Posts Tagged ‘Home Automation’

December 29, 2017

Toward A Better Heating System

Our nest went haywire again last night. It only happens when in heat mode, and hasn’t happened since we got the replacement a year ago, but it’s still exceedingly disappointing to be happening again. The problem? Nest’s temperature sensor gets confused. As a result, Nest sometimes forgets to turn the furnace off. We woke up in the middle of the night to 80 degree temperatures and the heater still running. That’s wasted energy (and money) not to mentioned a lost night of sleep for no reason.

Part of the challenge of heating our house is that it’s a dual zone system. Both thermostats are in relatively the same location (the hallway by the stairs), just on different floors. Heat rises, so how often the downstairs zone is running effects how warm the upstairs hallway is, which in turn effects how frequently the upstairs zone runs. The upstairs zone is the only zone that effects the bedroom. There’s a lot of guess work involved to figure out the optimal settings so the bedrooms remain comfortable overnight. (Quite frankly, the goal is the kids room. I’m happy to suffer if it means the kids sleep through the room.) It reminds me of how the first refrigerators with freezers were designed.

When I first heard about Keen Home Smart Vents over a year ago I thought it was the answer to our problems. If the vents open and close automatically, then we in theory won’t cook the kids over night. Problem was “smart” at that point meant automatically opening and closing based on a predefined schedule or the app on your phone, not the current temperature of the room. Since we usually don’t wake up until it’s too late, that wouldn’t work for us.

Since our heater went haywire last night I decided to look into smart vents again. Keen is now coming out with temperature sensors! Even better, there are competitors in the smart vent space. In another year or so the technology will mature and we may finally be able to get a more temperature balanced house!

September 17, 2016

Hello, Alexa!


Technically it’s “Hello, Echo!” We had to change the wake word since ‘Alexa’ and ‘Alexis’ are too phonetically similar.

Last Amazon Prime day I purchased the Echo. It’s sat in it’s box until now. I clearly have not learned my lesson. At least this time I didn’t buy two.

I admit I wasn’t sure how much use case we’d get out of Echo. With our push for a smart home, it seemed like a tool that would one day control everything. At the time I didn’t realize that it could talk to our new irrigation system at the time of purchase. I did think it would be nice to ask Echo about the weather while busy trying to dress the kids in the morning. It’s not often I have a hand free to crack open my laptop or check my mobile device. It would also be nice to have a way of playing Christmas music. We gave up the only stereo we had when we downsized, and laptop speakers don’t work as well.

When Amazon had its sale we figured we’d grow into Echo.

Now that it’s set up I can say it’s worth it now.

Nicole is constantly asking it to play songs, only she doesn’t know their titles so her request of “please play Elsa” falls on confused digital ears. Domingo has been referring to Echo as “the robot” and now Nicole is eager to build a robot of her own. That makes this engineering Mama extremely happy to hear.

Alexis, for her part, runs around chanting “Ek-oh! Ek-oh!” When Alexis woke up from her nap this afternoon I asked her if she wanted to play with Nicole. She only blinked at my groggily. I asked if she wanted to play with Echo? “Ek-oh!” She puts too much of a pause between the syllables for Echo to understand her, but I’m sure she’ll get the hang of it in no time.

It took the girls less than 20 minutes to figure out they could add crackers to Mommy’s shopping list. That may be off putting to some. Had it not been possible to disable voice purchasing I would have been annoyed too. Since I can, and don’t need to worry about spurious photos, I’m eager to see my kids learn how to interact with all kinds of technology. Maybe in a few years I’ll be able to hire Nicole as an App developer. She’s already inspired enough to build a robot.

So that’s speakers, future proofing for our smart home, a toy for the kids and fostering our love of robotics all for just $141 (with tax). Well, and an additional $7.74 so Nicole could listen to the full songs from Frozen, and not just the 30 second free samples.

December 8, 2015

An Even Smarter Home

When we moved into our home, Domingo and I had only loose plans to paint and re-carpet. We didn’t plan on having any work done to the house. We weren’t even planning on purchasing any appliances. That is, not until the day of our final walk through, two days before closing, when it became apparent that the previous owner had decided to keep the refrigerator after all. (It was never specified in the contract, we had only a gentlemen’s agreement that it would stay.) It was our dumb luck that the washer and drier died a month later. Then the HVAC system. Then the garage door opener.

In the past 6 months we’ve spent more than 10 times in home home repairs than in all five years we owned the town home, and we opted to forgo painting and carpeting for now. Home ownership can be expensive. At least we’re running out of the things to fail!

One of the issues we’ve been dealing with recently is the irrigation system. It’s not working anywhere near where it should be.

The biggest, but sadly not the only, issue with the irrigation system is the controller box. The old controller box was an analog system and such a jumble of lose wires that the box door could not be closed. Worse, touching the door would cause the controller would change modes. All the way open, the controller box showed no zones were running. Close it a little and the controller box showed zone 4 was running. A little more, and zone 6 appeared to be running but zone 4 was off. The zone wires were even crossed. The sprinklers in the right side of the front lawn would sometimes turn on when zones 2, 4 and 6 were activated. Sometimes, not all the time. We still weren’t sure which zone those sprinklers were supposed to be in.

Our irrigation system was simultaneously unreliable and wasting a tone of water. Given the state of California’s drought that’s a very bad thing.

Last Thursday we upgraded to a smart irrigation controller. The new controller is digital and connects to the internet. We program in how much water each zone needs when it’s hot and dry. The controller gets the weather report and adjusts accordingly. By my estimates it will have paid for itself in a year. Two, tops. Assuming no more pipes break. Have I mentioned home ownership is expensive?

November 14, 2015

Data Loss

Someone once told me the problem with health insurance is you don’t know how good yours is until you need it, and by then it’s too late. The same can be said about computer backup recovery systems.

I’ve been using crash plan for two years now. Up until now I’ve been quite happy with our setup. My data is backed up in triplicate. One external hard drive drive (E:) contains all the raw images, directly off the camera, in the same directory structure the camera creates. Another drive (F:) has all my images organized, so I can easily find the photos I’m looking for. I’m using Crashplan to back up both those drives to another local hard drive (G:) and also to the cloud. More on the cloud later. I figured I had to be safe from data loss, right? How could three copies of my data not be sufficient?

I should mention that before creating the local backup instance on drive G:, I had tested the crash plan’s cloud backup. I say that as though the test was intentional, and not because I accidentally deleted a directory. Regardless, recovering the deleted files was easy peasy lemon squeezy so it never occurred to me to also test the local backup instance. That mistake is on me.

On October 17th my E: drive failed. All the light weight solutions – chkdsk, restarting, etc – where to no avail. My computer happily told me the disk was unreadable and suggested reformatting. I decided to not waste too much time trying to repair the drive. After all this was exactly the use case for the local crash plan backup. I reformated the drive and began the process of restoring over 296,224 files.

I got back 296,224 “Unknown problem” error responses.

At this point I wasn’t expecting to experience much, if any, data loss. I could still pay the $300 and recover from the cloud, and I had my F: drive which should be the same files. I say “should” because the two drives do get out of sink some times. I previously wrote a java program to run through the directories to warn me when this happens, but I couldn’t remember the last time I ran the job.

I couldn’t figure out what went wrong from the logs so I contacted tech support. Tech support theorized it was a known bug that affect NTFS file systems on Windows computer when the drive was reformatted. This was extremely frustrating to hear as NTFS is the default file system on windows, and recovering from a dead drive was, again, one of the primary uses cases for crashplan! Tech support’s suggestions included (1) try a different operating system, (2) reformat the drive to a different file system, and (3) downloand the files piecemeal. Of those, (2) was the least ridiculous. I reformatted the drive to ExFat and tried again.

I got back 411 files. A handful of iPhone photos and a bunch more “Unknown problem” error messages.

But this time I could tell there was still an error with the drive. The 2 TB drive was showing as full with just a handful of data. I reformatted again. Reformat failed. Repeat, repeat, repeat. After the fourth reformatting failed I purchased a new hard drive.

I got back 34k files.

The troubling thing now was crash plan was failing silently. There was no error given. The only indication that something had gone wrong was the fact that I had only gotten back a tenth of my files. I tried again, more silent failures. At this point my confidence that I was going to get back all my data was waning so I started looking into the cloud.

I had two options when it came to restoring from the cloud. The first was to download all 2TBs worth of data in 500 MB chunks – 4000 chunks to be exact! The second was to pay $300 to “Restore to Door”. I had originally thought “Restore to door” meant they send you a hard drive with all your files in tact. Nope, they send you a local crash plan instance you can restore from. Basically I would have another copy of my G: drive. That didn’t leave me much hope that it would fair any better.

I restored again, this time a smaller subset of photos from my local backup. Success! Restored again, more success! I was able to partition my data into five chunks and restore each chunk without issue. The process took two weeks, as I kept getting stuck waiting for crashplan maintenance modes; deep pruning, synchronizing, etc. The deep prune itself took four days to complete.

In the end I lost just 16 photos. I’m not happy about that, but I can live with it.

My lessons learned:

I’m not the typical use case Crash Plan was designed for. Crashplan is sort of a light weight version control system in addition to backup engine. It keeps multiple versions of your files (as many as you specify), and are constantly scanning your file system looking for recent changes. In doing so they make the design decision to focus on recently changed files. That makes a lot of sense if your backing up your working directory. You probably want/need the latest version of any paper your writing, or program your coding. It makes less sense if you’re backing up an archive full of photos. I want at least one version of every photo backed up. I can always re-edit them, but I can’t re-shoot them!

I have more data than the typical Crash Plan user. When I was searching through the forums looking for tips on how to speed the process up, (4 days to deep prune, are you kidding me?!), I found a number of folks with similar problems, each with large data sets. Between all our home computers we had backed up 3TBs worth of data. I had already busted the memory of the app as high as their sample recommendations go, and went even higher during this process. I’m starting to reach the point where crashplan just cannot hold everything in memory it needs to. When that happens with any program performance drops off a cliff. When crash plan runs there’s not a lot else I can do with the computer.

The Verdict on Crashplan:

Obviously the continuing to fail drive was not Crashplan’s fault, and I was able to recover almost all of my files. Still, taking two weeks to recover a hard drive seems a bit excessive. I take a lot photos, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Crashplan just may not be right for my use case. I have a little over a year left on my crashplan subscription and I see no reason to jump ship now. I may look into alternative back up options when the end of the subscription nears.


Domingo and I have this notion of turning our home into a smart home. We’ve been thinking about it ever since I started playing with Hue. So before I left Google I wanted to take advantage of my employee discount and purchase a pair of nest thermostats. During the check out process, Nest wanted me to confirm our HVAC system was compatible with their thermostats. Trouble was, our offer had only just been accepted. We were a month away from closing, and days away from leaving Google and my discount. I decided to chance it.

That wasn’t a good gamble on my part.

Two weeks after taking ownership of the home I took the old thermostats off the wall to discover there was no way to power the one for the upstairs zone. I brought someone out who confirmed my fears. Nest was simply not compatible with our dual zone system. I asked if it made sense to update the dual zone system. He said it would cost thousands of dollars, definitely not worth it for a thermostat, even a cool one like the nest. Wait for the old one to die, was his advice.

Waiting for it to die took 2 months and 6 days apparently.

I got the distinct impression he thought the death of our zoning system would take longer.

Unfortunately it wasn’t just our zoning system knocking on death’s door. The AC and heater were being brought down with it. That was not a fun discovery, but if there’s a bright side to this rain cloud, it’s that I got to use my nest after all.

August 12, 2014

It’s the Network

I’ve been watching the file transfers in my home cloud a little more closely, and now I can definitively say the bottle neck is the network. Oh sure, the hardware is slow too, but faster hardware won’t make much of a difference. On a very good day I can get about as much as 2 MB/s (roughly 1% of the theoretical max the hardware can do.) On a bad day I may not even get 100 KB/s. More typically I get maybe 300 KB/s.

In retrospect this should have been obvious. I’ve been really cranky with our internet speeds. The lines are so congested here that it’s not uncommon to be without internet all together a few times a week. (I blame both high density housing, and the fact that we’re currently living in Silicon Valley. I’m sure there are at least 3 start-ups within 50 feet of me as I write this blog post.) We’ve even had days were the wireless signal is so saturated our baby monitor – which doesn’t run over the internet – looses it’s signal! Thankfully things have been better, at least in terms of up time, maybe not in terms of speed.

On slow days even accessing my cloud can be painful. If I need to browse the photo directory to find a photo to show grandma? Not going to happen unless I go use the computer physically attached to the hard drive. Our network is just too slow.

My options:

  • Set up a wired connection. Get a large (50 ft? 75 ft?) ethernet cable and plug our cloud computer directly into the modem. I’d also need a shorter cable for my laptop. This will at least cut down on the wireless interference, and help with the weak signal. The fairly obvious con is now we have a cable running the lengthwise of our apartment. We don’t need additional tripping hazards. Believe me, we have plenty as it is.
  • Move the modem. It’s right now in the Living room since it’s cable and internet in one box. I kind of want to pitch cable, but I’m not sure I’m ready to. Besides, then I’d have the opposite problem of having very poor signal in the living room, instead of the office.
  • Purchase a repeater. A repeater can boost the wireless signal, but it can’t do much to combat the saturated line.
  • Live with it. I can avoid backing up my memory card during peek hours. I even joked with Domingo that not having immediate access to my photos might help with my photo separation anxiety.

“Live with it” is the option I’m leaning towards. We’re planning on moving in (hopefully) no more than 9 months, so I’m reluctant to buy a cable or repeater to fix a short term problem. I know, I know, they’re cheap, but so am I!

While I haven’t finished sorting through all the old external hard drives, I have cleared enough to setup the home cloud to run as planned. After a bit of a rough start, we’ve been up and running for the past few weeks. So far, the results are mixed.

In the pro column, it’s very nice to not have to plug the external hard drive into my laptop every time I want access to one my files, or to download my photos off of my memory card. I’m no longer relegated to doing work from a single spot in the house. It’s like I suddenly have a much larger hard drive on my laptop. Everything is always at my fingertips. I didn’t realize just how inconvenient my old setup was until the cloud was up and running.

The backup also runs more smoothly from the cloud than it ever did from my laptop. I’d often leave the external hard drive unplugged for days on end. Obviously if the drive is disconnected it cannot be backed up. Our cloud computer is always on, so there are no interruptions.

As predicted, however, using the old hardware is s…l…o…w… It’s probably also partially the wireless in the apartment, as the signal isn’t great in the office were our home cloud is running. How slow is it? A weekend set of photos would take about 10 to 20 minutes with the old setup of plugging the hard drive in directly to my laptop. The new setup, with the “new” hard drive takes seven hours. Not exactly ideal.

I think I may have to break down and buy a new computer/new external drives after all. I’m going to try and limp along, at least until after the holidays and Ziggy’s arrival. I’d prefer not to get anything new until after the move, especially since I’m not sure what the where exactly is the bottle neck. For now, I’ll try and make do.

This morning I had a data scare. I was backing up my photos from the zoo when I noticed my laptop could no longer see my external hard drive. That happens from time to time, so I did what I always do – unplug the drive and plug it back in. Nada. Tried a different port. Nope. Tried all 4 usb ports. Still nothing. Tried unplugging the power supply and rebooting the computer. Negatory. At this point I was beginning to wonder if my external drive – the one local copy of all my photos – had bit the dust. Turns out I had managed to trip the power strip, so the drive wasn’t getting power despite being plugged in. Phew. The scare was that kick in the pants I needed to start thinking about that home data cloud again.

When I last blogged about our desire for a home data center, Domingo and I were thinking we needed a rather hefty server. We now realize that’s over kill. We thought we needed the horse power to run virtual machines (VMs), however, we can always use the server to store the VMs and run them locally on our laptops. Thus the “server” will basically be a glorified wireless file repository.

Our home cloud sketch
The new plan.

The idea is that the home data cloud will house all of our permanent, archival type files: media, photos, etc. Our laptop hard drives will be more like working directories. When I take the files off my camera, for example, I’ll save the unedited RAWs to the shared directory in the home cloud. I may open a few directly on my laptop to adjust the color balance, lightening, etc, and then save the finished versions back to the cloud shared directory. From a user perspective, it’ll be functionally just like using multiple folders on my computers. However, because I’m using the shared drive, Domingo can access any photo or media file he wants as well.

The purple lines show how we expect to need to manually transfer files. Mostly we’ll be pushing files to the home cloud, but occasionally pulling them down. The green lines show what’s managed automatically by crash plan – including backing up our laptop working directories, backing up the archival data to crash plans servers, and creating local mirrors of all our data (effectively raid 1). As mentioned before, crash plan data servers are expensive to recover from and a “worse case scenario” type option, e.g. fire and earthquake. Mirroring gives us chance to recover from the more typical hard drive crash without having to pay that price.

The new game plan means we can cobble together our home data cloud with existing hardware and not spend a single penny.

Today I setup the 9 year old server (unix) and my 4 or 5 year old laptop with the dead battery and flaky AC adapter (windows). I then started the tedious process of transferring the files from each unix external drive, connected to the unix server, to a windows drive connected to the windows server. When it’s all finished, I will reformat the unix external drives and the server. By giving the server a fresh copy of a modern operating system it will be much less vulnerable to malware. We’ll have about 8 TB of disk space, more than enough space for multiple copies of everything. The windows laptop will be officially retired and sent off to an e-waste recycling center.

The process is going to take a while. The server only supports USB 2.0 or 280 Mbit/s. USB 3.1 can support 10 Gbit/s, which makes it roughly 36 times faster. Domingo keeps reminding me that we can get a desktop with USB 3.1 ports for sub $300, but given that it’s not my main computer that’s slowly churning away, I think I’ll just let the process crawl along. Our files are small enough that I doubt we’ll notice a difference in speed when using the file server anyway.

May 21, 2014

Let there be Light!

This week we took HUE out of the package and it’s every bit as addictive as I thought it would be.

I can not emphasize how happy I am to have the spectrum of white light available. I know most people who invest in HUE are going to want to create color, but having control over how warm/cool my “white” light is feels huge. I find I soft cream colors relaxing in the evening, and blue white energies me during the day.

I actually don’t think we’d explore the spectrum of light as much if not for Nicki. She is fascinated with Hue. I showed it to her yesterday before bed and it was the first thing she asked for in the morning, before breakfast. We’re taking it as an opportunity to learn colors (e.g. “What color is this?” “What color do you want next?”).

Hue Lightstrip on our mantel giving a nice blue back lighting. Alas, I’m going to need to find a new spot for the light, it’s about 18 inches longer than our mantel.

Hue works by varying the amount of light output from Red, Green and Blue LEDS. That means virtually any bright color is at your finger tips, but there are some colors you cannot generate: primarily black – which is created from the absence of light. You can make very bright very vibrant colors but you also can’t make low saturation dark colors (crimson, navy, royal purple, etc).

A close up the red, green and blue LEDs.

The lack of dark colors isn’t particularly limiting in my opinion, though I did see some reviews that complained about it. If, for example, I wanted to set the lights to Steelers colors for game day, I’d use a bright golden yellow as my primary color with red and blue accents. That is, if/when I have more than two light bulbs.

Another drawback I noticed is that if you create a very dim white light (at least with the strip) you get some slight color ghosting. That’s because the red, green and blue LEDs aren’t right on top of each other. When the light is dim, the individual color lights aren’t dispersing as far. That means on the side of the strip with the green LED you might see a faint amount of green light bordering the white light where the red and blue lights aren’t reaching.

My biggest complaint, however, is the app. It’s not ideally laid out, takes too long to load, and is a little on the slow side. When you want to turn the lights off, you need to open up the app again which feels like a surprisingly long time when compared to flipping a switch. One of the first things I do when I start playing with the SDK is to create a simple, light weight off button.

Lastly, there’s the hefty price tag that comes with HUE. Each light bulb can run $60 to $80! I do plan on getting more HUE lights, but probably not until we purchase our next home. I’m to afraid of leaving a HUE light in one of the fixtures here when we move out!

May 5, 2014

Plunging into Hue

This weekend was our open house. While prospective buyers were touring our house, wondering if it would be their next home, Domingo and I have been discussing our next home. His big non-negotiable is a big kitchen. My must have is good lightening. Our current apartment has no lightening in the washing machine/dryer nook. It sucks. And don’t get me started on the terrible orange light our Chandler gives off in the dining room. Yuck.

While discussing our dream home, Domingo and I started talking about home automation. I showed him Hue. Hue is “smart lightening” that allows you to change not only the color, but the brightness of each light from your phone or tablet. Soft blue hues that won’t reflect on the TV screen at night, colorless white light during photo time, warm yellows to wake up to in the morning – what’s not the love? You can set your lightening scheme to match your favorite sports team for the big game or to match your themed party. Check out their promo to see the use cases they came up with.

I figured Hue would be expensive, and something that would require an electrician. Well, I was half right. You need to buy a starter pack which costs $200 and has 2 to 3 light bulbs. Each additional light bulb runs about $60. To outfit your home could easily cost in the thousands, but the difficulty level is that of screwing in a light bulb – literally!

Hue also comes with an SDK. If you can think it, you can program it. I can’t see myself ever using Hue to let me know when my cookies or done, or that I should pack an umbrella, but I would love a motion sensored night light for the hallway. Clumsy me gave myself quite a bruise when I got up to check on Nicole in the middle of the night last week.

Domingo and I decided to take the plunge, and use our tax refund gift card money on the light strip starter packs. I plan to put one over our mantel. I figured if there’s any one spot I’d like a splash of color, that would be it.

I am ridiculously excited for Hue. I think I’m more eagerly awaiting it’s arrival than I did my last computer. Hopefully the price will come down before I get too addicted to customizable lightening.