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.

Braun Oral-B 3000 Bluetooth toothbrush

Getting a bluetooth toothbrush was never my intention.  A third Philips Sonicare died in our household in 18 months, so I felt it was time to give the competition a go and that's just what I ended up with for "free". Why Braun hasn't branded these models BlueToothBrushes is anyone's guess. My marketing consultancy rates are reasonable, FYI.

Let's be clear - the bluetooth aspect of this toothbrush is useless - but, like Gillette and the endless blades, they've got to innovate somewhere, right?

It's so overwhelmingly stupid that I can't really be bothered to write much about it.  The app only lets you set up one user, so if you're in a household that uses one handset with multiple heads - well, you're gonna get bonus fake brushing points.  It might have made sense if it was to encourage kids to brush their teeth, but the application is clinically boring.  To quote Dr Ian Malcolm, "Your Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

It doesn't even tweet.

MySmartBlinds review

Back in October of 2014 I backed my first kickstarter project - a set of devices to make blinds "smart".  A little earlier this year, the fruits of this particular project started to arrive and now that I've been using them for a couple of months, I'm ready to show you how MySmartBlinds are working out.

MySmartBlinds are exactly what they sound like - they're devices that you put into your slatted blinds to make them controllable via a mobile device. I've got 3 sets installed - 2 in the bedroom and one in the office.  They require no hardwiring, but do require a bluetooth compatible iOS or Android device for setup and control.

The good

Firstly - they're a lot better than I expected.  After installation, they've basically worked without interference since. To me, this is a good sign - very few of the "smart" things I've put into the house have gone in without some amount of wrangling and debugging from the start. I also misunderstood from the pitch that they would require removing the tilt-wand - but this actually stays as part of the system and acts as a manual switch to the system - tugging the wand tilts the blinds a little in a cycle, so no need to pull out a phone to make a small change. The optional add-on remotes are nice for phone-free control, too.

I've set the blinds up so that they open in the mornings.  At a time that I'd like to be waking up, the blinds gradually open up over a 15 minute block.  It's a much more preferable way to wake than a blaring alarm or from up-dimming the interior lighting (I tried this for a while - the artificial light was just too jarring).  The blinds then close up again at night at a set time, which is nice from a privacy point of view on the busy road we live on.  I haven't tried it yet, but they also have a "sun tracking" mode, which does exactly what you think it does, enabling the system to adapt to varying light levels throughout the year.

The motors themselves are powered by a battery that lives in the top of the blinds, hidden away which are either charged over USB or with a solar powered add-on. Since I installed the blinds a few months back, I haven't had to charge them yet, and MySmartBlinds promise a rather vague 6-12 months of charge with "average" use.

The bad

Some caveats to that, however - the android version of the app seems buggy and I had issues using that to setup and control the blinds.  The iOS version seems to be a lot more functional.  I also had some difficulty updating the firmware on a couple of them, which necessitated removing and re-adding them to the app.

The app itself is rather amateurish looking and seems out of place along side more polished-looking apps on my phone.  I also, as always, wish it had a) a web-based version because it's 2016 and b) had outside application connectivity - this is yet another siloed system that can't communicate with my other IoT home devices. It means I can't change behaviour based on whether we're away or have guests, for example.

They're also loud. I mean, they're pretty mechanical, so of course they make a noise, but I didn't realise how loud they'd be.  It's not a deal breaker since opening and closing happens so quickly and mostly not when I'm right next to them. Here's a video, though, to give you a better idea of what the motors sound like, as well as latency between app and blind (which is actually pretty decent).



I love 'em.  I've still got one kit left that I haven't been able to use anywhere - but I would definitely get a couple more kits for upgrading all windows in the house when I eventually get around to replacing the roller blinds in those rooms.

Price points?  Well, the kits I have (enough for 4 windows, plus 2 remotes) cost me $249 via kickstarter.  I didn't get the solar powered option - I got the set that included some very long USB cables for each window.

The equivalent currently retails for $99 per basic kit (everything you need to control a window via your phone), $60 per remote, $14 for the long USB chargers and $45 for solar panel add-on. Of course, unlike Somfy, or another built-in system, they're restricted in regards to the type of blinds they work on but a Somfy system starts at around $270 making this is a pretty cost-effective, easily temporary, entry-level option.