Living In a Smart Home Part 4:

The Smart Lock –  A good idea?

My significant other mentioned to me some time ago that the front door lock wasn’t engaging fully and freely. Indeed, when I went to turn the lock, it seemed to snag before the lock fully engaged. Also, our handle button is a bit sticky too. This seems to be a common problem as even in our old house, (in addition the the golden-brass color) also had the same problem. “Great! I said, “I’ll get a smart lock!” Then, quick as you could say “Alexa, buy me a smart lock” I was off researching which one was the best for my needs.

There are many advantages to a smart lock, and like all things, there are some disadvantages. We’re going to go over some of the key features I believe should be on your smart lock and I’ll give the recommendations I have if you’re looking for some. Once again, my buying-decisions are mainly based off of SmartThings compatability, so always do your research first.

First, my “Golden Rule”, it has to work for my wife. Meaning that my wife needs to be able to operate it and integrate seamlessly with her life. Understandingly, she gets frustrated when lights that she expects to perform automatically do not and also if there isn’t a button or switch to fix it immediately, it doesn’t make sense for it to be smart at all. With that being said, any smart lock I thought about had to have some key elements:

  1. It has to be aesthetically pleasing. (Rubbed-oil bronze in our case)
  2. It had to be able to be to work with a key. (Let’s face it, technology fails us)
  3. It needed to have a touch-pad with assignable codes, multiple even.
  4. It needed to integrate natively with SmartThings on the Z-wave protocol.
  5. It needed to be affordable.

My web search landed me in a place of somewhat confusion. Mostly, due to the word “Smart” now being a key-phrase in advertising. To me, “smart” means connected and programmable. As a buzz-word, it can mean something that ranges of “Clever-design” to “fully automated you’ll never need to touch your door”. Not to mention, going down to your local hardware store, you’ll need words like “Bluetooth” and “Wi-Fi” but the more important “Z-wave” or “Zigbee” phrases hidden behind “Wireless”. I’m not sure if this is because manufactures want to construe how these devices work so they can relate to terms people know. (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, one could argue, are in everyone’s vocabulary.) What I found was that there’s a lot so it was important that I ensure, once again BEFORE I bought something, that it fit my criteria.

Aesthetics of course being number 1, but also the most important aspects. This is my front door handle. It’s where people are greeted and arguably the first thing they see when they get to my doorstep. I didn’t want some gangly-box with glowing neon lights and retina scanner, I wanted something that says “oh, that’s an attractive door handle, and look you can enter a code in.” (Things you say as a suburbanite in their 30s.) I found that companies like Schlage and Yale all have pretty attractive handles so there was an easy path.

The second stipulation, the use of  a key, sounds like a no brainier but there are actually a few locks that eliminate the use of a key. While this sounds like a great idea at first, (No one likes a dangly-key-chain) the problem I would have is if the touch screen failed to work. I’m not sure what happens if it does and quite frankly I didn’t even want to find out. In addition, there are other”Smart locks” that only have a key and no touch screens, like the Kwikset Kevo. in fact I found one that isn’t really “smart”, you can just re-key it yourself. That gets me into the next point:

One of the biggest reasons I wanted a new lock, is: I tend to go out and in different doors. Living on a farm, sometimes I’ll walk out my front door and go in the side door which had yet to be unlocked. I don’t normally carry my keys so I wanted to be able to input a code to unlock the deadbolt. These type of locks have been around for awhile and isn’t necessarily a “smart” feature. However, like I mentioned above, the Kwikset Kevo doesn’t have one and it’s possible I don’t have my phone on me to unlock or “touch it”. The multiple-code feature is also good. That way I can give my farm-sitter a code and they’ll be able to come in and out securely, rather than give them a key.

The other elephant in the room is connecting with SmartThings and not necessarily an app. (I tend to hate single-purpose apps.) With the Kevo being bluetooth and the August being WiFi I’m sure some hackery can be done to get them integrated with SmartThings, but I’ve never really liked how things integrate with SmartThings when they’re not supposed to. As I said in my first article, it is best to make sure everything you buy is compatible with your unit, in this case Z-Wave is my go-to protocol and checking on the SmartThings app, I found the Schlage Camelot integrated well via Z-Wave. Why? Well really it’s the automation side. For example, when my security system arms every evening, it automatically locks all my locks. If my smoke alarm goes off and we’re not home, all the doors unlock making egress easier. If my wife and I are away the doors automatically lock (and we can check the current state of the lock) so there are lots of reasons this adds convenience. However, if it does fail, we still have 2 manual controls to lock and unlock (the touch pad and a key).

The final decision, price. When I found the door handle set I wanted: Schlage Connected Camelot with handle, I was kinda shocked to see the price at a bit north of $300 dollars. As a man on a budget I couldn’t really justify that cost immediately since my lock was still functioning and even though it was kinda janky. Luckily, Home Depot seems to put it on sale from time to time between $180 – $200 dollars. (In fact, depending on when you’re reading this article, it’s on-sale now until April 9th for $200.) This was a decent price since the same oil-rubbed non-smart non-touchpad designs usually run around $110-$140. So, if you’re going to get one I highly suggest putting an alert on SlickDeals.net for one using keywords smart lock, dead bolt, or the brand names like Schlage.

As you may have guessed, I found Schlage Connected Camelot and purchased it as my ultimate decision. I’m still waiting for the standard deadbolts to go on sale to replace them at the other doors. They’re going for $120 and I’m gunning to get them around $60-$80. While this one works great, there are plenty of locks out there that may suit your needs greater than this one so I’d really recommend making a list of features you want and TAKE YOUR TIME. Luckily I wasn’t in a rush and that saved me $110 dollars. If you’re curious about the Schlage Connected Camelot, a review of the unit will be going up soon.

Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful. As always, feel free to send me an email at manbeertech@gmail.com, via comment, or even on Reddit directly at kaizokudave. Till then, See you next time!

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Living In A Smart Home Part 3:

Get Money, Buy Switches:

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about the who, what, where, how and why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious. It is for someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, let’s get started with this entry!

Don’t make the same mistakes I did:

Last entry, I brushed upon your choice of Hub and +1. I recommended a hub by Samsung’s SmartThings. I just wanted to start out with a little support as to why. Receiving some criticism it can look like I’m favoring them and it’s pretty much true. I do obviously favor them cause I have them in my home. So far my experience has been generally positive. The devices I purchase for it work either out of the box or the community has written some impressive code to allow it. However, don’t take me as a professional blogger. I just do this in my spare time. I do not have the unlimited funds that CNET has. If I were totally unhappy with it, I’d change but it seems to fit the bill perfectly. Moving on from that choice I also recommended a +1, a smoke detector. Actually, I said to focus on a safety item. You’re more than welcome to purchase whatever you like. The reason I chose a smoke detector was to solve a specific problem, which was to be notified in case of a fire while my wife and I were away. As I said earlier, this blog is more of a journal-style and the things I encountered. Things I have deployed. Problems I have solved.

Dude, these aren’t problems… they’re wants.

A Reddit user stated that in the home automation there aren’t “problems”. I’ll respectfully disagree. It’s probably my mistake for not defining what I mean by problem but I implore you to take a “Problem” then “Solution” frame of mind. I’m referring to problems like in Math. (Boring, I know) “1 + 1 =” isn’t much of a problem, but it does have a solution. Part of my issue was shopping first. I knew I wanted automated lights, security sensors, automatic watering for my plants, automated sentry turrets… ya know the norm. What I should have focused on was solving problems. I would often see “Smart whatever on sale” and think, oh it just integrates into SmartThings, which simply isn’t true. There was a temptation to buy a whole bunch of switches and just change every one to be smart. (And not to mention costly.) There isn’t necessarily a need for that.

Okay, give me an example of a problem.

No problem! (I love puns) My first problem is my wife, (he said jokingly as his wife glances at him) not that she’s terrible person or anything but she’s actually the best case scenario for a good home automation setup and she keeps my grounded before I try anything extravagant. Whatever I do has to pass the “spouse” test, meaning if she can’t figure it out I am the problem. Specifically our front door was the problem. We came home late at night and our house was pitch black. She tripped over a shoe after trying to fumble to find which switch in a 4-way gang was living room light. Spoilers, it’s the one furthest from the door but try remembering that when you’re fumbling around.

Problem:

We come home late at night and it’s dark.

Solution:

Living room lights come on automatically when we enter the door.

Ah, but how to accomplish this? Well, my BIG mistake was going to buy a “Smart” lightbulb by Googling it. While this worked, it wouldn’t work with the light switch turned off. Remember my wife? Yeah, she turns it off and on to turn the light on and off. Guess what? She’s right. Home Automation and Smart devices need to feel natural. We’ve been programmed to turn lights on and off via a switch. We need to integrate our ideas with that. Hence the title of this week’s article.

Switches or bulbs?

In short, I will always recommend a smart switch over a smart bulb. There are a few exceptions though:

  1. You live in an apartment or rental and cannot make modifications.
  2. You do not feel safe or comfortable doing electrical work or do not wish to hire an electrician to do the wiring for you.
  3. You want different colored smart lights/moods.
  4. You have 3-way switches without the necessary connections.

This doesn’t cover everything of course, but those are some show stoppers when it comes to switches. (We’ll address #4 as it’s not always true.) Bulbs are great as well and I have no problems if you’d rather do bulbs just experience with people coming over is they’ll expect switches to turn on and off rooms, not apps or Alexa. There are other applications where bulbs may be a better choice, just not in any of the cases I personally have ran into.

Continuing our example, I ordered a GE-Z-wave On/Off Dimmable Paddle switch.

This was my first mistake and I lucked out. Always check your hub’s native compatibility list FIRST to ensure easy integration. I lucked out as it was supported by SmartThings, but I’ve ran into some trouble before. SmartThings is great cause chances are someone has already ran into the problem and there’s a solution but if you’re new I HIGHLY recommend checking first. When it arrived, I cut the power and took the plate off the wall.

Second mistake: BEFORE YOU ORDER: make sure you read about how they’re installed. In my case, GE’s Smart Switches REQUIRE a common-wire. (Generally white but could be any color). Once again, luckily I had that connection but I’ve got into 3-way switch installations without everything necessary being there. So once again, BEFORE YOU BUY: cut the power and verify you have all the necessary connections in both locations ESPECIALLY for 3-way switches. (I’ll write an article specifically about 3-ways since they’re very common in my home.) I wired it all up (well, I attempted to a few times and then found out what I was doing wrong) and was able to turn it on/off and finally sync it to SmartThings.

Using the Smart Lighting application on SmartThings I was able to tell the switch that anytime the front door was opened, between the hours of 5:30PM and 7:00 AM to turn on the lights. I’ll get into specific guides about this process later but in the main series I just want to address the big picture. We still had some problems based upon if the light was on already, however that came later.

Finally, I’d like to address one specific thing: It doesn’t make sense to automate everything or at least turn everything smart especially all at once. At anywhere from 30-50 dollars a switch that’s costly and you might not really see a benefit. A good example is my half-bathroom light. I COULD put a motion sensor in there and I could replace the switch to have it automatically come on when occupied then turn off. That’ll run me somewhere between $50-75$ dollars for the hardware. Or, I could just turn the light on and off when I go in like I’ve been doing for years. It sounds nice that you’ll save electricity but it’ll probably take a good long while before you see any return on that investment and most people have an instinct to hit the switch before you enter anyways. My recommendation is that you make sure that when you automate it actually makes sense. Use the problem/solution method, do research first, make a flow chart (coming later) on how that automation plays out.

Cool, but how did SmartThings know when the door was opened?

Sorry this one was a bit long but we had a lot to talk about. One thing I didn’t mention is how we got the door to be automated. While you can just buy a z-wave door sensor I went the more advanced route we’ll talk about next time: Your Smart Home Security System. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

 

 

 

 

Living in a Smart Home Part 2:

Home Is Where the Hub Is:

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about where, what, how any why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious from someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, tet’s get started with this entry!

Your Next Step: The Hub + 1:

    Last post we spoke about Alexa’s integration and why I believe she should be your first step in th smart home. Wether you agree or disagree based upon what she can do is perfectly fine. It’s very debatable on what is the “center” of your Smart Home. While we could debate on Alexa being your first purchase, the next (or first if you disagreed) purchase will be your hub.

Wait… what’s a hub? I thought I just bought some smart light bulbs and there’s an app?

     Sadly, there is an app for that. I said “sadly” because I just bought an Amazon Dot that came with a TP-Link Smart Plug. It wasn’t a bad purchase and it’s certainly compatible with Alexa (which is fine if that’s all we have) but it isn’t directly compatible with my SmartThings Hub. That’s a bummer. There is a Kasa app, (pun intended?) but having to pick up your phone, look for the app, then open it to control one switch is the bummer. The “hub” is/can be the central location of your smart home. They’re designed to run automation and provide a central interface for you to control your various devices. While Alexa can serve is a “hub” of sorts, she doesn’t excel at it and you certainly don’t want to ask her to do everything unless you have her in every room. The hub is where you’re going to do most of your heavy lifting. When you come in the front door, don’t you want your lights to automatically turn on? Isn’t that the point?

Yeah, I mean, that sounds nice.. but why the +1? There’s a lot of them and they’re all like $100 dollars!

     They are! Well, they can be. Depending on your hub and where you get it it’s about $100 dollars. Wink, Iris, and SmartThings are seemingly the front-runners and while there are other alternatives I’m not 100% sure they’re for the non-tech savvy. Heck, even I’m scared to crack open my SmartThings hub and start fiddlin’ with the engine. The +1, is the important part. Your first truly smart device sets the tempo for the other devices you’ll be looking at. Chances, are it’ll be Zigbee, Z-Wave,  or worse, a native protocol (hence the apps earlier) that you’ll have to make sure not only your hub is compatible with but also all your other purchases going forward. We’ll talk about my recommendation but this is where your preferences / budget will need to come into play. I’m not going to presume to know it all, I don’t. There’s literally hundreds of options here. My best advice though: Think about your problem/s and find solutions. Look first. Ask questions. Then decide. Try and think about the future and what you’d like to accomplish.

Okay, Ok… so what so which Hub and which +1 do I get?

     Simple… SmartThings by Samsung. This is a personal choice and my opinion to the novice/enthusiast is that you can do a LOT of things. The SmartThings hub’s basic compatibility is really expansive. Namely, the most trusted Switches (GE Z-Wave) and other integrations with an open-ended API makes it the best choice for both the layman and the advanced. You can get the SmartThings hub from MANY locations, my wife and I were first looking at it as a solution for monitoring underneath our sink with a water sensor and integration with our Ring video doorbell. (Yes, I know.. we’ll get to the Ring later.) We got the Ring for safety concerns and we decided to put off the Hub until we were ready later to buy the kit with sensors. While we got the ring, we never did get the sensor kit cause we moved and wasn’t a big deal anymore. Recall earlier how I was saying think of problems you’d like to solve? After my wife and I moved to the farm, our needs and problems changed. While one of us is home 95% of the time, the other 5% was the problem.

Sorry man, don’t really care about your problems.. what about my +1?

     When we first moved it, we had an alarm system that was disconnected. I looked into hooking it up, it was about $20 dollars a month, included security monitoring and emergency contacts for fire. While $20 dollars is worth my family’s safety, the bigger problem was hidden fees with companies charging you simply to come out. If they monitoring company receives an alert, attempt to call but no one answers? They send out the Po-Po. Was it just a false alarm? $100 bucks. Man, that blows all because my wife and I were out shopping. When we really thought about it I’m more concerned for our furry animals while we’re out. The alarm system is great if you’re home but if there’s a fire and you’re gone? Well, I wanna know immediately so I can call my neighbors. So, our first purchase was a Smart Fire-detector, which was our best and worst choice. If I had to do it over again, I would do the exact same thing and encourage people to think, “Safety First”. Safety can be a broad term. Safety for me meant text/push notifications to my cell phone in case of a fire. It meant all the lights turning on if our security sensors went off at night, giving me a few moments to arm myself, investigate, and contact the authorities if necessary. It COULD mean, if you come home late at night, the lights to automatically come on when you get home. It’s up to you, but I would venture to guess most people’s first +1 should be a safety related item. If I had to give a recommendation, I prefer my Nest Protect, but I said I said earlier it might be a mistake since it’s not directly capable of being integrated with SmartThings. If you’re going for integration, First Alert makes a Z-Wave Smoke/Carbon Dioxide detector for around $50-$60 dollars on Amazon that integrates with SmartThings.

Cool! I’m going to buy that and 5 smart switches to put around my home! Thanks!

     Okay! I’m glad you’re enthusiastic about it but hold off for my next article where we actually start getting into it and what buying too much at once is not the Smartest.. (See what I did there?) thing to do. Till next time!

Living in a Smart Home Series Part 1:

Making a House, a Smart Home

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about where, what, how any why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious from someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, tet’s get started with this entry!

Alexa… Write this entry…

Last year, my wife bought me an Amazon Echo for Valentine’s Day. Since then we’ve been using the Echo almost daily. However, like most things when we first got it we were excited and used it to answer questions randomly and made sure to use it. Now, she’s a glorified music player and egg timer in the kitchen. It’s by no means a bad thing. The Echo’s speaker is decent enough to give a good sound and setting timers is a breeze when your hands are full. The cost, being anywhere from $180 dollars normally down to ~$150 dollars on sale is comparable to a lot of Bluetooth speakers in that same price range. However, when we moved to our new house I started integrating with Samsung’s SmartThings. Slowly replacing light switches, adding in a Logitech Harmony remote, and several Amazon Dots (even a Amazon Tap) our house is slowly turning into a fully-featured smart home.

 

When she listens.. she’s great until she’s not:

“Alexa, play some music…” is probably the most common phrased uttered in my house out loud. This is probably the best service Amazon offers. When we’re in the kitchen making some Pizza Rolls our hands are generally full and finding a phone, hooking up a Bluetooth speaker or walking to our “Smart Panel” isn’t a very solid option. Alexa allows us to use voice commands for entertainment and control over our smart home and I would recommend an Alexa device first in your smart home.

     “Whoa, an Alexa-device first? What about a Smart Hub to control the lights?”

Great question random internet person! Why would I tell you to start with her? She can’t do a whole lot to your smart home without the other pieces, I.E. a hub, lights, smart remotes, etc.  Well, she does a million other things (exaggeration, she probably does hundreds or thousands of things) on her own. Namely, she gives your home the Star Trek computer theme. Smart Hubs are a GREAT start but you’ll need more than one component. A hub isn’t good unless you have things to manipulate with it. Alexa on the other hand can integrate with your Pandora account, set alarms, timers, reminders, to-do lists, a few shopping shortcuts, (I’ve yelled Alexa order more toilet paper on one occasion) and quick answers to questions like: “How many tablespoons are in a cup?” and “Which show is better, WWE RAW or the Bachellorette?”.  She can answer very simple questions but is limited on web searches. However, since Alexa has an open-ended API, (programmer speak meaning people can write stuff for it whenever they want) she can get new “Skills” like playing jeopardy. Put in a central  location in your home, you’d be suprised how much she’s used and how when you go into other rooms you’ll miss being able to shout things at her. Speaking of shouting…

The title of this is: She’s great until she’s not… So, what gives?

Well, I just said being able to shout things at her, Alexa listens VERY well when the environment is quiet. Too well, sometimes for some peoples taste but she picks up on Alexa rather keenly. There are occasions where she makes things difficult. For example, when she’s playing music somewhat loudly you’re going to have to overcome the volume to turn down or up the volume. When you tell her to “Play some Music” she tends to think your listening habits are the thing you listened to last time. Occasionally, she’ll mess up a timer with things like Fifty-minutes and Fifteen-minutes. She’s not perfect, but she’s close to it.

That’s cool, but she’s pricey…

Yeah, she is. She’s normally around $180 dollars on Amazon. We got her when there was only one option for a voice enabled speaker. However, with entries from Google Home and two other devices (The Dot verison 2 at $50 and Amazon Tap at $129) you’ve got some options. The Dot is a great beginning point. It’s basically a voice-enabled hockey puck with a speaker, Bluetooth connectivity, and audio out. Use this one if you’ve already got a decent speaker to connect to, (in example, our living room already had a soundbar we used for playing music) or just want to have voice-enabled commands. (We use our second Dot to automate actions in the Family Room such as turning the TV on/off or turning the lights on and off.) Google Home is another alternative at a cheaper price point. While I haven’t used it personally it’s better in someways than Alexa being connected to Google’s massive search engine. One thing I do not like, is the keying phrase of Google. Saying “Ok, Google” I find to be very difficult. It’s not that difficult where I wouldn’t and there’s a reason for having to say Ok, Google (Accuracy of trigger word) but it’s very harsh. Alexa, somewhat rolls off the tongue and you actually feel like you’re working with a companion not just shouting orders to a box. However, Alexa does get confused sometimes when I say my dog’s name, Lexie. (If your name is Alexa, you can change the key-phrase to Echo in the app).

Okay, so Let’s say I ordered one… or I don’t want voice in the home, what do I do next?

Simple, now you’re ready for the Smart Hub of your home. Which will be my next entry. Until then, if you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them! I try and answer everyone’s questions and comments so feel free! Until next time… Alexa, Goodnight!