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The Greatness and Tragedies of WiFi Extenders

You live in a home. We are not defining what a home is because it could be anything: McMansion, apartment, townhome, condo, cave, earth house, box, whatever! Point is, once you get too far away from your WiFi source, the internets just doesn’t work. Routers have come a long way but there are times that it just can’t reach where you place your new wifi smart thermostat or sitting on your back patio. Homes have the tendency to have dead spots or act like a giant faraday cage (define: a cage/box that blocks electric fields, like cellular or WiFi signals).

How WiFi Works

wifi_signal

Basically, it is a sphere with moving dents. It goes up, down, and out. This screen shot below shows how WiFi goes out in a generally circular pattern. Any IT networking people would be telling me to shush right now because that’s not completely how it works, but it gives you a general impression. Notice, there are no corners. So imagine superimposing this circle onto your square home, and you can imagine in the corners of your home the wifi will be much less strong. A friend directed me to the app called AR Signal Master (iOS) or there is another for Android, Wifi Analyzer (Android). Using these, you can go to those suspect dead spots to get a reading on your homes WiFi strength. The further you are from the WiFi router, the weaker your signal will be. Here’s a nice generalization of what the dBm (decibel-milliwatt) signal means:

Strength Meaning Real Meaning
 -10 to -30 strong signal Everything so fast!
-30 to -67 stream videos Yay Netflix!
-68 to -70 surf websites Yay cat memes!
-71 to -90 weak signal hurry up cat memes!
-90 and less no signal da fuq!?! *waves phone around*

Notice all the numbers have a (-) in front of them. WiFi for home services are measured as (-) because that’s how the WiFi decision group made it because… well go look it up. It is all about WiFi power and outside of the above strength you aren’t using normal Wifi and that is outside the scope of this article.

Eliminating Dead Spots with Extender Set Up

You used an app to discover an important corner or part of your home has a WiFi signal less than -71 and is not supporting the use you want out of it. You have two options, purchase a new mesh WiFi system or buy a significantly cheaper WiFi extender (several options on that WiFi extender page. Let’s use an extender! First things first, decide your needs. Are you going to stream video (Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV Now, etc) from the extender? Or just going to run your smart thermostat from it? That decision affects what you will buy:

The way these extenders work is that they piggyback from your existing wifi where the signal is still strong and then re-broadcasts a new wifi signal for your device connections. Placement of an extender is critical. If you place the extender in a bad WiFi spot, the extender will allow devices to connect to it and show a full signal, but still have slow speed. So you need to place it in a ‘good’ connection spot and then it re-amplifies that signal for your devices:wifi_extenderIn this image, the purple circle is your existing WiFi and the blue is your extenders WiFi. You place the extender at the edge of the existing WiFi (purple) where you still have a good signal (for streaming video between -30 and -67 dbm and for smart thermostats or general surfing at most between -68 and -70 dbm). This will give you the most distance for your extender and highest speed back to your original WiFi source.

Configuring the Extender

You bought the extender, placed the extender, and now you need to configure your extender. The directions with most extenders are excellent, so I am going to defer to those manuals. HOWEVER, I will tell you some best practices and why.

The most important is a re-iteration of the above, make sure the extender is in an area that still has good WiFi signal from your original WiFi source, or you will not be happy and your speeds will not improve. Your connections will improve, but you will be super angry with full signal bars.

The second most important piece of extenders are in the naming of the wireless network names (SSID: service set identifier). In the image at the beginning of this blog with AR Signal Master, the WiFi SSID name is ‘Sailing Through Life.’ Yours may be ‘Jim’s Best WiFi’ or ‘FBI_van1’ or something to that effect. If you have the wireless names of ‘TW2134234’ with a crazy password of ‘f3q4fjkh4534’ then you are making life MUCH harder on yourself. All, I repeat all, WiFi routers are able to be renamed and have easier passwords used. Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and more can all have their default wireless network names renamed and more human passwords used. I would suggest taking this time to create a wireless name and password that is much easier to use (and then reconnect all of your devices). Here comes the most important part of my advice, name your extender wireless SSID as something different than your original Wifi network name. If you source Wifi is MyAwesomeWirelessNetwork, then name your extenders wireless network MyAwesomeWirelessNetwork_E. If it also has 5G signal, then:

Source SSID Name Extender SSID Name
MyAwesomeWireless MyAwesomeWireless_E
MyAwesomeWireless_5G MyAwesomeWireless_E5G

The reason behind this naming madness is because these extenders do not automatically hand off your device from one wireless network to the other. When you get home, if your source WiFi is near the front door, your device will connect to that source and stay connected to it at all costs until the signal is gone. If you keep your extender wireless SSID the same as your source wireless name, when you get up to your bedroom your phone will still be connected to the source wifi, show a strong signal, but not be able to surf the internet because the real signal is weak. When you are in an office building and connected to their WiFi and you walk around and stay connected, that is because they are using much more expensive equipment that does hand off your devices between antennas. These extenders don’t do that. What this means is that when you rename them as different networks, and you get to your bedroom with low signal, you can then select the MyAwesomeWireless_E network name from your bed and then continue to enjoy strong internet signal and good speed.

Case Report

A friend purchased wireless extender and placed it perfectly to connect to his smart home thermostat. The source and extender had the same wireless names. He streams TV and around the time that he installed the extender, the TV quit being able to stream Netflix. After talking for a while, we agreed to unplug the extender and then voila, his TV started streaming perfectly. The reason is because his extender shared the same name and the TV was likely connecting to the extender which has enough strength to run web surfing and smart thermostats, but not stream Netflix. Since the names were the same but the extender had a strong ‘signal’ but not stronger ‘throughput’, the TV would connect to the extender and choke. After renaming the extender, he was then able to definitively connect to the source WiFi and stream perfectly.

Don’t name extenders as the same as your source WiFi name because it makes it virtually impossible to figure out the source of potential WiFi issues.

Building a Smart Home: Episode 2, Alexa vs Google vs Siri

Who will win?

Looking back at my smart home requirements, it will need voice control capability. This blog will focus on picking the ecosystem with the best voice control.

Turns out, it is not a hard battle to eliminate one of them. I love Apple products because they historically ‘just work’. They have been having trouble lately though, especially with iOS 11. The glitches just make it frustrating. This is not about iOS 11 issues though, this is about Siri and how she has not kept up with Google Home or Alexa. Right off the bat, we are eliminating Siri as the controller of our smart home because she is just not updated enough and Apple cannot keep up with the competition from Google and Alexa. Sorry Siri, I wanted you to be my AI, but you’re not the droid I’m looking for.

Siri: “If you say so.”

Alexa vs Google Home vs Siri

This one is a tough one. However, my decision was made by default and I’ll explain why later. More objectively, I want to know which voice control most products support. Both Amazon and Google have made HUGE strides in getting people to adopt their technologies and it is definitely showing. In the end though, we all know which one has gained the highest mainstream following. You have to remove your ‘fanboy’ hat of either systems and really see which device systems are pushing:

Which one looks the most familiar? In my humble opinion, I have seen far more Amazon Alexa logos that Google Assistant/Home (Google Assistant and Google Home are basically interchangeable terms–Google Home is a product and Google Assistant is the brains in the product). Plus, we are people and Alexa gives us the more personal experience… its a NAME, not a title. It’s an instant connection.

However, earlier I said ‘objectively’. So lets be objective. I Googled (ha) ‘compatibility of alexa vs google assistant’ and noticed the first few hits were a bit biased. One of them had a head to head of these three voices and in the ‘Winner’ section, they didn’t even declare a winner but instead said how much they like Siri… and Siri is NOT the winner. I want her to be, but she isn’t.

Enter Tom’s Guide. They had a nice article laying out all of the information objectively. In the end, It basically came down to a tie between Alexa and Google Assistant, except I found a flaw in their results. They rated Alexa a ‘3’ in availability. Are you kidding me? BEHIND Siri? Siri is ONLY in Apple products and that is NOT available. I get it, they are counting Availability as “with you”. But we are adjusting this based on being in a smart home. More than once I call out for Siri across the room and she doesn’t answer. Alexa does, or Google Assistant does. I have adjusted the ratings accordingly:
voice assistant chart

With the adjustment for availability, you can see which one is the winner… Alexa. Google Assistant just doesn’t have the ubiquitousness (is that a real word?) as Amazon Alexa. HOWEVER, Google Assistant is smarter than Alexa. Google is able to better parse out commands and information from voice commands than Alexa who takes them command by command.

Final Showdown

When it comes down to Alexa or Google Assistant, after reviewing objective evidence and making personal opinions, my choice is Alexa. She has better compatibility with home products, has better aesthetics than Google Assistant devices, and has better human feedback (thought Google Assistant has better human thought compatibility). Google Assistant has better brains, but Alexa has better interfacing.

A final thing, I have been getting Alexa products as gifts from friends over the holidays. Alexa is proving to be a popular gift giving item, therefore since I have acquired a total of 6 Alexa products, we will be going with Alexa!

Choice: Amazon Alexa

 

Building a Smart Home: Episode 1, The Beginning

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m doing it! I’m building my dream home! I have finally outgrown my current place of residence and am in the process of building my own home and can customize a lot of features to what I want, and I want a smart home.

What defines a smart home?

In this planning phase, I have several requirements that must be met for me to define my home as a “smart home.” Smart home is an extremely loose term. If you use plugs that you can access and activate with your smartphone, is this a smart house? Technically, I suppose. But this does not enrich your life. My definition of a smart home is a series of interconnected devices in your home with remote access capability that allow for automation of tasks, notification of events, home environment monitoring with immediate feedback, and on-demand event triggering that will seamlessly enrich the lives of the smart home inhabitants and its users. Specifically for this project, it must:

  • be accessible via smartphone
  • be able to be controlled by voice commands
  • be borderline 100% usable without a smartphone/smart device (i.e. tablet or computer)
  • allow for development of routines/automations
  • allow devices to communicate with each other in some capacity (Z-wave, ZigBee, RF, wireless)
  • make my life better
  • user interface must be acceptable to spouse
  • allow the entry of guests without significant difficulty when homeowners are not available or around
  • allow notifications of specified events (i.e. alarm system contacts specified users)
  • be secure

In addition to these minimal requirements, I have several aesthetic, specification, and design requirements:

  • no visible cords
  • user interface must be intuitive
  • must allow old-school utilization in the event of power/internet failure (i.e. internet goes down,  but the door locks still allow entry)
  • alarm system must have contingency ability in the even of internet failure
  • minimal visible aesthetic disruption due to quantity of devices
  • devices must be aesthetically appealing

Current State of Smart Home Technology

There are many different types of smart home products available and even more coming to market. These devices are commonly referred to collectively as the IoT (internet of things) as they have the capability to connect to the internet in an invisible way and “do things.” Its not a computer, its not a server… its a thing that connects to the internet! Most of the devices offered to make a smart home are wireless. In the past couple years there’s been an explosion of different types of popular wireless technology used in smart home devices: ZigBee, Z-wave, RF, bluetooth, and wireless/wifi. There are several differences between these but most of them have one common concept of requiring a hub. The hub serves as the source of control of these devices whether it be a light switch, door lock, thermostat, room environment sensor, motion sensor, etc. Depending on the technology the user chooses determines which hub to purchase. The hub is partially dictated by which ecosystem a user is invested with their current home devices (iPad, Android tablet, iPhone, Android smartphone). The reason this is important is because the smartphone is the device that almost always follows you and next to you. If you have an Android phone and start investing in Apple Homekit devices… you made a poor choice of building your smart home.

Ecosystems

There are two predominant smartphone operating system, Android and iOS. Depending on which operating system you use will partially dictate which smart home ecosystem you choose to use. Android cannot use Apple Homekit. Apple iPhones can use about any system, but not always via Homekit. Homekit is a homegrown smart home technology developed by Apple. On every iOS device there is an app called Home and this is where the devices you install will show up IF they are Homekit compatible. There are currently not very many Homekit compatible devices as the hardware and softwareworks_with_homekit requirements dictated by Apple are high and relatively expensive. In order for a device to show up in the iOS Home app, it must Work with Apple Homekit”. If it doesn’t show the logo to the right, then chances are it won’t work with the Home app. This does not mean your iOS device cannot use it however, it just means you will need the manufacturers app to control the device. The hub used for Homekit systems can be either an iPad that remains within the home at all times for the automations or you can use an Apple TV (4th generation). The easiest choice is Apple TV as this probably will not leave your house. You CAN use Homekit devices without a hub, but you cannot make routines or automation via Homekit (i.e. when I arrive home the lights turn on). All automation requires a hub for all ecosystems.

Amazon Echo is another ecosystem that is widely available and widely supported. compatible_with_amazon_echoI can already hear some of you saying “Amazon Echo is not an ecosystem!!” This is technically true, but most products say “Compatible with Amazon Echo” and its just like Apple Homekit, except made by Amazon. When that compatibility is specified, it means you can control the device with Amazon’s Echo device. Amazon Echo is extremely popular and widely compatible with almost all smart home devices in some capacity. However, Amazon Echo is not a hub. A hub is still required, just like Homekit, to create routines and automation.

These two devices have been the predominant influence behind most automation. Google has developed their own persona assistant, Google Home, which is quickly becoming popular. When building my smart home, I want to maximize compatibility. If I want to change from iOS to Android, I don’t want to have to dump all smart home products I’ve purchased because they are ONLY Homekit compatible. I don’t want my smartphone to dictate my home nor my home to dictate my smartphone purchase. That being said, I have invested into the Apple ecosystem and use mostly iOS products, therefore I do want to make my home as Homekit compatible as possible but still keep it such that a non-iOS device would work just fine.

Wireless Communication Between Devices

A smart home is smart because the devices are able to talk to each other, respond to automation requests, and in some cases piggy-back on each others wireless abilities. Like mentioned earlier, there are several wireless technologies: ZigBee, Z-wave, RF, bluetooth, and wireless/wifi.

ZigBee is the oldest standard first developed in 1998 by IEEE (the people who standardize wifi). A group of ZigBee devices form a mesh network and that the ability to extend the network beyond the original start point. For example, consider Device A, B, and C to be ZigBee devices. Device A is closest to the hub, Device B is further away but still within radio distance of Device A, Device C is far away from the hub and cannot detect it, but can smart_home_diagramdetect and connect to Device B. The hub would be able to communicate with Device C by pushing the signal to Device A or Device B to reach Device C. For instance, in diagram to the right, the Hub can communicate with the Lamp via either of the Lights or the Door Lock even though the Lamp is not able to contact the Hub directly. Basically, each device allows another device to communicate through it to reach back to the hub, and vice versa. Mesh network! Some of the newer routers are working like this as well (Eero, Google Wifi, Orbi).

Z-wave was originally  a proprietary wireless technology developed rather recently. It works basically the same as ZigBee. The differences are that it is slower but can reach further (30 meters compared to 10 meters per Electronic Design). Here’s a table from Electronic Design with the rundown:

73665-table

Bluetooth is exactly what you expect but with a few caveats. Most devices use Bluetooth LE (low energy) to save on battery which makes a HUGE difference in battery life. Since most of these smart devices are completely wireless, that’s a big deal. The goal is that the battery life of the device would last for months or years instead of days. The problem is that it has about the same range as normal Bluetooth and does not do mesh networking. So your smart device (lock, light control, etc) has to be within a certain range of your controlling device or hub. If your house is giant, this is not a good idea to use unless you want a lot of hubs (seems counterintuitive and extremely expensive) or just use the smart device when you’re near with your smartphone. Most modern smartphones are equipped with Bluetooth LE.

Wifi is exactly what you’d expect. The device connects to your wifi network and typically does not require a hub. However, in order for it to be automated, you will need a stay-at-home hub such as Apple TV for Homekit. The manufacturer iDevices is a maker of wifi connected smart devices and they are predominatly targeted to Homekit users. Like Bluetooth LE, these devices do not use mesh but instead need to be within wifi network range to work.

Hubs

I’ve been talking about hubs the entire time, but lets detail them briefly. Hubs are used for automation and binding the devices together. There are several hubs available and many more being added from each manufacturer. The important thing is to get a hub that is compatible with what you are buying. If you bought a lot of Lutron Caséta wireless dimmers and you have Homekit, then you are in trouble. BUUUUUT, you could buy the Lutron hub which will connect to your Homekit and THAT will work. But then you just bought an Apple TV (or iPad… but just don’t… spring for the Apple TV since it will never leave your home) and you also just bought a Lutron hub… just to dim your lights. Samsung SmartThings is a multipurpose hub (connects to both ZigBee and Z-wave devices). However, be sure to check with your target devices to make sure it is compatible with Samsung SmartThings. For example, the Lutron Caséta uses RF so won’t work with Samsung SmartThings, but will work with Wink (another hub). It gets super complicated super quickly. I’ll reference you to this great website that I use a lot, Wirecutter, where they review smart hubs in depth. In the end, it depends on which products you want to end up using and what kind of compatibility you want and what you want them to do.

This Is Long

This blog was supposed to go into details on smart devices, what they do, which ones to go with, what you want, etc etc. But its getting too long for such a huge topic. Smart devices for home automation is expanding faster than I can type. Just in writing this one post, iDevices listed their in-wall remote for pre-order and now its actually available. That is fast (or I’m slow, even though it took  me just a few days to write this). So we are going to break this entire thing up into several different posts. This post was just to get us started, the next one I’m going to go into more detail on what I want out of my smart home and focus on light switches since this, in my opinion, is one of the most useful aspects of making your home smart.

The Art of Painting… walls

Today is painting day.  I have several interior walls that have suffered from multiple brushes/bumps/rubs of… stuff… and now it is time to bite the bullet and, instead of using those wall erasers, use a paintbrush and roller and do the job completely.  As I visit the nearest home improvement store, L*w*s, I am inundated with information.

Sales Clerk: “Would you like flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, or high gloss.
Me: “What?”
Sales Clerk: “What type of sheen would you like? Shiny or non-shiny?”
Me: “What?”
Sales Clerk: “Where are you painting?”
Me: “A few walls.”
Sales Clerk: “Well what room?”
Me: “Living room, formal living room, dining room, and foyer.”
Sales Clerk: “Do you like shiny things?”
Me: “oh yes.”

The sales clerk then went on to describe a few things to me about walls because clearly I didn’t understand that there is more work in painting than going and saying, I want that tan color.

Flat: Used for lower traffic areas and has low reflectivity (read: not shiny). Historically it is hard to clean walls where flat paint has been used because the paint wipes right off along with whatever smudge you were trying to wipe off as well.
Eggshell: Hybrid between satin and flat.  I guess it looks like an eggshell?
Satin: Has some sheen to it but not overly shining so if the sun is filling the room you are being blinded.  This is easier to clean as it can be wiped and the paint doesn’t come off when you accidentally rub something against it.  This is the one that should definitely be used in the bathroom because of the high moisture that the bathroom gets from when you are pleasantly scalding your skin in the shower in an attempt to sterilize yourself.
Semi-gloss: Shouldn’t be used for walls because it is SO shiny.  Typically it is used on rails, cabinets, shelves, and windowsills.

I finally chose the color pleasantly named “Woodlawn Snow” in satin (because I like shinier things), bought a few paint rollers, a few trays, an edger, and was on my way.  I chose some rollers that said “gets the job done 30% faster”.  My internal brain alarms should have sounded at reading that, but I didn’t want to paint so I figured 30% faster would be nice.  After I had started painting I noticed a few fibers/strands sticking out of what I had just painted. A few expletives later I noticed my “30% faster roller” was the culprit.  After a few trips back to L*w*s, I went against my normal budget-mind and purchased the more expensive foam rollers… and I am glad that I did.  No more fiber thingys!  I then started using the edger with the wheels and I quickly learned that I shouldn’t go to fast with it as it has the potential to glob paint.  Ironically, I found that if I didn’t drown the paint-pad with paint, I could use the non-wheeled end and get a closer edge to the trim at the baseboard and ceiling without getting much paint in areas where it isn’t supposed to be.

While this information is by no means professional, I found that foam rollers do a much better job than non-foam rollers because they aren’t leaving behind fiber thingys.  The more expensive fiber-based thingy rollers may not leave those fiber things, but I was too pissed to back and re-try my luck.  Apparently 30% faster does not mean 30% better… in fact quite the opposite.  Also, don’t dunk the edger in the paint, it will only end in cursing as you attempt to delicately edge your walls.  I hate painting.

Categories: Home Improvement