Solar with Tesla Powerwall batteries for residential power

Since we moved house, I’ve been really excited about the truly smart Smart Home devices that have become available to us. Going beyond toothbrushes with bluetooth to things that make a material difference to how the home and our lives fundamentally work.

The first change we’ve made is going fully solar. It took a year all told to go from signing the agreement to buy and install the solar through to actually getting permission from the city and PG&E to turn the system on and have it actually work (not to mention the expense) but it’s been worth it.

It’ll vary from state to country how you go about getting solar, but in California we worked with SolarCity who specialise in residential solar installations and were recently acquired by Tesla (and will eventually no longer be identified under the SolarCity name). As such, we also decided that not only did we want to be solar powered during the day, but we wanted to store energy so we could also be solar-powered over night and in electrical outages, so we also installed two Tesla Powerwalls in our garage (the sharp eyed amongst you may have spotted them lurking in the gloom of the garage in the Miracle-grow post a few weeks back).

Solar alone doesn’t necessarily make this system smart, but the PowerWalls are where things get fun. They come with an app that allow a few insights and controls.

They’re a bit of a prepper’s dream. You can configure how much battery to always keep in backup incase of an outage as well as go into grid-only mode if a storm is heading your way to preserve maximum battery power availability. The live updates to show how much energy is in use, how full the batteries are and the when fill-up times are at their most optimal should you prefer to use more energy-hungry devices only during direct-solar hours.

Since we’re now heading into summer time, we’re hitting our peak solar capacity. We’re regularly filling our batteries, powering the house and still putting about a third of our generated power back into the grid (check out the weekly graph of energy usage screenshot). We planned for excess capacity so we can make further power-hungry additions to the house at some point (like AC or upgrading our plug-in hybrid to a full-electric car).

Thank you, sun!

Oura Ring

Another day, another tracker. This time, I’ve got a ring for you.

I usually like to wait a couple of weeks before reviewing a tracker, but I’ve actually been wearing this one for nearly 3 months. It’s the Oura Smart Ring.


There’s been a few rings on the market before - some have notifications, some do steps, some do sleep, so let’s just run down specifically what this one does:

  • Tracks movement through a gyroscope and accelerometer

  • Measures body temperature

  • Reads your pulse

That’s the core of it - and honestly, that’s quite impressive for a device that no one will notice is a tracker unless you show them. Given these few pieces of data, the system extrapolates how well you are likely sleeping every night and gives you charts and summaries to inform you of why you might be feeling how you feel on any given day and then you can use this information to adjust your behaviours to perhaps improve your future performance.

It’s a bit of an odd duck, though. It’s focused solely around helping you to understand how well you sleep - it won’t tell you anything about your heart rate, for example, before and after exercise. You can only get data for sleeping periods. I wonder how much of that is an intentional product focusing by the company, or whether it’s actually a smart battery saver choice if it doesn’t have to be constantly tracking and reporting all of your bio-metrics throughout the day.

I’ve found it to drastically over-report on steps, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a replacement for another device that is focused on activity tracking, but it will give you enough of a general overview of how active you’ve been to at least consider it a factor in how well you rest later. I expect that the nature of having it on a hand (which, at least in my case, is a very animated part of the body) rather than a wrist or body tracker leads to the over-reporting.

It also has trouble connecting to my phone from time to time (over bluetooth, naturally) and some nights it just doesn’t bother to track me at all. It’s not clear to me if it’s moved to a position on my finger where it thinks I’m not wearing it at all, or if it’s having technical issues of some other kind on those nights.

The other irritating thing - and I make this critique of a lot of smart systems - is the way it tells me in a peppy tone that I’m going to have a truly wonderful, productive day, but in reality I woke up feeling like a truck ran me over. There’s no way to correct the system and “well, actually” it so that it can learn its expectations and your realities have not met one another. It almost makes me feel guilty some days that I haven’t met up to the high expectations that were set for me.

It’s definitely one of the most invisible devices I’ve ever worn. No one has asked “What’s that?” as they have done with other trackers I’ve worn. Folks have generally been impressed at how it just looks like normal jewelry. I had to buy the very smallest size ring the company offered, and it’s a tiny bit loose still but it’s comfortable enough. I do find that it’s a bit thick and it’s not something I would wear if it wasn’t “smart” (see the photo above comparing the Oura to my wedding bands).

If you’re interested, a word of warning: They’re not cheap and they’re not fast. A basic ring from Oura costs $299 and order-to-delivery took nearly 4 months for mine. I wouldn’t give it a strong S&S recommendation unless you really don’t like highly visible trackers but still want some of the data.

Command and control dashboard - Google Home Hub

According to Squarespace’s analytics, one of my most popular posts on S&S has been the command and control dashboard I made about a million years ago that allowed me to casually control my lighting etc. from an always-on android tablet. I started to build a version 2, intending to make something a little more charming and polished, but then something happened.

I bought a Google Home Hub.

Google Home Hub in picture frame mode

Google Home Hub in picture frame mode

This little tablet-screen format Google Home is pretty much exactly what I had wanted in the first place.  

It’s a really attractive piece of physical and digital interface design. It sits merrily in my kitchen informing me of all sorts of things around the house.  It tells me about my calendar, it shows me who is at my front-door (via the nest doorbell) and I can pull up the backyard camera to see what the squirrels are up to instantly. I can ask it to play me YouTube videos or make phone calls. It’s really good and well thought-out and I’m seriously tempted to get a second one for my home office.

Google Home Hub showing rooms and controls

Google Home Hub showing rooms and controls

It has most of the elements I wanted from a custom dashboard - I can pull down screens to show light switches in rooms and toggle them on and off or adjust dimmers and such, and see how things are currently set.  My only real complaint is that I can’t set to be a dashboard-first i.e. show that as the default screen instead of my calendar and the weather.  I also wish I could just install this Google Home Hub software on any small tablet or phone (even if that was restricted to Android models).  I could imagine having mini dashboards in other rooms, that way.

Google Home Hub quick overview home control screen

Google Home Hub quick overview home control screen

Minor requests aside, if you’re googling around for a simple command and control dashboard for your SmartThings or similar Google Assistant-compatible smart home systems, check it out. It’s a lot less faff than installing some custom code I forked on github once, I promise.

Miracle-Gro Twelve System

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to the Miracle-grow hydroponic Twelve system on Indiegogo, and I sort of just backed it without really thinking about or actually reading much about it. I’m an easy sell when it comes to plants and gadgets.

Well, I forgot about it and this week a giant box magically appeared on my doorstep.

I honestly didn’t notice that it was a “smart” system with the obligatory phone app for control and monitoring until I unpacked it. I bought some seeds and planted it up and this is what I’ve noticed.


As I was setting it up, it asked me to choose a name for it so I dubbed it “Silent Running” (after the movie, for obvious reasons) and instantly realised what an ironic name that was going to be.

One of the press-photos captioned “A stylish design for any home”

One of the press-photos captioned “A stylish design for any home”

The press photos for the system have it staged in lovely, modern homes - happily growing plants in fantastically clean mid-century modern spaces. This suits my aesthetic, so I dutifully staged it in my home. After approximately half a day, it had to be relocated because it was so extremely annoying. It sounds like exactly what it is - a water-pumping motor with a fountain running 24/7. It’s also as bright as the sun which is useful but not exactly great for mood-lighting.

In the garage with the lights off so you can appreciate its brightness

In the garage with the lights off so you can appreciate its brightness

My system now lives in the garage, which makes everyone who visits ask if I’m growing pot.


I think it’s quite handsome. It’s inoffensive and it’ll look rad when it has some plants actually growing in it. Your tastes may vary. It’s definitely sturdy and a good height for an end table.


There’s actually not a lot of smart stuff going on in this system:

  • It tells you when the water level is low so you can top it up

  • The timer for the lighting is configurable and you can temporarily override the brightness for some reason

  • You’ll get a calendar of when you add fertiliser to the water and when to harvest anything edible

That’s it. And it’s all in an app dedicated to this one, specific, Miracle-gro system - you can add multiple Twelve tables - which seems really daft and irritating if you happen to already have (or acquire) one of their tabletop Aerogarden smart systems. It would have been a better user experience, and product marketing, had they made a single app (or webapp!) to manage all of their systems in one.

It all connects over bluetooth and you can’t edit anything while you’re not connected directly to the system over the bluetooth.

There’s also a weird mismatch between their paper literature and the app. The marketing materials list a lot of plants and herbs that aren’t actually available to select during setup in the app. A small, but weird discrepancy that led to me buying Petunias for one slot (listed in the paper manual as recommended) but then having to create a “custom” plant in the application.


Not a bad system and it’s nice that it doubles as furniture. You won’t actually want it in your actual house, unless you like the sound of running water or are trying to drown out a more irritating noise, but I’m looking forward to hopefully having some tasty herbs and flowers on-hand soon.

How to uninstall an August Smart Lock

Step 1 - Remove the battery panel

I find simply attempting to operate the August Smart Lock with one’s hand sufficient to remove the battery cover, but a strong gust of wind or a stern look should also do the job. You’ll know it’s worked by the familiar clattering of the cover falling on the floor again.

The August battery cover in it’s natural habitat.

The August battery cover in it’s natural habitat.

Step 2 - Realise this doesn’t help you remove the lock

The actual mechanism you need to mess with to remove the lock is actually along the outer ridge of the lock. It’s hard to see, but there’s a pair of indentations on either side that if you put a screwdriver under - or use a finger with a nail you don’t mind breaking - will lift up like two little arms allowing the lock to slide off a mounting plate.

Little notches here.

Little notches here.

Step 3 - Notice the glaring problem

Ah, the previous owners of this home and door had to remove the inner-door mechanism to attach this superior smart locking system, leaving behind just a rod. Try scrabbling around in the boxes in the back of a cupboard where you know they left a bunch of random screws and such and maybe the old latch is still somewhere and come up short.

This won’t work.

This won’t work.

Step 4 - Declare failure

Put the August lock back on the door, because this job now requires a trip to a hardware store. And it’s Thanksgiving.


Step 5 - Repeat step 2

Having returned from the local hardware store with a whole new front door lock (turns out it’s not particularly easy to just buy half a lock) unscrew the mounting plate from the door.

Step 6 - Add new lock

Remove the inner-side lock from the packaging and basically throw the other half in the bin (or, I guess, save it for if you ever need to change your own lock in the future). Install it as per the instructions in the box. Triumphantly turn the lock with your own hand without bits falling off and with a reduced number of security attack vectors. Note that you’re still going to have to patch and repaint the door because of the unsightly condition left by the August lock.

New lock.

New lock.

Step 7 - Uninstall the app

On the off chance your August lock was still successfully paired with your phone, you should probably tell your device to forget that bluetooth connection. My lock, fortunately, took care of this step on my behalf many moons ago.

You can now safely uninstall the app, and gone are your days of standing at your own doorway, hoping that a device mere inches away will connect more quickly than a local mugger spots you standing in the blue-glow of your phone late at night.

Wodehouse upgrade

Time for the classic blog post opener: I’m so sorry for the lapse in posts. I promise to be better.  I have a good excuse, however.

At the end of last year, we did the ultimate upgrade to our smart home, Wodehouse.

We moved!  

So, I’ve had the opportunity of finding out what it’s like to dismantle a smart home and re-configure a system in a new one. We also have a whole new world of options and upgrades available to us, as we now have a single-family home. The roof is now up for grabs.

I’ll follow-up soon with the new and shiny discoveries, but for now… here’s some of the gadgets that didn’t make the cut in the move.

Arlo Cameras

Living in a flat meant that we didn't have control over anything beyond the wallpaper - we couldn't just drill holes for wired cameras or install extra WiFi easily in the hallways or outside our doors and windows, so I thought these would be a good option.

They're WiFi cameras from Netgear that run on batteries, although it looks like they do an AC version now, too.

They look pretty neat, but they add to hub-ageddon in my home, have really poor range (so a wall too many will break connection and good luck connecting more than one in two locations). 

All in all, I just prefer wires for everything for jobs like this. 


Blink Cameras

For all of the Arlo reasons but like, 30% crappier. I didn't even take any photos of them, but they're still a thing you can get.


I liked these in my initial review and they did work, but they just didn't wow me enough to commit to kitting out a whole new place (with all new blinds).

The Bluetooth stack, as usual, flaked out too often and the software was just too clunky and was isolated from the rest of my automations. I still want to automated the window shades, but I'll be looking for something more integrated this time around.