Way back in early 2000’s I was playing around with home automation and had varying degrees of success. That system was pre-smartphone, so it ran on your computer and used a clever plug that transmitted signals through the wiring in the house to all the connected devices. I ran it off an old iMac I’d salvaged from somewhere and used the latest version of the software, but it was still glitchy (that was the last CRT computer I owned). It worked OK but I was never really able to build a solid case for investing hundreds of dollars into the gear and software, so I gave up on it.

These days Apple has HomeKit, which is an out of the box automation framework that hooks up to a whole fleet of (relatively inexpensive) peripheral gear. I spent $20 on two smart plugs last week and gave them a try. They are simple on/off switches, so they act as slightly smarter versions of the plug-in light timers we already own. They took all of a minute to register with HomeKit, and I quickly had a light in the living room hooked up to one. With one tap on my phone, the light turns on and off. But this kind of sucks, because I can’t just walk into the room and turn on that smart-connected light without a cellphone, and we don’t live the kind of regimented life where timer-controlled lights make sense. They’re great for when we travel, and I’ll probably swap out all of the old mechanical timers this year, but I can’t think of a use case for these plugs other than that. (I’m not buying an Alexa or HomePod to voice-activate anything, before you ask).

Now that I know it works, I’m going to explore some of the more expensive options for automation—maybe  a system set up to control the door locks, for example, allowing us to open the door without a key. But what I’d really like is to replace the thermostat with something programmable from somewhere other than the keypad; our Honeywell unit is about 15 years old and takes three hours of button-mashing to program every time the batteries die. The trick is to avoid the larger monopoly ecosystems; Google bought Nest back in the day and Amazon just bought iRobot—so now Bezos knows how much lint is under our couch. A couple of years ago I picked up a cheap Wyze camera for the house to see what Hazel was doing in her spare time but recently found out their system had been hacked and wide open for several years. Glad I only used that camera for the weeklong demo period. 

Meanwhile, we bought a Nest doorbell cam for Bob’s house to keep an eye on things remotely, which I installed on Sunday. The physical installation went fine but trying to set it up through his phone revealed that the Verizon rep completely fucked up his account setup, so that they were sending his bills to Pennsylvania and shut his phone off for nonpayment. We’re sorting that mess out now.

Date posted: September 19, 2022 | Filed under apple, geek, house | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to Adventures in Automation

  1. Eddy Young says:

    I bought a couple of those smart plugs for when we travel too. They are much better than timers to fake home presence and to deter thieves.

    In 2020, we had tado smart heating devices installed with a new boiler. One winter morning, we woke up to a very cold house because the boiler did not come on when the control device could not connect to the Cloud to load the heating schedule. During the night the Internet had gone down.

    It took a long email exchange with their product team to convince them that turning off the boiler when there is no Internet connection was not a smart idea. And that turning the boiler to full blast wasn’t either. Instead, they could store the last schedules on the control device to be used as backup, I suggested. It seems that this is now implemented, based on my observations, but I will never know for sure, since they don’t publish change logs.

    Such is the state of home automation these days. Not very reassuring when you don’t have control over the ecosystem.

  2. idiotking says:

    Hi Eddy—
    I am equal parts astounded and not at all surprised they shut the boiler down without an internet connection; it’s that age-old problem of the engineers not actually thinking about how their products are used in the real world. Seems like a clock battery and a hold on the current temperature setting would be the default for a loss of power/network incident, but what do I know?
    My experiences with Indigo, the older Mac-based software, was always very good. The company principal would routinely email me back answers to dumb questions and always took constructive feedback.

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