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!

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.

Wodehouse status update

It’s been kind of quiet over here, and that’s largely a good thing - Wodehouse has just been ticking along more-or-less working as designed. I’ve not needed to add any new devices for a while, nor have any catastrophically broken.  We are looking at upgrading Wodehouse in the near future (i.e. moving), so it’ll be interesting to see how redeployable our setup is.

In the meantime, here’s a quick round-up.

Bye Bye Hello Sense

So, back in June, Hello went bust, so my sleep tracker’s life has come to an end. The company stated they’d be releasing the data from the system to users “at the end of [that] week”, but that never happened. I did send a follow-up email to find out what was up with that, but I haven’t heard anything. I'm a bit disappointed that they said they'd release the data and they haven't followed through.

My advice on data is if you know you’re going to want it, only use services that already offer data extraction up front - my experience has been that if they don’t offer it to begin with, then go bust, they generally have little incentive to offer it after the fact.

Other things to look out for are how the data is published, is it in an open format, is it compatible with other services (and do those other services have import options) and are they going to charge you for the privilege? Fitbit, for example, used to only offer export as a premium service, but now it’s available to everyone. Google Fit lets you export your data anytime via Google Takeout.  

The same goes for checking if you can delete all of your data from a service before you commit to using it long-term, which may be something you can do but requires you actually contacting them to ask (you’ll have to check the T&Cs on signup).  

Remember, most companies are not incentivised to help you either leave their services. If freedom to move your data between services is a top priority for you, check before you commit.

Wrist wearable

On the topic of sleep data, my now only sleeping tracking device I’m actively using is my Pebble Time Round. It’s still working great, although I have bought a back-up one from Amazon for cheap just in case. I’m glad I did, since the latest offering from Fitbit - the Ionic - is underwhelming to say the least. My plan is to keep my Pebble on life-support until someone else cottons on to the fact that women want smart wrist watches that actually fit.

My continued delight in my Pebble has made me turn my attention to the other devices I’m carrying on my person day-to-day. My smartphone - currently the Google Pixel - really bothers me. It’s so large and cumbersome, doesn’t fit in my pockets and is just so boring. I’m looking at either getting, or making, something a lot smaller or continuing to supplement it with other devices that mean I don’t have to drag that brick out of my bag so often. I'd love to see a trend back towards the wacky Nokia days.

ToDo

The house is largely running how I want it to right now - I have a couple of outstanding jobs.  The first is our roller blinds in the living room - they’re still dumb, but I’d really like to connect them up for privacy and security reasons.  I often stalk kickstarter and indiegogo when I’m at a loss, and I am hoping that the MOVEZ blinds motoriser device comes through soon.  I had come across their solution a couple years back when it was only Bluetooth, but now that it’s Z-wave it could be perfect for what I’m looking for.

The other thing is the recent heat-wave in San Francisco has me looking at air quality and cooling again.  We generally don’t need AC, but Wodehouse does kind kinda stuffy and it's only predicted to get warmer.

Not got my eye on anything specific yet, so please do send your reckons.

Coming up soon: More robots and DIY devices.

Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Generation

We're taking our first proper foray into the voice-activated side of home automation with the new Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Generation.  This is the first Dot you can order independently from the Amazon Echo - previously, you could only order a Dot via the original Echo device. This one also only cost me $50, instead of the $179 for the full Echo (I tried to get one of these on Amazon's big black friday sale thing - but their website crashed. Poor me.).

It's going to take a few weeks to really get a feel for it, but here's a couple of immediate reactions to the device after receiving and unboxing it yesterday.

It's tiny!  

This thing is literally palm size and about as thick as a stack of coasters.  Given the quality of the sound that comes out of it and how well Alexa picks up my voice - I'm really impressed with the hardware.

It's confusing to set up.  

The Alexa app already knew that I'd bought the device and gave no prompts on it as to where to go to get the wifi set up.  We had at least 2 minutes of Alexa loudly complaining that it didn't have an internet connection.  Software usability definitely feels like the weaker side.

Alexa is not totally comfortable with my British accent. 

I'll be back with more on Alexa after she's settled in a bit.

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).

 

Conclusion

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.