor.  Next the person is directed to stand at the doorway to the next room so RoomMe can understand the limits of that sensor’s coverage.  Each person must repeat this process for each RoomMe sensor in the home. 

Notifications can be enabled in the RoomMe app to provide feedback on what the RoomMe system is “seeing”.  It was interesting to see that as you walk from one room to the next the RoomMe system is very quick to see a person enter a new room.  However, there was a noticeable delay in the system reporting that the person had exited the previous room.  This translated to music very quickly turning on to the users defined preference in the new room but a noticeable delay before it was turned off in the previous room.

The “charms” that are created using the app to make user adjustments to music/lights/temperature, when a person enters, or exits, a room, are simple to create.  I had no problem creating charms to select specific music to play on the Sonos speaker in a room when I entered and to have the Sonos speaker stop playing when I exited.  It should be noted that the system doesn’t allow you to start music playing in a room using the Sonos app and then have that music selection automatically follow you when you move to another room.  RoomMe can’t read what was playing in one room and then duplicate that selection in another room.  However, this will be changing in the future as Intellithings has developed a new way of interfacing with Sonos speakers to create a more seamless experience. 

There were several times in my testing that the RoomMe app became unstable and needed to be restarted.  Given how new, and unique, this product is, that is somewhat understandable.  Intellithings is continually working on bug fixes and plans on making further enhancements to the system over time.

Finally, it should also be noted that I noticed faster battery drain on my iPhone when testing RoomMe.  Given the intensity of testing I was doing, especially when working to debug the Crestron module I was writing, it was difficult to quantify the exact increase in battery drain that a casual user would experience.  But, it makes sense that there would be some additional drain given all the Bluetooth communications work that the RoomMe app has to perform as it connects/disconnects from the various RoomMe sensors.  However, when my phone was sitting idle on my desk and not communicating with the RoomMe sensors, I didn’t notice any increase in battery drain even though the RoomMe app was running in the background.

Implementation Costs

A starter kit, consisting of two RoomMe sensors is available for $129 from RoomMe’s online store.  Three packs and four packs are also available.  A three bedroom home with a living room and kitchen could easily require:

  • One RoomMe at the entry to each bedroom
  • One RoomMe at the entry to the kitchen
  • One RoomMe in a hallway that connects the bedrooms to determine when people have left the bedroom
  • Three RoomMe sensors in the living room
    • One at the entry to the hallway going to the bedrooms
    • One at the home’s front door
    • One at the entry to the kitchen

So, a simple three bedroom home could require eight RoomMe sensors at a cost of $478 with the included free shipping.  So, while individual RoomMe sensors aren’t very expensive, the cost to provide sensor coverage of an average home can quickly add up. 

Suggestions for Improvement

Even in its initial release, RoomMe is an excellent product.  However, there are ways I believe the product could be further improved.

  1. Outdoor version. Outdoor living is an important part of today’s lifestyle.  Walking outside should be able to trigger outdoor lighting and music.

  1. I would liked to have seen a light sensor included in the product so lights could be turned on when a person enters a room only when there isn’t adequate lighting already available in the room.  For example, there is no sense turning on the lights in a room during the middle of the day when the sun is streaming in through the windows.  According to Oren Kotlicki, this is on their product roadmap but not available in the initial release of the product. 

  1. Programmable Delays – Many rooms in a home are both living spaces and used as connections between other rooms.  It would be nice if a delay could be programmed so that scenes aren’t triggered when a person is simply walking through one room to get to another.  I described that this could be done through the integration of a third party smart home processor/hub.  However, it would be a welcome feature to be included in the RoomMe app.

  1. SmartThings is a very popular smart home hub and integration with that platform would be a welcome addition. 

  1. IFTTT integration would allow RoomMe to integrate with many more platforms than Intellithings is capable integrating with on their own.

  1. RoomMe sensors have an expected battery life of 3 years.  For new construction a wired version would be a welcome addition to eliminate the need of replacing batteries. 

  1. Currently RoomMe sensors are made of smooth, white plastic that can’t be painted.  Changing to a paint-able plastic would help the sensors be more “designer friendly” as would a version that mounts flush within a hole in the ceiling.  Both of these changes would allow RoomMe to be less intrusive in the décor of a room.

  1. Currently RoomMe can detect a person’s identity through their smart phone.  It would be a nice improvement if this detection technology could be expanded to wearables; such as a smart watch. 

  1. Include the ability to narrow the size of the detection area for rooms with high ceilings.  Having to place RoomMe sensors12 feet apart in homes with 10 foot ceilings (that are becoming very common in new home construction) can cause problems when trying to determine the best locations to mount RoomMe sensors.  In a room with tall, vaulted ceilings, positioning RoomMe sensors can even be more of a challenge. 

Summary

In my article “How to Use AI to Control Your Smart Home” I discussed the importance of sensors in the next generation of smart homes.  RoomMe is an important step forward in that direction.  For a smart home to truly be able to take actions based on the needs of the homeowners, it needs to, at a minimum, understand where they are in a home.  Unfortunately, there is currently no way for the smart home to understand the intent of a homeowner when they enter a room.  So, when someone enters the home’s kitchen there is no way for the smart home system to know whether this is to begin cooking a meal or just to grab a quick snack.  The homeowner might not even need the light in the kitchen turned on if all they are going to do is open the refrigerator to grab a piece of fruit.  In the future, machine learning may help a smart home to better understand people’s intent and to fully take actions that anticipate people’s needs.  Today, RoomMe takes us a step closer to that goal.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

DIY Retrofit Solutions for Automating Window Coverings


My latest blog post, “DIY Retrofit Solutions for Automating Window Coverings” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.

In most homes the effort to open and close window treatments to bring the beauty of the outside in results in homes remaining dark and dreary most of the time.  On the other hand, if window coverings are constantly left open:

  • Over time the sun can bleach expensive furnishings
  • Be a security risk letting outsiders easily see if anyone is home
  • Let people outside your home invade your privacy

Scientists have only recently recognized how letting in the natural light and beauty of the outdoors is important for the occupants of a home’s health and well being.  An easy way for anyone to recognize this affect is to think about your mood during the winter when the days are short, you are forced to stay indoors, and have little exposure to the sun.  Compare this to the long days of summer when you are able to spend more time outdoors. 

A solution to helping bring natural light into a home is to replace the existing window coverings with motorized drapes/curtains, shades, or blinds.  Then their operation can be automated so that:

  • Window coverings can be opened when the sun isn’t directly shining into a window to protect expensive furnishings from damage.
  • To save energy and reduce a home’s carbon footprint, sunlight can be kept from shining directly into the home through windows; reducing solar gain during the summer when the home is being air conditioned. During the winter the sun can be used to help heat a home to supplement the work being done by the heating system.
  • Window coverings can automatically be closed when a home isn’t occupied for security.
  • Window coverings can automatically be closed at night for privacy.

But, quality window coverings can be very expensive.  They are an investment in the décor of a home.  So, replacing existing window treatments with motorized ones can be a very expensive undertaking.  For example, Crestron and Lutron manufacture very high quality motorized shades that are incredibly quiet.  But, the price of these shades can easily exceed $1000 per window.  On the other hand, there are many options available to motorize existing window treatments for much less money.  These allow a homeowner to retain the investment they’ve already made in the décor of their home.  Below are descriptions of a few of the available options.


Shades



Gear is a highly intelligent shade motor that can automate almost any shade operated by a loop of cord or beaded chain including many roller shades, cellular shades, roman shades, and even some vertical blinds.  Gear can be easily installed by a homeowner to automate any of these shades but professional installation is also available. 

Gear can be installed on the inside, outside, or middle of a window’s frame.  If the surface that Gear will be mounted to is metal or glass then it can simply be installed with the included double sided tape.  If Gear will be mounted on drywall or wood then it is mounted with the included screws.  Once the physical installation of Gear is complete, a simple setup procedure is required so Gear understands:

  • The direction of travel of the shades
  • The fully open position of the shades
  • The fully closed position of the shades

Finally, Gear needs to be paired with the free Gear smart phone app using a Bluetooth connection.  The smart phone app lets you define where in your home the Gear operated shade is located, what kind of window covering the Gear is attached to, and where the gear is mounted on the window frame.  The app can then be used to operate the window shade.

Gear also includes a Zigbee radio and can be integrated with a SmartThings hub for additional control options.  For example, shades can be:

  • Opened or closed at set times of the day
  • Closed at sunset to provide privacy
  • Closed when the home isn’t occupied for security

Gear is powered by a small solar panel that mounts on the window and uses AA batteries as a backup for night time operation.  It is rated at being able to operate any shade up to 9’ x 9’.  There is a money back guarantee if Gear is unable to operate your shade. 

Blinds


The E-Wand provides a unique solution for automating the operation of venetian blinds, vertical blinds, or mini-blinds.  It is battery operated (six AA batteries) and simply replaces the wand that operates the blinds.  The batteries are estimated to last one year during normal operation.  The development of a lithium battery / solar power system was investigated but found not to make economic sense for customers because of the long lifespan of standard batteries.

Currently there is no ability to integrate E-Wands with a control system though a Zigbee version is in the works.  The Zigbee version will be able to integrate directly with the Echo Plus, SmartThings Hub, and other smart home hubs with a Zigbee radio.  For integration with other smart home platforms, such as Control4, a Zigbee bridge will be released.  However, the current model includes automation features driven by integrated light and temperature sensors. 

When enabled, the light sensor will open the blinds during the day to let in natural light and close them at night for privacy.  This operation is integrated with the temperature sensor.  During the day, E-Wand will automatically open the blinds if the room temperature drops below 69 degrees and close them if the temperature exceeds 82 degrees.  These automation features can be enabled, or disabled, through small switches on the E-Wand. 

There is no time based scheduling so, for example, a shade can’t be scheduled to open at 9am.  However, it is possible to disable the ability to open based on sunlight so shades in a bedroom won’t open at the crack of dawn.  Integration of the soon to be released Zigbee version of E-Wand will allow for time based scheduling when integrated with a smart home hub.

Blinds can still be controlled manually through a slight twist of the wand, or with an optional, RF remote.  The remote can either be hand-held, or placed in a wall mounted docking station. 

Installation of the E-Wand is very simple.  For example, when used with horizontal venetian or min blinds, the existing, tilt, control wand is first replaced with the E-Wand.  Then a mounting bracket is adhered, using self adhesive strips, to the blind header.  Next the mounting bracket is snapped onto the E-Wand.  Finally, there is a simple procedure to program the E-Wand so it understands the open and close positions of the blinds. 

Blinds can also be grouped so, for example, all the blinds in a room operate together when any blind in the group is manually operated or the built in light sensor triggers E-Wand to open, or close.

The E-Wand provides a simple, yet powerful, solution for automating venetian blinds, vertical blinds, or min-blinds.   And, the E-Wand will be have even more options for automation when the Zigbee version is released in the near future.

Drapes/Curtains

There are many choices to retrofit the existing drapery track in a home with one that is motorized.  In most cases the tracks are very similar in design.  What differentiates different offerings are the quality of the motor and the options for automation.  High quality, insulated drapes can be very, very heavy and require a heavy duty motor to open / close them.  Power Curtain manufactures track systems with a wide array of options.  Their dual motor track system can handle fabric weighing up to 200 pounds across 32 feet of track.  Some additional options include:

  • Whether the motor is on the left or right end of the track (in single motor systems)
  • Whether the motor is powered through a “hard wired” connection or through a power supply that simply plugs into a nearby outlet (a battery powered motor is in the works and is expected to be available in early 2020)
  • Center split, right pull, or left pull opening style
  • Wall or ceiling mounting
  • Hand held or wall mounted remote controls
  • RJ-12 connectivity port to interface with professionally installed automation systems, Alexa, Google Assistant, HomeKit, and many other platforms
  • Handling of pinch pleat or ripple-fold curtains
  • Dual tracks for handling both a sheer curtain that lets in light while maintaining privacy and a heavy drape on a second track.

Tracks can also be ordered with curves and bends for uniquely shaped rooms or even to fit around a bay window in a home. 

With the wealth of options it is important to carefully plan an installation before ordering.  Power Curtain has people available to answer questions and assist with the process.  It is important to note that while a basic order of a straight track is returnable, tracks that include custom curves are not.

Power Curtain’s RJ-12 interface allows a smart home processor / hub with low voltage relays to fully control the operation of the motor.  However, Power Curtain also offers the 1450U Relay Adapter where one end of the adapter plugs into the motor’s RJ-12 control port and the other plugs into any smart outlet.  Turning on the outlet closes the draperies and turning the outlet off opens them.  This allows the drapes to be controlled using voice commands from a smart speaker or from any smart home hub; simply by choosing a compatible smart outlet.  




Add-A-Motor is a simple, inexpensive, solution for automating light weight drapes, curtains, and vertical blinds operated by a loop of cord or beaded chain.  It is important to note that Add-A-Motor is not designed to operate shades that travel up/down or curtains/drapes on curved or decorative tracks.  With Add-A-Motor, there is no requirement to replace your existing curtain or drape track.  Add-A-Motor simply attaches to the existing loop of cord/chain and can operate a curtain or drape that weighs up to 35 pounds.  Add-A-Motor’s simple design does limit the length of the traverse that the window covering can make when opening and closing:

  • One-way opening track with "wheel carriers": Maximum opening 10 feet
  • One-way opening track with "sliding carriers": Maximum opening 8 feet
  • Center-opening track with "wheel carriers": Maximum opening 12 feet
  • Center-opening track with "sliding carriers": Maximum opening 10 feet

The price of Add-A-Motor is low because it has been around for over 20 years and doesn’t include the electronics of today’s, smart, IoT devices.  Instead it is an entirely mechanical device with a single direction switch and two internal relays to control the operation of the motor.  Intelligence can be added by plugging the 12 volt power supply into a smart outlet, remote controlled outlet, or even a mechanical timer switch typically used for automating lights before smart outlets existed. 

Installation of Add-A-Motor is very simple.  For example to install Add-A-Motor to control a curtain or drape:

  • Slide the motor assembly onto the wall bracket and activate the lock so the motor assembly is aligned with the highest slot in the bracket
  • Place the motors drive wheel on the loop of cord/chain
  • Hold the wall bracket against the wall making the cord/chain vertical and slightly taut
  • Mark on the wall the locations of the 2 oval holes in the wall bracket
  • Attach the wall bracket to the wall using the supplied wall anchors and screws
  • Attach the cord/chain loop to the motor assembly’s drive wheel again
  • Slide the motor assembly onto the wall bracket again and lock it in place
  • Plug the cord from the DC adapter into the receptacle in the base of the motor assembly

The above steps are abbreviated so the instructions should be consulted during actual installation.

There is a similarly simple procedure for setting the mechanical limits so the motor will fully open and close the window covering without placing strain on any components.  Once the operational limits are properly set, when power is applied, if the window covering was open, it will fully close.  Next time power is applied the window covering will fully open. 

To automate operation of the window covering, the DC power supply can be plugged into a smart outlet.  Then, for example, an Alexa routine could be created that would respond to the command, “Alexa, open the living room curtains”.  The routine would simply turn the smart outlet on for the time it takes to open the window covering and then turn it off.  A similar Alexa routine could be created that would take the exact same steps in response to the command “Alexa, close the living room curtains”.  It should be noted that Add-A-Motor simply toggles between open and close so it is up to the user to keep track of its status.

Overall Add-A-Motor provides a very economical way to automate light weight curtains, drapes, and vertical blinds.  Automation is limited because there is no feedback on the actual status of the window covering (open or closed), but that is the tradeoff for the money saved compared to other solutions.



SwitchBot Curtain was just released through a Kickstarter campaign on October 22, 2019.  The SwitchBot Curtain joins the existing SwitchBot product line that was released through Kickstarter in 2017.  SwitchBot Curtain fits into the existing SwitchBot ecosystem and provides a simple way to motorize existing curtains that are freely mounted on either a rod, I-style curtain rail, or a U-style curtain rail.

The SwitchBot Curtain is very simple to install.  The device consists of a central motor and side mounted carriers with attachments based on the type of curtain rod/rail the unit will be hung from.  As shown in the above photo, the unit then simply snaps in place with its drive wheel in contact with the curtain’s rail/rod.  It should be noted that the SwitchBot Curtain’s small, battery operated, motor does have its limitations.  It is only rated to open/close a curtain of up to 17 pounds.

While the picture above shows the SwitchBot Curtain being installed on the side of the curtain that is visible to the room, it could just as easily be installed on the window side of the curtain; making it nearly invisible inside the room.  When installed on the window side of the curtain with the optional solar panel the requirement to periodically recharge the SwitchBot Curtain’s battery is eliminated.  Without the optional solar panel the SwitchBot Curtain’s rechargeable battery is expected to only need recharging once, or twice, a year.

The SwitchBot Curtain connects to the smart phone app using BlueTooth.  With the app you can:

  • Remotely open/close your curtain within your home
  • Schedule up to five open/close actions per day
  • Open/Close the curtain based on the built in light sensor

The SwitchBot Curtain even supports manual operation of the curtain.  The device senses a gentle tug on the curtain fabric and will then open/close the curtain without the need to use the app.

Finally, when coupled with the SwitchBot hub, SwitchBot Curtain is connected to your Wi-Fi network.  This provides a wide array of smart home integration possibilities.  It can then be controlled remotely over the Internet using the app, through IFTTT, and using vice commands with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri Shortcuts. 

Hopefully, these products provide you with reasonably priced options for expanding the capabilities of your smart home.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Next Step in Residential Energy Management


My latest blog post, “The Next Step in Residential Energy Management” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.


A few months ago I wrote about three energy monitors that can monitor the energy used in a home.  While these devices can tell you a great deal about how energy is used in a home, they don’t offer integration that can directly help you save it.  I’m happy to say that the next step in energy management has arrived; in Denmark. 

Energy is generated in various ways:

  • Burning of fossil fuels
  • Nuclear fusion
  • Hydroelectric power plants that generate energy from the water flowing through turbines in a dam
  • Arrays of solar panels
  • Wind turbines
  • Geothermal – using heat from below the earth’s surface to generate steam that  runs turbines connected to generators
  • Landfill Gas – leveraging methane produced by landfills
  • Biopower – leveraging renewable organic materials for energy production

Denmark is a world leader in electricity production from wind.  While wind can be a plentiful source of green energy, sometimes the air is calm and production drops.  This variance in production also leads to swings in the price of electricity.  When the wind is blowing and production is high the price of electricity falls.  Later, even just a few hours later, when the wind calms, production drops and the price of electricity rises. 

True Energy, a Danish electricity company, has found a way to work directly with consumers to optimize energy usage when the wind is blowing and the price of electricity is low.  True Energy has created a smart home IFTTT channel with a trigger that can start an energy using smart appliance when the price of electricity is low.  For example, a homeowner could load their dishwasher before leaving for work and the True Energy IFTTT channel could trigger the dishwasher to clean the dishes when the price of electricity falls and the cost to clean the dishes is minimized.

The IFTTT channel allows the homeowner to specify:

  1. Earliest time the trigger can start the appliance
  2. Latest time the appliance must be finished

While this is currently only available in Denmark from True Energy, hopefully it will become a trend with other power companies as more forms of green energy production are put into place.  For example, Idaho power has plans to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045.  Today, 50% of their power is generated through hydroelectricity, 728 megawatts is generated from wind, and 436 megawatts from solar.  Thirty-three percent of the electricity generated by Pacific Gas and Electric, the largest electricity company in California, was from renewable sources in 2017 (wind, geothermal, biomass, solar, and small hydroelectric).

Just like in Denmark, with the use of wind and solar production by both Idaho Power and Pacific Gas and Electric, comes variance in production, and cost, based on weather and time of day.  If the variance in cost was exposed to customers, along with the tools to help customers better manage their energy usage, there could be more optimized use of electricity.  However, what is missing is the inability of electric companies to account for home solar production and how these systems can offset electricity costs. 

In the middle of a hot summer day energy prices can spike because of the high demand for electricity for air conditioning.  An electric company, trying to optimize a homeowner’s energy usage, would not trigger an electricity hungry appliance to run at when energy demand for air condition is at a peak.  However, if a homeowner had a solar system that, during a bright, summer day, was producing enough energy to completely fulfill the homeowner’s energy needs; it would be the optimal time to run that appliance. 

One way to solve this problem is for the energy monitors I discussed in the prior article to work with electricity providers to integrate solar production into the calculation of energy requirements and costs for a home.  In this way energy use and all forms of production can be brought together to better optimize usage and lower costs.

While Europe seems to be leading the way in this area, hopefully the trend will spread.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical Indoor Air Quality Monitor Review

My latest blog post, “Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical Indoor Air Quality Monitor Review” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:


Below is a copy of the article.




After my article “How to Monitor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in Your Smart Home” was published by Residential Tech Today Magazine, I received a message from a reader informing me that I should take a look at the Kaiterra Sensedge IAQ monitor.  At the writer’s suggestion I contacted Kaiterra and while they didn’t send me a Sensedge, they did send me one of their Laser Egg+ Chemical IAQ monitors to take a look at. 

As the name implies, the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical includes sensors for both airborne particulates and chemicals.  Both of these are very important indoor air pollutants. 




As the above image illustrates, PM2.5 particles consist of, among other things, soot and tobacco smoke.  Examples of PM10 particles are dust, pollen, and mold.  Both PM10 and PM2.5 particles are especially dangerous to human health because they can get deep into the lungs and, in some cases, even get into the bloodstream.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particulate pollution exposure has been linked to:

  • Premature death in people with heart or lung disease
  • Nonfatal heart attacks
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Aggravated asthma
  • Decreased lung function
  • Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.

The airborne chemical pollutants measured by the Laser Egg+ Chemical are volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Again, according to the EPA, VOCs are generated by:

  • Paints, paint strippers and other solvents
  • Wood preservatives
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Cleansers and disinfectants
  • Moth repellents and air fresheners
  • Stored fuels and automotive products
  • Hobby supplies
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Pesticide
  • Building materials and furnishings
  • Office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper
  • Graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.

Exposure to VOCs can typically result in irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.  Headaches and nausea are another common symptom of exposure.  However, more serious health affects are damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system along with cancer.

Because of the serious health issues that can result from indoor air pollution, an IAQ monitor, such as the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical, is an important tool for making your home a safe and healthy place to live.

The Laser Egg+ Chemical IAQ Monitor differentiates itself from the competition through the use of a laser particle detector for measurement of particulates in the air.  Most residential IAQ monitors use an infrared detector that is not as accurate as the sensor in the Laser Egg.  There is a great article on the Kaiterra web site describing the different sensor technologies used for measuring particulates.  You can find the article here.

Another difference between the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical and other IAQ monitors I have reviewed is that the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical doesn’t force you to use an app to view the readings it has collected.  Instead the unit includes a 2.5” (measured diagonally) LCD display.  Pressing the mode button on the top of the unit allows the user to cycle through the various display screens including

  1. Overall indoor Air Quality Index (AQI) based on a combination of the PM2.5 and Total VOC (TVOC) readings.
  2. Indoor AQI that displays a reading from 0 to 500 based on PM2.5 level
  3. PM2.5 concentration used to calculate the air quality index measured in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3)
  4. TVOC index that displays a reading from zero to 100 based on the TVOC level
  5. Relative TVOC concentration in parts per million (ppm)
  6. Details screen displaying >0.3 particle count, current temperature, and current humidity
  7. Local weather forecast
  8. A screen that will shut off the LCD back light so the unit can be placed in a bedroom and not disrupt someone trying to sleep

Connecting the device to the Kaiterra app does offer some advantages because it is through the app that the unit is connected to the homeowner’s Wi-Fi network.  These advantages are:

  • Display of the weather forecast
  • Pollution alerts sent as app notifications
  • Automatic calibration
  • Firmware updates

Another convenience is that the app also offers the ability for the user to select which screens are displayed when the mode button is pressed.  So, for example, if you don’t care about the temperature and humidity data that is displayed on the “details” screen, that screen can be turned off to minimize the number of times the mode button needs to be pressed to cycle through all the screens displaying data.

Setup

Setup is very simple.  After plugging the device in and pressing the mode button several times it starts providing limited IAQ readings, as described above.  The next step is to connect the Laser Egg+ Chemical to the Kaiterra App.

After the App is downloaded from the appropriate app store, simply press the “Add” button displayed on the screen.  After selecting the type of device you are adding, the device can simply be added through the capture of a HomeKit setup image.  The room where the device will be located and the location of your home are then selected.  It should be noted that it can take a few minutes for these selections to take affect after you have made them.  There is an on-screen note that informing the person setting up the device of this; but it is easy to miss.

Finally, you can select the brightness of the display, the temperature format (Celsius or Fahrenheit), language (English or Chinese), the screens you want to appear when you press the mode button on the device, and the size that information will be displayed (zoom mode on/off).

It should be noted that while the Laser Egg+ Chemical currently only supports English and Chinese, the app supports English, Chinese, German, Polish, Spanish, French and Hindi.

Integration

The Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical offers a wealth of ways to integrate the device into a smart home.  Like most other IAQ monitors the device can be integrated with a smart home through IFTTT.  Applets can be created that are triggered based on readings from the connected device, hourly averages of readings from the device, data from the device above a threshold, AQI by location, and AQI by location and above a threshold.

Unlike any other of the IAQ monitors that I have worked with, Kaiterra is the only one to include HomeKit integration.  This is a welcome bonus for people whose smart homes are based around Apple products and their HomeKit standard.

Finally, the Kaiterra has published an API that can be used by smart home system manufacturers to integrate Kaiterra IAQ monitors with their platforms.  The API is public and can even be used by hobbyists.  I have used the API and developed a module to integrate the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical monitor with a Crestron based smart home system.  The module is available for download from my GitHub here. 

Suggestions for Improvement

While the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical includes a more accurate PM2.5 sensor compared to competitors and offers more integration choices it isn’t without areas where I believe the product could be improved.

  1. The app and the display on the device augment each other vs. providing some redundant views of the data.  For example, the app displays the outdoor air quality from the local monitoring station but this data isn’t available on the device.  Another example is that the data for the primary pollutant (either TVOC or PM2.5) is available through the app but you can’t see the other data readings accept in the form of historical graphs.  While it makes sense that the App will display graphs that aren’t available on the device’s small display, all the basic IAQ data from the device should be available in the app.  You shouldn’t have to walk to the location of the device in your home just to view this data.

  1. The two physical buttons (power and mode) on the unit itself are small.  Larger buttons would be easier to use.

  1. The unit makes a perceptible humming noise from a fan that helps to circulate air though it for measurements.  The noise is loud enough that it might disturb someone trying to sleep if the unit were placed on a night stand.  A quieter fan would be a nice improvement

  1. Unlike any other IoT device I’ve worked with the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical doesn’t come with a power supply.  It does include a power cable but the purchaser is expected to supply their own USB power supply.  Kaiterra has informed me that they are addressing this issue and units will be shipping with power supplies in the near future.

  1. No CO2 sensor.  CO2 is a common indoor air pollutant.  It builds up in a home as people breath when there isn’t adequate ventilation.  Symptoms include drowsiness and headaches.  On 9/24/19 Kaiterra released a Laser Egg+ CO2 IAQ monitor.  Kaiterra sent me one to evaluate right before the publication of this article.  While I didn’t have time to include details about the LaserEgg+ CO2 in this article, I was able to update the Crestron module on my GitHub so that it will work with both the LaserEgg+ Chemical and the LaserEgg+ CO2.  That being said, I would like to see a single, comprehensive monitor that covers particulates, VOCs, and CO2 rather than requiring a consumer to purchase two devices to get a comprehensive view of their indoor air quality.

  1. The Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical includes HomeKit integration, IFTTT integration, and a published API.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t include integration with either Alexa or Google Assistant.  Given how large a market share are held by these two voice assistant platforms, Kaiterra should include integration with at least one, if not both, of them.

Summary

Overall the Kaiterra Laser Egg+ Chemical is an excellent product.  The inclusion of a laser particle counter for measuring particulate pollution along with a choice of integration options sets it apart from the competition.  The only true miss in the device’s design is the lack of a sensor to measure CO2; a common indoor air pollutant.  Finally, the app should be improved to provide display of all the data captured by the device.