Wednesday, February 1, 2023

MeatStick 4X Improves Wireless Thermometer Performance

My latest blog post, "MeatStick 4X Improves Wireless Thermometer Performance" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/meatstick-4x-improves-wireless-thermometer-performance/

Below is a copy of the article. 


 

Back in 2021 I wrote an article about the MeatStick, a wireless thermometer for cooking; especially on your grill.  That article can be found here.  The MeatStick, with the MeatStick app, allows you to perfectly grill a steak on your grill.  It can also be used:

  • In pans on your stovetop
  • In a smoker
  • In a Sous-Vide cooker
  • When deep fat frying 

 


At the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), MeatStick has just announced the new MeatStick 4X wireless meat thermometer.  The 4X improves on the original MeatStick design by including four temperature sensors in the thermometer.  This makes it easier to measure the coldest part of the meat, as well as the ambient temperature in your grill, for more accurate cooking. 

The MeatStick 4X is also has:

A DualShell™ case for higher durability

  • 70+ hour battery life on a single charge
  • A wireless range of up to 650 ft. / 200 m.

Right now, my grill is covered by several feet of snow.  However, you can look forward to a full review of the MeatStick 4X in the spring.

 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Testing Sensibo Elements Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Performance

 My latest blog post, "Testing Sensibo Elements Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Performance" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/testing-sensibo-elements-indoor-air-quality-monitoring-performance/

Below is a copy of the article. 


 Today. poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is recognized as a significant health hazard.  Older homes were poorly insulated and drafty.  With all this air leaking into and out of a home, there was little need for worrying about the freshness of air within the home.  On the other hand, modern, energy efficient, homes are designed to leak as little air as possible.   Better insulated doors and windows, construction wraps (such as Tyvek), and spray foam insulation have all contributed to more energy efficient homes and issues with IAQ.  In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the air in a home can be 2 to 5 times more polluted than the air outside and research has shown that people spend up to 90% of their time indoors; which exacerbates the problem.

Some sources of poor air quality in a home are

  • Allergens such as pet hair or dander
  • Off gases from building materials, paint, or newly purchased furnishings
  • Automotive exhaust from an attached garage
  • Fuel burning appliances
  • Tobacco products
  • Household cleaning products
  • Radon
  • Mold from excessive moisture trapped inside the home
  • Gas burning appliances
  • And more…

There are three approaches to managing indoor air quality:

  1. Controlling the source of pollution
  2. Improving ventilation in a home
  3. Use air cleaners to remove pollutants from the air

However, before a strategy can be developed to address specific IAQ issues in a home, the homeowners need to understand what IAQ issues exist in their home as not every home is the same.  One home may have an issue with Radon leaking in through the foundation.  Another home may not have an effective vent hood over a stove and have issues from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced during cooking.  Someone living in a home may smoke, which release dangerous particulates that can cause asthma in children, as well as a host of other health problem.  An indoor air quality monitor is a valuable tool to understand the IAQ issues in a home.

COVID-19 and Indoor Air

According to the EPA, “Spread of COVID-19 occurs via airborne particles and droplets. People who are infected with COVID can release particles and droplets of respiratory fluids, that contain the SARS CoV-2 virus, into the air when they exhale (e.g., quiet breathing, speaking, singing, exercise, coughing, sneezing).”  The COVID-19 virus itself is very small.  But, these particles and droplets of respiratory fluid, that carry the COVID-19 virus from one person to another, are large enough to be detected as particulates by an IAQ monitor and captured by many of today’s air purifiers. 

Sensibo Elements


The Sensibo Elements IAQ monitor isn’t Sensibo’s first product related to managing the environment in a home.  Sensibo offers:

  • Sensibo Sky and Sensibo Air – These products manage window and mini-split air conditioning systems.  (An article I wrote about the Sensibo Sky and Air can be found here)
  • Sensibo Air Pro – Like the Sensibo Sky and Sensibo Air, the Air Pro manages window and mini-split air conditioning systems.  In addition, it includes the ability to monitor carbon dioxide levels, total volatile organic compound levels, temperature, and humidity.
  • Sensibo Pure – A smart air purifier. (An article I wrote about the Sensibo Pure can be found here)

However, the Sensibo Elements is Sensibo’s first product that allows a homeowner to monitor the major indoor air pollutants (with the exception of Radon) that impact residential properties, along with temperature and humidity.  The Sensibo Elements can monitor the following indoor air pollutants:

  • Carbon Dioxide – which can cause headaches, fatigue, and a loss of focus.
  • Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs) – which can cause unpleasant odors, skin irritation, nausea, and dizziness.
  • PM2.5 – Inhalable particles that are 2.5 micrometers, and smaller, including dust, pollen, and smoke.  These can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing and sneezing.  Long term exposure to PM2.5 particulates can cause chronic bronchitis, lung disease, and heart disease.
  • Ethanol – Ethanol can be found in mouthwash, mints, ripe fruits, and other household products.  Exposure to Ethanol can cause respiratory irritation

Physically the Sensibo Elements is approximately 4-1/2” square and a little over 1” thick.  It can be mounted on a wall, laid on a table, or held vertically on the included plastic stand.   It should be noted, that the Sensibo Elements requires AC power.  So, if the device is wall mounted there will be a power cord hanging down beneath it.

The only built-in user interface on the device is a color changing LED indicator.  The indicator will change color (green, yellow, orange, red) depending on the air quality measured by the device.

The full feature set of the Sensibo Elements can be found in the Sensibo App.  Both iOS and Android versions of the app are available for download from the appropriate app store.

Integration

The ability to integrate an IAQ monitor with an overall smart home is very important.  First, Sensibo PureBoost™ integrates the Sensibo Elements directly with Sensibo’s other products.  When pollution is high and an alert is activated on the Sensibo Elements, PureBoost™ will activate Sensibo Pure (HEPA filter equipped smart air purifier) high fan to fight pollution. Combined with Sensibo’s AC controllers, Sensibo Sky and Sensibo Air, the AC will also be activated to help circulate air through the purifier to quickly decrease pollution.

Sensibo also has an open API on GitHub.  The API can be used, for example, to emulate the functionality of Sensibo’s PureBoost™ with non-Sensibo air purifiers and a third-party smart thermostat. 

I’ve written a Crestron driver for the Sensibo Elements that can be download from my GitHub here.  This new driver joins the Crestron-Sensibo drivers I’ve already written for the Sensibo Pure and Sensibo Air that are also available for free download from my GitHub.

Finally, Sensibo also supports integration with Google Assistant, Alexa, Siri and Apple HomeKit.

Hands on with the Sensibo Elements


Opening the box that the Sensibo Elements was packaged in was a welcome surprise.  No plastic inserts or other packaging that couldn’t be recycled; just a cardboard box and two plastic bags containing the power supply and USB cable.  Sensibo didn’t even included a getting started instruction booklet.  Those instructions are simply printed on the box. 

The first step to start using the Sensibo Elements is to install the Sensibo App on your smart phone or tablet, choose to add a new device, and select Sensibo Elements from the list of Sensibo devices.  Next, plug in the Sensibo Elements, wait for the indicator light to blink green, and scan the QR code on the back of the unit.  Next, enter a location and room for your Sensibo Elements or choose them from the lists displayed if you already have other Sensibo devices.  Your smart phone will then connect to the Sensibo Elements over Bluetooth.  Next, you connect the Sensibo Elements to your home’s WiFi network by selecting your network from the list of available networks and entering your WiFi password.  At this point the Sensibo Elements will download any available firmware updates and you are ready to start using it.

All the air quality data collected by the Sensibo Elements is displayed in the app.  Displayed is an overall air quality score, the measurement value from each sensor in the Sensibo Elements (TVOC, CO2, PM 2.5, etc.), and a bar graph for each sensor that indicated whether the measured value is good, moderate, poor, etc.  In addition, for each measurement, there is the ability to “explore” and look at detailed information about the sources of that IAQ issue, side-effects, and suggested actions if the measured value isn’t in the “good” range.  Finally, for each measured value you can view graphs showing measurements over time.

Other options that are available in the app are the ability to switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit, the ability to turn the indicator LED on/off, and the ability to share the Sensibo Elements with other people so they can also view the IAQ data.

There is one thing I would like Sensibo to have done differently.  The indicator light on the unit glows green, yellow, orange, or red depending on the overall IAQ.  Any time the indicator is glowing any color but green, you are going to want to pull out your smart phone and open up the Sensibo app to find out what the issue is.  It would have been much better if Sensibo had included indicator lights for each sensor so a user could understand, at a glance, the specific air quality issues in their home.

Conclusions

Overall, the Sensibo Elements is an easy-to-use IAQ monitor.  It provides measurements of all the different IAQ pollutants that a homeowner would want to monitor on a daily basis.  Direct integration with the Sensibo’s other products, including the Sensibo Pure, simplifies the process of managing IAQ in a home.  







Wednesday, January 18, 2023

YoLink: Extending the Boundaries of Your Smart Home

My latest blog post, "YoLink: Extending the Boundaries of Your Smart Home" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/yolink-extending-the-boundaries-of-your-smart-home/

Below is a copy of the article. 

A limitation of most of today’s most popular wireless smart home technologies is distance. 

  • Most WiFi operates at 2.4GHz and 5 GHz. Devices connecting to a WiFi network at 2.4GHz have a practical range of 150 feet. On the other hand, devices connecting to a WiFi network at 5GHz have a practical range of only 50 feet. 
  • Z-Wave devices can reliably communicate at distances up to 100 meters (approximately 330 feet)
  • Zigbee devices operate in a mesh where each Zigbee device can act as a transmitter, receiver, and repeater of communications messages.  So, while Zigbee operates in the 2.4GHz band, giving an individual device a similar range as a 2.4GHz WiFi device, the actual range of the mesh is 150 feet past the outermost devices that are participating in the mesh.

If you want to add smart home technology outside your home, these distance limitations can impose significant challenges. 

YoLink

YoLink is a smart home product line offered by YoSmart, an Irvine, California company founded in 2014 by John Xu with the goal of “making home life simple for everyone.”  The products utilize LoRa communications technology which offers:

  • Long range communications of up to ¼ mile. 
  • LoRa communicates at 915MHz in the United States.  Signals at that frequency are capable of penetrating glass, metal, and concrete; a significant differentiator compared to WiFi and Zigbee which communicate at 2.4GHz and have very limited ability to penetrate walls.
  • LoRa requires very little power giving battery powered devices an expected battery life of between two and ten years.  

The first YoLink products were released in 2019.  Today YoSmart offers over 30 different products and a wide selection of starter kits that group different products together at additional savings for consumers. 

Hands on with YoLink

I was supplied with a small selection of YoLink products to test for this article. 

Learning how to use the YoLink system is reasonably easy with the possible exception of learning how to work with YoLink’s “alarm strategies”.  After downloading the YoLink app from your smart phone’s app store and creating an account, the app will walk you through the key functions it offers.  It does this by highlighting different on-screen icons/menus and explaining the function of each.  There are also over a dozen different videos in the “YoLink Academy” section of the YoLink web site that provide instructional information on a variety of products and subjects.  While the information presented in these videos is valuable, I will warn you that the speakers are rather monotoned and sound almost mechanical in their delivery.  Some nice strong coffee will help you get through them.


The app is well organized and offers a good deal of functionality.  Across the bottom of the screen, you will see a menu bar with four selections:

  • Favorite – Allows you to view scenes and devices that you have tagged as a favorite
  • Rooms – Allows you to view your devices and optionally organize them by the room where they are located
  • Smart – Allows you to create/view/edit scenes and automations
  • Explore – Allows you to purchase additional YoLink products

In the upper right-hand corner of the screen are three additional buttons

  • A refresh icon to update the information shown on the screen
  • A scan icon for scanning QR codes on YoLink devices when you add them to your system (more on this below)
  • A message icon that takes you to the message center where you can view alerts, info messages, and notices generated by the YoLink system

Finally in the upper left corner of the screen is a three horizontal line hamburger menu icon.  This opens a menu where you can change information related to your home, adjust system settings including alarm strategies (more on alarm strategies later), view help or contact support, provide feedback, and more. 

In spite of all the functionality offered in the app, it is reasonably easy to work with YoLink products.  Your first step would be to add a YoLink hub to your system.  A welcome feature is that the YoLink hub can be connected to your home network either over WiFi or with an Ethernet cable connected to your router.  In areas where WiFi is congested a wired Ethernet connection can provide an added degree of resilience to the system.  To add the hub to your system you would simply:

  • Press the scan icon in the upper right-hand corner of the app
  • Scan the QR code on the back of the device using your smart phone’s camera
  • Once the QR code is scanned, a screen is displayed where you:
    • Provide a name for the device
    • If desired, select a room where the device is located
    • Choose whether the device will show on the favorite screen
    • Press the bind button to include the device in your YoLink system

This process is the same for any YoLink product with the exception that if the product is battery powered, you will also need to press a small physical button on the device labeled “Set”.

The heart of the system is automations, alarm strategies, and scenes. 

Automations – An automation is “if this then that” logic to perform actions based on a device changing state (such as a door sensor sensing that a door was opened/closed) or based on a schedule.

Alarm Strategies – An alarm strategy is a set of instructions on how the system will respond in the event a device changes from a normal to abnormal, or alert, state (such as a leak sensor detecting water).  Alarm Strategies allow you to define whether, and how, to be notified when different devices go into an alert state.  Alarm strategies can trigger in app notifications, emails, SMS notifications, a siren to sound, audible or voice alerts to be played on a YoLink Speaker Hub, and devices to be turned on/off.  It is important to know that YoLink provides an unlimited number of in app notifications and email notifications.  However, there is a limit of 20 free SMS (text message) notifications per month. 

There are two key differences between alarm strategies and automations.  First, automations can be triggered by a sensor’s change in state; for example, a motion detector detecting that someone is in a room, or when the person leaves and the room becomes empty.  An alarm strategy can only be trigged by a sensor going into an alert state; such as when a motion detector detects motion.  Second, an automation can only be triggered by a single device while alarm strategies can be triggered by any number of devices.  This aspect of an alarm strategy is useful to define common behavior when, for example, any leak detector in a home detects water.

Scenes – can be triggered as part of an alarm strategy.  Scenes can trigger any number of devices, include a delay between actions, enable/disable alarm actions, and send a notification based on the settings in the associated alarm strategy.  Scenes can be organized into groups.  I found that the YoLink academy video “Automation 101: Day and Night Scenes” gave an excellent overview of how alarm strategies work and how scenes can be used to enable different alarm strategies under different circumstances.

Different YoLink devices have additional functionality built into them.  For example, a door sensor can be configured to send a notification after a specified period of time if a door is left open.

All these features allow a home owner to leverage YoLink products to create a reasonably full featured smart home (within the scope of the YoLink products offered by YoSmart – more on this below); including alarm system functionality.  However, it is very important to understand that while I found YoLink to be very robust and stable; a YoLink system hasn’t gone through the vigorous testing and certifications that an alarm system has to go through.  In addition, a YoLink hub is a conduit between YoLink devices in/around a home and the YoSmart cloud where the logic defined in automations and alarm strategies is executed.  Therefore, an Internet outage can disrupt the operation of a YoLink equipped smart home.  So, homeowners shouldn’t include functionality that family members lives could depend on.  For example, you wouldn’t want to use YoLink temperature sensors and automations to try and sense a fire and then trigger a YoLink siren to notify family members. 

However, YoLink does have a workaround that somewhat minimizes the system’s dependency on YoSmart’s cloud service for executing automations and alarm strategies.  There is the ability to directly link devices together.  Direct device to device pairing is a feature that is unique to YoLink.  It works without Internet and, because YoLink devices are battery powered, even during a power failure.  One example is to pair a YoLink leak detector with a YoLink water valve so when the leak detector senses water it sends a signal directly to the water valve to shut off the flow of water. 



The range of LoRa communications is the key differentiator of the YoLink system.   YoLink claims a range of ¼ mile for communications between YoLink devices and the YoLink hub.  I tested this and validated that range.  I also placed a YoLink contact sensor inside a metal mailbox outside my house.  The sensor had no problem communicating with the YoLink hub from inside this metal enclosure. 

In addition, YoLink allows you to add multiple hubs inside a home so YoLink sensors, switches, etc. will connect to whichever hub is closest and offers the best signal.  In large homes this can further extend the range of the YoLink system.  And, if the property includes an outbuilding with Ethernet or WiFi, a hub can be added to that location to further expand on the range of YoLink’s LoRa communications.

Finally, I thought the pricing of YoLink devices was very reasonable.  A YoLink hub is priced at $30, a door/window sensor is $20, and a basic smart plug is $25.  Further savings on these prices can be obtained by purchasing them in starter kits that bundle multiple items together.

Integration

The YoLink Alexa skill provides integration between YoLink and Alexa smart speakers in a home.  With this integration you can:

  • Control YoLink devices with voice commands
  • Query the status of a YoLink device with a voice command
  • Control YoLink devices in an Alexa routine
  • Trigger YoLink scenes in an Alexa routine
  • Trigger Alexa routines based on the change in state of a YoLink sensor including having Alexa speakers broadcast messages similar to a YoLink Speaker Hub

YoLink provides a very full featured IFTTT service for integrating YoLink devices with a wide variety of smart home ecosystems through the IFTTT cloud service platform.  Using IFTTT you can:

  • Trigger IFTTT applets based on a change in state of YoLink sensors
  • Trigger IFTTT applets based on button presses on a YoLink fob
  • Control YoLink devices in the “that” portion of an IFTTT applet

YoLink has also been integrated with the Home Assistant smart home platform.

YoLink has an extensive cloud API (application programming interface) allowing developers to build integration between smart home platforms and YoLink.  Unfortunately, this API utilizes callbacks which, when used with smart home platforms where the smart home processor/hub sits inside the homeowner’s network, would require port forwards on the homeowner’s router.  Port forwards have become a major security problem in recent years and an invitation for hackers to attack the homeowner’s network.  Fortunately, YoLink plans on developing a new hub that supports a local API that solves this problem in 2023.  When that is released, I’m hoping to be able to write a Crestron-YoLink driver so that YoLink sensors can trigger actions in a Crestron system and so that a Crestron system can control YoLink devices.

How Does YoLink Fit in a Smart Home?

YoLink’s product line includes thermostats (conventional and heat pump), temperature and humidity sensors, leak sensors, water level sensors, water shutoff valves, ,motion sensors, door/window sensors, an outdoor gate sensor, a vibration/shock/glass break sensor, a smart relay, four button fobs and a five device remote control, sirens, a power fail sensor, a wall switch, a wall dimmer, smart plugs (with/without power monitoring), power strips, a wall outlet, a garage door controller, and a garage door sensor.  While these products offer a wide range of smart home functionality there are some important products missing from the lineup.  Some examples are door locks, cameras, and video doorbells; to name a few.  Because the YoLink hub doesn’t include the ability to incorporate Zigbee, Z-Wave, or even WiFi/Ethernet products, it can be a challenge to create a full featured, integrated smart home with YoLink at this time. 

That raises the question of how does YoLink fit into a smart home?  As I stated earlier, what really differentiates YoLink from other smart home platforms is the range of LoRa communications.  This makes it ideal for:

  • Lighting control in an outbuilding or shed
  • Outdoor Security can be improved with outdoor motion detectors around a home, motion detectors in an outbuilding or shed, door/window sensors in an outbuilding or shed, monitoring the opening/closing of a gate with a YoLink outdoor contact sensor
  • You can have the added convenience of knowing when the mail arrives by installing a YoLink outdoor contact sensor in your mailbox that is triggered when the door to your mailbox is opened
  • And more…

All of the above can be implemented using YoLink and then integrated with another smart home platform through IFTTT or Alexa.  While this dependence on the cloud isn’t ideal, in 2023 when YoLink releases their new hub with a local API, I expect that people will quickly develop drivers to integrate that hub into other locally hosted smart home platforms including Hubitat, Home Assistant, and various professional smart home platforms.  This will really make YoLink and ideal solution for expanding a smart home outside the boundaries of the four walls of a home.

YoLink for Commercial Building Managers

YoSmart doesn’t just view YoLink as a smart solution for homes but as a solution for apartment buildings, condominiums, multiple short term rental properties and almost any other type of commercial building.  YoSmart offers commercial building managers the Raedius Web Console; a cloud-based web browser dashboard for the management of YoLink as well as third-party smart devices.  With Raedius, a building manager can manage and control smart systems throughout a commercial building, and even across multiple buildings, from a single web browser-based user interface. 

The Raedius Web Console provides a building manager with the same easy installation of YoLink products that I described above for residential customers, the ability to integrate with non-YoLink devices via API or through contact closure inputs/outputs, automations that perform device actions and notifications, the ability to view real time or historical data and device status, and the ability to create notifications for a diverse group of recipients (security guards, property owners, residents, etc.).

Suggestions for improvement

While I found YoLink to be a reliable and robust product, there are a few ways I think it could be improved.

  1. The most significant area for improvement is already recognized by YoLink; the need for a new hub that provides the ability to locally execute automations/alarm strategies and provides a local API for integration with other smart home platforms.  YoSmart plans on releasing a new hub in 2023 that includes a local control API.
  1. YoLink academy offers some very instructive videos.  However, it can still be a challenge to fully understand the YoLink paradigm of alarm strategies and how they can be leveraged with automations to create a smart home.  YoLink should create a “demo home” system that is configured with YoLink products, alarm strategies and automations.  A YoLink academy video would then walk through the configuration of the demo home in the YoLink app to explain how alarm strategies and automations are setup in this situation.  This would then serve as a blueprint for how a homeowner would configure the YoLink system in their own home.
  1. When you first start using YoLink it is pretty much a blank slate and the homeowner will find it necessary to build most of the alarm strategies, automations, and scenes from scratch.  This may be very intimidating for some people.  YoLink needs to build more “wizard” functionality into the app that will get people successfully started working with the products.  Once they have learned the ins and outs of YoLink and are more comfortable with the YoLink paradigm they can start modifying some of the functionality created by the wizards and customizing the system so it meets their unique needs.  For example, when you add a door sensor the wizard could ask the homeowner what kind of alarm functionality, they would like that door to have and whether they would like to be notified if the door was left open.  The wizard could then create the necessary functionality in the app for that sensor.  There should also be a setting to disable the wizards for advanced users.

Summary and Conclusions

The YoLink system is a fairly full featured smart home platform that is differentiated from the competition by its use of LoRa for wireless communications that:

·       Offers ¼ mile range between a YoLink smart home device and a YoLink hub

·       Long battery life of between two and ten years

·       Direct Device to Device pairings allows actions to take place without Internet or power

·       The ability to be used in large commercial settings with the Raedius Web Console

Setup of devices is very easy but the programming of automations, scenes, and alarm strategies is pretty much a blank slate.  The “YoLink academy” section of the YoLink website does offer a good number of videos to help people through the learning curve.  However, some people may be intimidated having to start the configuration of the system from scratch. 

The downsides to a smart home based on YoLink are:

  1. While YoLink does offer a wide range of products there are some key product categories that are missing.  YoLink offers integration with Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT.  However, this doesn’t provide a good way of integrating products including cameras, video doorbells, ceiling fans, etc. without having to juggle between multiple different apps on a smart phone.
  1. The logic of a YoLink based smart home is executed in the cloud.  If a home’s Internet service is down then the automations and alarm strategies that run a YoLink smart home won’t function.

That being said, when YoLink releases their new hub that supports local API (planned for 2023), the YoLink system will be a very valuable add-on for professional smart home systems where the long range of the sensors and other devices can be very valuable in solving unique problems in homes with large properties.  Or, even in smaller homes where LoRa’s ability to penetrate metal, concrete, and glass sets it apart from other smart home communications standards.


Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Valencell Showcases New Fingertip Blood Pressure Monitor at CES

My latest blog post, "Valencell Showcases New Fingertip Blood Pressure Monitor at CES" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/valencell-showcases-new-fingertip-blood-pressure-monitor-at-ces/

Below is a copy of the article. 



According to the CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), “Nearly half of adults in the United States (47%, or 116 million) have hypertension”.  Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can increase an individual’s risk for heart attacks,  heart disease, strokes, poor cognitive function and dementia, kidney disease, and other ailments.  A newly announced blood pressure monitor by Valencell is about to make monitoring your blood pressure at home much easier. 

Currently, people measure their blood pressure at home with an automated blood pressure cuff; also know as a sphygmomanometer.  The sphygmomanometer’s cuff is wrapped around the user’s arm and inflated by a built-in air pump.  As the cuff is slowly deflated, a microphone listens to the flow of blood through an artery in the user’s arm.  It then uses this information, along with measurements of the air pressure in the cuff, to provide the user with their blood pressure result.  These devices can be somewhat clumsy to use and subject to error if the cuff is not placed properly on the user’s arm.

Valencell was founded in 2006 with a vision to help people live longer, healthier lives.  Valencell’s proven inventions, sensor technology, and algorithms can be found in tens of millions of wearable and hearable devices.  These devices are manufactured by companies including Samsung, Suunto, Bose, Jabra, Huawei, and Sony. While Valencell was established as a technology provider in consumer sports and fitness wearables, its foundational technology has the potential to realize the dream of seamless chronic disease management through easy-to-use, high-compliance digital health solutions.

Valencell has announced plans to launch its own branded product line in the digital health sector as it concentrates efforts to bring solutions to market to manage chronic diseases. The company’s first product candidate being showcased at CES is focused on helping people monitor and manage hypertension by combining an intuitive app with an innovative over-the-counter device to accurately measure blood pressure (BP) from the finger without a cuff or calibration.

The device is being designed to measure blood pressure in less than a minute using a small probe on the middle finger without the need for bulky or painful cuffs. Photoplethysmography (PPG) sensors within the device use reflected light to measure blood flow patterns. Proprietary AI algorithms, developed from PPG datasets comprising more than 7,000 patients, will be used to process this information with physical characteristics (age, weight, gender, and height) to calculate a blood pressure measurement. Diastolic and systolic results are then displayed on the device’s built-in screen and transmitted via Bluetooth to the app.

Although the device has been designed as a stand-alone blood pressure monitor, it has the potential to become a powerful tool to help manage hypertension when paired with its accompanying app.  The easy-to-use mobile app has been designed to track and store readings and allow users to set reminders to take their blood pressure. Users will also have the ability to view trends over time, track the frequency of their measurements, and download and share data. 

Valencell will soon expand the app’s capabilities to enable seamless hypertension management.  After providing users with a baseline of their current blood pressure profile, the app will help coach users, through targeted diet and exercise plans, towards improved cardiovascular health, followed by ongoing health maintenance. A further upgrade will enable integration within digital healthcare platforms used by healthcare providers to improve physician-directed care.

Pending FDA Clearance, the launch of the Valencell fingertip device will further the company’s vision of bringing life-changing digital health solutions to consumers and is a strategic evolution for the company.   It is expected to retail for just $99.

 




Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bond Adds the Sidekick Keypad to their lineup of Smart Home Bridges

My latest blog post, "Bond Adds the Sidekick Keypad to their lineup of Smart Home Bridges" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/bond-adds-the-sidekick-keypad-to-their-lineup-of-smart-home-bridges/

Below is a copy of the article. 

Recently I wrote an article on alternative user interfaces for the smart home (that article can be found here). While that article covered a wide range of products, one that it didn’t include was the new Bond Sidekick keypad. 

The company behind the Bond Sidekick is Olibra.  Their focus is “thoughtfully connecting certain often-overlooked household appliances: specifically ceiling fans, fireplaces, and shades.”  Their first product, the Bond Bridge, allowed users to integrate fireplaces, shades, and ceiling fans that are controlled by RF (radio frequency) and IR (infrared) remote controls into a smart home.  This integration included integration with Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings, Control4, Crestron, Elan, Homebridge, RTI, URC, control through the Bond Home app, and an open API that allowed the system to be integrated with other third party smart home ecosystems (I found that Hubitat and Home Assistant both have integration drivers to work with the Bond Bridge and leverage the API).  The drivers for Control4, Elan, RTI, and URC are provided by Chowmain Software.  I personally wrote a Crestron-Bond driver that provided for control of devices connected to the Bond Bridge from a Crestron smart home processor (My free driver can be found here).

Olibra then released the Bond Bridge Pro.  The Pro model doesn’t include the ability to control devices over IR, but adds the ability for:

  • Expanded integration with Shades including Somfy, A.OK, Neo, Dooya, Rollease ARC, Wynstron, and Nice shade motors 
  • Prioritized customer support
  • Expansion from support of 30 devices with the Bond Bridge to 50 devices with the Bond Bridge Pro
  • Enhanced RF Range from 2500 sq. ft. with the Bond Bridge to 3500 sq. ft. with the Bond Bridge Pro
  • And, the ability to work with Bond Sidekick keypads (the original Bond Bridge doesn’t support Sidekick Keypads)

The Bond Sidekick keypad seems very simple at first.  They are 8 button keypads that comes in two varieties:

1) Sidekick for Shades

2) Sidekick Scene Keypad

The engineers at Bond have done a really good job on the design of these keypads.  First they have an amazing 10 year batter life. 

Second, physically, the keypads are very thin and designed to fit into a standard Decora Faceplate used for light switches in many homes.  However, the design goes beyond just fitting in a standard faceplate. The keypads are so thin that when one is installed in a Decora faceplate it sits flush with the back of it.  This allows a Sidekick keypad to be mounted anywhere in a home.  It doesn’t have to be mounted over an electrical box.  Just screw the Sidekick keypad to the wall with the included adapters, screw on the faceplate as you would with any light switch, and you are done.  Alternatively, a homeowner could change the faceplate of an existing light switch to one with one more opening.  Then the Sidekick keypad can be mounted right next to the existing light switch where it minimizes its visual impact on the decor of a room.

Third, the buttons of the Sidekick can be custom, laser engraved with text that describes their operation.  This allows a smart home hobbyist to create a professional looking installation the likes of which have been reserved for people who have paid an integrator to install professional smart home system.  In the near future Olibra will even allow the number of buttons on the Sidekick to be changed.  So, for example, instead of the standard 8-button keypad configuration a homeowner will be able to convert the Sidekick into a 3-button keypad if that happens to be all the buttons the smart home equipment in the room, where the Sidekick is located, requires for control. 

Custom engraving of Sidekick keypads is available through Laser Engraver Pro.  I’ve personally used this service in the past and found they do an excellent job for a reasonable price.

I mentioned previously that Olibra offers two versions of the Sidekick keypad.  The Sidekick for Shades is designed to directly control shades by sending RF commands to them in response to button presses.  By sending commands directly to the shade it makes the system very responsive so there isn’t a delay between a button on the keypad being pressed and the command reaching the shade to, for example, stop it precisely where it blocks direct light from causing glare in a room.

The second version offered by Olibra is the Sidekick Scene Keypad.  From the standpoint of integration with third party ecosystems, I found this to be a very interesting product.  Using the Bond’s local control API, I was able to expand the original Crestron-Bond driver I wrote to include receiving events whenever a button on the Sidekick Scene Keypad was tapped, double tapped, or held down.  I found the communications time to be very speedy between when a button was pressed and when my Crestron smart home processor received notification of the event.  Chowmain software has already released updates to their Bond drivers to support the Sidekick.  I expect that you will see drivers for other smart home ecosystems updated as well in the near future.

Sidekick Keypads, as well as everything else related to the Bond Bridge Pro, is configured using the Bond Home app.  I found the app very easy to use.  It was a welcome feature that it even supported running on my iPad when the iPad was in landscape position. 

Overall, the Bond Bridge and Bond Bridge Pro offer both consumers and professional smart home integrators a way to integrate fireplaces, ceiling fans, and shades into a smart home; which in many cases has been very challenging.  The Bond Sidekicks, coupled with the Bond Bridge Pro, offers the convenience of adding keypads as smart home control points throughout a home.  In addition, they provide a professional look to a smart home that has only been available to people who have paid a professional smart home integrator.

 






Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Streaming 101: Maximize Your TV Watching Options While Saving Money

My latest blog post, "Streaming 101: Maximize Your TV Watching Options While Saving Money" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/maximize-your-tv-watching-options-while-saving-money/

Below is a copy of the article. 

According to Wikipedia, “The DuMont Television Network, which had begun experimental broadcasts before the war (World War II), launched what Newsweek called "the country's first permanent commercial television network" on 15 August 1946, connecting New York City with Washington.”  Then “NBC launched what it called "the world's first regularly operating television network" on 27 June 1947, serving New York City, Philadelphia, Schenectady and Washington. Baltimore and Boston were added to the NBC television network in late 1947. DuMont and NBC would be joined by CBS and ABC in 1948.”

At that time, content was either produced locally, by the major networks, or consisted of movies that had finished their runs in theaters.  Content was freely available to anyone with a TV set and an antenna.  It was paid for entirely by revenue from advertising that was broadcast before, and during, TV shows and movies. 

Cable TV changed everything.  Again, according to Wikipedia, “Cable television first became available in the United States in 1948.  By 1989, 53 million U.S. households received cable television subscriptions, with 60 percent of all U.S. households doing so in 1992.” Cable TV lead to the growth of specialized TV stations; each offering unique content.  This allowed cable TV providers to segment their offerings with different packages of stations at different prices.

Streaming of video content over the Internet again changed the way that people consume video.  Many of the stations that came to life under cable TV now want consumers to pay for a monthly subscription to stream their content.  Or, in some cases, a consumer can purchase a group of stations, with a common owner, for a single subscription price.

Finally, there are streaming video aggregators and content providers.  They deliver a selection of content licensed from other providers as well as developing their own content.  Two examples are Netflix and Amazon. 

According to MoneyTransfers.com, “24% of Americans are subscribed to two paid streaming services, 23% subscribed to three, and 18% four.” With the holidays fast approaching, more people will be buying smart TVs and streaming media players.  Many of these will be tempted to “cut the cable” and make the jump to streaming as their source of video entertainment.  However, trying to put together a selection of quality video content, for a reasonable price, can be a challenge.  Again, according to MoneyTransfers.com, “The total cost of subscriptions to every major streaming service would be $807.83 per year.”  Here are a number of ways to save money without sacrificing on your TV watching options.  

Free Options

Not all streaming services cost money.  There are a number of free streaming services that offer a wide range of content with the only catch that they are ad supported. 

According to CNET, the top free streaming services are:

  • Peacock – Peacock is a streaming service owned by NBCUniversal.  It includes, according to the web site, “Full seasons of exclusive originals; next-day airings of current NBC, Bravo, and Telemundo hits; can't-miss live sports; plus thousands of hours of TV shows and movies available.”  “Limited content” on Peacock is available for free.  Subscriptions for full access start at $4.99 per month.
  • Roku Channel – The Roku Channel offers ad supported news, sports, TV, and movies.  It is also a gateway to add premium channels (i.e. HBO) with a subscription. 
  • Pluto TV – Pluto TV is an ad supported, free streaming service owned by Paramount.  It offers over 250 channels of content that emulate live TV watching.  Some examples are Pluto Crime Movies, Black Cinema, and 70s Cinema.  Pluto also offers “1000s” of on demand movies and TV shows.
  • Tubi TV – Tubi TV is an ad supported free streaming service own by FOX.  Tubi has a very large catalog of 40,000, on demand, movies and TV shows.  In addition Tubi TV offers a selection of streaming channels including news, sports, weather, and specialized content channels such as Court TV, ion, and more. 
  • Freevee – Freevee is an ad supported, free streaming service owned by Amazon.  It offers 100s of TV series and movies along with original content. 

Antennas

TV stations in cities still broadcast content in high definition (HD).  If you live in, or near, a city then an antenna is the cheapest way to access the content from these stations.  There are antennas that can pick up broadcasts from TV stations over 60 miles away.  And, there are specialized DVR (digital video recorder) devices that work with antennas so you can record shows and watch them at your leisure.  Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for people who live in rural areas of the country.

Cable Alternatives

If the free streaming services don’t meet all your needs, and you miss the convenience of cable TV, then there are a few subscription streaming services to choose from. 

  • YouTube TV
  • Hulu + Live TV
  • Sling TV

These services offer a wide range of channels, DVR service, and multiple simultaneous streams.  Sling TV is the least expensive service but offers fewer channels and limited DVR recording.  YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV include a larger selection of channels, local stations, and unlimited recording.  If you live too far away from a city to receive broadcasts from local stations using an antenna, these services offer one of the few alternatives for accessing that content.

Bundles

Costs can quickly add up when you purchase multiple streaming subscription services.  However, there are some bundling options that can help to keep the cost down.

Amazon Prime Video is included with an Amazon Prime subscription.  Along with free second day shipping, Amazon Music, and much more, you get access to thousands of movies and TV shows, live sports, and original content.

One of the most popular subscription services is Disney+.  Not only does it offer a huge selection of family oriented content, it includes Marvel movies, Star Wars movies, spin offs, and National Geographic content.  And, since Disney owns Hulu and ESPN, can save by bundling all three together. There are also different tiers of subscriptions available that are either ad free or, at a lower cost, ad supported. 

Another option is to purchase a cell phone service plan that bundles streaming services with it.  T-Mobile offers a Netflix subscription and a one year subscription to Apple TV+ with their Magenta and Magenta Max cell phone plans.  Verizon offers plans that include the above Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ subscriptions. 

Conclusions

The reality is that if you subscribe to one of the above cable alternative streaming services, and start adding some addition subscription services to fill out the content you want to watch, you can quickly approach the price you were paying for cable TV.   But, by understanding all the different streaming and bundling options that are available, you can put together a low cost alternative to cable TV with many more viewing options than cable ever offered you.

 


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Smart Home Additions That Won’t Fill a Landfill with Old Tech

 My latest blog post, "Smart Home Additions That Won’t Fill a Landfill with Old Tech" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/smart-home-additions-that-wont-fill-a-landfill-with-old-tech/

Below is a copy of the article. 

Smart home technology can make a home:

  • More Convenient to Live in
  • More Energy Efficient
  • Safer
  • More Secure
  • And Much More…

But, if you just go around replacing all the existing appliances, switches, lights, window coverings, etc. in your home with new smart products, you are placing a lot of items, that otherwise work perfectly well, into a landfill.  Fortunately, there are many smart products available that, instead of replacing your existing dumb devices, simply add smart capabilities to them.

Integration

One thing to consider, before purchasing any product to make your home smart, is how that product will integrate with other smart products in your home.  For example, for added safety, you may want to trigger a smart pathway light to turn on in response to a smart motion detector being triggered by a person moving through the house at night.  This could eliminate a late night visit to the emergency room after you trip over a toy that didn’t get put away. 

Some manufacturers publish their application programming interface (API) to allow third parties to create “integrations” so their products can work with products manufactured by other companies.  Other manufacturers take a much more proprietary attitude.  They may build a great many features into their products but they may not be able to communicate with products manufactured by other companies.  Or, their products may only work with ones manufactured by a few “trusted” partners. 

Building a smart home takes some up front research and planning so you don’t choose products that, in the long run, limit the capabilities you want to build into your home.

Making Your Locks Smart

Smart locks can offer an added degree of convenience and security in a smart home.  For one thing, you never have to worry about making sure you remembered to lock your doors when leaving the home or at night.  You also never have to worry about locking yourself out of your home unless you ignore the smart lock’s warnings to change your batteries.

One smart device manufacturer whose products you will find throughout this article is SwitchBot.  From the beginning, SwitchBot has specialized in creating products that retrofit your existing products with smart features instead of forcing you to throw them away and replace them with a smart version.

The SwitchBot Lock can be used to convert an existing deadbolt lock into a smart lock.  It is easy to install and offers a wide range of features.  For example, SwitchBot offers nine different methods for unlocking a door outfitted with the SwitchBot lock:

  1. SwitchBot App control (Device can be unlocked using the free SwitchBot app when within Bluetooth range)
  2. Scanning a SwitchBot NFC Tag with your smart phone.  SwitchBot includes two NFC tags with each lock.
  3. Numerical Code entry using an optional SwitchBot Keypad or SwitchBot Keypad Touch
  4. Fingerprint scan using an optional SwitchBot Keypad Touch
  5. Widget for iOS and Android
  6. Apple Watch
  7. Unlocking using the lock’s original key
  8. Using third-party voice assistants and services
  9. An open API allowing developers to independently write software drivers to integrate the operation of the SwitchBot Lock with different smart home platforms

The SwitchBot Lock offers a number of additional important features:

  • Smart phone notifications when the lock is opened, locked, or when the door is left ajar.
  • Long Battery Life – The batteries in the SwitchBot Lock are expected to last 6 months under normal use.  Notifications are sent when it is time to change the batteries
  • Event log that includes entries each time the lock was locked / unlocked
  • The ability to remotely lock / unlock the SwitchBot lock using the SwitchBot app when a SwitchBot hub is installed
  • The ability to lock and unlock using voice commands (unlocking requires a code)
  • Automatic timed locking after the lock is unlocked

I had a chance to try the SwitchBot Lock.  The first step is to validate that the SwitchBot Lock is compatible with the deadbolt lock installed in your home.  SwitchBot makes this easy using a tool on their website available here.  Installation is also very simple.  Included in the box are adapters to fit the SwitchBot lock to a wide variety of deadbolt locks.  Once the proper adapter is fitted to the SwitchBot lock, the basic steps to installing the SwitchBot lock are:

  • Clean the surface of the door where the SwitchBot Lock will be attached
  • Adjust the base to accommodate the depth of your lock using the included screwdriver
  • Check that your lock operates smoothly with the SwitchBot Lock held in place
  • Adhere the SwitchBot Lock to your door using the included self-stick pad 
  • Install a small magnet on your door frame adjacent to the SwitchBot Lock.  This is used to sense if the door has been left ajar
  • Add the SwitchBot Lock to the SwitchBot app
  • Calibrate the SwitchBot lock by following the procedure in the app so it knows how far to turn the knob on your lock to lock / unlock it

SwitchBot provides a video that demonstrates the entire process.  That video can be found here.

The SwitchBot Lock works very well.  The wide range of options for locking / unlocking the lock will meet any user’s needs.  As described above the installation process is very easy.  However, one thing that someone planning to install the SwitchBot lock should do is to make sure that their deadbolt lock operates smoothly before proceeding with the installation.  If the deadbolt rubs against the strike plate then their may be too much friction and the SwitchBot Lock’s battery operated motor won’t be able to operate the lock.  A little work with a file on the strike plate can easily address this issue. 

SwitchBot also provided me with a SwitchBot Keypad Touch for this lock.  This was also easy to install.  First you install the batteries.  Then add it as a device in the SwitchBot app, give it a name, and pair it with the SwitchBot Lock.  The app then walks you through instructions for mounting the keypad using either the included screws or double stick pad. 

Once the installation process is complete you can configure the SwitchBot Keypad Touch to be operated through six to twelve digit passcodes, fingerprints, and NFC Cards (the SwitchBot Keypad Touch comes with one card).  Passcodes can either be:

  • Permanent – Designed to be used by family members
  • Temporary – For house guests.  The passcode expires after a period of time.
  • One-time Code – Expires after a single use.  Useful for contractors our guests coming to a party
  • Emergency – For family members to use during duress.  Sends a notification to all other family members

Again, the keypad touch offers plenty of options for users. 

When coupled with a SwitchBot Hub Mini, SwitchBot offers a number of paths to integrate their products with different smart home ecosystems.  Integration with Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, IFTTT, and Siri Shortcuts can be enabled through the SwitchBot App.  SwitchBot also offers an open API (application programming interface) that software developers can use to integrate SwitchBot products with the smart home platform of their choice.  I wrote a Crestron-SwitchBot driver some time ago.  An updated version of this driver that supports the SwitchBot Lock is currently being tested and should be available soon.  This driver can be downloaded from my GitHub here.

An alternative to the SwitchBot Lock is the Kwikset Convert.  It works with SmartThings, Amazon Alexa, and Home Connect. 

It is also worth mentioning the August WiFi Smart Lock.  The design of the August lock only requires you to discard the back plate and knob of your existing deadbolt lock.  So, you don’t have to throw away the whole lock; only a small portion of it.  The August WiFi Smart Lock is compatible with all the major voice assistants and a wide range of professional and consumer smart home platforms.

Turning Dumb Devices On / Off



The easiest way to turn a device on / off is with a smart plug. There are more smart plugs than you can count on the market today.  However, many are very cheap, and probably won’t be a good investment.  You are better off paying a little more and purchasing smart plugs from a reputable manufacturer with products that have been approved by UL, or another standards organization. 

But, not every electrically operated device in your home can be made smart by switching it on / off with a smart plug.  Many devices have to be operated by pushing a button.  The SwitchBot Bot was released over five years ago and continues to be a simple solution for controlling almost any device that is operated by a button.  This small, battery powered, motorized actuator is attached to an appliance using a double-stick pad.  Then, it is controlled through the SwitchBot app over Bluetooth.  The SwitchBot Bot is also compatible with Alexa, Google Home, and HomePod.  With the addition of a SwitchBot Hub Mini, the SwitchBot Bot can be controlled through IFTTT or integrated with other smart home platforms through the SwitchBot Cloud API.  Using this API, I’ve written a driver to control the SwitchBot Bot, along with some of SwitchBot’s other products, from a Crestron smart home processor.  This Crestron driver can be downloaded from my GitHub.

Making Your Lights Smart

Smart lighting can add both convenience and safety to a home.

  • All the lights can be turned off with a voice command when you go to bed so you don’t have to walk from room to room turning off lights that were left on
  • At night, pathway lights can be lit in response to motion sensors to make it safer to walk around your home
  • Lights can automatically be turned on in the event of a fire, or other emergency to make it easier for family members to safely exit the home
  • Exterior lights can be flashed in the event of an emergency to make it easier for first responders to locate your home
  • And more…

The primary way that people make their lights smart is to either replace their existing wall switches with smart switches / dimmers or to replace their light bulbs with smart bulbs.  However, both of these approaches create waste in a landfill. 

One way to make your lights smart, though this may not be viewed as the most aesthetically pleasing approach, is to use a SwitchBot Bot to operate the light switch.  The SwitchBot Bot comes with a self-stick pad that tethers the switch to the device’s actuator arm; so a single SwitchBot Bot can turn a light switch on and off.

Another way of making a light smart, though it does require some DIY electrical skills, is to use one of the small relays, or dimmers, manufactured by Shelly.  Shelly makes very small IoT relays and dimmers that can be placed inside the electrical box, behind an existing light switch, totally hidden from view.  These IoT devices are wired to both the lighting load you want to make smart and the existing switch.  The existing light switch can continue to operate the connected light.  In addition, the light can now be independently controlled through the Shelly app and a wide range of smart home ecosystems including Alexa, Google Home, Hubitat, Home Assistant, and many more consumer, and professional, smart home platforms through their API.  Using this API, I’ve written a driver to control Shelly products from a Crestron smart home processor that can be downloaded from my GitHub.

Making Your Window Coverings Smart

There is something magical about automating the operation of blinds, shades, and drapes in a smart home. 

  • Closing smart window coverings in the summer, when the sun is shining directly into a window, can keep your home cooler and save a significant amount of money on air conditioning. 
  • In the winter, allowing the sun to shine directly through windows can help heat a home. Closing window coverings at other times during the winter can help to insulate windows against heat loss.
  • Daylight harvesting is the term for opening window coverings during the day to allow the sun to provide light in a room, and eliminate the need to turn on electrical lights.   During the summer, if this is only done when the sun is not directly shining into a window, this eliminates the issue of heat gain from the sun causing the cost of air conditioning a home to go up.
  • Smart window coverings can also be automatically closed when you leave home or at nightfall for added security and privacy. 
  • In the event of a fire, or other emergency, smart window coverings can be opened to allow first responders to have easier access to a home. 
  • And more…

However, replacing existing window coverings with smart ones is wasteful and, because window coverings are a d├ęcor item, expensive.  Fortunately, there are less expensive add-on devices to make your existing window coverings smart.

The Current Products E-Wand and Sunsa Wand both operate by replacing the control wand on mini blinds with a battery powered, motorized version.  The E-Wand is a Zigbee device while the Sunsa Wand connects directly to your home’s WiFi network (Sunsa has published an API for third party integration).  These products work with any size mini blinds; including blinds with small 1-inch slats.  As I said, these products do require that you replace the control wand on your blinds to make them smart.  However, that produces only minimal waste compared to throwing away the entire blind.

There are additional options for automating the operation of larger 2-inch blinds.  The Tilt, by My Smart Blinds, and the Somfy Clever Tilt Blind Motorization Kit can be used to make existing 2” blinds smart.  Both require the installation of a smart motor inside the blind’s header; where it is completely invisible.  One difference between the two products is that the Somfy Clever Tilt Blind Motor uses a rechargeable battery while the My Smart Blinds Tilt system uses a solar panel to keep an internal battery charged.  A second difference is that Somfy offers a wide range of integration solutions for their products while My Smart Blinds does not.  Some people have solved this by reverse engineering the communications between the My Smart Blinds app and the Tilt.  But, there isn’t a supported public API for integration with third party system.

The upcoming SwitchBot Blind Tilt (currently on Kickstarter) also attaches to your blinds and then uses your old control wand as a way to trigger the opening / closing of your blinds.  Like other SwitchBot products it can be operated using the SwitchBot app and integrated with other SwitchBot products; such as the SwitchBot Tag (NFC Tag) and the SwitchBot Meter (Temperature and Humidity Sensor).  To integrate with Alexa, and other smart home ecosystems requires a SwitchBot Hub Mini.

My Smart Blinds and RollerTrol offer solutions for automating roller shades.  A smart motor is installed inside the tube that your shade rolls on / off of during operation.  Like the My Smart Blinds Tilt, the company’s shade motors are solar powered.  RollerTrol offers a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack for powering their shade motors.  The RollerTrol shade motor are powered by 12 VDC so they can also be powered using a compatible power supply. 

Again, like the My Smart Blinds Tilt, My Smart Blinds doesn’t offer integration with third party smart home platforms.  On the other hand, RollerTrol’s shade motors can be integrated with third party, smart home, ecosystems using the Broadlink RM4 Pro hub.  Adrian Biffen has written an excellent article on the process of integrating products connected to a Broadlink RM4 hub with Alexa.  That article can be found here.

Alternatively, if your shade is operated by a continuous loop chain, there are kits available from Soma and RYSE that clamp onto the chain to automate the shades operation.  Soma offers a published API and integration with a wide range of smart home platforms.  RYSE offers integration with Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant.

Finally, if you have a curtain that is hung on a rod, u-rail, or i-rail, SwitchBot also manufactures the SwitchBot Curtain and SwitchBot Curtain Rod 2.  These are small, smart robots that operate by pushing your curtain back and forth across the rod, or rail, that the curtain is hung from.

Making Your Ceiling Fans Smart

A ceiling fan can be leveraged as a first stage of cooling in your home.  The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that to balance energy savings and comfort, a thermostat should be set to 78 degrees Fahrenheit for air conditioning.  Instead, you can turn on a ceiling fan when the temperature reaches 78 degrees Fahrenheit, raise the cooling set point of your air conditioner to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and still be comfortable.  Because a ceiling fan uses 1% of the energy of an air conditioner, you can save up to 12% on the cost of cooling your home using this technique.  However, to implement this you need a smart ceiling fan.

If you have a ceiling fan that can be operated by a hand held remote control, then it can probably be turned into a smart fan using the Bond Bridge.  The Bond Bridge is easy to setup and acts as a bridge between the ceiling fan and a home’s WiFi network.

The ceiling fan can then be integrated with Alexa, Google Home, SmartThings, and other smart home ecosystems through the Bond Bridge API.  Leveraging the API, I’ve written a driver to allow a Bond Bridge to be integrated with a Crestron smart home processor.  That driver can be downloaded from my GitHub.

Making Your Garage Door Smart


Nobody wants to drive away on a trip and forget to close their garage door or forget to close their garage door when they come home at night.  A smart garage controller from Tailwind or MyQ can solve these issues, and much more.  These smart garage controllers can be integrated with almost any garage door opener to convert it into a smart opener. 

Tailwind offers integration with a wide variety of smart home platforms and has a published API that I used to create a Crestron smart home driver, which can be downloaded from my GitHub.  MyQ has partnerships with specific manufacturers including Alarm.com, Ring, and Vivint; to name a few.  However, they don’t have an API and only offer smart home integration with select partners.

Making Your Thermostats Smart

Unfortunately, the only way I’m aware of to make a standard heating and air conditioning system smart is to replace the thermostat with a smart one.  However, the fact you have to throw away your old thermostat shouldn’t stop you from buying a smart thermostat.  The energy savings offered by a smart thermostat can more than compensate for that act.  Be aware that some old thermostats have mercury in them, so care should be taken in how you dispose of it.

On the other hand, if you have a mini-split heat pump system, or a window air conditioner that is operated by a remote control, products from Sensibo and Ambi Climate may be able to convert it into a smart system.  Both companies offer tools on their web sites to check if your mini-split system, or air conditioner, is compatible with their products.  Both companies offer a wide range of smart home integration options and published APIs.  I’ve written a Crestron integration driver for each.  The Sensibo driver can be downloaded from my GitHub here and the Ambi Climate here.

Summary

There are a wide range of products available that can convert the existing products and appliances in your home into smart devices.  Some are not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as a direct smart replacement, but they can keep a lot of dumb products from cluttering up landfills.