Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Does Your Smart Home Need Cyber Insurance?

 My latest blog post, "Does Your Smart Home Need Cyber Insurance?” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/does-your-smart-home-need-cyber-insurance/

Below is a copy of the article. 

Cyber Insurance is a necessity for businesses.  According to statista, the number of data breaches has grown from 157, in 2005, to 1473, in 2019.  TechTarget defines a data breach as “a confirmed incident in which sensitive, confidential or otherwise protected data has been accessed and/or disclosed in an unauthorized fashion. Data breaches may involve personal health information, personally identifiable information, trade secrets or intellectual property”.  Business cyber insurance covers the liability for a data breach.

Homeowners’ cyber risks have some similarities to those of businesses but there are additional risks that are unique to them.  These are the typical cyber attacks that homeowners are at risk of:

  • Cyber Breach – The loss of personal information.  According to new research from the research firm Parks Associates, “5% of US broadband households annually experience identity theft, which equates to 5.5 million households affected and at least 6.6 million people”.
  • Cyber Extortion – The threat to publicly release of personal information.
  • Cyber Bullying – Online harassment that could occur in a business, school, or personal situation.  
  • Cyber Disruption – Cyber attacks that keep you from accessing your home or possibly from running a small business that you operate from your home
  • Cyber Financial Loss – The Loss of funds in personal accounts due to a cyber attack. 
  • Ransomware – The restriction to a person’s personal data typically through the encryption of their data on computers within their home.

The first question is whether a smart home places a homeowner more at risk for any of the above cyber attacks.  In Symantec’s 2019 Internet Security Report they documented that during 2018 there were 57,553 attacks against IoT devices and that 75% of those attacks were against routers.  The fact that routers faced the majority of attacks makes complete sense because they are the most accessible device to a hacker as they directly connect to the Internet and according to an article in ZDNet, routers are riddled with vulnerabilities that make them an easy target.  However, when you think about the number of homes with broadband Internet access around the world, the chances of a hacker breaking into a smart home through the router is pretty small.  Unfortunately, attacking a router isn’t the only way that a hacker gains access to a home network.  Some of the other ways that a hacker will gain access to a home are:

  1. Emails with attachments that contain malware or viruses
  2. Fake software that includes malware.  This is especially popular with mobile devices where people routinely download “free” software from online stores.
  3. Hacked online ads that lead a person to a malicious web site that either installs malware on their device or attempts to trick people into entering personal information.
  4. Phishing Emails – A phishing email looks like a legitimate email that you might receive but it contains links to web sites that will install malware on a computer or attempt to trick you into entering personal information; including passwords.

While a person’s risk of being hacked through their smart home is small, everyone does face real risks given the other ways that hackers have found to attack people.  In fact, according to an investigation by Atlas VPN, “hackers carry out 87 million credential stuffing attacks on US citizens daily”.  These are cyber attacks where a hacker will use credentials stolen during a data breach to log into an individual or company account to gain the necessary information to carry out identity theft.

Because of this, insurance companies have begun offering different forms of personal cyber insurance.  Below is a summary of cyber insurance offerings by some major insurance companies.

Allstate

Allstate was founded as part of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1931 and it became an independent company in 1993.  Allstate provides both individual and family plans for identity protection.  They have two tiers of service, essentials and premier. 

Both plans offer:

  • Monitoring of online accounts and notification of any data breaches related to these accounts
  • Full management of identity remediation cases
  • Social Security Number Monitoring
  • Financial Monitoring
  • Reimbursement of up to $1,000,000 in expenses related to fraud
  • Reimbursement of up to $50,000 in funds taken from bank accounts, health savings account or 401(k) plan

In addition, the premier plan includes:

  • Enhanced Financial Monitoring of bank accounts, credit cards, and more
  • Reimbursement of up to $500,000 in funds taken from bank accounts, health savings account or 401(k) plan
  • Monitoring of social media accounts for someone taking over your accounts
  • Priority support
  • Credit card transaction monitoring

Prices start at $9.99 per month for an individual, essentials plan and go up to $34.99 per month for a family, premier plan.

Amica

Amica was founded in 1907 and offers personal insurance including auto, homeowners, liability, and marine coverage.  As part of their home insurance policies, homeowners can purchase additional coverage for identity theft.  This coverage includes:

  • Up to $15,000 to assist in resolving identity theft problems
  • Unlimited telephone support to help resolve the issue
  • Assistance with reporting of the issue and documentation including affidavits
  • Assistance reporting the issue to credit bureaus, creditors, government agencies, etc.
  • Assistance filing a police report
  • One year of credit/fraud monitoring if a wallet or handbag is stolen

According to T. Bryan Cook, Sr. Assistant Vice President in Amica’s Sales and Client Services group, “ID theft protection can be more affordable than consumers may assume. As is the case with all coverages and policy options, we encourage customers to reach out to us directly to review pricing and coverage options available in their state for ID theft protection and resolution. We also offer a credit-monitoring service as an option through our Automobile Policy Program. This option, if chosen, gives consumers the tools to track unusual activity associated with credit reporting. We recommend a combination of both types of coverage – one to monitor activity and identify potential issues quickly, and another to provide some coverage to rectify the situation should you fall victim to identity theft.”

Chubb

Chubb was founded in 1882.  They are a global insurance provider operating in 54 countries.  They offer cyber protection as optional additional coverage to their Masterpiece homeowner’s policies.  They offer protection against:

·         Cyber Extortion and Ransomware

·         Cyber Financial Loss

·         Cyber Bullying

·         Cyber Disruption

·         Cyber Breach of Privacy

Chubb provides:

  • Access to specialists to assist in resolving identity theft
  • Public records monitoring
  • Discounted access to a security partner that can assist with securing your networks
  • Coverage to repair, or replace, computer equipment and lost data
  • Coverage for allegations of unintentional online libel, slander, and invasion of privacy
  • Cyber extortion coverage up to $25,000
  • Cyber financial loss coverage up to $250,000
  • Cyber personal protection up to $250,000

I was unable to obtain the cost of this insurance from Chubb.

Farmers

Farmers Insurance was founded in 1928 and is now a subsidiary of Zurich Insurance Group.  Farmers Identity Shield provides the following coverage in the case of identity theft:

·         $28,5000 in expenses

·         $1,500 indemnity

·         Monitoring of credit and public records

·         Annual report of credit and public records

·         Phone support to answer questions about identity safety concerns

·         Assistance in replacing identification documents that may have been lost or stolen

·         Email tips and news to help prevent identity theft

In the event of identity theft the following services are available:

  • Resolution services for the entire household
  • 24/7 phone support to assist with the identity recovery process
  • Preparation of documentation to notify credit bureaus, banks, etc. of the event
  • Creation and maintenance of a case file documenting all steps taken
  • Assistance in placing fraud alerts and security freezes with the credit bureaus

The price for Farmers Identity Shield coverage is at most $65 per year.

Geico

Geico was founded in 1936 and is the second largest insurer of automobiles in the U.S.  It offers other types of insurance policies to customers but those are serviced by third parties.  Geico offers an identity theft protection policy that is serviced by Generali Global Assistance, Inc. 

Cost of a policy is $79 per year for individuals, $89 per year for couples, and $99 per year for families with up to six children or other dependents.

State Farm

State Farm was founded in 1922 and services over 83 million policies and accounts in the U.S.  State Farm offers cyber insurance as an optional add-on to their homeowner’s policies.  Protections include:

  • Identity fraud or other fraud event
  • Cyber attacks
  • Cyber extortion

In the event of the above, the following services are available

  • Case management services
  • Contingent credit monitoring
  • Up to $50,000 expense reimbursement for identity restoration and fraud loss coverage with no deductible
  • Up to $15,000 for combined cyber attack coverage and cyber extortion coverage with a $500 per occurrence deductible

The price for adding coverage to an existing homeowner’s policy is $25 per year.

Insurance for High Net Worth Individuals

Specialized cyber security policies for high net worth individuals are offered by AIG and PURE

Conclusions

In 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 10% of people over 16 years old had experienced at least one incident of identity theft in the last 12 months.  The insurance polices outlined above offer a wide range of choices for people.  Cyber insurance is not expensive and even if you don’t experience a financial loss, the professional assistance offered in the event of an incident can more than make up for the cost.

 


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Smart Home Water Monitoring with Flume 2

 My latest blog post, "Smart Home Water Monitoring with Flume 2” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/smart-home-water-monitor-flume-2-review/

Below is a copy of the article. 


Water monitoring and leak detection is an incredibly useful feature to include in a smart home.  From an environmental standpoint, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The average household's leaks can account for nearly 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year and ten percent of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day.” Not only is that money wasted on a water bill but, according to Home Advisor, the cost to repair and cleanup water damage can, typically, run between $1,151 - $4,753.  Even worse, a serious leak, for example from a frozen pipe that bursts, can occur when a family is away from their home or on vacation. The resulting damage can even be more extensive and the resulting repairs can cost much more.  An innovative tool for monitoring residential water usage and detecting leaks is the new Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor

 Flume was founded in 2015 during the height of California’s historic drought and they released the initial version of their smart home water monitor in 2016.  Now Flume has released a second generation of their smart home water monitor.

Like the original Flume, Flume 2 consists of two parts:

  1. The Flume 2 Sensor unit that is installed by simply strapping it to the home’s water meter
  2. The Flume 2 Bridge that connects to the home’s WiFi network and wirelessly connects to the Flume Sensor.

The Flume 2 Sensor is powered by four AA Lithium batteries; which will last around two to three years.  This simplifies the installation because, unlike most other water monitors, the Flume 2 Sensor doesn’t have to be powered by plugging it into an outlet.  An additional feature that simplifies installation is that the Flume Sensor communicates with the Bridge over a 915 MHz link.  This allows the Flume 2 Sensor to be located up to one-thousand feet from the Bridge. 

Flume 2 measures the water being used in the home using the same, innovative technique that was leveraged in the original Flume Smart Home Water Monitor.  When water flows through a water meter it spins a magnetic disc inside the meter.  The faster the flow of water through the meter the faster the disc spins.  The Flume 2 Sensor measures the magnetic field from the spinning disc to determine the flow of water. 

On the one hand, Flume’s measurement technology makes Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor very simple to install; simply strap it to an existing water meter using one of the included rubber straps.  However, it does limit the sensitivity of the Flume 2 Sensor to the sensitivity of the water meter that happens to be installed at a home.  Depending on the water meter, Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor can detect leaks of between .01 gallons to .08 gallons per minute.  In comparison, the Flo by Moen leak detector is capable of detecting a leak as small as a single drop per minute.  However, the Flo by Moen requires that the main water line to the home be cut for installation.  Because of this most people would require a plumber to install the Flo by Moen; adding significantly to the cost of the device.

Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor offers a number of improvements over the original Flume Smart Home Water Monitor:

  • The batteries last twice as long and are easier to replace.
  • It stores the water data it collects for up to 60 days so in the event of a WiFi outage none of the data is lost.
  • There is a stronger, more reliable connection between the Flume 2 Bridge and the Flume 2 Sensor to ensure there aren’t any interruptions in communications.
  • The design of the Sensor has been improved to be more durable.
  • It can detect the difference between water used for irrigation and water used inside the home to better pinpoint opportunities for savings and make it easier to catch leaks.
  • It provides improved insight into your past and current water use; helping to save water and money.
  • It works with 98% of residential water meters installed in the U.S.
  • Coming in 2021 it will be able to use AI to identify the specific appliance and fixture in the home that is using water.  Water usage reports will then be able to be broken down by each appliance / fixture to provide homeowners with a more detailed understanding of how water is being used.  Flume hasn’t announced if this will be a free service (as is done by Phyn with their leak detection product) or as an add-on, paid service (as is done by Moen with their Flo by Moen leak detector)

It should be noted that Flume does more than just sell their smart home water monitors to consumers.  Flume partners with utilities that provide drinking water to homeowners and businesses so these utilities can lower the demand for water by their customers.  They do this by supplying customers with Flume Smart Home Water Monitors.  Some utilities that have partnered with Flume are the San Antonio Water System, California American Water, Round Rock Texas Utilities and Environmental Services, and others.  A full list of Flume’s partners can be found here.  If your water utility is on the list there may be rebates available on your purchase of a Flume 2.

Hands on with the Flume Smart Home Water Monitor

Flume 2 comes packaged in a simple, recyclable, corrugated cardboard box.  Included are:

  • Flume 2 Sensor and batteries
  • Flume 2 Bridge and a plug-in power supply
  • Two alternative straps for attaching the Flume 2 Sensor to your water meter
  • Gloves to protect your hands from dirt and grime when working around your water meter during installation
  • A plastic T-Handle tool to assist a homeowner in lifting the cover off their water meter
  • Instructions printed on the box to download the app; which will walk you through the installation process

Flume 2 is very easy to install though I ran into a unique challenge because of where I live; more on that later.

Flume offers apps for both iOS and Android.  After downloading the Flume App from the appropriate app store and giving the app the usual permissions to send you notifications, etc. you will need to create an account.  The account will allow you to view your water usage data on multiple devices as well as view your data when you login to the Flume web site.

Next the app will ask you to describe the location where Flume 2 is installed.  This includes providing a name for the location (Flume 2 supports homeowners with multiple properties and a water monitor installed at each one), address, name of the insurance company (Flume works with a few insurance companies who sometimes provide discounted rates to customers that have installed a Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor), building type, the type of irrigation system (soaker hose, sprinkler system, etc.), how often the lawn is irrigated, the number of people living in the home, the number of bathrooms, and whether there is a pool.

Next you will need to simply scan the QR codes on both the Flume 2 Sensor and Bridge.  This allows the Flume 2 Bridge to identify the Sensor it is receiving a signal from and to link the Bridge with your account.

At this point you need to plug in the Bridge.  After the Bridge boots up it will begin to broadcast its own WiFi SSID.  You then connect to that SSID with your smart phone and go through the process of connecting the Bridge to your own WiFi network by selecting the network from the list of available ones and providing the Bridge with your WiFi password.  Once the Bridge is connected to your WiFi network it will also connect to the Flume 2 Sensor.

The next step is to take a clear photo of your water meter using the smart phone you are running the Flume App on.  This photo is automatically uploaded to Flume.  Flume will use it to identify the specific make / model of your water meter.  As I described earlier the Flume 2 Sensor works by sensing the magnetic field created by the water meter as water flows through it to your home.  Depending on the make / model of the meter different amounts of water will have flowed through the meter for each change in the magnetic field that the Sensor detects.  Correctly identifying the meter is critical for Flume 2 to provide an accurate measurement of your water use.  The photo I initially took wasn’t clear enough to identify the meter.  Through the messaging section of the Flume App, I was contacted by Flume support to take another picture of the meter so they could try to identify my water meter. 

The next step is to attach the Flume 2 Sensor to your water meter using the attached rubber strap.  This is where I ran into problems.   Most people’s water meters are reasonably accessible.  I happen to live high in the mountains in the western U.S. where it can get very cold during the winter.  To keep the water in my meter from freezing it is located at the bottom of a four foot deep, eighteen inch diameter pit with an 8 inch thick foam insulator placed on top of the meter.  There was no possibility of my reaching down to strap the Flume 2 Sensor to my meter. 


To work around this problem I cut a piece of plywood to form a shelf that I was able to lower down next to the meter.  I then lowered the Flume 2 Sensor down onto the shelf and pushed as close as possible to the meter.  This turned out to be close enough for the Sensor to measure the magnetic field created by water flowing through the meter and everything worked fine. 

With the Sensor installed you next have to turn on a faucet in your home so the water is flowing.  Then the system goes through a calibration process which, according to Flume, “allows Flume 2 to learn how to read the homeowner’s specific meter based on the magnetic waves generated by the meter when water is running. Flume uses a number of proprietary measures to ensure accuracy in reading a meter and translating that information into actionable data.”

After the calibration process is complete (it only takes a minute, or two) the Flume App created two alerts based on the information I had provided about my irrigation system and the number of people in my home.  In my case these alerts included

  • Notification if water is running longer than my longest irrigation system cycle
  • Notification if water is running at a rate of 5 gallons per minute for 15 minutes

These alerts can be edited, or deleted, in either the Flume App or through the web interface.

An interesting feature of Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor is that it includes the ability to specify both emergency contacts and additional authorized users.  For example, a vacation home might have a property manager that monitors the property when it is vacant or rented.  This person could be specified as an authorized user so they can monitor water usage at the property. In addition, a homeowner could specify a friend, or neighbor, as an emergency contact.  This person wouldn’t have access to all the water usage information but would be notified in the event of a leak when the homeowners are away.  These are both very useful features. 

Finally, you are taken through a quick tour of the different features of Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor and the associated Flume App including:

·         The ability to view up to the minute status

·         The dashboard that provides a detailed view of water usage, notifications, Sensor battery level,  settings, and the ability to contact Flume

·         Notifications for leaks, how water usage is doing against the budgeted amount, and  signal loss

·         The web portal that provides the same views of water usage data, the ability to view notifications that have occurred, and the ability to adjust settings.

·         The availability of a public applications programming interface (API)


The app and the web portal make it easy to monitor your water usage.  The dashboard is especially useful at providing a snapshot of water usage in a home.  You can view a bar graph of water usage each hour over the last 24 hours, whether water is currently running and if so at what rate, how you are doing against your weekly water usage budget, and any recent notifications that have occurred.  With this information you can quickly see, for example, how much water is being used when someone takes a shower.  Then, to save water, you can either work to change a family member’s behavior or make an informed decision on the impact of purchasing a new, low-flow shower head.  Flume claims that after installing a Flume Smart Home Water Monitor that the average user reduces their water consumption by ten percent.

The Flume App allows you to dive into the details of your water usage.  First, as I said above, the dashboard shows you a bar graph of your water usage each hour over the last 24 hours.  Tapping on the graph changes to a minute by minute view of your water usage. 

In addition, the detailed view of water usage allows you to view water usage data by hour, day, week, month, or year.  In addition you can:

  1. Choose to optionally include water used for irrigation in the graph
  2. Graphically compare your water usage to similar households

All this gives a homeowner a unique insight into their water usage.  It provides a very useful tool for saving water and therefore money on their water bill. 

It is important to note that I was not able to test the capability of Flume 2 to differentiate between water flows to interior appliances / fixtures vs. water flow to an irrigation system.  With night time temperatures, here in the mountains, already dropping down into single digits my irrigation system has been shut down for some time. 

Smart Home Integration

Since the introduction of the original Flume Smart Home Water Monitor Flume has published an open API for smart home integration; a step I highly applaud.  However, they took extra steps to create a very, very secure API and that has made the API challenging to work with for many programmers.  Because of this I’m only aware of two smart home platforms that have been integrated with Flume Smart Home Water Monitor; SmartThings and Home Assistant.

The API provides the ability to query water usage data in many different ways.  While this could be very useful to someone very interested in looking at their data in detail to try and find ways to save water, it doesn’t provide the two features that would be of most use when integrating Flume 2 with a smart home processor / hub.

1.      A water leak notification so the smart home processor / hub could automatically shut off a motorized water valve to stop water from leaking into the home and causing damage

2.      The ability to automatically enable / disable away mode when the homeowners are away and can’t address the emergency.  The emergency contact is only sent usage alerts when Flume 2 is set to away mode and setting Flume 2 to away mode can only be done manually in the app.  A homeowner could easily forget to do this in the rush that usually takes place while preparing to leave on a vacation or business trip.   The ability to set Flume 2 to away mode needs to be integrated into a smart home.  For example, setting the home’s alarm system, that is integrated with the home’s smart home processor / hub, to vacation mode could automatically inform Flume 2 to enable away mode.  Another way this might be accomplished is to use location information from family members’ smart phones.  When all the family members are over, for example, 50 miles from home, away mode could automatically be enabled.  When family members return and are close to home away mode could automatically be disabled.  Again, this could all be done through integration with a smart home processor / hub.

It would be ideal if these actions were integrated locally through the Flume 2 Bridge so, for example, an Internet outage wouldn’t impact the system’s ability to have the water supply shut off in the event of a leak.  And, the smart home processor could inform the Flume 2 Bridge when away mode is enabled / disabled.  If there was an Internet outage at that exact time, the Bridge would hold that information, as it does with water usage data, and upload the information to the Flume Cloud as soon as Internet access is restored. 

In addition, performing these integrations between a smart home processor / hub and the Flume Bridge on the homeowners local network would lessen the security needed compared to these actions being enabled through a cloud service; which has limited the current the number of smart home platforms integrated with Flume Smart Home Water Monitor.

Pros and Cons

Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor is very easy to install and provides very good insight into water usage in a home.  This insight will be even further improved in 2021 when Flume releases the ability for the system to provide water usage information for each fixture / appliance in a home. 

However, there are some ways I think Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor can be improved.

  • It needs to include the ability to trigger a motorized valve to shut off the flow of water in a home when a leak is detected to minimize damage.  If this was done as described above through integration with a smart home hub, then a device like the Dome Z-Wave Water Valve Actuator would be an easy to install solution.  I believe it would also expand the ability of homeowners to get reduced rates on their homeowners insurance when a Flume 2 is installed.
  • It would be nice if signal strength between the Sensor and Bridge was displayed in the app so the homeowner would know the impact of positioning the Bridge in different locations in their home
  • The Flume App is designed for a smart phone and locked in portrait mode.  For use on a tablet it would be nice if it would support rotation to landscape mode.  In many cases people with tablets have a keyboard attached to them which makes using the tablet in portrait mode problematic.
  • The outdoor leak rule is too simplistic.  It is just based on the amount of time that Flume 2 detects that water is flowing to the irrigation system.  Instead, Flume 2 should have a homeowner walk through sending water to each of the irrigation systems zones so it can measure the flow rate.  Then if Flume 2 determines that water is being used by the irrigation system and the flow is too high it should report this as a leak instead of simply looking for water usage beyond the time of the longest sprinkler cycle.  As a further argument for this approach the timing of irrigation cycles can be problematic when an intelligent irrigation controller is automatically adjusting the time it waters a lawn based on weather conditions.  So the amount of time it takes to properly irrigate a lawn in August, when it is typically very hot and dry, is much greater than in the spring when it is cooler and typically raining quite a bit.
  • While most people live in urban and suburban settings where their water use is metered there are a great many people who live in rural settings where their water comes from a well.  There are too many technological developments that have ignored this population.  It would be nice if Flume developed a sensor that worked for homeowners that use well water and would the provide the same leak detection capabilities in rural areas of the country.
  • As I described above, easier integration with smart home processors / hubs of leak notifications and the ability to enable / disable away mode.

Conclusions

Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor is a great tool for a family to monitor water usage in their home and save money on their monthly water bills.  It isn’t the most sensitive leak detector on the market but it is certainly one of the simplest for a homeowner to install.  Its one significant drawback is that it doesn’t include the ability to trigger a smart home processor / hub when a leak occurs so a motorized valve can be closed; minimizing the damage from a leak.  Instead it simply notifies the homeowner or emergency contact of the issue and relies on them to address the problem.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

How to Know When Events Take Place in a Smart Home

  My latest blog post, "How to Know When Events Take Place in a Smart Home” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/how-to-know-when-events-take-place-in-a-smart-home/

Below is a copy of the article. 

A well designed smart home incorporates a wealth of sensors so the system can intelligently undertake actions on a homeowner’s behalf.  First and foremost an alarm system integrated with a smart home processor / hub can:

  • Inform the smart home processor / hub when the alarm system senses:
    • Intruders
    • Smoke or a Fire
    • Water Leak
    • Carbon Monoxide
    • Explosive Gasses from a Natural Gas or Propane Leak
    • Freezing Temperatures that could cause a Pipe to Burst
    • Loss of Power in the Home
    • And more…
  • Sensors connected to an alarm system can also be used to perceive occupancy in the home, or specific rooms, and used to automate lights.  For example, this could include turning on pathway lights when a homeowner returns home at night so he/she can safely navigate within the home.
  • An outdoor, wireless, magnetic door/window sensor can be placed in a mailbox to determine when the mailbox door is opened.  This can be used to inform the smart home processor / hub when the mail has been delivered
  • Some homeowners have privacy issues with the latest smart door bells from Ring and other companies.  If this is the case an Elk Doorbell Detector can be integrated with a traditional doorbell.  It can then be connected to a non-alarm zone on a traditional alarm panel to inform the smart home processor / hub when the doorbell is pressed.  The smart home processor / hub can, for example, turn on porch lights if the doorbell is pressed at night or even trigger the recorded sound of a large dog barking if the doorbell is pressed when nobody is home.
  • A magnetic garage door sensor can be connected to a traditional alarm panel and used by a smart home processor / hub to know when the garage door is still open after the homeowners have left home or at night when they go to bed

Smart appliances integrated with a smart home processor / hub can inform the smart home system when the clothes washer has finished its cleaning cycle, clothes in the dryer are done, or the dishwasher has finished cleaning the dishes.  If a homeowner doesn’t have smart appliances then an energy monitoring smart plug can be used to monitor the energy used by an appliance to determine when it has finished.

The integration of a smart thermostat with a smart home processor / hub can be used to monitor the temperature in home.  This can be used, for example, to make sure the temperature in the home doesn’t drop too low; which could lead to frozen pipes and a flood.  If this occurs while the homeowners are on vacation it could result in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in damages.

A smart door lock integrated with the smart home processor / hub can inform it that the batteries in the lock are getting low and need to be changed before the homeowners get locked out of their own home.

With all this knowledge of what is happening in a home the question is, “what should a smart home do with it?”  One of the obvious steps in all of the above examples is that the smart home processor / hub should inform the homeowner.  Fortunately, there is a wealth of options for sending notifications from a smart home processor / hub to a homeowner.

Email Notifications

Years ago it was very easy to send an email from a smart home processor.  For better, or worse, email spammers forced the major email providers to significantly beef up their security.  Smart home processor / hub manufacturers haven’t all kept up to add the necessary code to their systems to handle this updated security.  An alternative is SMTP2GO.  They provide the ability to send email using basic SMTP protocol that is supported by many smart home processors / hubs.  And, the free tier of their service provides the ability to send up to 1000 emails per month; which should be more than adequate for a smart home. 

But, not everyone has their phone setup to notify them when every new email arrives.  An alternative to sending emails directly to a homeowner is to use one of the email-to-SMS interfaces that mobile phone carriers provide.  An extensive list of them can be found here.  They are very simple to use.  For example if you want to send a text message to someone who has AT&T as their cell phone service provider you would just need to address an email to:

the-person’s-10-digit-phone-number@txt.att.net

Combining SMTP2GO with an email-to-SMS interface makes it easy to send basic notifications to homeowners.

alertTech

alertTech is a value added service that Crestron smart home integrators can offer their customers to receive alerts from their Crestron smart home system.  It includes a SimplWindows module that communicates securely over HTTPS with an alertTech AWS cloud server.  The cloud server then forwards the notification message to the alertTech app on the homeowner’s iOS device.  Android devices are not currently supported.  alertTech has considered developing an Android app but at this point they have not seen any demand for one from their clients. It should be noted that because the alertTech SimplWindows module leverages HTTPS for communications it is only available for 3-Series and 4-Series Crestron processors.

alertTech notifications are displayed on the smart phone’s lock screen and are logged in the app.  Notifications in the app can be organized by:

  • Date and Category (Security, Temperature, etc.)
  • Chronological Order
  • Latest Status (Only events that have occurred over the last 48 hours)

alertTech believes that as homes become more sophisticated and homeowners have more than one home to keep track of, instant notifications and tracking of those notifications will become more and more important.  They also have plans for “reporting over time” using the logged data, so that Integrators can show customers data trends of HVAC systems, personnel access to a property, and more.

Because alertTech is sold through Crestron dealers, just for Crestron smart homes, it has a number of features specifically designed for this market.  First, in the case where the notification message shows that there is an issue with the smart home system, the application supports direct messaging between the homeowner and the smart home integrator that installed and supports the system.

In addition, alertTech is designed for homeowners that may have multiple properties.  It includes the ability to select a property and then just view alerts that have been received from the Crestron system installed at that location.

In the future, alertTech may expand beyond just supporting Crestron smart home systems.  They have an API for generating notifications to their cloud service.  This will allow them to expand alertTech to support additional platforms in the future.

alertTech is a paid service that is designed to be offered by an integrator to their customers.  Integrators interested can contact alertTech for information on pricing by emailing info@alertTech.io.

Pushbullet

Pushbullet is a cross platform service that supports Android, Chrome, Firefox and Windows.  Unfortunately, early in 2020 Pushbullet decided to drop their support for iOS.

Pushbullet has much broader functionality than just sending and receiving notifications.  It provides the ability to send and receive text messages on a computer, share links between devices, chat, send files, and more.  To support all this functionality there is an extensive, well documented, API available.  Members of the community have written code to allow Pushbullet notifications to be triggered from both SmartThings and Hubitat Elevation hubs.  Pushbullet is also supported by Home Assistant and through IFTTT. 

lFTTT is compatible with Control4, Elan, and URC systems using a driver written by Chowmain Software & Apps.  It can also be integrated with Crestron systems using an IFTTT driver that can be downloaded from my GitHub here.  Otherwise I’m not aware of any direct integration with any of the professional smart home platforms.  It should be noted that IFTTT has recently transitioned from a free to a subscription service.  So, there is a cost associated with using IFTTT as an integration platform for Pushbullet.



Pushover

Pushover is another cross platform service with clients for Android, iOS, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari. In addition, Pushover notifications can also be delivered to the desktop lock screen and Notification Center of Apple Macintosh computers.

Pushover is a paid, though very inexpensive, service.  After a seven day trial period the cost is simply a $5 one-time fee for each platform (iOS, Android, or Desktop) that a user plans to use to receive Pushover notifications.  There is also a limit of 7,500 free notifications per month.  This should be more than enough for any smart home user. 

Pushover notifications can include

  • Images
  • A URL that will be displayed in the notifications as a clickable link
  • Priority (Lowest, Low, Normal, High, Emergency)
  • One of 22 different sounds that will be played when the notification arrives.  Some examples are none, bugle, piano bar, and vibrate only.

Pushover can easily be integrated with smart home platforms.  There is a well documented API and Pushover has integrations with Hubitat, Home Assistant, and HomeKit through Homebridge.  Pushover also includes IFTTT integration and an email gateway that converts email messages to Pushover notifications.  For professional integrators Chowmain software & apps offers a Pushover driver for RTI and their IFTTT driver can be used to integrate Pushover with Control4, Elan, and URC systems.  To make it easy for Crestron programmers I have created a Crestron-Pushover integration module.  It can be downloaded from my Github here. 



Prowl

Growl is a notification system for Mac OS X and Windows.  Growl notifications can be brought to iPhones and iPads with the Prowl app.  The Prowl app can be downloaded from the iOS app store for $2.99 and the author’s web site includes information on how to programmatically generate notifications.  For Crestron programmers I created a Crestron Prowl integration module that can be downloaded from my Github here.  Prowl has also been integrated with Home Assistant based systems. 

Prowl provides a wealth of options.  First, a notification can optionally include a priority.  The settings for the Prowl app include the ability to setup quiet hours where only notifications with the priority set to emergency will be shown and generate a sound. 

Another useful feature is the ability to associate an application URL with a notification.  Then, when a user acknowledges the notification on their iPhone or iPad, it will automatically open the specified app.  For example, a notification generated by an intruder tripping the alarm system in a home can trigger an app where the homeowner can view the home’s security cameras. 

The Prowl app also keeps a log of notifications with the notifications organized in chronological order.  It can be very useful to look back and review what has happened in a home over the course of a day, or longer period of time.

Unfortunately, the obvious downside of Prowl is that it doesn’t support Android phones.  So, families that haven’t bought into the Apple way of life, or have a mixture of devices in their household, can’t be fully supported.

Vybit

Vybit is a newcomer to notifications and has its own unique twist.  Vybs (Vybit’s term for a notification) each include a unique sound so a homeowner will know what the notification is without having to look at their smart phone or tablet.  For example:

  • A notification that informs the user that the alarm at their home has been tripped could include the sound of a siren
  • A notification that the doorbell was pressed could simply include the sound of a doorbell
  • A notification that they mail has been delivered could include the sound of a dog barking

Vybit includes an iOS app, Android app, and a web app that supports most major browsers.  The iOS app can be found here and the Android app can be found here.  This overcomes the limitation of other notification platforms that only support iOS or Android, but not both.

There is information provided right in the app on how to programmatically generate a Vybe notification.  To make it easy for Crestron programmers I have created a Crestron-Vybit integration module.  It can be downloaded from my Github here.  For users of other manufacturers’ smart home processors / hubs Vybit has an IFTTT service that allows any IFTTT applet to generate a Vybe notification.  Again, IFTTT is supported by SmartThings, Hubitat, and Home Assistant.  It is compatible with Control4 and URC using a driver written by Chowmain Software & Apps.  And again, it should be noted that IFTTT has recently transitioned from a free to a subscription service.  So there is a cost associated with using IFTTT as an integration platform for Vybit.

As I said, Vybit is a relatively new app and the developer, Brady Brown, is still working on filling out the feature set.  For example the app lets you see a log of notifications in chronological order but there isn’t a way for the user to clear the log.  It also doesn’t offer the same prioritization of notifications that some of the other notification apps do. 

There is one drawback to Vybit’s goal of using sound to keep a homeowner from having to look at their phone to understand the meaning of a notification.  While some notifications have a very obvious sound associated with them, such as the sound of a door bell when the doorbell is pressed, others do not.  Even with thousands of sounds available on freesound.org, what is the correct sound to play when the clothes washer finishes cleaning a load of laundry?  Or, what is the correct sound to plan if the battery in a smart door lock is critically low?  I believe there needs to be an option to use a sound generated through a text to speech engine instead of simply choosing a random sound that doesn’t have any association with a specific event.  Some people will simply never be able to remember what that sound means and will be forced to look at their phone to view the notification.   

I’ve spoken to Brady Brown.  He is actively working on the app so I expect new features are coming in the not too distant future.  And, even with the limitations I have noted, the ability to receive a notification and know exactly what it is, without having to dig your phone out, is a welcome feature.

A Tool for Integrators

It is important to note that while including notifications in a smart home is a very valuable feature for homeowners, notifications can also be a valuable tool for professional smart home integrators.  Knowing when smart home processor / hub detects that there is an issue with the smart home can allow an integrator to proactively contact a customer about an issue before the customer may even be aware of it.  Being able to solve problems for a customer before they are impacted by them can be a great tool to build good will and loyalty.

Conclusions

A well designed smart home knows a great deal about what is happening in a home.  It is important to include a way of informing a homeowner of these events and potentially the integrator that installed the system.  There are a plenty of options for including this in every smart home no matter what platform the smart home is based on.

Below is a chart that summarizes the available options for each smart home platform with the exception of email->SMS and email->notification provided by some notification platforms.

Platform

Notification Options

Control4

Pushbullet (Chowmain IFTTT driver)

Pushover (Chowmain IFTTT driver)

Vybit (Chowmain IFTTT driver)

Crestron

alertTech

Pushbullet (through Author’s IFTT driver)

Pushover (Author’s driver)

Prowl (Author’s driver)

Vybit (Author’s driver)

Elan

Pushbullet (Chowmain IFTTT driver)

Pushover (Chowmain IFTTT driver)

Vybit (Chowmain IFTTT driver)

HomeKit

Pushover ( Through Homebridge)

Home Assistant

Pushbullet (IFTTT)

Pushover

Prowl

Vybit (IFTTT)

Hubitat

Pushbullet

Pushover

Vybit (IFTTT)

RTI

Pushover (Chowmain Driver)

SmartThings

Pushbullet

Vybit (IFTTT)

URC

Pushbullet (Chowmain IFTTT Driver)

Pushover (Chowmain IFTTT Driver)

Vybit (Chowmain IFTTT Driver)


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

My Experience with Jasco’s Wi-Fi Smart Home Product Line

 My latest blog post, "Jasco Introduces New Enbrighten Line of WiFi Smart Home Products” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/my-experience-jasco-wi-fi-smart-home/

Below is a copy of the article. 

Even though Jasco has been in business since 1975 and is an industry leader in smart home lighting products they aren’t as well known to consumers as many other smart home brands.  The reason for this is that Jasco’s products have primarily been sold under other company’s names through licensing arrangements.  A primary example of this has been Jasco selling their lighting products under the GE brand.  With the sale of GE’s lighting business to Savant, Jasco has been stepping up the sale of their products under their own name.  Consumers can expect to see more, and more, Jasco products in the market.

Jasco has just released a new Enbrighten line of WiFi smart home products.  These products are designed to offer many of the capability of other smart lighting products without the need for a hub.  This includes direct compatibility with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant for voice control.


I had the opportunity to test the new Enbrighten Dual Outdoor WiFi Smart Switch and the Mini Plug-In WiFi Smart Switch.  The dual outdoor smart switch is completely sealed and weatherproof.  It includes two, three-prong, outlets with individual weatherproof covers.  It is important to note that though there are two outlets they can’t be individually controlled; either both are on or both are off.  In addition to control over WiFi there is a switch to manually operate the outlets and an indicator light so it is easy to see if the outlets are on, or off.  The switch is rated for 15 amps of total load across both outlets.



The Jasco Mini Plug-In WiFi Smart Switch includes a single three-prong outlet, a button to manually control the outlet, an indicator light, and is also rated for a 15 amp load.  A welcome feature is that the smart switch is small enough to plug into the top outlet of a typical dual outlet without blocking access to the lower outlet. 

Included with each switch is an instruction sheet in both English and Spanish.  As is typical with most smart home devices the instructions are very brief, outlining just four steps to setup your device.

  1. Download the app – A QR code is provided to simplify the process of obtaining the free app from either the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
  2. Install the smart device – Plug the smart switch into an outlet.  It is recommended that the Enbrighten Dual Outdoor WiFi Smart Switch be plugged into a GFCI outlet if it will be used outdoors.
  3. Set up account – Using the Enbrighten app you will need to setup an account with your email address and a password.  Jasco will validate your email address by emailing you a code that must be entered into the app.  You then will be asked to provide permission for the app to access Bluetooth, provide notifications, and access your location.  Finally, you are provided with on-screen instructions on how to add your Enbrighten devices to the app and create schedules to automate control.
  4. Voice Control – The instructions explain that the device is compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.  It also explains where in the app to setup the link between Jasco and these voice assistant services.

There are additional QR codes included in the instructions that provide links to more detailed instructions and setup videos (though these were not yet available when I was evaluating the products) and an online product registration form.

Hands on with the Enbrighten Smart WiFi Switches

Adding a smart switch to the Enbrighten app was both easy and trouble free.  Pressing the “+” button in the upper right corner of the main page of the app walks you through the process. 

  1. The app will ask you to confirm that the device you want to add to the app is powered on and that the device’s LED is rapidly flashing; indicating that the device is in pairing mode.
  2. After you confirm that the LED is flashing you are taken to a screen that will show your device if the app has connected to it over Bluetooth.  After confirming that this is the device you want to connect to the app you simply hit next.
  3. You will then be presented with your WiFi network (Enbrighten devices can only connect to a 2.4GHz network) and you will need to enter your WiFi network password.
  4. The app will then configure your smart switch to connect to your network and the device will show up on the main page of the app.  You can either choose to view your devices in a list format or in a grid on the main page.

Once you’ve completed linking your switch to the app you will find that turning it on/off through the app is very fast.  There is really no discernable delay between pushing the button in the app to control and switch and its operation.

The next thing you will want to do is to setup your home including its location and the rooms where your Enbrighten lighting products will be located.  This is accomplished by pressing the “Support” button on the menu bar at the bottom of the screen and then selecting “Home Management” from the displayed menu.

After you define the location of your home it will display the current weather conditions on the main page of the app including the current weather conditions, outdoor temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.  On the surface this would appear to be of minor value.  However, the importance of defining the location of your home is that weather conditions can be used to drive smart home automations.

Automations

Jasco has designed their Enbrighten Lighting products to not require a smart home hub.  They have included the ability to define quite sophisticated automation capabilities into the app.  Pressing the “Automation” button on the menu bar at the bottom of the screen takes you to a screen where you can create automations.  An automation is then created by pressing the “+” button in the upper right corner of the screen.  You are then provided with three choices for what criteria will trigger your automation:

  1. Weather – Temperature, Humidity, Weather (Sunny, Cloudy, Rainy, Snowy, Hazy), Sunset/Sunrise, and Wind Speed
  2. Location – Leaving or Arriving Home
  3. Device Status – Whether your smart switch has turned on, or off

For example, if you had an outdoor water garden filled with fish, during the winter you have to keep a hole in the ice to release gasses that would otherwise be trapped by the ice and are toxic to the fish.  An electric pond heater is placed in the water and provides enough heat to keep a small area of the pond from freezing.  However, if you simply left a pond heater plugged in all winter it would waste a significant amount of money.  So, an automation that turned on the pond heater only when the outside temperature dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit would quickly pay for the investment in an Enbrighten outdoor outlet. 

For more sophisticated control, automation triggers can be limited to an “effective period”.  That is they can be allowed to run all day, limited to daytime (between sunrise and sunset), night (between sunset and sunrise), or between user defined times.  In addition, automations can be limited to repeat only on specific days of the week.

For example, you might want to turn on additional outside light during bad weather (snow or rain) but only have this happen at night.

Groups

Devices can also be collected into groups.  For example, all the switches in a home could be combined into a group named “all devices” and then an automation could be created to turn off the “all devices” group when the app senses, using location services, that you have left home.  One limitation to groups is that only like devices can be included in a group.  So, for example, you can’t put switches and dimmers into the same group. 

Scheduling

In addition to automations, there are two scheduling options for individual devices.  First a countdown timer can be created that will toggle the current state of the device after a specific period of time (up to 23 hours and 59 minutes).  Second, a schedule can be created to turn a device on at a specific time and then off at a later time.  For example, a device can be turned on at 10 AM and then off at 11 AM.  The schedule can be set to run only once or repeat on selected days each week. 

One thing that is important to remember about schedules is that they can only be based on specific times of the day.  If you want to schedule a device to operate based on sunrise or sunset then you need to create an automation.

Other Settings and Tools

There are a number of noteworthy settings available either under the Support section of the app or by editing the settings of one of these Enbrighten Switches.  The first of these is the ability to enable a notification if the switch goes offline.  For either of the switches I tested notifications will take place after the switch has been offline for thirty minutes.  For battery operated Enbrighten products the offline notification won’t take place for 8 hours.  An offline notification lets a homeowner know that there is something wrong that needs to be resolved rather than discovering the issue when an automation, or scheduled event, doesn’t perform as expected.  For example, if you have an automation set to light pathway lights when you arrive home at night you don’t want to trip over something in the dark when it doesn’t work because the switch has been offline all day.

Also under the settings for a device is the ability to check for and download updated firmware.  Keeping a device’s firmware up to date is important in that new versions may fix issues that could impact the devices performance or patch security issues to keep the devices safe from hackers.

A useful tool under the Support section of the app is the Network Diagnosis tool.  It runs a series of test on your home’s network to help make sure that there aren’t issues that could impact the operation of the switches.

Areas for Improvement

While these Enbrighten switches work very well and the Enbrighten app provides a great deal of functionality there are a few ways I believe the product could be improved.

  1. Hyper local Weather – The app pulls weather data off the Internet for use in automations.  This is typically fine for temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure readings.  However, there are many cases where it can rain on one side of the street but not on the other side.  If someone used an Enbrighten switch with a relay (such as https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B017743I7S/) to trigger a motorized skylight to close in the event of rain the system might not properly detect rain.  Jasco should provide the ability to select the closest weather station to a home from pwsweather.com or Weather Underground to be the source of weather data to provide hyper local weather for automations.
  1. At the time of this writing there isn’t an option to connect these switches to a smart home hub.  Jasco has done a good job of designing them to not require a hub.  However, if a homeowner decides to enhance the smart functionality of their home, a hub will become a necessity.  For example if a homeowner wants to integrate a smart alarm system and thermostat into their home, without a hub, there won’t be a way create automations to protect a family in the event of a fire.  If a smart alarm system detects a fire you would want the alarm system to trigger the lights inside the home to turn on to help a family safely exit the home, the exterior lights to flash to help first responders locate the home as quickly as possible, and the thermostat to turn off a forced air HVAC system so it doesn’t spread smoke throughout the house.  Jasco is looking into the integration of their Enbrighten product line with hubs and I’m hopeful that they will take that step in the near future.
  1. Groups should allow multiple types of devices but then default to only supporting commands that are common between all the devices in the group.  For example if a group contained both switches and dimmers the group would only accept on/off commands.  This would simplify creating automations to, for example, turn off all the lights in a home when it isn’t occupied or turn on pathway lights when you arrive home at night.
  1. A minor pet peeve is that the Enbrighten app only operates in portrait mode.  When using the app on a tablet this can be painful if your tablet is enclosed in a keyboard case.  Jasco should make the extra effort to allow people to use the app on a tablet in landscape mode.

Conclusions

The Enbrighten Dual Outdoor WiFi Smart Switch and the Mini Plug-In WiFi Smart Switch are good products for someone who wants to get started creating a smart home.  They are well designed, easy to use, and Jasco has done a very good job building features into the Enbrighten app that will get a homeowner started on the path to a smart home without needing to invest in a hub or deal with the complexity of learning to work with one.  However, if down the road a homeowner wants to grow the capabilities of their smart home, by integrating other smart products into it, they are placing a bet that Jasco will make the effort to integrate their Enbrighten lighting products with the SmartThings hub, Hubitat Elevation Hub, and other popular smart home hubs.  I expect that Jasco will take that step but as this is a brand new product line, integration with smart home hubs doesn’t exist today.