Archive: November, 2017

On home automation and energy efficiency

posted by Jeff | Saturday, November 18, 2017, 9:14 PM | comments: 0

"Alexa, turn on Christmas."

It was about a year ago that I bought an Amazon Echo Dot, and promptly bought four more (well, actually I bought a six-pack, but sold two). About the same time I bought a Philips Hue starter pack, with a bridge and three color bulbs, plus a light strip, and that's where the fun began. I also bought a TP-LINK WiFi plug to turn the Christmas tree on and off remotely. The home automation bug hit me pretty hard.

A lot of the cooler stuff you can do requires hard-wiring stuff, so I never went too far in the last house. Also, as much as I wanted a Nest thermostat, the original version was too expensive. Once we moved, there were some great opportunities, with the Nest E's introduction (and the fact we have a two-zone HVAC house now), it seemed like a good idea to get those. We also did a WiFi switch to handle the bedroom lights, so we can turn them on and off by shouting into the air or using a phone app. (Seriously, I've only had one house where there was a switch next to the bed.) I installed a Ring doorbell at an insanely discounted sale price mostly because I wanted to see the way things are delivered, but also because my office is no longer near the front door, and it's convenient for a video screen to pop up on my computer when someone shows up without going to the door. I had a bunch of WiFi plugs previously, and these are what we use to plug in the Christmas tree and other lights.

None of this stuff is necessary, to be sure, but it sure is convenient. There's also a fantastic energy efficiency story, because you can set all of these lights to timers. Also, the Hue lights are all LED lamps, so what used to be 60w is now 9w. We can set our exterior lights to come on and turn off at the appropriate time. The Nest thermostats can react when we're home, though honestly, we always are because I work from home, but we can set the temperatures from anywhere and it logs the time the system is running, so we can see how often it's on (unsurprisingly, the downstairs runs more than upstairs).

There's also a staggering difference in general energy consumption, because the builder used LED bulbs in everything. This is a huge change. Our previous house, finished in 2014, was finished with CFL's in most cases, which used about 15w, while the recessed cans all had full on 60w incandescent bulbs. This time, just three and a half years later, the conventional bulbs are all 9w, the recessed can flood lights are all 9.5w. That's about a 35% reduction in just a few years between CFL's and LED's, and 85% reduction from incandescent to LED. Having a separate HVAC system for upstairs and downstairs, while more expensive up front, clearly makes a huge difference in efficiency. Mind you, it's fall, but so far our daily electricity consumption matches our previous house, even though this one is 55% larger.

I'm all in on energy efficiency. We've spent half as much on moving our cars around in the last two years, because they're electric, and now it's time to do the same for the house. As long as our previous house sells for what we're hoping, we'll roll some of that equity into doing solar. If I can reduce the electric bill by even 80%, that makes a massive difference in our carbon footprint. The economy of scale won't improve without early adopters, and I'm happy to be a part of that crowd.

Making the house a home

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 16, 2017, 10:54 PM | comments: 0

The move is very nearly two weeks behind us, and while time flies, it doesn't feel like we've been here that long. Part of it is that the old house isn't totally empty (or sold), and then I was in California last Friday to Monday. The biggest thing though is that a new house tends to need a lot of extra stuff. After you drain your savings to close, then you're spending more money on all of the things that make it more personal. Honestly, this is largely a money saving strategy. The builder will put more stuff in, but their options are limited and the pricing is insane. For example, the kitchen pendant lights we just ordered were $80 for three of them. The builder wanted hundreds for something not as cool.

We've got a bunch of light fixtures and ceiling fans coming to start. In addition to the kitchen pendants, we need a kitchen table light, something for the dining room and ceiling fans/lights for Simon and our bedroom. That's just for starters though, because some of the other rooms probably need something eventually. In order of importance, there's Diana's sewing studio, my office, the playroom and the guest room. Her room in particular is on the south side of the house, where we don't yet have a neighbor, so it's bound to get warm.

The kitchen is a priority, too. The flooring, counters, cabinets and backsplash are easiest to handle with the builder, but their options and cost for hardware is too high. Ditto for the faucet over the main sink, for which they install a cheap, plastic chrome thing. Counting the pretentious butler pantry, there are a total of 32 doors and 19 drawers, which is a whole lot of drilling. We have no idea what we're gonna put there, but I don't feel like two-hole handles are necessary for the cabinets this time (unless they are).

I've done some handy stuff already. My first priority was to get the Ring doorbell installed, which as it turns out is super helpful because my office went from next to the door to as far away as possible. I also put Nest E thermostats in, not so much for the learning they can do (we're always home), but for the remote capability and operating history in light of our desire to be energy efficient. I put Hue lights in a few places for ambiance and festivity, and have some wifi connected light switches to install so we can automate. The house was wired for in-wall/ceiling speakers, but that was it. I had to cut some holes in the ceiling for surround speakers, and then wire a bunch of connectors at the wall. Then there's all of the drilling for curtains, and so far I've only done it for two windows.

We immediately ripped the door off of our laundry room, because it opens inward and blocks the washer, which is stupid. This is going to be my first from scratch handy project, as I'm going to attempt to build a barn door and then hang it. I figure that's a pretty low complexity thing to do, and it'll get me comfortable cutting wood for the first time in 20 years.

The single biggest project on our radar is installing a solar plant on the roof, but we need a few months of electrical usage before we know what we need. We also need to sell the other house, which is where the money for that currently is. Regardless, I've got a Tesla Powerwall going in for free as part of the project, earned from car sales referrals.

Things are coming along, slowly, and I often need to remind myself that it's not a race. Baby steps, like getting a rug to tie the room together, are what we need to do. It'll also help once we've got some pictures on the wall and such.

My team did a hackathon, and we won stuff

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, November 15, 2017, 10:15 PM | comments: 0

My team from novi AMS went to the Intuit campus in Mountain View last weekend to do a #SmallBizHack hackathon. Honestly, I've never been a fan of these kinds of events, because building anything on a deadline is exactly the kind of thing we avoid by adopting agile processes. But the company had been there the previous two years, and it's also a remarkable opportunity to network with the people who build the product we integrate most closely with (QuickBooks Online), and I'm definitely game for that.

It was me, our founder, and the two developers I hired earlier in this year (my third, a front-end dev/designer just started last week, so this would've been a bit much on top of onboarding). We arrived with an idea that Intuit's developer evangelist felt was already done by recent additions to their app store, so we had to make a game day call on something else. Here's the problem with hackathon ideas: It's never super clear what kind of thing will be loved by the judges. What's worse is that you never quite know if they expect to see a working product, or something that amounts to a business plan. For those of us who want to build something that mostly works by the deadline, that's frustrating. My crew cares about craftsmanship and building working stuff, which is why I love working with them. Since the sponsors included Google (specifically Google Assistant) and a telephony company called Nexmo, everyone was thinking about ways to talk to your phone and send text messages and such. I thought it would be fun to "gamify" sales, sending text alerts when new invoices hit QBO. Our founder had a better idea though, a voice app that would let you know, based on your location and overdue invoices, where you could physically go to collect from your customers. That's a high tech solution to a low tech problem, but we were all onboard with it. Initially we thought of this strictly as something with a web UI, and kind of late in the game pivoted to add the voice stuff.

By 10pm on the first night, we had a lot of the individual parts working, but not composed to a working solution. I spent a ton of time working on the authorization story to connect our app to QBO, and it took entirely too long. In the end, it was mostly because of poor documentation with the SDK, not the underlying API itself. I also handled some of the web UI hookups, which we didn't use in our demo, but needed as a backup and to validate the data. I ended up using Vue.js, a framework I've never used before. In fact, by the time we were done, we ended up using a ton of technologies that were new to us, which was fairly high risk given our desire to actually win something among the 30 teams.

We pitched 24th, and our three minutes were tight because of Google misinterpreting what we were saying. The workflow went like this:

  • Ask Google, "Who owes us money?"
  • It prompted to ask you if it was OK to use your location.
  • You said yes, and it gave you a list of overdue customers with amounts and distances in miles. (For laughs, we had Sun Microsystems as the biggest delinquent customer. Nerds will get it.)
  • If you said the customer or touched it, you got a map and navigation to get there. (Also funny, because Facebook HQ occupies the former Sun campus.)

As it turns out, we were not the only ones trying to solve cash flow problems, and the judges didn't seem very impressed that the extent of our solution was enabling humans to efficiently knock on doors to collect. I've been suggesting that we go back next year, and in v2, dispatch ninjas to collect the overdue money. Everyone else was using text messages and calls and notifications. The judges didn't poke any holes in what we did, but they didn't seem enthusiastic, either.

The sponsors made their selections for favorites first, and wouldn't you know it, the Google guy loved what we did. I was shocked. We each won a Google Home speaker, which should be fun to play with even though we're largely an Alexa home. We didn't win any of the formal top 3 spots, but I'll take it. The first place team had an interesting idea about how small businesses could share inventory, which was kind of neat, but they didn't really have a particularly functional product, which kind of bothered me. Again, you never know what to expect.

Regardless, I'm proud of my team. We put together something pretty cool using a bunch of tech that was out of our comfort zone, and we won something for it. We did the networking, too, which one of my guys will continue doing this week at their conference. We didn't pull some all-nighter either, thankfully, because I know I sure can't operate when I'm tired. Being physically on Eastern time, we were up by 5 a.m. anyway! If we do it again next year, I know a bit more about what to expect.

Moving upheaval

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 7, 2017, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

I was pretty much done with moving by the end of the day, even though we're not done with moving. We're most of the way there, but we still need to get miscellaneous stuff over, take stuff off of the walls and clean up at the "old" place. Yesterday I got the garage, office and loft empty, and today Diana went further with bedrooms. Her long arm quilting machine is still there because it has a quilt on it. But we're getting there.

It's been hard to enjoy the new place because it's in a state of chaos still. Not having Internet access for four days was a point of stress, in part because I've been Amazoning the crap out of immediate needs, and frankly we'd like to take a nice break to shop for light fixtures (we need many). I spent most of today in a combination of the old neighborhood club house and a Pei Wei because it took Spectrum a total of 6 phone calls talking to 12 people and four different techs on site to get me online. Because I underestimated the power of a modern electric stove, and because I couldn't find a spatula, I thoroughly burned a quesadilla. Simon's need to have my attention buried my guilt meter tonight, and I spent time building Lego with him and watching a little bit of a movie, but I was still short with him over silly things.

But there were some small victories. I got our Ring doorbell up and running, which is important because my office is quite literally about 100 feet from the front door. The remaining towel racks arrived today, even if I didn't have time to install them. I got the thermostats on a schedule. Yesterday I sold the screen doors we didn't need.

I'm really looking forward to nesting and enjoying the new place, but the chaos really got to me today. I forgot how nutty things can be, after a record 3.5 years without moving. Glad it wasn't very far this time.