Coping: The Future of Home Automation

imageHad a gem of an email come in from reader JW in Georgia…


We’re reestablishing ‘Casa de [redacted]’ here in southeast Georgia and I have a big interest in home automation systems. I like the idea of ‘smart’ home systems like thermostats, light switches, light bulbs, appliances, home monitoring, etc. I think all this stuff is very cool.

Once you add in a voice recognition interface platform like Echo it moves into ‘way cool’ territory. I’ve even been eyeing a professional grade home weather station that could be tied in, too. Who doesn’t love data, right? I bought an Amazon Echo two or three weeks ago. It was on backorder and I got it in over the weekend. So far, it’s interesting but I haven’t really started to integrate her into things much. I’m an early riser and I’ve been using the daily flash briefing function in the morning and playing a little music through it (Pandora and Bluetooth). I do a quick body weight-style workout every morning and I listen to the briefing then. I’d like to tie in the lights and a universal remote next then maybe a thermostat.

My questions for you are:

1) Is it really worth it and if it is at what level of automation is the break over point into wasting money?

2) Is having smart light bulbs a dim bulb idea?

3) What’s better to buy…the smart bulb or the smart light switch? It seems like the switch would last longer and it’s about the same money.

4) What is the security risk from outside hacker types? Could someone disable my alarm through a backdoor in an unrelated system like the Echo? Would someone be able to hack into my ‘smart’ fridge and adjust the temperature so my veggies go bad or even worse, monitor my beer purchase/consumption in order to send me personalized ads?

The other thing I bought recently is a iRobot Roomba 980. It’s the top of the line model, but I bought used from Amazon and saved a couple hundred bucks. Yeah, I know I could (and do) sweep the floor regularly for free and it’s good exercise and there is satisfaction in a job well done, no matter how trivial. 

My reasoning is thus: For one, it’s cool, but also, the wife and I both work full time jobs, so time saved on one less task at home is time invested elsewhere.

Secondly, a clean house makes me a happy man. A space that is orderly, free of clutter and dust induces a sense of calm in my being, so coming home to a floor that I know is going to be clean when I walk in the door is a happy thing.

Did I mention it’s cool? I’ve had it going on two weeks now and it works better than advertised. It really does a good job on our hardwood floors and it keeps the allergens down in the house. We’re in the midst of a pollen tsunami in Savannah, right now!

I will try to keep my thoughts somewhat organized (in keeping with yet another request that I don’t go off on the ethereal so far…)

1.  I have been battling the same home automation dilemma, as well.  While we have an Echo now, and we’ll be adding an  Echo Dot mainly for the shopping and to-do list functions, I’m deeply conflicted about turning over home management to machines.

There are three specific problems:  Cost, operation/maintenance, and personal security.

The cost if obvious:  Every light in our house (and yours) already has appropriate switches.

Operation and set-up of the wireless light control looks easy enough, but I haven’t figured out how that works exactly.  Let me show you what I mean:  You wake up in the middle of the night, hear something, and suddenly find you can’t speak.  Stress laryngitis or something like that:  Can you turn the lights on WITHOUT a an active home router?  This one has me stumped because I don’t know of anyone (except us) who has 90-minute backup power supplies on their multiple home 802-11 routers.  We’re belt and suspenders people (which looks odd on Elaine, but follow me here…)

Personal security is a big one for us.  No, we are not planning to attempt an overthrow of the country (which seems to be hatching…ahem) but should we have an intimate personal conversation about our primate medicinal gardeners in another state, I don’t think that should trigger a SWAT team arriving.

2.  I think this answered your “smart lights bulbs did idea…”

3.  Being in Georgia, and given that the whole world is slowing going crazy, ask yourself which has more utility value to more people:  You installing “smart lights”, or leaving well enough along and taking the 3 voice controlled switches, which would set you back what – $120? – and just investing in some good moonshine.

When the lights go out, there are all sorts of things you can do with the moonshine.  But not much you can do with a smart light if the power is out due to the rioting mobs who are sick of politics and haven’t gotten to the anarchy point yet.

Frankly, the corn-sqeezin’s sound like a better use of cash.

4.  Hacking is too early to call.  First, what would be the thrill for a hacker in logging into your house and turning off the freezer?  You would notice the light is off next time you got out the milk and then you’d go back to hardwired and then spend half a day a) trying to find the damn directions on how to change passwords, and then downloading updates, and then worrying about whether to leave your electronic underbelly exposed.

The real answer is pretty obvious (or so it is when you get so old that you can’t find one of those elusive 40-hours jobs with benefits:  What you need to do is stick with what works and spend the savings on pleasure or buying insurance against the future.

When a crowd of thugs is coming down your street, remember so far, Echo and her offspring are not able to call 9-11.  Besides, in that situation, you will want to have spent that money on a place well out of town and armed to the hilt with a seed value and some spam cans of 7.62X39….

On the other hand, if you already are in Georgia, I presume you have some kind of lead projector so spending the $900 on a top of the line Roomba to keep the place clean is a no-brainer.  The math on that is pretty easy for me:

If you and your wife spend an hour a week on routing floor cleaning, that’s 2-hours a week.  Since I’m guessing you make $25 an hour, or better, that puts your labor equivalency at $50 an hour…and it doesn’t take but a year or two for this to really make sense.

We haven’t been using our Roomba much lately, though.  Scares hell out of Zeus the cat who doesn’t understand why it goes first one way, then another, and being paranoid (as all cats are) he’s convinced it’s coming to “get him.”  I told him wait for Hillary…then he might have something to worry about.

The only other downside is than during an argument with the spouse, you can’t hand over the Roomba and suggest someone “go flying.”  As a well-cultured Southern Gentleman, I’m sure such harsh thoughts would never pass through your mind.  But think of what this investment has done to undermine the cultural future of Halloween!

I’ve gone to sleep many a time with the light on and figured having it on saved me from falling over things when I finally came to.  If all I had to say was “Alex Living room light off…”  I might never make it to the real bed and then a whole room becomes wasted space…

Kids Kickstarter a Museum?

My friend Chris Tyreman of the Chronicle Project has some pretty amazing kids:  They are trying to start a Mineral and Germ Museum.

imageThe short version is:

Eleven year old Judah Tyreman and his six year old sister Avi are trying to do something that no other kids in the world have ever attempted. They are crowd funding on Kickstarter to start a geology museum in memory of a friend of theirs.

But doing the impossible is not a new thing for this young kid. Last year, he created a four month exhibition of his massive geology collection with a hands on setup that attracted visitors from all over the country and as far away as China. During that exhibition, Judah met mineral dealer Stuart Sesula.

“When I met Stuart, I explained that I had created a huge hands on mineral and gem show for kids and adults alike, so they could have a chance to see and touch some of the most incredible specimens they will ever see.

He was so impressed, that he helped me out with donated specimens and lots of stuff at cost.

Stuart was in an accident when he was young and it left him paralyzed, but that didn’t stop him. He had the biggest collection of minerals and gems I had ever seen, and he bought and sold stuff all around the world. He even took the time to be driven here to our town just to see the show His help was amazing and he really took our show to the next level. With what I picked up from Stuart, I was able to have over 1500 specimens in the display.

Then after the show was over, Stuart got sick and passed away. It was then that I learned that he was so amazed with what I had done, that he wanted his collection to come to me. His stuff is amazing, and I thought I can’t just leave this in boxes, people need to see this. I need to create a museum for our stuff.

So my Dad told me about Kickstarter to crowd fund the project. So I made a video of what Avi and I want to do and I’m hoping that people all over the world will help so I can open the Sesula Mineral and Gem Museum here so that I can pass on his love of geology to everyone who comes. I want to create a huge set of plaques inside, with the names of all of the people around the world who helped fund it, even if its just a dollar.”

Interesting story on two fronts:  a) We made a contribution – investing in kids is worth doing and b) they’ve already raised almost $500.

Donations Page is here:

Maybe there is news after politics, after all?  Or is backing kids something only Canadians remember from “the good old days?”

Write when you break-even,

12 thoughts on “Coping: The Future of Home Automation”

  1. George,

    Thanks for answering my questions. My thinking was basically along those same lines, but sometimes you just have to hear it from somebody else. By the by, I moved to Georgia from Arkansas, so I’m a big fan of corn squeezins’ and I have at least one high quality lead projector. That base is covered.

    The coincidental/universal wink about your column today is that I also happen to be a geologist. Great story. I’ll be making a donation. Geology is the ‘artful science’ and we always welcome new art lovers to our ranks!


    • I bought my wife the Neato vacuum that compares to the iRobot you mentioned. That was a great purchase! We have two dogs and two young boys. So its not so much that it vacuums everyday, but it forces you to keep the house picked up so it doesn’t run over clothes and other stuff (toys) that falls to the floor. Having a picked up floor and then vacuumed everyday… that’s priceless!

      Nice comments on the going tech in the house. I struggled with that as well. I cant seem to train the boys to turn of lights when they leave rooms…

  2. Hey George,
    Never underestimate the ability of a beautiful woman to pull off wearing men’s clothes. It amazes me every time. For a funny twist on that subject look for a movie entitled “Switch” that has Ellen Barkin doing a helluva good job of impersonating a man.

    The first time I saw something like Echo was in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” some years ago and I was completely appalled that otherwise intelligent people would naïvely open up any control of their dwelling to anonymous individuals on the other side of the Earth. Just another example of “simply because we can do it doesn’t mean one ought to”. Glad I don’t have a pacemaker…

    If we get down to the GOP convention and they pull a “Melvin” on the popular voters such as is suggested in CNBC’s article “We choose the nominee, not the voters: Senior GOP official” seen here: I think I would seriously be interested in getting more down to Earth and personally private in my stash of whatever I think I’m going to need for the foreseeable future. Whether you put any credence in the apocryphal prophecy attributed to George Washington or not it’s looking more probable the last turmoil this nation will face will be another un-Civil War. It seems that TPTB are simply programmed for it. I think the sword of Damocles perpetually hangs over the head of any goose laying golden eggs.

    And, P.S., I will make a donation to Chris’ kids endeavor.

  3. You asked the question – “What would be the thrill for a hacker in logging into your house and turning off your freezer?” Then explain that you would notice . . . well, a couple of decades plus ago I used to babysit a couple of kids on a farm. One day I was fixing lunch for us and noticed that we were out of bread – the daughter says that Mom keeps the bread in the freezer. So I went in the outbuilding where the freezer was located and . . . someone had turned off the power to the area and then turned it back on.

    There was a freezer full of meat as well as bread, which had thawed, dripped down on the floor after springing the door, and then refroze. The sight was memorable; needless to say we had beans, ketchup, and corn chips for lunch . . .

    Twenty years ago I worked for an alarm company and we had clients with ‘freezer alarms’ – and you can buy ones that only alert you, without any alarm company involved. If you have expensive food in your freezer, might be a good idea. Would have saved the eldest son of farmer from having to dig big hole (he was the one responsible for the power problem) and lugging the horrid mess in there to bury it!

  4. re: home automation.

    It has come to light that if hackers gain access to high usage appliances (refrigerators, freezers, etc) they may have the ability to “turn them all on at once” and jeopardize grid balancing operations, thus causing a blackout or worse. Read Ted Koppel’s book.

    While there is no thrill in shutting off your refrigerator, if a hacker can gain access to your systems and figure out when you’re not home, that is an obvious risk.

    And lastly, wireless devices are incredibly easy to jam. Simpi Safe uses low power wireless transmitters from the sensors to the keypad that transmit on a specific, and public, frequency. A bad guy with a $25 transmitter can easily jam the signal, rendering your wireless security system useless. Similarly, he can jam your wireless car key fob (do you carry a backup manual key?) leaving you and your family standing there wondering what happened. And here comes the bad guy… What happens when your electronic wireless front door lock doesn’t work? Is the bad guy sitting across the street in his car waiting for you?

    I don’t want an “internet of things.” It adds multiple points of intrusion and multiple points of failure. My key v1.0 works 100% of the time every time.

    just my 0.02

  5. George;

    I discovered a couple of years back that my TelCo DSL modem, which
    on its rear panel wants something odd like 16 volts AC, will actually work
    perfectly with 12 VDC applied to the power jack. I also discovered my
    slightly antiquated LinkSys 54G router would also work just fine on 12 VDC.

    So, I whipped up a wall-wart motorcycle battery (20 AmpHour) charger,
    and run the devices off the battery. (The linear charger makes a bit more
    juice than the boxes need, so it’s perpetual motion.)

    Around here, the power wires are strung in the trees and on power poles,
    so interruptions are frequent. Oddly, the DSL never goes out. Lower down
    on the poles, and heavier wire, I theorize.

    I interviewed a lineman working on one of those refrigerator sized local
    network boxes, and I asked how long it was good for in a power outage.
    See, power for the phone used to come all the way from the Central
    Office huge battery room, and would last a LONG time. No more.
    Emergency power now comes from the small-ish battery bank in the
    network box. “Eight to twenty hours,” he told me. That gives us the time
    to bring in generators for the network boxes for a longer outage.

    Anyway, you ain’t the first by a good ten years. Now, it’s all on my
    400 amp-hour main 12 VDC battery bus, juiced by four 100+ A.H.
    flooded batteries, from four old UniSolar 100watt panels, with four
    Morningstar charge controllers, AND-ed together with some big-ass
    diodes, and the whole affair tied together with Anderson Powerpoles
    for flexibility.

    (I keep DSL because it’s fast enough, and the Telco lines are much more reliable than
    the stupid Kable Kompany “service.”

    So There.

  6. To those who think The US Army will not kill Civilians Remember Kent State College where unarmed students were shot and Killed for a protest against Viet Nam. Now they have improved killing devises to get rid of us who want to protest

    • Follow the Oregon Lavoy Finicum story. Appearing more and more spec ops were involved with orders from the Pentagon up to the WH.

  7. Years before I got a Roomba, I bought a robotic lawn mower. The store was using it as a doorstop because people here didnt go for it- hence it was on sale. It was about the 2nd generation product, and not the one that can be programmed for a certain date/time, and then send itself to the recharge station. Mine was supposed to do a random program, but I noticed once it got hung on a rut, it would start over in the same pattern. So it took less time to do it the usual way. I’ve been decreasing the amount of mowable yard for the last few years, but if I had a good-sized lawn, this is where I would invest in time-saving tech.

  8. X10 type systems have remote controllers that are just a bunch of buttons you can program. Not sure if it’s compatible with what you’re talking about.

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