Power on? Hard to be sure.

I had hoped to use the Vera to send shutdown messages to other devices in the house if the power went out, but it turns out Vera doesn’t track whether the power is on or off (it IS plugged into a UPS, so that would kinda limit that).

My first solution was simply to trigger some Vera events based on a “vendor code” generated by the alarm system, after all it switches to battery power when the power goes out.

No good. Turns out it doesn’t kick that vendor code out to Vera – I can get it to warn Vera when a “trouble” status is triggered (an “AC FAIL” generates a trouble indication), but it might be a different trouble (“Low Remote Battery”, “Communications Issue” etc etc) and that doesn’t sound like a reliable kludge.

The vera forums discuss using a wall wart 12vdc power supply, a relay and a wireless zwave door/window contact to monitor the AC Status – it’s clever – the wall wart voltage triggers the relay keeping the alarm circuit closed, as soon as mains power drops the relay loses power and breaks the circuit, triggering the zone.

I can do that, but using our alarm system to instead of a zwave door/window contact.

simple ac sensor

As luck would have it I have a pile of generic 12vdc wall warts, a number of 12v security relays and I happened to have a zone free on my alarm system.

About 30 minutes of monkeying around, running wire back to the alarm system and making sure the new “AC Sensor” was plugged into the same circuit as my home automation gear and we were away to the races.

I’ll have to double check the programming in our alarm system to make sure it doesn’t trigger a burglary alarm when the power drops, but otherwise it seems pretty slick.

I’ll do a little quick programming in Vera, and some monkeying with ssh and I should have something that saves our hardware from an unexpected shutdown.

Vera – Is someone home?

Home automation was attractive for two specific reasons, or functions if you prefer.

  1. Timed routine event management – the ability of Vera to turn perimeter lights on and off, and to complete certain actions at certain times (and even with a slight variation if needed) regularly and without fail.
  2. Occupancy driven events – Air Conditioning / Heating set points modified based on whether anyone is home, lights turned off when no one is around etc etc etc.

Vera Home Automation

It’s the second class of items that has caused me issues (the first are as easy as making a schedule and letting it rip… being able to set the schedule based on a +/- sunset/sunrise is just a bonus) – think about it, if you’re a computer sitting on a shelf how do you tell if someone is home?
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Home Surveillance System

The backbone of our home CCTV system consists of a few hardwired analog cameras connected to a digital video recorder which keeps approximately 2 months worth of footage on file.

The recorder itself is isolated from our network, and it’s multiplexed feed is fed out to the usual array of internet thingamabobs by an encoder, and to all the TVs in our house by a modulator that converts the composite signal from the DVR to a specific TV channels frequency.

This allows me to access the video feeds remotely, but in a worst case scenario means an unauthorized user could access the live feeds, but would be unable to access the recordings or recorder itself.

I’m no network security guru, so both the alarm system and the CCTV system have this sort of “one way” (or “look but don’t touch”) relationship with our internet enabled home automation systems to prevent people smarter than me from ruining my day.
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Vera – Three months

We’ve had Vera now for three months. The lighting control and “smart home” features are as advertised, and the integration into our existing alarm and CCTV systems has been nearly seamless. We have approximately 11 devices controlled by the system, with plans to expand.

We’ve hit some hiccups. The Wemo switches were occasionally unreliable (this is likely a result of the Vera Plugin and not the switches themselves), and are being phased out – and we’ve had the system lock up once (a few days after its initial setup) but which appears to have been resolved now with a scheduled reboot.

Vera Home Automation

Vera, working in conunction with the alarm system (this is a one way path for security reasons – the alarm system can trigger Vera events, but the Vera cannot directly arm/disarm the alarm system) the vera can ensure that all doors are closed before the alarm system arms itself – either sending a warning to me via text/email or in the case of the garage door it will just close the door itself.

Monkeying around I’ve even managed to have the Vera turn off our Boxee Box Media Players when we leave for the day (this is done via http across the local network).

I am planning on adding a zwave thermostat and some additional “appliance control units” which measure hydro use, and will allow me to power down groups of electronics like our TV and console arrangement in the living room.

So far so good.

Lighting…always lighting

The original requirement behind all this home automation stuff was to automate the perimeter lighting for our house. Having the lights come on at dusk and turn off again when the sun comes up without having to adjust the timer several times a year.

The front porch pendant light was controlled by a Wemo switch, but I didn’t particularly like the light which seemed to illuminate our foyer more effectively than it did the rest of the porch.

Front porch lighting

I decided to remove the light and replace it with three “pot” lights spaced across the front porch – both for a more modern look and for more even and generally softer lighting.
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Boxee Box – Discontinued, but not forgotten

Out of all the media players we experimented with (and there were a few) the Boxee Box was always my favorite (we’ve had one sitting in our bedroom for a few years now). Sadly Dlink discontinued the Boxee Box in 2013 moving to a TV/DLNA media player that I thoroughly disliked instead (more about that later).

Of course to a fella like me that just means there are more surplused units out there at a substantial discount from the Boxees original $200 pricetag.

Dlink DSM-380 Boxee Box

User support remains strong, with custom hacks available for installation that make the menus and functionality accessible for customization.

Also available, although difficult to find at this point, is an html based remote for Boxee units allowing some interesting (although not immediately useful potential). This is particularly important as most of the dlink developers documentation has evaporated.

Lets see what kinda of trouble I can get into with these devices.

Generators – Side by side

It was a nice day out and I decided that it was time to give the new generator a try. Out of the box I added the requisite amount of fuel and oil, flipped the switch and the petcock, gave it a single pull and it fired right up.

the two generators

My old 1200 Watt generator took three solid pulls, and that is a rapid start compared to some of the battles it has put up in the past (name brand spark plug makes all the difference).

I attached videos of each starting up below the cut for anyone who has the sudden urge to see a short video clip of a generator starting up.

We’ve offered the 1200 Watt to family, so it should be disappearing shortly (needed to make sure the new one ran before getting rid of the old one – common sense).
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Emergency Power

Our first generator was a econo-sized 1200 Watt generator picked up on sale. Not particularly powerful (enough to keep the fridge cold or the furnace blower going, but only ONE job at a time). It does require a gas-oil mix, and was occasionally a bit of a pain to start.

TG1200 Generator

It seems to be ubiquitous, and reviews are generally positive (here, here and here).

It really seemed to be our good luck that we simply had never had a real power failure of sufficient duration to warrant using the generator. That said I had concerns about the ability of this little generator to carry the load of our fridge (bigger than the fridge we had when we bought the generator), and had my eyes open for an upgrade.
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Network Attached Storage – Media Server

We’ve been using the Buffalo Linkstation WVL NAS for just over two years now and it’s been rock solid despite running 23 1/2 hours a day (I have it set up to effectively reboot around 3am every day). Recently however we’ve had a few disk errors (from disk 2), which seem to be repaired when the diagnostics are run, but then reappear later and which interupt the backups that I run monthly.

Buffalo linkstation

We’ve also got a looming capacity crisis with the system cresting 85% capacity. It seems clear it is time to either upgrade to a new system, or to upgrade the drives inside to increase our capacity.

I’m going to have to do some reading to make sure I can slot 4tb drives in the Linkstation, as I am not prepared to spend $1K on a new NAS arrangement right now.