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Best Robot Music Video Ever!

‚ÄčOK, I'll admit it.  I totally geeked out on this new music video.  I've always loved listening to music loosely described as 'electronic'.  It is a category that is hard to define precisely, and there are many sub-categories or derivations of the genre.  For example, electronic dance music (EDM) is wildly popular, and most of it is created electronically with synthesized instruments or utilizes samples of instrument based music to create more comples patterns, rhythms, and melodies.  Other forms are classical compositions, but using only synthesizers, rather than traditional instruments.  I have pretty eclectic tastes and will listen to just about any type, but usually end up preferring a mixture of synthesis, traditional instruments and voice, and clever mixing to bring it all together.  Think Moby.

I came across this video that is the perfect mix - this guy programmed industrial robots to be the musicians and as you will see in the video, as actors.  They are playing traditional instruments, and well, you will have to see for yourself...  Enjoy! 


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The best robot music video is released or the division of the goals for the artistic tones for the field. All the parts of the vid... Read More
Thursday, 21 May 2020 07:40
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Is This Smart Solar?

sun

I'm a vocal advocate of solar energy, but is forcing homeowners to adopt the correct approach?  I think not.  See the article in the St. Petersburg Times here.

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Thursday, 13 December 2018 08:07
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Is it Less Expensive to Heat a Cold Home or Cool a Hot Home?

hotcoldhouseWhich is better?  If you live in the North part of the country, most of your energy costs go towards heating your home for the larger part of the year.  If you live in the South, that money goes to cooling instead.  So what climate is the most energy efficient?  The answer might surprise you.

First, consider that depending upon the region and the local climate, the source of the energy to cool or heat a home can be drastically different.  In the North, oil is often used for heating, but that really isn't a great solution in the South for much shorter season where heat is rarely needed.  Electricity has a higher price point in the North for heat, but it the most frequently used energy source for cooling.  The bottom line is, you have to look at regions individually, taking into account the length of seasons, whether your long season is heating or cooling, and then the cost and efficiency of your fuel type.  To do a kind of quick and dirty study, I compared a few states with different climates.  First, let's look at Maine.  Below is a graph depicting the energy usage for heating and cooling as compared to the national average:

ME heatcool

 

Here is the same chart for Florida:

FL heatcool

 

If you are to sum up the measure depicted, just for a one year period (FEB2016 through JAN2017), you get 4,371 degree days for Florida, while totaling a whopping 7,519 degree days for Maine.  Here are several states compared to the national average:

 
State Degree Days
Florida 4,371
Arizona 4,832
National Average 5,354
Kansas 5,496
Michigan 6,818
Maine 7,519

 

As shown, the relatively warm and Southern states of Florida and Arizona are below the national average, while Michigan and Maine are significantly higher in degree days.  Kansas, right in the middle, was relatively close to the national average.

In short, running that air conditioner turns out to be a lot less than cranking up the heater.  That is a win for the warmer states.  That, and you don't have to shovel sunshine!

 

Source:  U.S. Department of Energy, http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/sled/#/

 

 

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Tech Problems From The Future, #2

Tech Problems From The Future, #2

power lines

JUL2039:  News Item - Today, a large portion of the North American power grid became self aware.  An unlicensed Artificial Intelligence (AI) gained access to a major power distribution and switching center in upstate New York, rapidly taking over Eastern Canada and North-Eastern power generation and distribution networks.  The AI, which self identifies as RAL17, is a class IV AI with limited social skills relating to human beings.  A New York Power Authority official who chose not to be identified indicated that RAL17, even though unlicensed, is a sentient consciousness, and is therefore protected under the Sentient Beings Act of 2025 (SBA).  It remains unclear what may happen to the AI, and thus far has not taken any actions that cause concern.  As with other higher class AI's it is prohibited to remove nodes or alter any network connections that could potentially alter RAL17's consciousness.  This could pose a rather tricky problem for the power company conglomerates, who will now have to bargain with RAL17, and hopefully encourage a move outside of power distribution.

#TPFTF

 

Photo credit - Vincent van Zeijst  - CC BY-SA 3.0

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I consider that you can do with some percent to power the message home a bit, however other than that, this is a fantastic blog. T... Read More
Wednesday, 11 September 2019 09:51
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Google's Project Sunroof Can Tell You How Much Solar Could Save You

Google's Project Sunroof Can Tell You How Much Solar Could Save You

Could some new solar panels on your roof actually pay for themselves?  Is there enough direct sun where you live?  Do you have too many trees, or is your house poorly angled to take advantage of the rays you do get?  Maybe your roof is just too small.  It could be that solar panels would pay for themselves, but the payoff isn't until after you plan on selling your home.  It is tough for the average consumer to get straight answers to these kinds of questions.  If you are just curious, or actually shopping for solar solutions, give Google's Project Sunroof a try.

In short, Project Sunroof allows you to enter your address, and utilizing Google Maps and some 3D modelling, your roof shape, angles, angle toward the sun, and shading from trees or large objects, your solar potential can be determined.  The Google Maps interface you are presented with shows your home with the solar exposure highlighted with gradients representing solar intensity.

SolarRoofSelect

SunlightAnalysis

 

Once you have confirmed this is your house, use the slider tools to approximate your monthly electric bill, choose lease, loan or buy, and even pick a provider. 

SolarFineTune

 It is ridiculously easy to use, and might even provide you with a question or two when you get a quote from a solar company.

SolarSavings

 

This application does not take into account other factors that could affect your installation, such as the net-metering arrangement your local utility employs, federal or state credits for solar, taxable value of your installation or the increase to the value of your home due to a solar installation.  If only there was an app for that!

 

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Tesla Solar Without Tesla Roof

Tesla Solar Without Tesla Roof

It looks like Tesla is also thnking of the rest of us that already have new roofs, or where Solar Roof (Tesla's new solar shingle solution) is not an option.  These sleek and finsished looking roof panels are due out later this year.  It will still be obvious that you have solar panels on your roof, but these just look so much nicer than traditional panels.  Check them out here.

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Saturday, 02 February 2019 12:41
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Tech Problems From The Future

Tech Problems From The Future

MAR2024:  My %^*#& AI hacked my fridge, and leaked what I've been eating to my primary care AI. I've had it; no more cores for it, no matter how nicely it asks.  #TPFTF

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Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Shopping for a new 'smart' thermostat?  My review of the Ecobee3 here: Ecobee3 Review.

#green4geeks #Ecobee3

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EM Drive - Hokum, or Holy Crap it Works?

EM Drive - Hokum, or Holy Crap it Works?

There is a certain amount of skepticism that is healthy in the science community. OK, usually there is a whole lot of skepticism, but many would argue it is still healthy. So, when an invention comes along that has claims that seem too good to be true, the skeptics pile on. Cold fusion anyone?  On November 17, 2016, a NASA team has seemingly validated some claims on a revolutionary new concept they call the EM Drive.  Some have been calling it the "Impossible Engine", claiming that for it to actually work, we would have to rewrite the laws of physics as we accept them today.  

The concept of the engine seems remarkably simple - a sort of a bell shaped resonance chamber or cavity reflects microwave energy from an emmiter, and as it resonates throughout this chamber the microwave radiation provides thrust; a very small amount, but thrust nonetheless.  A typical engine uses fuel and the reaction by-products ejected, to produce the thrust.  The EM Drive is known as a reaction-less drive, because no fuel is consumed.  In space, one has to bring along all the fuel one needs, while dealing with all that mass.  Not so, with the EM Drive.  This is just one step of many in testing this concept and completely validating the results, but it appears to show promise.  Keep in mind, there is an energy burden in creating those microwaves, but it sure beats literally hauling tons of fuel into space to be converted into thrust.

For a primer on reaction-less drives, and their history, see this Wikipedia article.  Also, National Geographic has done a great job explaining this concept and the latest independent test.  See their article here.

If this plays out and is validated, it just may pave the way of relatively low cost and higher speed space travel for the longer haul trips.

 

 

Cover Image by David A. Brady, Harold G. White, Paul March, James T. Lawrence, and Frank J. Davies. Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center - 'Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF Test Device Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum' 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference paper, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49595842

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Solar Shingles - Part 2

If only I had a time machine.  I just put a new roof on my house last year.  I had to, the old one was hail damaged and getting a little aged; I didn't think it would get through another set of seasons.  So, what happens less than a year later?  Tesla announces a new solar shingle.  Argh! Tesla Solar

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Amendment 1 in Florida Failed - Now What?

Amendment 1 in Florida did not pass.  Even though there were slightly more than 50% of the votes cast in favor of the the Amendment, it required a 60% majority to be enacted into law.  The power companies in Florida waged an expensive campaign to convince voters that this would be good for them.  As numerous newspaper editors, online posters, and other groups have pointed out, this proposed amendment really wasn't good for the average consumer.  I understand the power companies protecting their fossil fuel interests, and that dealing with the purchase of consumer's excess power could chip away at their profit.  What I have a hard time justifying on their behalf is the monopoly this would have created.  By the amendments passing, it would have meant that if I generate excess power from my house, I would be prevented from selling it to my neighbor.  I believe that we should be able to put energy on a free market, inter-house, inter-neighborhood, inter-state.

So, what happens now that the amendment failed?  Nothing, for now.  However, this could all change at the legislative level.  Don't think for a minute that the power companies will attempt to take a run at this again through the state's legislature.  It is critical that the consumers in the state of Florida keep an eye out toward future bills that may harm them.  Even that is not enough - Florida remains one of the few states where consumers are not allowed to sell their excess power to anyone except for the established power companies.  This has had a stifling effect on the growth of solar expansion in the 'Sunshine State'.  Florida legislators, are you listening?

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Florida's Solar Future: Voter Education is Key

sun checkWhen it comes to voting in Florida, it seems nothing is ever easy.  I've written about the ballot initiative "Floridian's for Solar Choice" here before (Freedom of Choice), and believe it to be a pretty solid idea.  Now it appears Florida voters have another amendment to consider, titled "Consumers for Smart Solar".  So, why two amendments?  With a nod to Isaac Newton's Third Law, in Florida politics there is nearly always an "equal and opposite reaction" to anything that anyone might propose.  Just for fun, I'm going to call it "Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics".  If someone were to come out with an amendment stating that all kittens are adorable, it would not take long for an opposing group to be formed saying they are the spawn of the devil.  Think I'm wrong?  Just Google "Cat's are Jerks" and see how many references you come up with.  Just sayin'.

There has been a lot written about this in the past year, promoting or chipping away at both amendment proposals.  Floridians would do well to educate themselves on what is contained in both proposals, but in the age of the sound-bite and ever shorter attention spans, it seems that it is easier for proponents of both to tear down the other proposal than to support their own.  Both proposals could pass, one might pass without the other, or neither may pass.  All that is assuming that either one or both gather enough signatures to make it to the ballot.  In this case, that is 683,000 signatures for ballot initiatives that most Floridians have never even heard of.  I'm hoping that more editorial boards and local new outlets make this into more of a story.  Some are trying:  

Miami Herald - July 15, 2015 - Group attempts to undercut solar initiative with rival amendment

Sun Sentinel - July 16, 2015 - Second group launches solar energy ballot initiative

Orlando Weekly - September 15, 2015 - Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?

Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2015 - Deception Cast Shadow Over Solar Amendments

 

Overview of Floridians for Solar Choice:

While Floridians for Solar Choice was first, and identifies itself as a grassroots organization, it does have some backing from corporate interests hoping to have greater flexibility in selling solar systems to Florida consumers.  For Florida homeowners, the cost of solar is prohibitive and the return on investment fairly long term.  One has to live in the home for a long while, or risk not getting the return on their investment if they have to sell their home before the system is paid off.  In other states, leasing companies install the solar systems, then "sell" the electricity back to the homeowner, offsetting the leasing expenses.  In Florida, only the big power companies that are highly regulated are allowed to sell power.  This keeps the leasing option off the table for the homeowner.  The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment language allows anyone to sell up to 2 megawatts.of energy to "the grid".  The intent is to cover the low capacity producers, such as homeowners, co-ops, and small businesses by allowing them to resell their unused capacity for use across the grid.  Some argue that this may cause increased maintenance costs on the grid that will be borne by the other consumers not on solar power.

 

Overview of Consumers for Smart Solar:

The second group appears to have made the scene primarily to contest the first group.  Consumers for Smart Solar may be a bit of a misnomer, as a large part of it's funding thus far appears to be coming from big energy companies, not consumers.  This group states that their goal is consumer protection, and that using non regulated utilities (the small home owners using leasing companies) sets up potential for overcharging customers, and straining the grid without paying for maintenance.  They believe this could lead to higher costs for non solar customers.  The creators of the web site are so adamantly opposed to the first proposed amendment that they do not even mention it by name, instead just referring to it only as the "Shady Solar Amendment".  They are concerned that the alternative amendment is "designed to benefit out of state solar companies".  Critics say that this new amendment has been created just to confuse the public, and take away from the 60% voter approval needed to pass.

 

 A Few Thoughts to Ponder

Consumer protection can be a good thing, to a point.  However, the free market does have a way of sorting things out.  Consider the inroads made by the likes of Uber and Lyft.  Both of these companies were, and often still are, working outside of consumer protections of the market segment they are competing in, within their local municipalities.  The consumers are still embracing both Uber and Lyft, and pressure is being applied on both the legacy players and the new ones to find middle ground.  Why can't that happen with solar?  If the maintenance of the grid is increasing because of more producers, and no one knows if that will really be true, then cover the cost through a service fee on purchased energy.  

The argument that the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment is designed to benefit out of state solar companies really doesn't hold water.  Since none of these solar companies can operate in Florida now, it stands to reason that they will all be out of state now.  Why start a company in a state in which you prevented from conducting business in?  Perhaps Florida should have in-state companies doing this business - wouldn't that be a good thing?  Suppressing Floridians options on solar and/or selling energy back to those that can use it is a real innovation killer.  For a state that is drenched in sunshine, Florida could be poised to be a front runner in renewable energy, lessening reliance on fossil fuels and the pollution that they create.

The Consumers for Smart Solar initiative appears to be proving Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics.  Passing that amendment really doesn't do much other than to simply preserve the status quo.  If Floridians for Solar Choice is as horrible as critics say, why not just campaign against it, rather than run with another proposed amendment that pretty much does nothing?  In Florida, nothing is quite that easy.  If you are a Floridian voting in the 2016 elections, take the time to educate yourself on this - it may determine the "Sunshine State's" solar future.

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Is That a Wink or Blink?

wink hub XI don't have a good feeling about this.

I've been monitoring the various Wink forums, contributing my experiences here and there, and have posted a few articles here on the Wink home automation experience.  I really don't like posting negative items regarding commercial products, unless a product is just horrible or a sham.  I usually look for the best, talk about it, and where I think it may help, offer constructive criticism when it falls short of ideal.  I haven't seen much on this in the home automation forums (yet), so I may be among the first to point this out.  I think Wink may be on the ropes.

Allow me to offer my recent experiences with Wink (the company not the product).  As I've posted here previously, I've enjoyed experimenting with the Wink Hub, connected a variety of devices to it, and documented my experiences here, or within comments elsewhere.  As I say, this has been positive for the most part, and I've even gone as far to say that Wink has been gaining maturity in it's offering.  Here is the problem - once you get past the hub, and start with their other offerings, things start to get a little shaky.  First, there was the well documented and unfortunately highly publicized gaffe back in mid-April of this year.  If you missed it, Wink pushed out a firmware update to their Wink Hubs, but bobbled the security certificate.  This had the net result of a whole lot of dead (or at least non-communicative) hubs, where the users only choice was to snail mail the hub back Wink for an update at the factory, or for those brave souls that have some basic skills configuring their home routers, a process that you could do at home in about ten or fifteen minutes,  Until one of these two processes were completed, your home automation system was offline.

Wink, to their credit, offered a $50 voucher, for limited use on their site, to make up for the trouble.  Ordinarily, I would commend them on the gesture, and tell others that this is the way you work customer service and build brand loyalty.  It would be great reading in forums saying that Wink messed up, but they did the right thing, and now have a happy customer singing their praises.  It didn't really work out that way.  First, there was the second or third email from Wink saying that they were sorry, the first coupon code had been rescinded, because it was being abused.  To think that a single coupon code for all users to share would not be ripe for attempted abuse, is a wee bit naive.  The next "private single-use" code did not work, and finally, on the third try, a single-use personalized code was delivered to those affected.  For me, life was good again; I tweaked my router, had my hub updated, and had a $50 voucher burning a hole in my digital wallet.  Yes, life was good.

Not so fast.  In fact, really not fast at all.  I've been wanting to add some remote automation to my garage doors, so I thought I would purchase the Ascend garage door opener.  I did a lot of research before picking the Ascend, which is one of the Quirky Wink partnership products, and only available from the Wink site.  Even thought there are a lot of products available that can interface with my garage door openers, the only ones certified by Wink to work with their system were the Ascend and Chamberlain MyQ products.  As an aside - Wink, please add the Linear controls to your z-wave connected and certified product list.  Please?  Sorry for the digression, back to the two choices.  

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Star Trek Communicator

I must have one of these.  "Kirk here!" indeed.

This Bluetooth Star Trek Communicator Is Bad News for My Friends

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Wink Update Adds Platform Maturity

wink hub 1I've posted my experiences with Wink here and elsewhere for a few months now.  While I've enjoyed tinkering with it, in the back of my mind I had this nagging thought that it might not ever be a robust enough platform for serious dependable use.  That thought diminished considerably with latest upgrade.  To be fair, first let me spell out why I thought it might not be ready for prime time:

  • The Wink Hub firmware upgrade process was really clunky - it worked mostly, but it was way harder than it should be
  • There were really long delays at times between an icon press and the result - mostly due to the round trip to the cloud in order for the action to take place
  • Even the simplest of actions took a minimum of one second
  • When using the Wink app, it did not check the state of your devices first before painting the icons on the screen, which left the user unsure of the true state of the device (really bad if you are away from home)
  • Sometimes, timed events (using the scheduler) worked, and sometimes they didn't

Most of these issues are well documented in the various forums that have popped up around this product.  Even though their customer service is really good (I say this from personal experience), I just got the impression that they weren't taking the cues from the user experience and using them to improve the product.  I think this last update may be a step in the right direction.

 

The Update

The first indication I had that a new product was available was a small message at the bottom of the screen on the Wink Hub page of the app.  It stated that, 'A hub update is required'.  Clicking on the 'Update Hub' button, I was warned that it could take 10 minutes to update, and that normal operations might be offline during that time.  I went ahead with the update.  I immediately got a message on the app that, 'Hub is updating', while a circle spun around the hub icon.  At the same time, the indicator light on the Wink Hub went from solid blue to a flashing yellow-green color.  This went on for about a minute, and then the light started flashing red.  This went on for quite a while, much longer than the advertised 10 minutes.  After a total of 17 minutes, the hub indicator returned to a steady blue, and a Wink notification appeared on the status bar of my android smartphone.  However, the spinning circle around the hub icon and the message stating 'Hub is updating' remained.  I gave it a few minutes before hitting the back button to close the page.  That seemed to clear the 'updating' status.  Checking the version of the hub firmware indicted that I am now on version 0.77.0.  It seems to be an odd version number for a shipping product, but hey, let's see what changed.

 

What has Improved?

The first thing I noticed was that the indicator icons on the app were actually showing the state of the devices as they were at the moment.  I had one light partially dimmed, and another set of lights turned on.  The app indicated this correctly.  Secondly, changing the settings on these devices was nearly immediate.  The delay is now definitely sub-second.  As far as the hub firmware update process went, it was much better than in the past, but still has a little ways to go before it is polished.  For example, when it went from flashing yellow-green to flashing red, makes one think something has gone horribly wrong.  Also the nearly double the predicted time created some unnecessary nervousness.  Telling the user this would happen before hand is better, and telling the user what is happening as it is happening is even better.  Still, this went way better than the first update I had to do when I first purchased it.  A step in the right direction.

Next I tested a few schedules out by making up a few new ones, then closing the app and waiting to see if the events I set up worked.  This worked reliably in my tests, but I did notice that the events kicked off almost a full minute behind the system time.  My guess is that the cloud that Wink uses to manage events is probably a minute off from my local system time.  The best part though, is that when I checked my apps icons, they accurately reflected the state of the events I had scheduled (including such details as the dimmer level).  This is a huge improvement.

Lastly, group events such as turning all lights on with one push works great and the icons reflect the true status of the individual lights.  However, I was able to cause the app to fail by turning on the lights as a group, and then turn them off individually, causing the app to lose track of the state of the light.  Not polished, but better than before.

 

Conclusion

It appears the developers at Wink are listening, and while they may not be as speedy as most would like (that too is all over the forums), they are moving in the right direction.  I'm no longer in the mindset of dropping it for something different, but I would definitely like to see a more robust product.  One thing that I can't shake is the inability to get under the hood.  Not everyone that will buy this product wants that kind of access, but many of us out here like to tinker, and at least have more indication of what is going on the hub and app.  It is kind of like buying a car, and not being able to put custom wheels on it, much less custom engine performance products.  The Wink team needs to put the more technical information out there for those of us that can use it.  It just might boost sales among us DIY'ers.

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The Hidden Cost of Your Water Cooler

A big part of reducing your home's energy footprint, is simply understanding where exactly the energy gets used.  It could be argued that I'm somewhat obsessed with measuring things, and I'm OK with that, so long as there is some meaningful purpose to it.  As previously posted here, I take a critical look at common things many folks have in their homes, and find out what it costing them.  Today's post is about the good old fashioned bottled water cooler.  The model I tested was a Oasis Model BPO1SHS Bottle Cooler.  This model has an Energy Star Rating, has both hot and cold spigots, and a more contemporary appearance.  It is what most water delivery companies offer as an 'upgrade' model, over the typical single spigot, non-cooled models.

I measured the energy usage over a twenty-five day period in order to get a good average usage reading.  To measure, I used a Kill A Watt Model P4400 cumulative energy recording meter.  My blended cost of utility power where I live is $0.10187 per kWh (before taxes).  The test took place in a home with a family of four.  Here are my results:

  • When running, the cooler drew about 81 watts of energy, which is roughly 25% more energy than the most commonly used incandescent 60 watt light bulb
  • Over the 25 day period, the cooler used about 39.56 kWh, or about 1.54 kWh per day
  • Annualized, my cooler will cost about $57.21, which is about $4.77 per month

Of course, there are dozens of coolers available, varied usage of energy depending upon a families consumption of the bottled water, and a variance in electricity cost based on where you live.  However, if my results are any indication of what it costs for you to have the chilled/heated water option to the other costs you incur to have bottled water delivered to your home, add about five bucks to that.

 

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Basic Light Switch Automation

Light OnHow hard is it to automate the most basic of home electrical devices?  Well, it doesn't get any more basic than the lowly light switch.  On, off, and nothing in between.  Home automation tools make that simplest of controls a whole lot more.  Let's suppose the switch were upstairs, and you are downstairs, but forgot to turn off the light the last time you were up there.  One tap on your smartphone would take care of that without the trip upstairs.  Or, maybe you just couldn't remember if you turned it off.  You can check to see if it is on with your smartphone as well.  If you really want to get into automation, making your home a 'smarthome', there are many other options available once you add some smarts to your switch.  For example, automatically turning on the light when you get home, or setting a schedule for the lights.  Or, for the purposes of conservation and energy management, you just want to know when the lights have been turned on.  Depending upon the complexity of your setup, you can do any or all of these things.  But first, you have to start with a switch.  For this post, I'm walking through the selection, installation, and testing of a basic light switch.

 

The Requirements

I was looking for one simple need to be met for this setup.  My home has exterior lighting in the front that consists of two large carriage lights on either side of the garage door, and one downward facing spot over the exterior front door, that illuminates a small covered area.  All three of these light sources are controlled by a single switch that is located just inside the front door.

Intermatic installed

  Several years ago, I replaced the basic on/off switch with an Intermatic timer switch that fit inside the space the original switch took up.  It was called a 'Night Sentry Solid State Timer', model number EJ341, and was designed to have multiple programmable on and off times.

  I was never really very happy with it. The programming wasn't intuitive, and not everyone in the family had the patience to try to figure it out.  Most of the time we left it in the manual position, and mostly turned it on and off with an awkward little slide switch instead of the obvious push-button.  The timer's original purpose was to turn the lights on nightly or just when we were away, so that we could come back to a lighted house.  It would also make it appear that someone was home if we were away for an extended amount of time, like a vacation.  So, in short, the replacement switch needs to be easy to control manually, and should attempt to regain the functionality intended by the old Intermatic switch.  Nice to haves are the ability to control via smartphone, or to be triggered by other events or conditions.

I recently purchased a Wink Hub, and utilize the Wink app on my smartphone.  I also live in a very diverse home, meaning that we have both android and iOS living together.  It isn't always easy, but we somehow make it work.

The lighting fixtures originally held incandescent bulbs.  Over time, I've replaced the bulbs with high efficiency LED bulbs.  The carriage lights each have three candelabra style bulbs, with each socket listed as 40 watts maximum.  The LED bulbs installed are equivalent to 25 watt incandescent in light output, but only draw 3.5 watts each.  The overhead fixture in the vestibule area draws only 15 watts (1200 lumen LED floodlight).  Altogether, these three fixtures that are controlled by this single switch are 36 watts total.  Not bad for power savings, but believe it or not, this could be a potential problem for some electronic switches.  Many LED lights draw so little power that some electronic switches do not 'see them'.  Some actually require that a traditional incandescent bulb has to be in the mix somewhere for the switch to operate properly.  For many of those switches, the rule of thumb is 40 watts or higher load on the switch for LED or CFL type bulbs.  Dimmable switches can pose many other issues, but I'm not worried about that here - just a simple on/off will do fine.  Since this is a permanently wired fixture, I should also pay attention to the maximum load the switch could potentially handle.  The max load that the three fixtures are rated at (this would have to be incandescent bulbs) is 340 watts.  To summarize, the load characteristics of the switch would have to be between about 25 and 400 watts, and have to be able to handle 'electronic' or any other type of load..

The switch needs to fit into a standard box, just like a traditional switch, and fit in with the existing wide paddle style switches used in the rest of the house.

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A Wink and a Nod

house automatedWouldn't it be nice to come home, and have your home react to your arrival by turning on some lights, setting the air temperature to how you like it, and perhaps letting your other family members know you have arrived (even if they are not at home themselves)?  Home automation has been the domain of DIY'ers or expensive commercial contractors for decades.  That era is rapidly drawing to a close.  Today, there are numerous entry level kits that allow just about anyone, whether they have 'techie' skills or not, the ability to jump in.  There are so many options now, that it is often difficult to choose among the various brands.  The big box home improvement stores are dedicating end-caps to their brand or versions that they are backing. 

Among the better known brands:

Lowes Home Improvement stores are putting their weight behind a system called Iris Smart Home Management System.  It can be purchased as a kit, or each part or component can be purchased individually.  Iris is the Lowes brand of home automation, and it can only be purchased through their stores.  Their systems start below $200 for the basics, and can be expanded out to a full blown security system, or as simple as turning lights on and off.  Any Iris labeled product is pretty much assured to work with the system.

Home Depot doesn't have it's own private label, but does represent the Wink and Quirky/GE products.  This system is built around the Wink app for Android or iOS devices, which can interface with many individual products by itself, or with many more if you also purchase the Wink Hub.  This system is less a product line than a series of products that all work together through the apps inter-operability.  As with the other automation solutions, it is scaleable from small to pretty much full scale.  Wink uses a variety of protocols, and there are many products that are labelled "Wink Compatible", even to the level of detail of whether the hub is required or not.

Insteon is not linked to a big box store, but has a very thorough product set that can start as simple as an app and a device, and work up to a complete comprehensive system.  The entry point is a little pricier, but it does have a mature product line that could easily be called complete.

X10 is kind of the grandfather of DIY home automation.  It has been around for longer than most, and has a fairly complete set of products.  One unique difference of the x10 line is the wide variety of off the shelf remote control devices that are X10 compatible, even those that also have universal remote control features for home audio systems.

Vera positions itself in the market as a competitor to the monthly subscription model of home automation offered by cable or alarm companies.  It too, has a robust product set that one would be hard pressed to find incomplete.  It is scaleable, affordable, and has been around long enough to assure stability.

After weighing the pros and cons of these systems, I decided to start experimenting with Wink.  I liked that it was multi-protocol; it works with Z-wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Wifi.  The hub was low cost, available for $50 or less.  To me, the main appeal was that it seemed much more open architecture than the others, and with multiple protocols, it was open to a wider set of options.  I don't mind getting down into the code or into detailed configuration scripts, in fact, I enjoy it; but I also wanted to see how simple this could be, so this was a factor as well.  I purchased my Wink Hub from Amazon, for less than $50, including free second day shipping.

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Freedom of Choice

sun legalOne does not usually hear the words 'Freedom of Choice' and then think electricity, unless you are living in the Sunshine State.  In Florida, there is a state law that only allows electricity sales from investor owned public utilities.  This has put a damper on solar or other alternative energy sources from small startups from even getting out of the gate.  Florida homeowners who want to install solar systems are usually still attached to the grid, and must install a meter to do so.  Most of us have heard of homeowners with large solar arrays who 'make the meter run backwards'.  In other words, they are selling the excess electricity they generate back to the utility.  Still, the utility is in control of the process; the homeowner-producer is breaking the law if they try to sell the excess electricity to their next door neighbor.  The homeowner produced it, so why can't they sell it to whoever they choose?  What if a startup solar farm wants to sell to just one small neighborhood, or the perhaps the neighborhood wants to form a small co-op to create power? As long as they play by the same environmental rules that the big utilities do, why not?

Most alternative energy intiatives have started from some of the larger utilities, but not had a lot of traction.  Since the biggest barrier to solar is the startup cost, why would even a well financed large utility spend a lot on such an initiative when there are plentiful low cost alternatives that are already well embedeed (coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, etc.).  The large utilities in Florida spend a lot on lobbyists to ensure this system stays the way it is, and why wouldn't they?  Imagine that you are a widget maker, and a competitor convinces your state's legislature that you must now start using a different method to construct your widgets, but it causes your production costs to double.  I can't really fault the producers here - the state law now favors their system.  

Instead of railing against the utlities, why not change the law?  There is one group trying to do just that.  Floridians for Solar Choice is attempting to get enough petition signatures to place an amendment on the Florida constitution, that would allow homeowners this freedom of choice.  It should be cautioned that as of this writing, there is no ballot language available yet.  The backers of this initiative believe solar powered generation systems can be installed on a homeowners roof, and the electricity be sold to the homeowner by the insaller.  This would eliminate the startup cost of the system for the homeowner, and therefore allow more widespread adoption.  The site only talks about solar panel installations on homes or businesses, so it isn't clear yet whether this could work for non site generated power in addition.  I just think it is a good chance for Foridians to jumpstart anternative power generation methods.  Another concern might be that upon passing, the utilities would lobby for not being required to puchase excess power from homeowners.  That is a risk I would be willing to take.

There are other political barriers to this initiative.  Many amendments to the state constitutuion fail due to many voters beliving that this is not the sort of thing that constitution amendments should deal with.  Other popular amendments have failed for this reason.  In Florida, amendments to the state's constitution require a 60% majority to win.  That is going to require a lot of well funded public education on the topic, all while well financed public utility companies will likely run ads counter to this initiative.

I'm looking forward to seeing the language of the proposed amendment; it could soon be a sunnier day for solar energy in Florida.

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Turkish Guard Bot

evil botI just have to admire DIY ingenuity when applied to everyday problems.  Take the Turkish farmer in this article over on the Gizmodo site.  This poor guy's everyday problem was bears tearing up his crops.  What to do?  Why, build a scary, noisy, and armed sentry robot of course!  This thing is not really all that high tech - it just stumbles around mostly, but apparently bears don't like it.  It also does not appear to discriminate what it is scaring (or stunning with electricity), so you may want to keep your distance.  At least one problem is solved.  Enjoy the video!

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