Sunday, September 10, 2017

Amazon Echo Show

I have held off on picking up any of Amazon's Echo products thinking they were pretty much a novelty item.  Then last month the released the Echo Show with the screen and I was kind of intrigued.  Then I learned that the Alexa show works with Arlo cameras and now the Show was a must have product for me.  I love my Arlo cameras but often wished there was some kind of monitor that came with then.   My driveway and entry door in my home is just off my kitchen but there are no windows with a view of the driveway or door so if there is someone at the door I can't easily see them.  The Echo Show solves this problem, all I have to do is ask Alexa to "Show my side door camera" and the feed pops up.

I do have quite a few other smart devices in my home that integrate nicely with the Echo.  I can now easily control my Nest thermostats or check the temperature upstairs if  the kids are complaining it is too hot.  I can turn on and off my driveway lights that are connected to my WEMO switch.  I can also control my Rachio sprinkler system by telling Alexa to water a certain zone for x many minutes.  All pretty cool functionality but for me still pretty much a novelty.

Much has been made of the creepiness of the drop-in feature but it doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would and I actually find myself using it.  I only have my wife and I enabled but if we are away and want to check on the kids we can just drop in and see what is going on in the kitchen.

Setup was pretty simple I had all of my connected devices set up in less than an hour.  I find myself asking Alexa for the days weather more now than just checking on my phone.  The device itself is kind of ugly, but I am not bothered by how it looks.   I think the boxiness has to do with fitting in the fairly high quality speakers.   The speakers are good but they aren't going to replace my Sonos speakers anytime soon.  I am also not an Amazon Prime subscriber so I don't have access to any of the music or videos, so the functionality there is limited for me.   The price of the product at $229 was a bit high but I was able to use a couple best buy discount certificates I had and got it for about $180.  

This is the first generation of the show so there is lots of room for improvement.  It has a touch screen but there is not a lot of functionality there.   There is no web browser.  With the Arlo integration it takes about 15 seconds to pull up the camera feed.  The talk feature is also not available through the Echo Show.   But I imagine that more and updated functionality will be coming in the future.

One piece of functionality that I am really looking forward to is the Echo integration with Sonos speakers.  This functionality was announced a year ago and is expected soon.  I will be sure to review how it works as soon as it is available.

Overall, I am pretty happy with my Echo Show.  Looking forward to new functionality and getting new connected products and see how they integrate with my whole house system.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nest Thermostat E

Nest just released a new, cheaper version of their thermostat called the Nest E, for easy.  It is currently priced at $169 which is $80 cheaper than their 3rd generation thermostat.  With local rebates that some utilities provide you the price could be less than $100 if the rebated apply to this model.   This undoubtedly is targeted to complete with the Ecobee 3 Lite which is priced the same.

The thermostat is made of plastic (polycarbonate) rather than the metal and glass that the 3rd generation nest is made from.  It is white and has a frosted display to blend into the background.  Probably will be pretty popular with consumers who are not comfortable with the high price point of the 3rd generation Nest or weren't into the modern look of the original.

 As far as features go it seems to have everything that the third generation Nest has except Faright.  Farsight is the feater that allows you to display the current tempeartire or time when the thermostat detects that you are near.  Kind of a cool feature nut not a mist have.  The nest E seems to do everything else the the 3rd Gen Nest does.  It is a learning thermostat, you can control it with your phone or the website, it is easy to install, and is just about the same size.  

I think this will be a winner for Nest.  The are going to pick up some consumers who were turned off by the price of the original.  I would be a buyer if I didn't already have 2 of the Nest 3rd Generation thermostats installed.

My only wish is that they would work on a cheaper version of the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector.  I still can't get past the $119 price tag.  Hopefully they will at least release a new version of the Protect with some additional features that will help me justify the cost so I can pick up a couple.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Arlo Solar Panel

The Arlo Solar panel is a great addition to the Arlo Pro Camera for those who don't feel like recharging batteries every few months.  I believe the panel also works with the Arlo Go cameras.

I have had the panel installed for about a month now and it had kept my battery charged at 100%.  There are some customers on the Arlo forums that seem to be having issues with the panels showing an error message in the app.  I have never experienced any errors with my panel.

I have two Arlo cameras but only chose to purchase one panel as my front camera does not get that much activity and I only have to charge the battery every 6 months or so.  Also the camera faces north so there would no easy way for me to face the panel toward the sun which is obviously key to solar panels.  

If you are considering installing one of these panels male sure of the following:

  1. The panels are facing the sun, preferably south (if you are in the Northern hemisphere) and angled properly.  There is an app called SinplySolar that can help you with angling your panel
  2. The plug for the panel is fully seated.  To make the panel water tight the connection is kind of difficult to seat filly especially if you are on a ladder.  
  3. Make sure there are no trees or other obstructions between the panel and the sun.
So far I am pretty happy with the performance of my panel.  It will be interesting to see what happens when the days get shorter and colder and we start seeing some snow.  Hopefully the panel will still be able to keep the batter charged.   Time will tell I guess.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Sonos - Playbase

For the past year I am been browsing around looking for a good soundbar that would fit in my family room.  In my old house I had a pretty good Cambridge Soundworks  6.1 surround sound system installed, which did not come with me to the new house.  In my new house wanted better home theater sound, but I did not want to run wires. With the layout of the room, it would be impossible or at least extremely ugly to run wires around the walls.  I have been looking at higher end soundbars, but I was unable to find one reviewed well enough to encourage me to pull the trigger.  My other issue is my TV sits so low on the base that most soundbars would block the IR receiver.  This seemed to be another instance where the technology was not yet where I needed it to be but if I waited long enough something would eventually be released.  I have not been real impressed with the performance of any of the Bluetooth speakers I have owned and I have never really been a fan of Bose products.

I had read about a bit about Sonos products, and really wasn't looking very closely at them as they are pretty pricey.  Then last month I came across a couple reviews of the Playbase.  Although pricey, it seemed to fit the criteria of most of what I was looking for.

  • Great Sound
  • Plenty of bass for movies
  • Expandable
  • Wireless
  • Can play music form just about anywhere

So after a lot of research I pulled the trigger and picked up a Playbase.  I have to say I am impressed.  The sound obviously does not rival my old 6.1 system but it is pretty damn good.  I no longer find my self turning the volume up to hear dialogue and then down when the explosions get too loud.  It also looks great under my TV.  Very sleek and unobtrusive.

What has impressed me the most is the ability to stream different types of audio.  I have been a Pandora user for a while so it was great to be able to use it on the Playbase as well.  I am also able to listen to local radio stations through TunedIn.  The system supports 49 streaming services so most likely your favorite is supported.  Most impressive is I am able to share out my whole music library on my PC and stream it to the Playbase.  The great thing is it just works.  The app is great, very intuitive.  You don't get any drops like on Bluetooth.

I can't really find much to complain about regarding the system but if I had to come up with something....

  • Its expensive - Yes it is expensive but for me it is worth it
  • Limited connection options - The playbase connects from your TV using an optical cable only. 
  • It does not support DTS or other advanced audio formats
The problem is now I am wanting to add more components to the system.  While the bass output is good I am sure it would sound a lot better with the sub so I will probably be adding one soon.  And once I have the sub I might as well get a couple Play1s for the rear.  Then of course I need a Play 3 for the office.   Not to mention the kids rooms and bathroom.   The good thing is once I do build the whole system out it will be so easy to setup and manage through the app.  You can have one audio source playing in one room and another audio source in another room.

Also on the horizon is integration with Amazon Echo so if you are a user of voice control products it is coming toward the end of 2017.  Overall very happy with my Playbase and looking forward to adding more components as budget permits.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Wemo Smart Light Switch

When I purchased my home my outside lights were on a timer that would turn the lights on at night and off in the morning.  All was working great for a while until somehow the timer lost its settings and was either on or off all the time.  This was an older Intermatic timer that are infamously hard to program.  I  found a manual online and was able to get it programmed again but then about 6 months later it lost its settings again.  Frustrating.

So I decided to look at some of the new smart light switches.  These switched can be controlled remotely from your phone and programmed to turn on and off at sunrise and sunset.  There seems to be a lot of them out there but I kept landing back on the WEMO light switches.  They are relatively inexpensive and are reviewed pretty well.  Installation was easy if you are familiar with basic electrical work.   I am no expert but I can switch out a light when necessary.  Setup was pretty straightforward as well.  I couple things to keep in mind before purchasing.

  1. Make sure the outlet has a neutral wire, this switch will not work without one
  2. Make sure the switch is not 3-way, controlled by two switches.  This will not work either.
  3. Make sure you get good wireless reception where you will be installing the switch.  It will not work without a good signal.
Once you get the switch installed.  You need to download the app and it will guide you through the setup process.  It created its own temporary network that you need to connect to then you add and name your switch.  You can control the switch manually, from the app or set up rules to have the switch turn on and off at a certain time.  I used the sunrise/sunset settings which adjusts the on/off times throughout the year.  So far so good.  The app can be a little flaky as it has shown the light as on when it was really off a few times.  The app does have a refresh button that usually resolves the issue.  I have cut power to the house a few times and the switch had no problem reconnecting to the network.

This isn't a smart product that is going to save me any money but it is a nice set it and forget it product that replaced a switch that was giving me a headache.  I have a few more outside lights that are not on timers that I will probably upgrade at some point.  Great product that I highly recommend.    

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Nest Protect - Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector

Having installed a couple Nest thermostats in my home and really liking them it made sense for me to take a look at their Protect smoke and carbon monoxide product.  The Nest Thermostat is expensive but the utility companies provide rebates and you will save money on your electricity and/or gas bill so for me the cost is justified.

The Protect provides no savings so the feature set would really need to blow me away in order to make the investment.  For me the feature set is just not there yet to justify the cost.  I have a large house, almost 5000 square feet of living space so obviously I have a lot of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.  Although I did not realize how many I actually had until I walked around and counted them for this project.  I could not believe that I have 19 smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in my home.  Some of them are standalone carbon monoxide detectors which I could get rid of if I got the Nest Protects.  But that just brings the number down to 16.  So my cost to replace all smoke detectors would be almost $2000.  Not happening.

A few of my smoke detectors are hard wired so I may at some point replace some of those but will probably wait for the next generation to see if Nest will add to the feature set.  For me, at this point the cons far outweigh the pros as I see them.

  • Remote Monitoring
  • Cool Factor
  • Night Light

  • Cost - I can get a dumb smoke and CO detector for $30
  • They expire after 7 years - at the price it would be nice to get more than 7 years out of them
  • Limited Feature Set - The Ecobee thermostat has remote temperature sensors that can be added on so the temperature of your house is not just measured at the thermostat.  Would be great if Nest would put a similar sensor in the protect to extend the range of the thermostat.  There are probably all kinds of other sensors they could add to justify the cost such as air quality.
  • Product was initially buggy - A friend of mine has a couple Protects and remember him telling me that his would randomly tell him that there was smoke in the hallway at 3am.  There was no smoke in the hallway.  I think he has the first generation Protects and I don't think this is still occurring but it does give me pause. 
So for now it is a wait and see what happens with the next generation Nest Protect.  Maybe the price will come down.  Or maybe they will add a must have feature.  I really want to talk myself into getting a couple of these Protects but I just can't justify it, yet.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Going Solar with Solar City

Installing solar panels on a home is a pretty big step but I think is the ultimate purchase one can make when looking to make your home smart.  The price of installing solar panels has come down in the past few years but it is still a pretty significant purchase.  My home is almost 5000 square feet has 2 AC compressors, and 2 kitchens.  I have my elderly mother living in an in-law.   So even though my house is pretty efficient my yearly electricity costs are fairly significant.  Given this it made a lot of sense to al least look into going solar.

Many solar companies have popped up in the past few years with different options to make getting solar more affordable. 

The most popular of those is a PPA or Power Purchase Agreement.   With a PPA the solar companies install the panels on your roof at no cost, they own and maintain the system and they get the benefit of any state or federal tax incentives.  You then buy the electricity that the panels produce from them at a rate lower than your utility.  These are usually 20 year contracts and the rate goes up through the contract.  There is some savings with a PPA.  But for me not enough to outweigh the disadvantages.  One major disadvantage of a PPA is if you were to sell your house before the contract is up the buyer would have to assume the contract.  This may scare some buyers away.

To maximize your savings though you really need to take advantage of the federal and state tax incentives.  Currently there is a 30% federal tax credit for your system through 2019.  It reduces after that.  My state also offers a $1000 tax credit. So there are significant savings to be realized.  Depending on the size system you have installed it could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 before incentives.  Many people don't have that mush cash laying around so many states offer a low cost solar loan.  I'm my state interest rates are under 4%.  Not a bad rate but you are still not maximizing your saving by paying interest.

I called Solar City for an initial consultation around the end of September 2016.  The initial consultation consisted of getting a copy of my electric bill and looking at satellite photos of my home to see if it would be a good candidate for solar.  My home passed this test so the next step was to have someone come out and look at my house and take measurements for a potential solar system.
Not every house id a good candidate for solar, there are various factors to look at to determine if it is worthwhile to install solar.

  • State you live in - Some states and utilities in those states make it difficult to install solar.  Also some sates offer better tax incentives than others.  In addition, if you live in an area where it is cloudy most days the energy generated will be minimized.
  • Condition of your roof - If you need a new roof, replace it before you consider installing solar panels.  Installing panels is expensive, you don't want to pay for it twice.
  • Orientation of your home -  Ideally the panels should be facing south to maximize the amount of sun.  If you don't have a roof plane facing south, that will minimize the amount of power your system can generate
  • Angle of your roof.  The panels have to point at the sun.  If you have a flat roof brackets may have to be installed to angle the panels toward the sun.  A 30- 45 degree roof pitch is ideal
  • Obstructions - If you have tall trees close to your home that will block the sun that will minimize the amount of power that your system can generate.
  • How long do you plan on living in your home - Payback on a solar system can be 10 years or more.  If you are planning on moving before your solar system starts paying you back it may not be a good investment.
The state I live in has great incentives and my utility offers net metering which means any excess energy that my panels produce goes back into the grid and I get a credit on my bill.  My house faces south, my roof is only a year old and is a 45 degree angle.  I have only been in my house for a year so I have no plans to move within the next 20 years so I am a pretty ideal candidate for solar and the solar rep agreed.  About 2 weeks later they sent me my solar design for a 26 panel 6.5 kwh system that they guaranteed would generate 85% of my power needs.  After all rebates and incentives my out of pocket costs would be just over $10,000 which would give be about a 10 year payback.  I decided to pay for my system upfront to maximize my savings.
My Solar Design

I probably could have paid less for a system by going with s smaller mom and pop solar company but I liked the idea of using Solar City with the backing of Elon Musk and Tesla and all the coming technology that would mesh nicely with a solar system.  Solar City guarantees the system for 20 years and I think they, if anyone, are going to stick around for the long term.  One factor that may be a show stopper for some is where the panels are installed on the house.  Some people just don't like the look of the panels and would not want them installed on the front of their home.  Luckily for me the back of my house faces south and you can't really even see the panels unless you walk to the back of my yard.  I don't mind the look of the panels but I think I would have been in for a fight with my wife if the proposal was to install on the front of the house.

After approving the design and signing the lengthy contract I had to get permission from my utility to build a solar system.  Luckily Solar City handles all if the legwork, all I had to do was forward the email once I got it.  That took a couple weeks and then they scheduled my install for the end of November.  Install went pretty smoothly, just make sure you are there when they install the system.   I have a finished basement and there were some wires from my panel to the inverter that needed to be pulled though walls and some questions that needed to be answered regarding placement of the inverter.  The installation took just one day but unfortunately you can; just start generating power right away.  I needed the town building inspector and electrician to inspect the system and the utility to authorize you to interconnect and turn your system on.  I think the utility also had to install a new net power meter. 

This was all completed by mid December when I was able to turn my system on and start generating power.   Unfortunately, December is one of the worst months for solar generation, with the sun low in the sky and short cloudy days the amount of solar energy I was generation was minimal.  This was to be expected though as Solar City laid everything out in my proposal.   Fortunately every month got better.  Solar city has a great mobile and web app that you can see current and historic power produced.  Some of my charts below.

Typical partly cloudy summer day.  My best day so far has been 36kwh

July has been a pretty good month.  The dips are the rainy days.
It is nice to see how much you are saving at any given time.

May should have been better but it rained a lot

I didn't see much savings for the first couple months but the last few months have been great.  My April electric bill was $25, May was $5, June I has a credit of a couple dollars and my July bill was about $30 due to the increased AC use. I am on track to save at least $1000 this year so that would give me about a 10 year payback on the system.  Overall I have been pretty happy with my system.  I am saving money and nut using fossil fuel to generate power for my home.

Finished Project

Feel free to post a comment if you have any questions about the process.