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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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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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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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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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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