Brains of Whole House Automation

I recently discussed possible centralized controllers for household fixtures such as lights, door locks and security systems. Once you have selected what type of standard(s) you will use, the next step is to choose a controller. If you are not planing to automate a large portion of your electrical and electronic equipments, you may skip this part all together.

Dependent and Independent

There are two main routes you can take. One is choosing a LAN controller. They are usually independent of any wireless standards like x10 or Z-wave. However, they can be expensive and/or less reliable and hard to setup. The other route is the centralized controllers. I will be explaining the later in detailed because that’s what most tech geeks would use.

Still on the independent units, IP cameras such as D-Link IP Cams and switches like Belkin wemo are great products. They allow average consumer to setup a smart home system without the need for expensive controllers. All IP Cameras from D-Link, TrendNET and other manufactures have very easy and simple setup. Just follow the instructions and you will be ready to go with your WLAN or Wifi based cam. Often these companies also provide DNS (Domain Name Server) services free of charge to their customers. These DNS services will allow you to access your unit(s) from anywhere in the world. I personally found the D-Link products to be the most intuitive to average consumers (plug-n-play). Note these units actually do not have a “brain” aka a main controller.

In addition there are, what I call “independent but dependent” units. They provide simple services such as sending an email if the smoke alarm goes off with almost no other control what so ever. If all you need is that, then check out the products from SkylinkHome.

Centralized Controllers

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Some controllers can support all standards; INSTEON, Z-wave, UPB and X10. However, these units are often expensive. I found the Z-wave controller which also can handle INSTEON and X10 via a plug-in called VeraLite to be the best option for consumers. You don’t have to pay a lot since the unit sells for about $200 CAD. It is a stand along box. I would not recommended in-wall units like Evolve LCD Wall Mount for novice users.

Of course there are other options with multiple standards support. Homeseer Hometroller SE Pro supports ZWave, UPB, Insteon and X10. But the cost is about $750 CAD. If you have money to burn, I can safely say it is a very good unit. The software architecture of the unit is based on Windows XP. An added bonus for avid Windows-loving programmers.

MiCasa Vera3

This is the particular unit I use. They have two options; the Regular and the Lite. For home or small business use (even if you are a programmer), I would go with the Lite version. The only major differences I noticed between the two models is the number of devices they can control (200 units vs 50) and the built in stand along wifi system in the regular version. Personally I prefer independent wifi network. This will avoid fallout from a catastrophic network failures.

Planing a house-wide automation system

Once you have the necessary basic infrastructure listed on my first post on automation here, the next step is the planing. This is very important because depend on what equipments you choose and how you physically and electronically integrate them to one another will effect the reliability and future expandability of your system.

The following list of questions will help you decide what actions you should take. These are some of the exact questions I asked myself for my automation project.

  1. Am I (are we) going to live in this particular house for the next 5+ years?
    If yes, spend more time on extensive planing and go to question 3. If not go to question 2.
  2. Will this project add value to the resell of the house? Is this area is known for high end housing market?
  3. What is the budget over a month, a year and few years for maintenance and expansion?
  4. Which controller and components should I pick based on answers to above questions?
    If you are planing to live in this particular house for a long period, please pick the best or at least intermediate level system (or there is a market for automated houses in your area, if you are planing to sell the house). If you are doing this as a “fun” project and/or you are planing to sell the house with no added value due to automation, then go for a cheaper equipments.
  5. How many equipment am I (we are) planing to integrate into the controller and what standards (Z-wave, x10… more) will we be using?
    Some high end (expensive) controllers support multiple standards. However, I support independent controllers for each system. I will explain why soon (at the end of this article).
  6. How much flexibility do I (we) want? Do I need a controller that would accept custom scripts and firmware (geek alert!)?
    Some controllers may not comes with free control over the Internet. Some controllers will allow custom scripts (not recommended for novice non-tech people) for wide range of activities. Usually the controllers that allow custom scripts are expensive. If you are a home owner with limited knowledge in computing, I would recommended something simple like Micasa Vera controllers.
  7. Where should I place the “brains” of the system?
    I recommend using a centralized location in which you have access to both the network equipments and the automation equipments. I will be placing all the controllers for automation with my servers. At the main location, it is utmost important that you have flexibility in electrical outlets, number of LAN connections and other peripheral support infrastructure. Note that most systems are wireless so you can place them anywhere in the house with a mid to strong wifi signal.
  8. What components do I need and where would I place them?
    There are limitless possibilities thanks to standardizations like Z-wave. Multiple manufactures have come up with many different equipments from lighting receptacles to security systems. In order to go truly hose-wide, I would start organization the automation based on your house plan.
    Example of a basic house plan. Note the automated cameras and thermostat locations.
    Example of a basic house plan. Note the automated cameras and thermostat locations.

Addition to the centralized systems with a very powerful controllers, you could also go with general purpose consumer grade products like Belkin wemo devices. In fact, I think it is better to have multiple independent systems because this will increase the reliability. If the controller goes out in a advanced system, everything connected to it will be out of service as opposed to having independent systems.

I will be introducing you to the Belkin wemo products and Vera Smart Home Controller, Vera Lite in my next two post. Stay tuned!

Custom Home Automation

The summer 2013 was a eventful period in my personal tech world. We have decided to renovate two bathrooms that are in dire need of attention. While my dad focused on the renovations, I decided to slowly automate electrical and electronic household equipments. This article will be the first of many posts on Home Automation.

Home Automation

There are many aspects to automating a house. If I have to be general, I would say it is the process in which advanced remote control devices were installed in place of traditional equipment in order to manage, control and expand from a centralized location. A light switch that can be programmed and managed using a computer or a smart phone is an example of a automation of a traditional switch. Yes, it cost a lot of money to replace items in a house to newer “smart” technologies. If you are looking for a rough figure, I would say an average Calgarian would have to spend around $6000 CAD to automate the entire house.

It is NOT a need, it is a want

If properly maintained, the traditional electrical fixtures could last for decades. There is no need to replace them. The automating a house is entirely a personal choice. While it may replace the older fixtures, the benefits can be far less compared to the cost associated with it. I am highlighting the cost because even after you installed the equipments, you may have to end up upgrading them every now and then. Added to that; since there are more complex circuity involved, the failure rate may be higher than that of the traditional units.

Where to start

I would recommended replacing your light switches that controls outdoor lighting. You will most likely have to replace one to three traditional switches with automated units. But before we you start installing, let’s look at the configuration options.

If you want to keep the costs to a minimum and you are not interested in advanced management, then companies like Belkin have developed units that will work with your existing wireless LAN without the added controllers. Their wemo products comes with free online access control from your smartphone or tablet. However, it lacks the online PC control component. This is geared towards the home users who are not technically inclined.

Then there are advanced systems which allow connecting several different units from wide range of manufactures to a central system. This allow the homeowner to control almost anything in the house from light switches to dog food dispensers. Similar to standards in WiFi (b/g/n/ac), the home automation also have few different standards. INSTEON, UPD, X10, Z-Wave, ZigBee and general purpose WiFi connected systems are examples of these. After doing an extensive research, I found the general purpose WiFi and Z-Wave compatible devices are the most easiest to find in the current market.

Infrastructure

All smart homes (homes with extensive automation) should have the following

  • High speed LAN Network with wireless broadcast in b/g/n/ac (the router should be able to broadcast a strong single to all corners of the house)
  • High speed Internet connection; if you want to control the house over the Internet
  • A suitable location for controller(s); if you are installing an advanced centralized system
  • UPS (battery) power backups for all possible units (you cannot provide backup power to a single power switch, but you can to IP Cameras, routers, modems, etc)
  • Money, money and money…

After that, it is all about choosing which traditional units will be replaced. I will introduced you to WiFi and Z-wave connected products within next few weeks. A good place to start on buying products would be, SmartHome.

Problems with SharkBites

Homes in Asia is mostly fitted with PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) tubes, the homes in North America mostly fitted with either copper pipes and/or ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) tubes. Copper is a great solution for water. Copper tubes are build to last. They also have unique properties limiting chemical reactions between minerals in the water supply and the copper itself. It also does not corrode and the connections between the pipes and other copper fittings are very strong.

Of course with professional help, you can do anything. But I am not writing this article for those who always depend on professionals to get the work done. If you stand in front of stores like HomeDepot or Lowes in Calgary, you will realized there is a large number of homeowners fix issues without anyone’s help. That’s where the downside of using a metal for distribution of water is the the installation and future management of the system comes into play.

Soldering Copper

It is not hard to solder copper piping. All you need is the right tools and knowledge to do it. What you need for small repairs and construction jobs is the following;

  • Lead free solder
  • A propane or other gas touch
  • Safety equipments; glasses, gloves, etc

You can research on how to do the job on the Internet. I am not going to tech you that because my ultimate point is that you cannot solder copper pipe when there is a major leak. Well… not any leak, but a leak which you cannot stop for at least for five minutes so that you can fix the pipe. It is almost impossible to heat up a tube and apply the adhesive solder when there is water inside the pipe.

Solutions for the water flow

The obvious one would be shut off the main water value to the house. But if the main value itself is leaking or there is still too much ice or water inside the pipes that you cannot drain it?

SharkBite 3/4 X 3/4 slip coupling.
SharkBite 3/4 X 3/4 slip coupling.

Then the most popular solution in Calgary is to use something called SharkBite fittings. They are “O-ring type” clamping fittings. They do come in variety of configurations and sizes. Although the packaging itself reads “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”, it is legal to be sold to the consumer in Canada. You do not hear much about this because often the front end staff at building material stores are unaware of the the warning. But still most customers have been advised to use the product only in exposed areas (not behind walls) only. The reason behind this is this type of fittings creates weak point on your water distribution system. I found some unverified claims that the O-Ring and the plastic inside the SharkBite clip can degrade over time. Unlike copper to copper contact with solder, this clips create weak point in the tubes. Then you should ask yourselves, why install them at all?

Since there are two factors already against this product, I would advice using against it. Please keep in mind that I am not a professional plumber or a contractor. This is only my educated opinion. There are other solutions to fixing constantly leaking pipes. One is to use all mental construction crimping fittings. They may not be available for every size and configuration. So the next best thing to do is find a way to drain the tubes to keep the work area as dry as possible. Finally, the next option is to hire a professional plumber. But then, it will take the pride and fun out of fixing your own house.

Ordinary tech heroes

The dictionary definition for the term hero reads; a person who, in the opinions of others, has heroic qualities or has performed heroic acts and is regarded as a ideal or model for the rest of the community. The classical definition implies that you know the person well enough to identify the hero. If you research any civilization, almost all heroes are popular characters with very unique social statuses. In this Information Age, not all leaders have the desire to be famous. But all great heroes from the history to the present have similar stories to tell.

..it is hypocritical for organizations like FoxNews, CNN and even BBC to criticize the lack of education and/or high moral backgrounds of people like Edward Joseph Snowden, while at the same time the workers in these media giants use iPhones made by a college dropout, Mr. Steve Jobs and Microsoft Windows OS made by Mr. Bill Gates who never passed a programming course.

They haven’t changed

In modern Information (technological) Age, often we disregard our history because we think the history is irrelevant. From my opinion, it is the opposite.

In 2013, most of the news in Canada has been dominated by privacy issues. Our increasing dependencies on technology has lead to redefining the term privacy. The key players in this privacy wars have both supporters and opposers. Just like in World War I or the French Revolution, a hero to some may be a villain to the others. Bradley Edward Manning and Julian Paul Assange are examples of modern day heroes or villains. Regardless if this is the 1800s or the 21-century, there is always a conflict between what is considered good and what is considered evil. The history has repeated itself and nothing much has changed. The only difference between the war lords like the Alexander the Great or the King Asoka and the modern tech world lords is the medium in which they fight. Unlike in the old days, it is not always clear what we are fighting for because the causes are often complex and dynamic. I think this is why most people are unaware of the growing problems in the modern world.

Birth of the IT heroes

Today in 2013 a Computer Engineer or a student with access to a network can cause more damage to a country than a nuclear weapon. From stock markets, educational systems, banking system all the way to the private family databases have been digitized. While it provides faster access to information, it has also significantly altered the way we fight. The same network and database that provide information on your family history like ancestry.ca can also be used to track you down by your enemies. The same fail proof DNA evidence is used in trials have been linked to wrongfully convicting innocent people.

You could be a 10 year old or a 90 year old with access to a high speed Internet connection. You could have no friends or lots of friends outside of the “networked world”. You could have Facebook and Twitter accounts or you may never had one at all. You could be formally educated as a network and computer specialist or you could be someone who never passed a single high school course. It does not matter who you are, we all can be tech heroes. I came across stories in which 90 year old using a mobile phone took pictures of a bank robbery in progress and called the police at the same time. The group of unorganized individuals known as the “Anonymous hackers” includes people as young as 10 years old.

Side note on the background of people. I found it is hypocritical for organizations like FoxNews, CNN and even BBC to criticize the lack of education and/or high moral backgrounds of people like Edward Joseph Snowden, while at the same time the workers in these media giants use iPhones made by a college dropout, Mr. Steve Jobs and Microsoft Windows OS made by Mr. Bill Gates who never passed a programming course.

To some this is a great opportunity to be a hero while to others this is a great time to be a criminal. It all depends on how you use the technology, for what purpose and what is defined as “good” and “evil”.

What is good for the society?

Who should decide what is good for our civilization? The Governments run by handful of people? The tech heroes which include people with hidden evil intentions? The large data mining companies like Google or Amazon? These are valid philosophical and logical questions we should ask ourselves. Even if we answered them who will keep these in checked and balanced? In my opinion, this will be a never ending war. Unlike the French Revolution or the World War I and II, this tech war will have much larger impact on our civilization. While you could argue that this is not as fast and violent as “traditional wars”, I can counter argue with the increased dependency on technology, we would only need a single mad person to push that button to explode a nuclear missile.

Introduction to Modern Warfare

Israel use of banned chemical weapons
Israel use of banned chemical weapons

I do not think that I have to explain to my readers who are Bradley Edward Manning and Julian Paul Assange. They became famous for WikiLeaks which released large databases containing US Government’s criminal activities around the world. They have been viewed as enemies in some politicians (who probably couldn’t even connect a computer to a projector), while others have hailed them as heroes. Either way they are only two out millions of tech heroes.

Edward Joseph Snowden is another leader in the tech war. He exposed the NSA (National criminal Security Agency) operations involving spying on multimillion droller trade deals for American companies like Microsoft and Google and spying on US citizens. Too bad the modern media controlled by the few Zionist elites do not want to publish the US spying on trade deals eh?

The group of highly unorganized tech experts known by their umbrella name “Anonymous hackers” have been exposing corruptions in Governments and Private Companies. They have also forced powerful people (similar to A. Hitler) in modern companies to step down. They have also fought for the rights of civilian victims, which otherwise have no voice to promote justice. I am not going to say if they are good or bad, but if you would like to read their projects like Occupy Wall Street, Child Pornography crack down or Rehtaeh Parsons operation, ironically Google Search is your friend.

There are other small cases such as murders like Derek Medina of Miami posting messages on Facebook admitting to killing his wife or police officers being questioned (and often not changed) after digital video evidence recorded by civilians (and even their own other officers) indicate abuse of power. The best example of this in Canada is the Robert Dziekański Taser incident which created a ripple effect in the RCMP (Royal Canadian Male-only Police). How about those RCMP male officers groping female officers or even raping them by forcing them to have sex while on duty?

Aftermath Boston Marathon explosions
Aftermath of Boston Marathon explosions

Yes there are good examples from conventional type wars. The video and photographic evidence of modern wars such as the ones in Middle East have disputed the official accounts. The use of banned chemical weapons by Israel Army OR the use of lynching of Black men by Nazis are great example of conventional hate spilling over to the tech world. Let’s not forget about the the role of technological age in Abu Ghraib prison scandal photos. I did not know US Army had sluts until I came across those images. The Boston Marathon bombings civilian video surveillance is another example of bad guys being tracked using technologies.

Bangalore : Karnataka Cooperation Minister Lakshman Savadi seen watching porn.
Bangalore : Karnataka Cooperation Minister Lakshman Savadi seen watching porn.

With mobile devices ethics of using it also can be come in to question. The Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil and the Co-operative Minister Laxman Savadi (BJP) of India have been cought watching pornography during the Assebly in Benglauru. While this is nothing illegal in India or even in Canada, it brings the spotlight to ethics of technology and how we use it. The irony in this particular case is the abuse of technology is proven by another technology; the TV broadcast of political proceedings in India.

Back to the basics

May be the solution for those who would like to secure data is to going back to the old technologies. The reason Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle of the Canadian military was able to copy data from secure servers in Canada to a USB drive and hand information over to Russia, is because our data on military intelligence have been digitized in recent years. After the incident, I was researching on the history of spying and realized may be physically writing down non-time critical data is not a bad idea. Think about it, if you only keep the essential data and services on digital format, it would be at least bit difficult for someone to copy the data. While it is still not fail-proof, at least it would be better than the current system of digital encryption. In old days spies are trained to memorize information not copy information on a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, now known as Smartphones or Mobile Computing Devices). This will completely eliminate the need for secure networks all together.

In my opinion, separating data networks from one another is another way to combat security issues. If you have a NAS (Network Attached Storage) with family pictures, why not simply separate the entire Internet LAN (Local Area Network) connections from the NAS connections? This will still give you the access to data on your home network while blocking all access from outside. It may not be an ideal solution for some, since you cannot access your data from outside the house, but still provide much better security than an encrypted password.

Democrazy to democracy

The point is the complications of tech world goes on and on…and in this technological age, it is difficult for anyone to keep secrets from everyone. After all, when even the authorities commit crimes, I do not see a problem in civilians taking actions to protect their community form crime and abuse. However the accountability knife should be able to cut on both ends. Both the criminals and the heroes should be held accountable for their actions. It is scary to say that it is difficult for us to keep track on who is watching whom. With billions of people with access to technology, the power has truly shifted from “democrazy” to true “democracy”.