Archive for House Stuff

Home CCTV – Encoder

Our CCTV system, which was never simple, has grown over the years. It’s made up of a pile of different components, it’s laid out like this;

Camera – DVR – HDMI/Composite Converter – Encoder – Modulator

Camera – Both Analog and IP Cameras feed into the Digital Video Recorder.

DVR – The DVR creates a multiplexed (that is all cameras visible on a single screen) which is then fed into the HDMI-Composite converter (this is my fault as the DVR I bought has only a HDMI output – buying a DVR with a composite output would have eliminated this step).

HDMI-Composite Coverter – This device simply takes the HDMI output from the DVR and converts it into a basic analog signal so it can be fed into the Encoder and then the Modulator (earlier versions of this arrangement saw the signal fed into an amplifier and then split to the Encoder and the Modulator separately).

Encoder – The encoder converts the analog signal into a digital one, which can then be viewed by our home automation system and portable electronic devices (smartphones etc).

Modulator – The composite analog signal is then fed into a modulator which converts it into a frequency recognized by CATV as a specific channel (this allows us to view the multiplexed feed on any TV in the house when we bring up a designated channel).

The encoder is an important part of the overall system. We originally had a Aviosys IP9100a performing this function, and while far from ideal it was economical and mostly reliable (towards the end of its service life I had it plugged into a Belkin Wemo module so I could remotely power cycle the device). The first unit lasted approximately 2 years, and its replacement another 3.

When the most recent unit died it was time to find a better solution (also it appears the Axiosys 9100a is no longer available). As with other components we have phased in to our system I would prefer commercial grade hardware where possible – my concern was that a new device might not integrate into the various system we have in place.

More updates as we try out the new hardware.

Alarm System – Bells and Whistles

I’m a big fan of the DSC 1832/1864 series of alarm systems. It’s a robust system with all sorts of functionality right out of the box. A few of the features we’ve made use of include;

  • Scheduled auto-arming – On a preset generic schedule the system will automatically arm itself to “away” mode bypassing any faulted devices. You can specify days of the week and time of day for this.
  • PGM – Progammable outputs – These are extremely handy. In our system the PGMs are used for;
    • Activating an LED by the back door indicating the system is armed (our keypads are not prominently displayed).
    • Linked to our garage door so we can open the garage using our alarm system keyfobs.
    • As a “false alarm reduction tool” for our hardwired smoke detectors (the system automatically shuts down, then restarts the smoke detectors in the event of an alarm – if the smoke detector STILL detects smoke after the reset the system considers it a legitimate alarm and notifies the monitoring centre and activates the siren).

DSC ws4939 remote

My personal favorite feature is being able to open the garage door using the keyfob – Lisa just enjoys the convenience of pressing a button on the remote to arm/disarm the system without messing with codes and entry/exit delays.

Home Flood Protection

Aside from burglary protection our alarm/HA system offers some other features;

Fire Monitoring: Individual smoke/heat detectors connected to the alarm system and monitored remotely.
Freeze Protection: If the temp drops below 6 degrees the alarm monitoring company is notified.
Hydro Status: If the power fails a zone is tripped.

To this I wanted to add proper flood protection.

All critical functions of our home setup are delegated to the alarm system as it has proven itself reliable. This way detection and notification are handled by the alarm system and any automated response is handled by the HA system. If the HA system fails a notification is still sent to the alarm system, and by extension me.

The proposed arrangement is to have two Water Detectors (these are fundamentally just two metal probes that trigger an alarm when water completes a circuit between them) installed – one under the water heater and the other by the supply lines in the laundry room. Water detected in either area will trigger an alarm which will in turn notify the HA system.

This will be augmented by a Zwave Motorized Controller for the main water shutoff valve. Once a water leak is detected the water for the house can be automatically shut off.

At least that’s how it should work in theory.

Vera – Two years later

It was just shy of two years ago that we started down the Home Automation path setting up a Veralite to look after some routine home automation tasks. The system grew, and now I can’t imagine our home without it. We’ve since upgraded to the Vera Edge (which was good and bad – good in that it increased the reliability of the device, bad in that we lost a few devices that had worked just fine on the Veralite)


We have no immediate plans to expand the system any farther, but who knows what shiny things lurk around the next corner.

Basic Cable vs. Home Media Server – False Economy?

It’s easy to say we’re saving money by “cord cutting”, but are we?

We moved into this house in July 2010, and if we had gone with a basic cable option at that time (let’s say $40/mo – although I suspect that’s a little light) we would have spent $2640.00 on Television since then. At present our system is comprised of a Media Server with 6TB of storage and 5 media players scattered around the house – this hardware represents approximately $1100 in expense.

On its face it looks like we’re spending the equivalent of $16.60 a month for our current setup versus the $40 the cable company would have charged us.


…..of course that doesn’t take into account the experimentation and ‘failed’ devices that have passed through our system OR the cost of the original iteration of our media system. My spreadsheet (Yeah, I know….geeky) tells me that I’ve spent $2210 on our arrangement once the ‘experimental’ (and now discarded) stuff is added in – this pushes the cost to approximately $33.48 a month (that gap is closing).

On the plus side we’ve still come in cheaper than basic cable, and it’s basically subsidized my experimenting with technology for the past five years. So I’m going to go ahead and say that YES we are saving money AND I get to monkey with technology.

Successor Media Player – Amazon Firestick

It’s official. We’ve selected the Amazon Firestick for our replacement platform for our aging (but still running) Boxee Boxes.

Really what we’ve decided to go with is XBMC running on an Amazon Firestick, but I’ve found that the firestick is a much more reliable platform than the majority of the “Android Media Boxes” I’ve experimented with (see previous posts). With a series of customizations the Firestick delivers (through XMBC Kodi) seamless access to our local media AND Netflix AND local/regional/national/international Live Television streaming sources.

You can buy Firesticks already configured for this stuff, but it’s really not that complicated to set it up yourself.

I’ll document the mundane process below the cut for my own edification and for those that might be interested in replicating the process.
» Read more..

Media Players – A successor finally found?

As has been discussed previously, our preferred Media Player (the Boxee Box) has long since been discontinued. We presently have three of them in service with a single spare malfunctioning unit. Sourcing replacements will likely not get any easier and so I’ve continued to experiment with other network media players looking for a suitable replacement.

MyGica 520E
Mygica 520E – $100CDN

An android box running XBMC (Kodi) along with the usual variety of android apps and so forth.

I found this box to be a good idea that was poorly executed. I found that with XBMC loaded and our local library indexed the unit has pretty much maxed out its available storage, and it generally runs a little “clunky” as a result. I was impressed with XBMC/Kodi and it’s flexibility but a media player constantly churning to process your last two requests is annoying.

Netgear NTV300
Netgear NTV300 – $50CDN

This is, simply put, a chunk of shit. The publish specs suggest that this has some sort of DLNA player and can stream local content – but that appears to have come from an accidental firmware update and any such functionality has been entirely removed. I can’t find any aftermarket firmware (or a means of installing it even if I did), and so this is basically a Netflix box.

A total waste of money.

Roku Streaming Stick
Roku Streaming Stick – $50CDN

As the Amazon Fire Stick is unavailable in Canada this seemed like the next best thing. With built in Netflix and the ability to stream local content (albeit through a rather ugly interface) and all combined into a compact package this appears to offer everything one needs.

I’ve not experimented with customization, as I got distracted by the next item on the list, but it’s basic functionality appears solid.

Amazon Fire Stick – $100CDN

Technically not available in Canada the Amazon firesticks utility North of the border is automatically limited by geographical restrictions on the content offered by Amazon. That content aside (and I’ve not really tested whether or not our VPN is adequate to circumvent these geographical barriers) XMBC/Kodi can be sideloaded.

I spent a few hours customizing Kodi with the Mimic theme and got a number of online streaming sources set up (including Netflix) and managed to index our local content seamlessly. I’m extremely pleased with the results, and have never been more impressed with XMBC.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this will be the replacement arrangement for our aging Boxee Boxes, but more experimentation is called for.

Aeon Labs 4in1 Sensor – Hardwired

I know I’ve mentioned it before but battery powered devices included in a home alarm or home automation system are, at best, temporary fixes and more likely long term headaches.

In our case I HAVE been feeding batteries to three Aeon Labs 4 in 1 sensors used in our home automation setup. Four “AAA” batteries seem to last around three months (and that is a few bucks out of my pocket if you’re keeping track – I am).

I sourced some automotive 12VDC-USB devices and as the outdoor multi-sensors are co-located with surveillance cameras pulling 12VDC this seemed like a good way to get better service from the devices AND save a few bucks on batteries. It did, however, take me more than a little time to get rolling.

USb thimgamawhosit

I’ve now installed the first one and it seems to be working just fine. Of course this involves a song and dance with Vera – but more on that later as I rewire the other two.

Vera – Recovering from the upgrade

Just over a week since the upgrade to U17 and I am 90% certain that the system is functioning properly again. The processor is under a higher load, but routine functionality is back.

Vera Home Automation

I’ve opened two tickets with tech support (the first dealing with rolling back the firmware – which I have put on the back burner), and the second dealing with a recurring error message (the forums suggest this is a common problem, and that tech support does NOT have a solution for it).

Meh. We’ll see.