Added Another Smart Switch

We’re on a roll now. I drove out to Best Buy and picked up another WeMo smart light switch. Since I knew what I was doing it only took me twenty minutes to install, with no drama whatsoever (*knock on wood).

The garage light previously could only be operated from within the garage which made is useless because to turn it off you’d have to leave the house which would subject you to the elements and / or machete wielding maniacs hiding in the bushes. Now the light can be operated from anywhere in the world, day or night.

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WeMo Smart Switch

So when we built this place, apparently we didn’t plan out some of the electrical circuits very well. There are three instances that are kind of annoying, but we’ve lived with for the last six years:

  • Exterior light by garage man door – can only be turned on from INSIDE the garage, which means you have to walk through the dark outside to go turn it on. This means it never gets used.
  • Exterior light by the studio door – operates on one switch, near the door, and you can not readily see if it’s on or not. It gets left on accidentally, if we use it at all.
  • Entering the studio – there is NO light switch for the studio room so you have to walk across the room to turn on any light. I actually think this is against code, but they must’ve missed that when we built the house.

Fast forward to present day, and technology now has some helpful solutions for these minor annoyances. I’ve been researching “smart home” technology, which are devices, apps and controllers which allow one to automate various electronics in the home. For example you can tell your thermostat to elevate or reduce the temperature. Lights can be instructed to turn on when you get home. You can even view home cameras through your mobile device. A lot has changed in the last few years so I decided to investigate what the best solution may be for our lighting issues.

For lighting control there are essentially three options:

  • Smart light bulbs – replace existing bulbs with smart bulbs such as Philips Hue which can be turned on and off with a mobile app.
  • Smart plugs – whatever is plugged into the plug may be turned on or off remotely
  • Smart switch – replace an existing switch to be smart, which means it can be operated either remotely or by pressing a button just like a regular switch

Okay, well a plug isn’t applicable because all the lights in question are hard wired. Nix the smart plug. So that leaves smart bulbs or switches. Well I love my existing LED light bulbs. And as you know I spent a lot of time researching them. The LED’s in the studio are cool looking and work well. As for outside, I don’t even think they make smart decorative LED light bulbs. That’s a mouth full. At any rate, that leaves us with smart switches. Fantastic. Smart switch me baby.

I researched or rather googled “best smart switch” and came up with two options. The Lutron Caseta wins hands down I guess, according to CNET.  The thing is, the Caseta is overkill for what I need to do. I just need switches that can go on and off. None of the bulbs they control need to be dimmed. I decided to go with the “second place” Belkin WeMo smart light switch which retails for  ~$50 (I got mine at Best Buy on sale for $40). Note the WeMo switch only works in one-way switch locations, not 3-way switches where you can turn on a light from multiple locations. This was totally fine as that is the situation with all three of my applications.

Set up was easy. The first switch I tried to replace, the studio door one, turned out to be weird looking inside, wiring-wise, so I ditched that one for now and turned my sights to the studio hallway light. This is the light that will help with entering the house and actually being able to see instead of tripping over stuff in the dark.

I followed the directions supplied with they WeMo switch. The switch also came with four wire connecting nuts, a face plate (which I didn’t use) and the device itself. I was replacing one (the far right) of three switches in a common box. The biggest challenge I read about was fitting the WeMo switch device into the wired box because it is kind of large. Sure enough that was the biggest challenge I faced, and eventually overcame.

I connected the white neutral wire and ground wire to their respective “gangs” of wires inside the box. I connected the power in and power out, black wires to the smart switch in the same order as they went to the old “dumb” switch. It took some fiddling but eventually I got all the wires back into the box. It was easier to detach the other two light switches from the box to make room, and then screw them back in once everything was hooked up.

By the way, since the smart switch is a rocker style switch and the old switch was a toggle style, I had to pick up a new faceplate at Home Depot.

Once the faceplate was fastened, I turned the power back on and “voila!” a blinking orange light on the smart switch. I then downloaded the WeMo device on my phone and connected the switch to my home network. Once connected the light blinks green and with the press of a button I could control the switch from my phone!!! Yay!

I then proceeded to connect the switch to my Google Home Assistant for further control via voice. Everything works great and now we can turn the light on before we even go through the door.

Chirp

Chirp.

What’s that?

[a few minutes later]

Chirp.

Oh.

Chirp.

Well I hope it’s not the one in the bedroom.

Chirp.

I was in my office working last week when I heard one of the smoke detectors start chirping. Immediately I hoped it wasn’t the one in the master bedroom because that one is not a chair or stepladder away. It is well over twenty feet in the air, attached at the zenith of the 12/12 pitch vaulted ceiling.

I walked upstairs and sure enough, yep, it was the one in the master bedroom. Originally we had put a lithium battery in the detector, a battery that was supposed to last ten year. Well, we got almost six years out of this one. Not too bad and better than trying to replace it every year like you’d have to do with a regular 9V battery. Honestly I’d almost rather die of smoke inhalation than change this particular battery every year.

The biggest problem with changing the battery isn’t necessarily the height, though I hate heights and that is definitely a big problem for me personally. No, the biggest problem is I didn’t know if I had a ladder tall enough to change the battery. When we installed it we had a giant A-frame ladder that we borrowed from my brother.

Once we picked up a new battery at the store, I brought in my extension ladder. On the side it has a little label explaining that the ladder extends to 16′ and the maximum standing height is 15′. Hmmm…not sure that’s enough. I’m about six feet tall, plus I can reach a foot or two above my head. But that would mean I’m on the top rung almost. Just to confirm my suspicions I went up the ladder. Yeah, no way. I got up there and still had six feet to reach the smoke detector, and was as high up as I felt comfortable going.

Time for plan B. I exchanged the extension ladder for my other ladder, one of those Little  Giant folding ladders. Its label said it extends out to 18′. This seemed too short too, but worth a shot since it was my last shot. The ladder weighs a lot but it’s solid and with a little help from my friend we got the ladder up there. It looked promising.

As long as I didn’t look down, I felt comfortable climbing up there. And sure enough, i was able to reach the smoke detector. With a shaky hand I undid the cover and replaced the battery. Stopping just long enough to get a picture for the blog.

It all worked out well. And the chirp is mercifully gone. I think the new battery will last just as long, and now I know I have the means to replace it when it loses its charge.

Please no more chirp for a while.

Electricity Usage 2017

 

Cut The Cable?

Our cable company, Spectrum, recently notified us that going forward we need to get a special digital box for any televisions that simply connect to the cable outlet instead of through a DVR or cable box. Basically the cable signal needs to travel through something like a DVR or receiver to make it all digital or unscrambled or whatever before it reaches your TV. I don’t know why watching television has to be so complicated but it’s not surprising that once again I need to do something that involves another device just to watch cooking shows on TV. And of course that device will eventually require a monthly fee after a free year. Well, whatever. Our family has five televisions total and we regularly only watch one of them, the TV in the family room. Soon though I’m going to get new televisions in the family room and basement, as both of those TV’s are over ten years old. So I could use this digital box thing in the basement I suppose or maybe in my studio.

The allure of a free digital box had me driving to my local Spectrum store to pick one up and get some questions answered on a Saturday afternoon.

Recently Spectrum jacked up our monthly bill to $190 a month for cable, internet and home phone. I not only wanted to find out more about this digital box, I wanted to discuss ways to save money on my cable bill.

DVR vs. Digital Box vs. Cable Card vs….

I’ll preface this with what my plan is. I’m going to take the family room television and move it downstairs. The HDMI port is broken on it and it causes the TV to flicker. I asked a guy at Best Buy a while back and he said that if a TV is over five years old no one really fixes them anymore and they don’t make parts for them.

I will put a brand new 49″ Sony 850E unit in the family room. Eventually the basement will get a new 65″ Sony 900E TV.

So, my current ten year old Sony TV in the family room (the “broken” one) has a slot in the back for a cable card. Which got me thinking instead of a digital box couldn’t I simply get a cable card and pop it in the back? Then I wouldn’t need the new digital box in the basement. I asked the guy at Spectrum and yes theoretically that sounds right but they don’t carry cable cards in store. I would have to call their 800-number and see if I could get a cable card. Weird, but whatever. I confirmed at Best Buy later in the day that the new Sony’s have a cable card slot. So if I can get my hands on cable cards I won’t need to rent the digital box for $12 a month next year.

This is where is starts to get really weird. The Spectrum guy said if I get a Roku for my television, I won’t need the digital box or cable card, I will be able to stream my cable from the Spectrum app. Ugh, what the heck is a Roku and what does it do do for me? I’d find out later in the day at Best Buy. Basically it’s a device that I would buy for $50-$75 dollars and I would avoid the digital box rental fee. Roku also allows me to access various streaming television apps, but get this, both Sony televisions I’m looking to buy are “smart” TV’s which have all the popular apps built in. So the only reason, for me, to get Roku is to access Spectrum without a cable card, DVR or box. Ok, I’ll consider it.

Streaming TV Content

This leads me to the “wild west” of accessing television content that we are living in in right now. It’s not like the old days where you plugged in cable and watched what they gave you to watch. With antennae, cable, and smart TV apps I need a spreadsheet, or a few websites, to keep track of where to watch what I want to watch.

Wouldn’t you know it, as I’m writing this (over the course of what was a couple days, and now a couple weeks) some interesting things have come to my attention. Here I was learning about Roku, lo and behold my parents of all people had already implemented my “Roku in place of cable box” plan with the help of my brother. I took the family over to my parents house for dinner and they had a Roku remote next to the TV. They explained it all to me and I got to check it out first hand. With that knowledge I went ahead and ordered a Roku Streaming Stick + from Amazon (on sale during cyber week). The stick can be easily switched from TV to TV in our household and should cover us as we rarely have more than one or two TV’s on at any given time.

New Family Room Television

One other thing transpired while I have been lazily writing this post: we got a new television for the family room! Once again taking advantage of holiday sales season, I went to Best Buy and bought a 55″ Sony 900E. I originally wanted a 49″ but my wife and the guy at Best Buy convinced me 55″ was the size to get based on the size of our room. Apparently the latest train of thought is you can get a larger television and not have it feel overwhelming. As for the model, I was the guy who decided to get the 900 series instead of the 800 series. My logic being that I hope to hold on to this TV for 10+ years, and the 900 does everything extremely well. The extra $200 would be a distant memory 5-10 years from now.

The Sony is a smart TV so it has a ton of apps built in including Netflix and Amazon, so I no longer have to go through the Xbox to access those. The TV also has apps like SlingTV, Hallmark and others so if I want to cut the cable I don’t need to fuss with even a Roku for that set. The 900E was relatively easy to set up. It has voice control so I can say “Hey Google, turn on Captain America” and the TV will show me when that movie plays next or may even turn it on for me if it’s available to stream.

I love the look of the set, and the picture is fantastic. There was some disturbing “soap opera” effect while watching 4K content on Netflix but with some setting adjustments I was able to get the picture looking for warm and personal versus jittery and too “good”. I love how the set is connected to my streaming apps and the internet. I love how it is basically a free Google personal assistant. The only thing we’re thinking of upgrading is the sound by virtue of getting a sound bar at a later date. DVD movies and video games look great on the set too, by the way.

One other note, I got three new HDMI cables to hook my DVD player, Xbox 360 and cable box up. The kids at Best Buy convinced me I needed 4K cables, which is fine. The problem is I found the same certified cables, in the 6′ size I wanted for $12 at Walmart instead of $25 at Best Buy. Point is, don’t buy your HDMI cables at Best Buy. You only need spend $9-$12 on HDMI 4K cables.

What’s Next?

I’m so excited we got a new TV and my Roku should be here soon. I think we are set (pun intended) for the foreseeable future. I got a new modem (Netgear C700 on sale) so that will take $10 off my cable bill. We are going to experiment with the various apps. I really think my goal will be to cut the cable and just pay for internet, and any specialty apps like the Hallmark one for instance. With our busy schedule we’re not even DVRing shows that much because we know we can find them on demand.

Anyway, I hope my miscellaneous ramblings have helped those of you who may have been as lost as I was.

Do you have any pros and cons that you’ve experienced in regards to cable, streaming, etc? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

I thought 55” would be too big but it doesn’t look to big in our family room

For now we decided to mount the TV on its stand. We may wall mount it at a later date but honestly we don’t want the TV to be to high off the ground. We like it at sitting eye level.

These HDMI cords were just $12 at Walmart and perform the same as the ones you get at Best Buy for 2-3 times the cost.

Cats enjoying Happy Yule Log on the new TV

The cats enjoying Happy Yule Log on the new TV

Hall Lamp LED Bulbs

We have two small lamps upstairs on the Mexican hutch, and the CFL bulb in one of the lamps started to die out, so I was instructed to fix this. I went to Home Depot and picked up a pair of Philips 40W equivalent light bulbs.

Performance wise they use 5.5 watts (vs. 10 watts for the CFL’s they replace), 40 watt equivalent, 2700K (warm) color, 450 lumens. (Note the link on the HD website says 7 watts but the packaging on mine says they only use 5.5 watts.) They look nice with a clear injection molded “sparkle” diffuser that makes them twinkle a bit behind the lamp shade. Home Depot had some ceiling fan bulbs that were similar but with a frosted bulb. I wasn’t sure, so I just went with these clear guys. Likely the ceiling fan bulbs would have been fine too. Philips is my “go to” brand for LED’s generally speaking. Though it seems like Home Depot is dialing back their Philips offering; I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.

At any rate, the decorative lamps in the hallway now have new energy efficient bulbs. I’ll recycle the used CFL’s at our county’s hazardous household waste collection site in the next week or two. Reminder, you need to recycle CFL’s properly because they contain mercury. Don’t break them!

 

 

G24Q-3

Our nightmare is over! No, Donald Trump is still president. What I’m talking about is that I am finally  successful in changing the upstairs hall lightbulbs after three months.

The family unit was cleaning the upstairs hallway and it reminded me that I still needed to get bulbs for those ceiling fixtures. And as you’ve surely read, the LED bulbs didn’t work with the ballast. I couldn’t remove the ballast myself, so the LED bulbs went back the manufacturer. The replacement CFL’s I followed up with had the wrong base, G24Q-1, so they wouldn’t connect to my light fixture. Back those went.

Well today I ran out to my favorite light bulb retailer, Home Depot, and purchased G24Q-3 CFLs from my favorite lighting manufacturer Philips. They are 2,700K and use 26W (which is high) and are 1,800 lumens (also high).

The packaging opened easy enough, and is fully recyclable. I popped the new bulbs in and “voila!”

Light!

One thing off of my “to do” list.