Coping: Lazy Man’s Home Automation

When the idea of X.10 home automation came out, I was lukewarm to the idea of using computer technology to make living “lazy” – as in “turn the lights on for me” lazy.

When I went through the X.10 commands list, there were obviously some things that would be nice to have around the ranch. But, there were some problems with it.  The first being it wasn’t easy enough to program – especially for someone like Elaine who’s life wasn’t spent in front of a monitor cutting code.  The other problem was that .10is a power-line-based system of communications which raises questions both about ham radio and medium wave (AM) DX-ing as well as how would that play with our grid-interactive solar power system?

X.10’s other drawback was a lack of voice control.  About 2009 with the solar in place and working well, I shelved the X.10 dreams and decided to wait for something better.

Then, last year we made a decision to build-out some basic home automation using the Amazon Alexa series of products.  We have one Echo (the biggest unit at the time) and it was in the kitchen.  Scattered around now we have Echo Dot units in the gym/guest room, the shop, my office, the master bedroom, and in the “180 room” which is where afternoon martinis are consumed on hot days like this one.  A final Dot will be added to the screen porch door area, outside (but under cover).

What were the functions we wanted? This is the key to getting the “home control” you want.  “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” approach.

The first one was intercom capability.  When you’re 70, it’s nice to know that your partner is available by voice from wherever you are 90% of the time.  Think odds of getting help.” .  Most people aren’t using the “intercom” function of the Alexa hardware, but the commands are simple: I sit in my office and say  “Alexa, drop in to kitchen…”

When the voice command to “drop in” is used, the Alexa Dot activity ring turns green and in a second, or two, you are on a two-way hookup (hands-free) with the other device of your choosing. Voice controlled baby monitor or intercom.

When my Dot goes off in the office with Elaine is probably calling from the kitchen, telling me to adjust breakfast earlier or later depending on what she’s got going on.  The final Dot, which will be in an enclosure at the door, will allow us to do the “Alexa drop in to door” command, pause then“who’s there?” The answer will decide whether to answer, open, or “armor up.”  No answer gets the latter response.

The other function we wanted (besides intercom) was to have control of lights (and a few outlets)  via voice from anywhere.  To do this, you need to make an investment in both plugin controllers and light switch controls.  But, since falling down is one of the major risks of aging, seemed to us that having lights on would be a good thing.

We haven’t gone crazy on this stuff.  The finished build-out will include being able to turn a major overhead light in the kitchen on when we come in from outside.  “Alexa: turn on kitchen.”  Or, when I am coming from the house to the office, I have a choice of lighting levels as I walk into the shop:

Alexa, turn on overhead.” This fires up a ton of overhead lighting.  I don’t know if you have discovered the joy of LED shop lights yet, but we’ve got six of them – each equal to a pair of four-foot fluorescents – and they use hardly any power, never fail in the cold weather (we’re dreaming about the return of cold, lol), and they don’t wear out very quickly.  In short, buy ’em and love ’em.

Other morning’s – when I feel less “bright” the command is “Alexa, turn on bench.”  This fires off the 2-bulb, 2-foot LED strip with a downlight reflector over the workbench in the middle of the shop.  It’s less like walking into a surgery…but still plenty of light not to run into things.

Alexa: Turn on cat water…”  Zeus the Cat prefers his water to be running so his electric watering bowl’s fountain comes on.  On all the time, it attracts wildlife.  

In my office, there are two controllers for the Dot named “Office.”  One is called “Radio.”  The command “Alexa: turn on radio.” fires up the old tube-type equipment that requires a long warm-up time before it’s ready for use.  Old tube-type equipment is fun – don’t get me wrong – but 20-30 minutes of warm-up is needed before the heat thrown off by the old vacuum tubes stabilizes.  Heat makes component values drifty, especially older capacitor components.  Sunday morning I can be doing work on one of the computers in the house and decide to fire up ham equipment – and presto:  it’s done.

Another power consumer in the office is the laser printer.  Most of the time I don’t use it and try to remember to turn it off.  Now, when I print something, I just remember to tell “Alexa: turn on printer.”  When I’m done, :Alexa, turn off printer.”  kills the power.  Call me lazy, but a man’s gotta have a few toys.  And since it’s an office supply…..your tax situation may vary.

Alexa is also part of the home defense plan.  For example, should one of the perimeter alarms (we won’t get into that discussion, some things being better left to your imagination) go off, we can use the “Alexa, drop in to Shop.” or “Alexa, drop in to Gym.” and listen to what any intruder is up to.  We can light up a few things, as well.

Other commands can turn on other intruder deterrents, but again, use you imagination to cobble up things with voice controlled switches, locks, and video and let yourself get creative.  A great talk-back system for surveillance cams, let’s say.

While some people are paranoid about having a computer network listening to what they’re saying all the time, unless you’re plotting the immediate overthrow of the US government and are talking serious contraband, the odds of anyone really caring are close enough to zero we figure it doesn’t matter.  Paranoid is fine (and yes, they are out to get you) but what people don’t correctly weigh is that things like a private discussion about weight or blood pressure is already in multiple databases including your doctor’s, the lab where your tests were run, and so forth.  Casual discussions about things of a “daily life nature” have about zero chance of resulting in anything.

You are welcome to be paranoid, of course.  But the odds of a runaway law enforcement action involving non-lawbreakers is low, at least compared with the odds of a medical need to summon help quickly, especially in a shop setting.

Only a few words of advice:  Use short, descriptive names for your devices so they will easy to remember.  “George’s Office Dot” became “Office” after on test run.  “Shop Bench Light” turned into “Bench” and so forth.  You can name devices anything you want.  I have been tinkering with the layout of all this stuff so for a couple of months, “Alexa, turn on tunafish.” turned on the radio gear.  One could “code” if you worry about someone getting in range and seizing control of your “Alexa, turn on overhead.” shop lights.  But whoever issued the command would be well-illuminated for the AK’s, lol.

In order for all the switching stuff to work, we standardized on the KASA tools and no doubt, they  will some day get around to some annual or micro-payment plan for use of their gateway when the installed base is large enough.  But even at $20-bucks a year, the device control is worth it to us should it come to that.  For now, there’s no charge.  But, what’s our warning to all?  Everything’s a business model!

No reason for the wireless, voice-controlled home, to be any different, is there?

Echo (2nd Generation) – Smart speaker with Alexa – Charcoal Fabric ($99)

Echo Dot (2nd Generation) – Smart speaker with Alexa – Black ($49, but watch for sales – $39 comes up often and sometimes $29 for special promotions like Prime Day.)

Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug by TP-Link (2-Pack) – Control your Devices from Anywhere, No Hub Required, Works with Alexa and Google Assistant (HS100 KIT) (2-pack for $44)

Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch by TP-Link – Control Lighting from Anywhere, Easy In-Wall Installation (Single-Pole Only), No Hub Required, Works With Alexa and Google Assistant (HS200) ($35).

You can use a “smart plug” to fire up your massive NIR night vision illuminator fields and so forth…do get creative.

Also, for spaces between buildings don’t forget on to install a few dozen solar powered lights.  When anyone walks around close to our house at night *(including deer, raccoons, cats, dogs, etc) these go off:

URPOWER Solar Lights 8 LED Wireless Waterproof Motion Sensor Outdoor Light for Patio, Deck, Yard, Garden with Motion Activated Auto On/Off (4-Pack) ($30 for four – put them up on south side of trees around your perimeter, too.  Near windows…you get the picture.)

Not trying to make a prison yard, lol, or are we?

We are waiting for someone to start selling the infrared version of the nightlights.  The test unit I converted to IR illumination works fine…now I just need to find ’em for a few approaches…um….down-range.  Want a new business idea?

Motion-activated IR illuminator with a short radio pulse to alert of the intrusion would be dandy, huh?  Maybe even a military contract in there somewhere.  10% of profits, please.

Write when you get rich…

3 thoughts on “Coping: Lazy Man’s Home Automation”

  1. in the early 1990s I was using an X-10 module with DOS and a Covox sound box.
    I taught myself Turbo-C to run it and ended up with 3500 lines of customized program including Addam’s Family sound effects. Lots of fun.

  2. If you have the money, pan-tilt-zoom cameras that respond to motion in their field of view do exist, combined with IR illumination, you can read a nametag on someone’s BDU shirt at 50 feet. To say nothing of obtaining a clear facial ID.

    10 years ago that camera was $5k, I haven’t tinked in that zone since then.

    • Superbowl 46 was held in Indianapolis in February of 2012. One of my associates was on the surveillance setup. Among (many) other things, his detail installed six Bosch PTZ dual-thermal manual/auto-tracking cams on 60′ poles around the downtown area. He told me they’d do accurate facial recognition at two miles in daylight, moving license plates at 300yds, and facial in total darkness, also at 300yds. B&F had them listed in their “government-only” section in 2013 at $78k (or was it $87k?) each. All I remember about them is they were rather flat in appearance (didn’t look much like a camera) and had IR illuminators which looked like EV passive subwoofers. [What I assume is its little brother because it’s newer and has no 0-Lux], the MIC IP fusion 9000i, is shown here:

      and is available to the public for a mere $32k…

      Reading the analytics section makes me wonder how much of dat fun stuffs is in the software, and how much is coded into the camera’s onboard EEPROM…

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