Buyer Ware

Home construction on Elizabeth Court

Home construction on Elizabeth Court

Naiveté apparently knows no age limit. It was about six years ago (April 2010) Barbara Jean and I were sitting in the builder’s sales office a few feet from where I am writing this. The builder didn’t need to sell us a house. We had already made the sale for him. It was the right price range, it was the right style, it was the right neighborhood, it was the right time. All that needed to be settled were the details.

I was at the end of my working life. I had been back from my last California contract since December. I was unemployed with no prospects in sight. We tended to be conservative in our outlay. Still, there were sensible places to plow deeply.

The builder’s standard appliances left room for improvement. Barbara wanted the deep tub dishwasher. She wanted a better microwave oven. We had experience with carpet versus tile, and we went with tile throughout (almost) at greater expense. It costs more to make these upgrades post sale. We looked at the builder’s standard cabinets. The oak would have been better, but we decided to go cheap. We had nobody to impress. It turns out there were places we should not have skimped. Here is one.

Whirlaway-01

Whirlaway-02

Who would have thought the builder’s standard garbage disposal unit would have been the bottom of the bottom? We went on vacation last October for three weeks. On our return the (by then) five-years-old unit refused to turn. I had to insert a large tool to unstick it. Vacations come and go, and when we got back from vacation again last month it was the same thing. Only this time nothing was able to unstick the unit. Five years in, and it had outlived its worth. For the record the model is Whirlaway 291. The builder is Greenboro Homes in San Antonio.

My friend Gary gave me some good advice. I went to Lowe’s and purchased a serious upgrade. It’s a Badger 15SS with a 3/4-horsepower motor. The in-home warranty is only three years, but with stainless steel innards I expect it to outlast the Whirlaway.

Next up, the water fixtures throughout the house, though reliable, don’t have the appearance of substance that hits our fancy. Eventually they will have to go. It’s a decision we should have taken six years ago.

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Time Warner Cable Fail

This happens from time to time. It’s most annoying.

DeviceDisconnected-01

 

Yes, I received this. In fact I received three of these. I have three D-Link cameras installed on my home network, and I use them to monitor my house when I’m away. So when Barbara Jean and I went to the gym Wednesday morning for a workout I knew my system would be watching the house while we were gone. Before starting the scheduled exercise class I whipped out my smart phone and set about to enable motion detection on the cameras.

It wasn’t going to happen. The three messages informed me Time Warner Cable had dropped my Internet connection about the time I got to the gym. I couldn’t do anything until I got back to the house. That was a couple of hours later.

Back home, my discovery was that the outage had been temporary, but that was no help. In order to restore the connection I had to cycle power on the router and the modem. That’s something I cannot do remotely. Well, I could plug the router and the modem into a Z-Wave switch and turn that off, but once it was off I would not be able to turn it back on.

I came up with a work around that will cycle the critical power on the critical devices periodically. That way if I’m going to be away for a few days I won’t have to put up with loss of monitoring and control for days at a time.

What would be better would be for Time Warner Cable to get their act together and quit doing this shit. Not likely to happen. The previous time we had the problem—Internet was out for several hours—all I could get from TWC was a dislocated customer service representative who obviously did not know anything about the service. All he could do was to recite the instructions on his response card. I would like to replace TWC, but neighbors inform me that ATT Uverse is hardly any better.

Add your voice is you are experiencing comparable customer service and are fed up with it.

Home Security Revisited

Home security is not my foremost interest, but it’s up there among the things that get my attention. My new (2010) house in San Antonio has the standard security system, one that detects and sounds an alarm when somebody opens a door or a window. I got really interested last year when an unknown person started to barge in the front door at 3 a.m. while Barbara Jean was in the living room knitting. I already had some additional home security features, but that got me to experimenting some more. Here are some findings.

Z-Wave

By that time last year I already had dipped into Z-Wave technology. Z-Wave is an industry standard, and a number of manufacturers produce systems and components. Any component conforming to the standard can be inserted into an existing Z-Wave network.

I went the cheap route. I purchased a VeraLite controller by Mi Casa Verde. It’s now about $103 on Amazon, but two years ago I paid more. Things are getting cheaper. There is a full-blown Vera controller that has more capability and costs more if you want to go that way. The controller hooks up to your home computer network. It doesn’t have WiFi. You have to cable it to your router. The controller communicates with various Z-Wave devices throughout your home by means of its own radio network. The devices and the controller keep in constant communication with each other.

VeraLiteController

VeraLite Controller

More importantly, in the case VeraLite, the controller communicates with its home office by means of your Internet provider. The manufacturer maintains a central server as a free service to people using its products. With their free app for your smart phone, you can be in Wichita, Kansas, and monitor and control the devices in your home in San Antonio. Here are some of the devices you might want to control.

Wall receptacle

Wall receptacle

Here is a Z-Wave wall receptacle. This one is by General Electric, $36 from Amazon. Replace a standard outlet with this, and you can turn on and off the bottom outlet (not the top one) with the Z-Wave controller. You can also see the status (on or off) on your VeraLite app.

Too late after purchasing and installing a number of these, I discovered a better way of doing it. Replacing the standard duplex outlet with one of these is a real bear. The Z-Wave controller takes up a lot of room in the box, and you really have to work to crowd it in along with the wiring that’s already there. The better solution is the pluggable appliance module.

LampModule

Plug this into any active wall outlet, and you have a ready Z-Wave outlet. This will consume one receptacle of a duplex outlet, leaving barely enough room to plug in another lamp or appliance. The good news is the appliance module has two outlets, one controlled and the other just a pass through from the wall outlet. This one is from General Electric, currently $35 on Amazon.

Z-Wave power outlets are useful for things you plug into the wall. For ceiling lights and such you need to replace a standard wall switch with a Z-Wave switch.

Wall switches

Wall switches

Here I have installed two Z-Wave switches into a double switch box. These are also from General Electric at $40 on Amazon. You likely have existing toggle switches installed, but the Z-Wave switch needs to be the rocker type. That’s because the Z-Wave switch only turns power on and off, it cannot move the toggle lever.

The business at my house last year generated much interest in Z-Wave motion sensors.

MotionDetector

These motion sensors are by Ecolink, and they detect motion using passive infra red (PIR) technology. They are currently $30 on Amazon. A good thing about these is they are completely wireless. They have a battery for power, which lasts a number of years before it requires replacing. You can put them anywhere. Mount them on a wall (mounting bracket supplied) or just set one on a table, as shown in the photo.

In a Z-Wave system you use things like motion sensors to activate “scenes.” Scenes in the Z-Wave world are settings for other devices. With the VeraLite controller you can associate multiple delays within a scene. For example, suppose your back door sensor is tripped, and it activates a scene called BackDoor. Associated with that scene could be, for example:

  • Immediately turn on the back porch light and arm the living room motion detector.
  • After 2 seconds turn on the living room light and the upstairs bedroom light.
  • After 1 minute turn on the hall light.
  • After 65 seconds turn off the bedroom light.

The net result will hopefully convince anybody coming to your back door at night that people are home and turning on and off lights, and maybe calling the police. In the mean time the VeraLite controller has sent a message to the company’s server, causing an alert message to be mailed to you. If you are out of town your smart phone will get the email and create a little sound, alerting you to read your email. All of this is, of course, assuming you have set your system up to do it.

And remember, at least with VeraLite, the monitoring service is free. It’s one of the benefits of modern technology. The cost to Mi Casa Verde of setting up a server to do this is next to nothing compared to the income it produces through the sale of its controllers.

Cloud Cameras

Additionally useful are “cloud cameras.” These are video cameras, Webcams if you will, that tie into a cloud server. My brother clued me into some systems provided by D-Link. D-Link makes routers and other stuff, but their cameras will work with any home router system. Here is the first one I got.

DCS-5222LB-01

This is D-Link’s DCS-5222LB, currently $190 on Amazon, but I see it advertised elsewhere for as low as $134. This video camera, as with practically all of D-Link’s cameras, incorporates a WiFi link to your home router. As with VeraLite, the company provides a free monitoring service. Set up an account with the company and register your D-Link product with them, and it will connect to the company server and send alerts. You will receive an email when the company gets the alert.

I was much impressed with the concept and decided to expand my system, but on the cheap. A more affordable option is the CDS-930L that doesn’t have tilt and rotate control, lacks some of the other features, and has less image quality. At $30 each from Amazon (free shipping and no sales tax), these are a real bargain.

DCS-930L-01-512

These cameras have motion detection by means of their imaging system and also by sound detection. When you enable the appropriate alerts, the camera will alert the company server, and you will get an email when motion is detected.

These cameras do more. When triggered by motion or sound they will send images to your email account. This transaction does not involve the company’s server. The camera generates an email message with the images attached, it logs onto your email account using the account information and mail password you have provided and sends the images. The DCS-5222LB additionally will store images and video clips on the flash memory card you insert into the slot provided. Stored images can be retrieved remotely and downloaded to your computer. You can also remotely view live video from your cameras, and when you see something you want to keep you can click on the proper link and retrieve a snapshot immediately. The DCS-5222LB will also save video clips.

A useful feature of both cameras is the transmission by e-mail of a series of six images when triggered by motion detection. To check out this feature I ran a simple test in my house. I pretended I wanted to capture images of an intruder coming from downstairs. I set a Z-Wave motion detector on a small table, along with a DCS-930L camera. I darkened the room by closing the blinds and turning off the lights. I set my Z-Wave system to turn on the lights when the sensor detected motion. Then I dressed myself in a hoodie and dark glasses, because we all know that burglars wear hoodies and dark glasses. Then I came up the stairs. When I entered the darkened room at the top of the stairs the room light came on, and the camera sent the following series of images to me by email.

DCS-930-2015-09-25-01

DCS-930-2015-09-25-02

DCS-930-2015-09-25-03

DCS-930-2015-09-25-04

DCS-930-2015-09-25-05

DCS-930-2015-09-25-06

I didn’t apply PhotoShop to enhance these images. This is how they come from the cheap camera. The first image shows the surprised burglar at the top of the stairs when the lights came on. The next three images show the burglar retreating back down the stairs. The last two images are totally useless, because the burglar is already gone, and all you are getting is images of your stair landing, which you can obtain at any time. I ran similar tests with the DCS-5222LB, which has much better image quality.

I will conclude this introduction to home security and home automation for now. If there is any interest, if there is no interest at all, I will post my experiences with setting up these devices. If you are keen on doing something like this you may want to check back later and step through the tutorials.

Keep reading.

Philips Radio Alarm

This is a product review. It’s not a review of an alarm clock radio. It’s a review of a radio alarm. I will explain.

I bought some of these:

MotionDetector

Also some of these:

LampModule

 

The first is a Z-Wave motion detector, and the second is a Z-Wave appliance switch. My plan was to set up something that would sound an alarm if anybody approached the front door or the back door, especially at night while we were all sleeping. Here is how it’s done:

RadioAlarm-01

I set up a “scene” on the Z-Wave controller to activate one of the appliance modules. The trigger was set to either of the two door sensors:

RadioAlarm-09

So, all that was now necessary was to plug something that makes noise into the switched outlet of the appliance module. Then when something trips one of the sensors, the appliance module will switch on, and the noise will alert me, even if I’m asleep.

To prevent the noise from becoming a continuing annoyance, especially when nobody is around to hear it, I set a two-minute delay to turn off the noise.

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See the “2 minutes” in the red box?

Now all I needed was something that makes noise whenever you apply power. I looked around. You would be surprised at the small number of cheap things that make noise when power is applied. An electric radio sounded like the ideal thing, and I motored over to Wal-Mart to see what they had. All right! And only $10.

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A low-end Philips clock radio seemed like the ideal choice. I got it home and took it out of the box. Oops!

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The radio doesn’t have a slide switch. It’s a push button switch that makes momentary contact when pushed and tells the radio logic, “Turn yourself on.” Problem is, once the radio is on, it makes noise. Once the radio is on and the power goes out, when the power comes back on the radio does not come back on. It’s waiting for you to push the switch again to tell it to turn itself on. Bummer! What to do?

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I slept on the problem. In the middle of the night it came to me. What would happen if you held the button down and then applied power from the outlet? I got up in the morning and immediately ran a test.

Yes! When you hold the button down and apply power (insert the power plug into an outlet) the radio comes on and makes noise. That’s the important thing. It makes noise. Forget about tuning to my favorite station. It makes noise.

So, all that was left was to find a way to keep the switch depressed all the time. A little engineering solved the problem.

Since the button is normally flush with the top surface of the radio, you need something small sitting on top of the button to press down on. I found a retired camera battery that just fit.

RadioAlarm-06

Now you need something to press down on the camera battery. The lid of a plastic container does the job.

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Now you need something to put weight on the plastic lid. It needed to be something heavy. Also something you would not need to use for other purposes from time to time. I found something.

RadioAlarm-08

All right. This is Hokey with a capital H. But it works. I tried it out. I set everything up and then walked in front of the sensors, each for a separate test of its own. Victory! The noise started immediately. Two minutes later the noise went off. And it only cost me $10. Plus a used battery and a plastic container lid. Plus something heavy. I’m going to work through the battery, lid, heavy object to see if I can achieve some more elegance. This is going to do just fine.

GE 45603 Z-Wave Technology Wireless Lighting Control Fluorescent Light & Appliance Module

LampModule

Last year I purchased a few GE Z-Wave Wireless Lighting Control Duplex Receptacle modules and installed them in my house to control lamps. While I am satisfied with the operation of these units, I should have waited. The duplex receptacles are a bear to install. You have to shut off the breaker to the circuit while you re-wire and install the Z-Wave receptacle. The really hard part is stuffing all the wiring back into the wall box. The Z-Wave unit has more bulk, and you are forced to cram the existing wiring back into a tighter space. Another downside is that if you decide you want the unit somewhere else you need to go through whole the process all over again.

The answer is the 45603 light and appliance module. It provides almost the same functional capability as the duplex receptacle unit with addition of ease of installation and portability.

Plug the unit into an extension cord and bring it close to the Z-Wave controller. Place the controller in the add mode and press the button on the front of the Z-Wave module. The module will be added to the Z-Wave network. Then plug the module into any (grounded) outlet in your house, and you have Z-Wave control of whatever you plug into its switched outlet.

The 45603 module has one switched outlet, and the other is always on. The button on the front toggles the switched outlet off and on. One drawback is, unlike the duplex receptacle, this module does not have an indicator light to tell you when the outlet is switched off. It’s good for 15 Amp resistive loads, but also for household fluorescent lighting and motor appliances up to 1/2 horse power. It comes in only one color.

Sounds Great

We’re a 21st century family, and we have two (count them—two) television sets. That way Barbara Jean can be watching “Tales of the Unknown” while I’m watching “How the Universe Works.” It’s a happy arrangement. Almost.

Problem is, one TV is in the living room downstairs, and the other is in this otherwise useless room upstairs, and nothing connects the two but a flight of stairs. The result is that just about the time I’m watching the universe explode I hear “Turn it down” from downstairs.

Where’s there’s  a problem, there’s a solution. It’s a trip to Best Buy.

I told the man I wanted some Bluetooth earphones. He had them. Starting around $200.

OK, maybe not Bluetooth. How about these “wireless” phones from Sony.

SonyHeadphones

The price was more reasonable. Here’s a review.

What you get in the box is a nice Sony headphone set with no wires leading back to the noise source. It’s all done using the magic of radio waves. Come to think of it, that’s what Bluetooth does, but there must be some difference that makes for more money.

SonyHeadphoneSet

There’s a stand that holds all the electronics for the transmitter, and it also serves as a recharging station for the headphones battery. There’s a power adapter to keep everything electrically alive, and there’s a cord to connect to the amplifier. Mine came with a phono miniplug on one end and two RCA plugs on the other end. Problem is, my receiver/amplifier has a jack for the standard plug. Pack rat to the rescue. I pulled out some boxes from under my computer table, and the mini-standard adapter was in about the second box I opened.

Here’s how it works: You can connect the plug to the jack in the front of the receiver and connect the two RCA plugs to the appropriate jacks on the stand. Or you can reverse the process. Pull your receiver out of the shelf and connect the two RCA plugs to the jacks on the back, and connect the miniplug to the appropriate jack on the front of the stand. Plugging into the front of the receiver has the advantage of squelching the speakers while you’re listening to the headphones.

Put on the headphones. They are labeled R and L so you don’t accidentally get them reversed. On the bottom of the left phone is a power switch. Switch it off, and the phones won’t needlessly draw power from their batteries. On the right phone is a volume control and also a button for auto-tune.

The stand has a selector switch for three channels: 915.5 MHz, 916.0 MHz and 916.5 MHz. Select channel 1, 2 or 3, and press the auto-tune button. When the stand unit determines it’s getting noise from its source it will broadcast, and you will hear the noise in your headphones: 10 Hz – 22,000 Hz up to a distance of 150 feet.

The transmitter unit draws 3 Watts, which you won’t notice on your electric bill, and that’s only when it’s transmitting. When you shut down your noise source, the unit shuts itself down after a while. The battery lasts for 25 hours before it needs recharging, and it recharges in about 3.5 hours. Just hang the headphones on the stand as shown, so that the contacts in the yoke make contact.

The sound is good. It’s good when there’s not something else interfering, which is a lot. I can walk around the house with the phones on and listen to the news, but when I heat my bran muffin in the microwave oven I hear the oven and not the news. I have a wireless computer mouse, and doing something with the mouse comes through on the headphones. I was kind of thinking they could have done something like spread spectrum technology to get around this, but it’s likely that’s what you have to pay extra for Bluetooth.

Principles of Optics

This is another post on the topic of light and how it’s made. Previously I touched on the use of LEDs (light emitting diodes) for home use:

But wait! I’m not through. There’s something better than CFLs. Light Emitting Diodes
(LED) have been around for nearly 50 years, and they are an amazingly efficient source of
light. Their initial use was in portable device displays (digital watches and hand-held
calculators) because they are so power-stingy. The problem in the beginning was they only
put out red light. Now a new day is dawning, and we can get white light LEDs. See the
table. White LEDs approach CFLs in efficiency, but they last 100,000 hours. I now see
automobile headlights that I am sure are LED-sourced.

That was so last year. New automobiles appearing this year seem to favor LED headlamps. I have one such. Also, my local power company, CPS, is making me a deal I cannot refuse. For a limited time only the local H-E-B stores are selling LED lamps with  Edison screw base in the familiar 60W incandescent form factor. The price is $6.97 each. An in-store coupon gets you $6.00 off that price, limit three. Last I looked my local store had a huge floor display of the product, and a worker was bringing in an additional pallet load.

LEDLampAndPackage

My previous post had a comparison table from the government of various light sources, which I will reproduce here:

Technology CRI Efficacy (lumen/W) Lifetime (hrs) Color Temperature (K)
Compact Fluorescent 80-90 60-70 6,000-10,000 2700-6500
Incandescent 100 12-18 750-1,500 2400-2900
Linear Fluorescent 70 – 90 80-100+ 20,000 2700-6500
Halogen 100 16-29 2,000-4,000 2850-3200
White LED 65-90 20-50 Up to 100,000 2700-6500

Now that I have some first hand experience I am able to re-evaluate these numbers. I have before me what is supposed to be a CFL equivalent to a 60W incandescent lamp. Also I have an EarthBulb sample pictured above. The lettering on the base of the CFL states a power consumption of 14 Watts. The LED lamp advertises 9.5 Watts. This does not jibe with lumens per Watt figures in the table. The LED seems to be way ahead of the CFL.

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I did not employ any of my available light metering equipment, but I did now just perform a side-by-side visual comparison. The LED lamp definitely puts out more visible light than its CFL equivalent.

And there is even better news. The 100,000 hours lifetime of the LED lamp compares well to the 87,600 hours in ten years. And, there is more. Every time you turn on a CFL you use up a bit of its life. This makes users reluctant to turn CFLs on and off frequently. LED lamps do not suffer this problem. The LED light source is immune to any on-off cycling. Some applications turn LED light sources on and off hundreds of thousands of times per second. Not the lamps that I bought, but some LED lamp products are dimmable. You can install them into a conventional dimming application. Modern dimmer switches work by chopping power to the lamp at selected points in the alternating current wave. Dimmable lamps, but not CFLs, can handle this and will dim in much the way incandescent lamps to. Except… Except I am told that LED lamps will shut off completely at the bottom end of the dim range.

Additionally, LED lamps do not contain mercury or other hazardous material. It’s active component is a piece of silicon, a principal ingredient in sand. When it does die you can just discard it in the trash.

This immunity to switching measures in my home use policies. The stairs to the second floor in my house are the origin of the term Dark Passage. When we moved in we replaced the incandescent lamps (two) with CFLs. That figured to save a bunch on our power bill, since we are up and down the stairs frequently every day. However, we adopted a rule that if you were going to be upstairs only a few minutes you left the stair lights on, only turning them off after you got back downstairs. With the LED lamps installed it’s on at the bottom of the stairs then off at the top. Then a few minutes later it’s the reverse when you come back downstairs. And it’s only 18 Watts while the lights are on.

Barbara Jean likes to sit in the living room and knit, and she turns on the fan lights, four 40W equivalent CFLs. And she leaves them on for hours (doesn’t like to turn them on and off a lot). I tried a set of LED lamps (total dissipation of 38 Watts), but that was too bright for Barbara Jean, so I had to switch back to the CFLs.

There is a lot of talk about “saving the Earth” and such by using less power, but the fact is there is a better reason to save power. It saves money. What’s your electric bill? Mine is never above $200 per month, even with the air conditioner running in the summer and the heat pump running in the winter (we live in San Antonio). And that bill includes $20 per month for trash pickup. Mostly my bill is less than $100 when you subtract off the $20 for trash. Screw the Earth. Save the money, people.

Not so for some people. Some have the idea that conservation, save the forests, save the spotted owl, save the whales, save on energy is a liberal kind of thing. I don’t know when this came about, but its manifestations are strange to behold. I repeat:

Glenn Beck Vows To Fire Employees For Buying Fluorescent
Bulbs, Recyclables

The light bulb wars are still on apparently.

Glenn Beck, the broadcaster who claims to fuse entertainment
and enlightenment, vowed on a recent show to fire any
employee for buying fluorescent bulbs.

“I am dead serious,” he said, admittedly while laughing. “I fire
the person that starts to purchase fluorescent light bulbs unless
that is the only light bulb for a specific reasons and I want to be
CC’ed on what that reason is.”

He further added “If you’re doing anything in this company
because of global warming, you’re fired…Global warming is a
pile of crap…a load of socialist, communist crap.”

He further added that recyclable spoons and recyclable
cardboard boxes are banished from Mercury Radio Arts, his
broadcaster.

This is most strange for a fan of capitalism, which capitalism is supposed to be about the bottom line. Sometimes ideology does trump ideology.

All of this having been said, why is CPS, the power company, underwriting the use of LED lamps? With everybody installing efficient lighting and efficient appliances, power usage is going to go down. Electric bills are going to go down. Fuel use is going to go down. Not going to go down is the cost of maintenance and infrastructure. The power company stands to see reduced profits. Unless, of course, the power company sees fit to raise electric rates. When the power company does this a pricing spiral will ensue. People who disdain CFLs and LEDs will see their bills go up. People who cut their consumption will also see their bills go up, but not so much. With more available cash, the frugal electric customer may leave the LEDs on more often, resulting in a brighter and more cheerful home. Or the frugal family may spend the extra cash somewhere else in the economy.

Basic principles of economics will prevail. In the case of electric lighting, electric power wasted as heat in inefficient lighting systems represents a drain on the economy. This wastage is something people pay for but are unable to use to better their lives. People who understand economic principles stand to benefit in a changing world.

Product Review: Eurail Trip Planner

First of all I need to mention this tablet I bought. It’s a Samsung Tab 2, and I got it initially to use as an ebook reader. No phone, just an Internet device plus other capabilities, but it really came in handy on my last trip. I will do a review of the tablet in a future post.

Before heading off to Italy for a few weeks we bought a Eurail train pass, since we intended to get around the country using their very efficient rail system. The rail pass came in the mail, but also with the advice to pick up the train planner app. It’s free, and getting it turned out to be one of my better decisions of the past few months. Here’s what it does.

First you load the entire Eurail train schedule onto the device. That way you don’t need to be connected to get train schedules. As you can imagine, the schedule takes up some storage, so I shifted all the storage over to the 80G card I installed two years ago.

You have the app installed, and you want to plan a train trip. First you fire up the app and select the planner. This image shows the planner with a trip already displayed, because I most recently used the app to get the schedule from Roma Termini train station to the Fiumicino Airport.

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The next thing you need to do is to select the date of your trip. This is because train schedules vary, especially for different days of the week. Take note here. Nothing is permanent. Eurail schedules will change. You will need to reload the app to obtain any changes in train schedules.

Using the touch screen you select the date and bring up the scroll window to select the date of your trip and also the approximate time of day. Days, hours and minutes will scroll separately.

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In the next image I’ve already selected a new date and time, and I need to select the start and end points of my trip. If you don’t see suitable schedule after you have picked a start time, you can always punch the Earlier or Later buttons to expand the list of schedules.

It’s best to select train stations rather than cities. If you select a city, then the planner may include additional bus links into the center of the city.

Start to type a starting or end point, and the planner will attempt to auto-complete your entry. If you type in English the planner may substitute, in this case, the Italian name.

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The next image shows choices from Florence Santa Maria Novella station to Naples Central station.

This selection only shows trains requiring reservations, designated by R. These are the high-speed express trains.

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Notice this schedule shows amenities available on the train.

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Once you have selected a schedule you can expand it by selecting the arrow symbol. The following image shows that, and it also shows the stations the train passes through. If a time is not associated with a station, then the train does not stop at that station. Note the schedule shows when the train stops at the station and when it leaves.

If you plan future use of this schedule, then select the star symbol to add it to your list of favorites. Later you only need to activate the star button at the bottom of the screen to bring up your list of saved schedules.

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Now suppose you want to make a trip that involves train changes. The train planner will handle that, as well. Here’s a trip we took while staying a few days in Cortona. We wanted to take a day trip to Assisi, and the planner gave us a number of alternative schedules.

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After picking the date and start time, we were given options. Some options involved train changes, but there was one with a train direct from the Camuccia-Cortona station directly to Assisi. These are local trains, and no reservation was required.

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Suppose we needed to take a schedule that involved train changes. How would this be handled? The next image shows this. Take train 2307 from Camuccia-Cortona and get off at Terontola-Cortona. You get there at 10:37 and wait around until 11:39 for train 22813.

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In the next image I have expanded the two schedules to show all the stations involved. This is helpful, because you can watch for the successive stations and obtain a nervous traveler’s reassurance you are on the correct train.

IMG_8049

 

The train planner doesn’t give you train fares. The local and low speed trains are cheaper than the high speed trains, and they stop at more stations. It takes longer to get where you are going, but you also get a chance to view the countryside.

You don’t need the train pass to use the planner. If you are going to Europe and plan to use the trains, then pick up the free app. It also covers buses and ferries that operate under the same system.

Remember, this is a Eurail train planner. There are lots of private rail lines in Europe that are not part of Eurail, and they are not in the planner. For example, when going from Venice to Sorrento, we had to schedule (and reserve) a trip from Venice to the Naples Central station. We got off at Naples and went downstairs to the station for the Circumvesuviana line, where we purchased separate tickets and looked up the schedule posted on the wall near the ticket window.

Ecolink Z-Wave PIR Motion Detector

MotionDetector

A little change of pace here. It’s time for a product review. This is the Ecolink Z-Wave PIR Motion Detector, and I will recount my experiences with the product and also provide some insight into working with it.

A few months ago I installed some Z-Wave components in my home and also a VeraLite controller. I did two short write-ups then:

It’s not science fiction anymore. Home automation is here already, if not complete home automation. For that you would need to go to Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains. But automation enough for your immediate needs is available.

Here’s what is available: Home automation can give your home a lived in appearance even when you are away. It can do that by turning lights on and off on a computer-controlled schedule so that from the outside it does not appear you just have your lights on a timer. It can respond to various sources of stimulus, such as motion detectors and temperature sensors and activate lights and other appliances as appropriate. A home automation system can also incorporate a compatible thermostat and a security video camera.

Various home automation technologies are available, including X-10 and Z Wave. X-10 has been around for maybe 30 years, and its components communicate with each other through the house’s electrical wiring. Z Wave technology is newer and uses a low-power radio network. I have previously used some X-10 components, but I’m only going to discuss Z Wave. In particular, this discussion will involve a low-end controller called VeraLite.

More recently there was an attempted home invasion at my house. Somebody used a trick key to open our front door at three in the morning. Barbara Jean frightened the intruder away, but the incident got me to thinking about some extra safety features. What I wanted was something to detect when somebody was on the front porch, before they used a trick key to open the lock. Ecolink seems to have a good solution. I ordered one through Amazon, put it in my system, got a feel for how it worked, then ordered two more. Here are the details. See the photo above.

  • Passive infrared (PIR) sensing
  • Not weather resistant
  • Radio link operates at 908.42 MHz.
  • Range (radio link) 100 feet line of sight
  • Detects motion up to 39 feet away
  • Battery operated
  • Battery: 3V Lithium CR123A (3-year life)

It’s about the size of a deck of playing cards, only four times as thick. It has a plastic body and seems to come only in a neutral off-white color. It comes with a plastic bracket you can mount on a wall somewhere (corner or flat surface). You mount the bracket with screws then snap the unit in place. The unit can be dismounted from the bracket for service or adjustment. You can also just set the sensor unit on a table or book shelf where it will be out of the way but still effective.

What is most fun about this unit is removing the cover. It snaps off, but you need to know to pry up on the top tab with your fingernail and gently rotate the cover back and toward the bottom, being careful not to break the two bottom tabs.

One feature is pet forgiveness. It’s expected you are mainly interested in husky burglars, and you don’t want your rottweiler to be all the time tripping it. There are three settings:

  • Do not ignore anything, even hummingbirds.
  • Ignore large pets but not people.
  • Ignore small pets, but do not ignore large pets.

The pet setting is performed by opening up the unit and placing a jumper in the correct position. There are three positions for the jumper:

  • Small pet
  • Large pet
  • Test mode

If you don’t want to ignore small pets, then take the jumper off completely. A jumper comes with the unit, and to ignore nothing I just parked the jumper on a pin where it did not make a connection. That way the jumper is always available, and I don’t have to go searching for it if I later need it.

The device works this way: When it detects motion it goes into the tripped mode. Ordinarily it stays in the tripped mode for four minutes, after which it reverts to the not tripped mode. If you want the unit to revert immediately to the non tripped mode, then put the jumper in the test position. This lets you test the unit without having to wait four minutes for it to enter the not tripped mode.

Adding the sensor to your Z-Wave network is straight forward. Bring the sensor close to the Z-Wave controller. Place the controller in the inclusion mode, then install the battery into the sensor unit. This places the sensor in the inclusion mode. Then press the button (or whatever is needed) on your controller to tell it to accept the sensor and then save the status on your controller. Replace the cover on the sensor unit and take it to wherever it’s going to be used.

Setting up the operation of the sensor is through your Z-Wave controller interface. Here is how it appears on my control panel:

SensorPanel

You can see the unit reports battery status. You can also associate alerts with the unit, one of them being battery level. I have set the controller to alert me when battery level gets to 20%. VeraLite will also send me an email when a sensor is tripped. For this to happen I had to set up an account with Micasaverde (free so far) and give them the email address. I tested this, and it works. Here is the message I received when I ran a test:

Your trigger “Sensor 1 tripped” occurred.

The originating device ID:13 Front Door Sensor in room:

The ID is: 3584723292
Code: Tripped Value:1
Serial #35012892

This is a standard email, so it came with a time stamp, which would allow me later to tell the police when somebody came to my front door.

Be aware that responses are not edge-triggered. They are not associated with transitions. They are based on combinatorial logic. So when you come into your house and immediately go to the VeraLite controller and arm the sensor, it will trigger an event. That’s because the sensor has not had time (four minutes) to exit the tripped mode. If somebody trips the sensor and continues to move about in its viewing range, the sensor will not alert again for another four minutes, at which time it will go not tripped and will then trip again.

The sensor can be placed in the armed and unarmed states by the Z-Wave controller. My VeraLite controller allows me to set up a scene based on absolute time, so the controller will arm soon after I leave my house and will disarm shortly before I am scheduled to return. Micasaverde provides a free app for Android and Apple devices, which makes it most convenient to manage my sensors and lights while sitting comfortably watching TV or reading.

I paid $37 plus change for tax on each of my units. I’m guessing the price will go down in the future as usually happens with new technology.

Adventures in Home Automation

It’s not science fiction anymore. Home automation is here already, if not complete home automation. For that you would need to go to Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains. But automation enough for your immediate needs is available.

Here’s what is available: Home automation can give your home a lived in appearance even when you are away. It can do that by turning lights on and off on a computer-controlled schedule so that from the outside it does not appear you just have your lights on a timer. It can respond to various sources of stimulus, such as motion detectors and temperature sensors and activate lights and other appliances as appropriate. A home automation system can also incorporate a compatible thermostat and a security video camera.

Various home automation technologies are available, including X-10 and Z Wave. X-10 has been around for maybe 30 years, and its components communicate with each other through the house’s electrical wiring. Z Wave technology is newer and uses a low-power radio network. I have previously used some X-10 components, but I’m only going to discuss Z Wave. In particular, this discussion will involve a low-end controller called VeraLite.

VeraLite is a product of Micasaverde (my green home). As expected, it’s the light implementation of Micasaverde’s offering. The VeraLite controller is a computer that internally runs a version of the Linux operating system. The unit is about the size of a Big Mac sandwich and has only three connections: a power connector, a USB port and an Ethernet port. The unit communicates with the controlled devices through its built-in radio transceiver, and the Ethernet is only used to connect it to your computer to allow you to perform management operations. Once set up, the VeraLite will perform all its management functions independently of your computer. See the photo.

VeraLite in the armoire

I stuck my VeraLite on a shelf in an armoire, right below the beach towels. The power cord runs out the back of the armoire to the outlet on the wall. See the photo.

Wall connections

Here the power supply is plugged into the top outlet, and a Zyxel power line-Ethernet adapter is plugged into the other outlet. The Ethernet adapter allows me to connect to the VeraLite for management without bringing my computer over. Power consumption is quite minimal. The VeraLite will operate off four AA batteries (shown in the photo), so there is no heat build up inside the closed cabinet.

The important thing about Z Wave and other industry-standard automation systems is that products from all manufacturers are compatible. The various units communicate not only with the controller but also with each other. One feature allows a switch near the controller to relay communications to another switch that is too far away to communicate directly with the controller. I have the VeraLite controller from Micasaverde, and I have purchased switches and electrical receptacles by GE-Jasco. The photo below shows a typical power receptacle installation.

Wall receptacle

This unit goes for about $42 (prices vary from week to week) from Amazon and replaces your existing duplex receptacle. You need to go to Home Depot or Lowes and get the wall plate with the rectangular cutout if your existing wall plate is the two-hole type. A wall plate does not come with the unit, since you will not know what kind of wall plate you need until you figure out where you’re going to install the unit.

The upper outlet is not automated. It’s a standard outlet, always powered on. You plug a lamp in there if you don’t want it to be turned on and off automatically. The bottom outlet is controlled through the Z Wave radio network. Immediately above the electrical plug in the photo is a blue indicator light. When the bottom outlet is energized, the light is off. When power is cut to the bottom outlet the blue light comes on. The unit will handle most kinds of loads that are plugged into living area walls. Don’t run a power saw or a vacuum cleaner off the automated outlet.

The Z Wave light switches replace existing switches on your wall. Z Wave switches are offered only in the paddle rocker style as shown in the following photo.

Wall switches

These paddle rocker switches work by pressing either the top section or the bottom section of the rocker. These are single switches as opposed to the three-way switches for controlling a single load from two different switches. Pressing the rocker is a momentary action that activates either the on function (top) or the off function (bottom). The Z Wave signal only sends the on and off commands and does not cause the rockers to move. When the switch is on, the indicator light is off. When the switch is off, the blue light is on.

Besides that, the VeraLite controller will detect when the switch is off and when it is on. So, your home automation can turn a light off, but then you can override that by manually turning the light back on, and the VeraLite will get the signal that the switch is now on. There is a similar feature with the power outlets. Next to the blue light there is a push button. Pushing the button toggles the state of the controlled outlet. Pushing the button turns an off outlet back on or an on outlet back off. The blue light indicates the status of the outlet, and the VeraLite is informed of the status of the outlet.

You need to connect your computer to the VeraLite controller through your home network. Your computer will need to be connected to a router or an Ethernet hub that is also connected to the VeraLite. My experience is that my router wanted to assign the VeraLite only to network address 192.168.1.100.

I can also connect to cp.mios.com and set a VeraLite account. When I do that and log in to my account my computer connects to the VeraLite control panel. Here is what the VeraLite control panel looks like in my browser.

Control panel

This shows my system with the first device I added to my home automation. It’s a duplex power receptacle, and the default name (see the figure at the bottom of the photo) is _Appliance Module. You can and should change that name by clicking on and editing the name. Give your device a name that will remind you where the device is and what it does. You’re going to wind up with a bunch of devices, and you need to keep them straight.

Here’s my control panel after I added and named a few more devices and also added some scenes:

Control panel with scenes

What’s shown here is the Web page presented by the VeraLite. The VeraLite incorporates a Web server and interacts with the management computer through an HTTP session. If I had my choice the control console page would not be pastel blue on white. The low contrast makes viewing difficult in a bright room on my computer. To create this image I converted the Web page to a JPEG and used Photoshop to jazz up the colors.

This page displays an assortment of devices and scenes. A device in this case is represented by a small lamp icon in the left side of the device icon. A scene is represented by a movie clapper board icon in the left side of the scene icon. All the devices I have are lights or electrical outlets, and the page shows the status of each device, Off or On.

Note the above image shows the DASHBOARD tab. To get started with automation click on the AUTOMATION tab.

Automation tab

This image is the AUTOMATION tab showing only existing scenes. Here is a short explanation of the scene concept:

  1. A scene represents a configuration of a collection of devices. Only devices you select are included in a scene. For example, my Front Security On scene designates both outside front lights On. My Front Security Off scene designates both outside front lights Off.
  2. Nothing happens until a scene is activated. No lights or receptacles are turned on or off until the scene controlling them is activated. In the above page you can activate the Front Security On scene by clicking the scene icon’s Run button. That will turn the two outside front lights on, whether they were on or off previously.
  3. To manage a scene you need to bring up the management page for the scene. See the image below.
  4. Bring the cursor over the scene icon and the three control icons will appear. The thumbtack icon is used to pin (always show) or unpin (only show when relevant) the scene icon on different pages. The trashcan icon means delete this scene. The wrench icon means open a window to manage this scene. See the next image. I put the cursor over the scene icon to show its control icons, but the cursor doesn’t show, because it disappears when I print the Web page.

Activating scene edit

Click on the wrench icon to open the scene control panel.

Setting devices for a scene

The page shows the Front Security On scene and the devices available for use. In this view all device buttons are grayed out, because no devices are selected. If you want a device state (on/off) included in this scene you need to click on the device On or Off button and confirm the changes. Now whenever this scene is activated (run scene) for any reason those devices will be set to the designated states. To remove a device from a scene click on the x in the device icon. Click the Confirm changes button to save the changes. In the following image the switch states have been selected.

Devices set

There are three principal ways to activate a scene:

  1. Run the scene from the control panel on your computer or by using a hand-held controller (purchased separately).
  2. Set up a schedule for the scene. See the SCHEDULES tab in the image above.
  3. Set up a trigger for the scene. See the TRIGGERS tab in the image above.

Also, a scene can be activated after a delay. You run the scene directly, from a schedule or from a trigger, and the scene does not activate until after the specified delay. Notice the Immediate drop-down in the image above. By default this shows Immediate, but another selection is from any number of delays you have already defined for the scene. To define a delay, select the drop-down and from the menu select the bottom option, Manage Delays. Delays can be defined in combinations of hours, minutes and seconds. Once again, multiple delay settings can be defined for a scene, and they are added to the drop-down list as they are created, but only one at a time can be selected from the drop-down menu.

Schedule definitions are fairly flexible with VeraLite.

  1. While editing the scene select the SCHEDULES tab and either Add Schedule or edit an existing schedule.
  2. Give the schedule a name so you can identify it when later on you want to invoke it.
  3. Select from the following:
  1. Interval based. Every so many hours, minutes and seconds.
  2. Day of week based. Every combination of Monday through Sunday.
    1. At a certain time of day.
    2. At sunrise (VeraLite will calculate when sunrise occurs for that day).
    3. Before sunrise (hours, minutes, seconds).
    4. After sunrise.
    5. At sunset.
    6. Before sunset
    7. After sunset
  3. Day of month based.
  4. At a specified day and time.

Use the TRIGGERS tab to define triggers to activate the selected scene. While editing the scene, select the TRIGGERS tab. You can create a new trigger or edit an existing trigger (one that has previously been defined for this scene). A typical trigger will be the transition of one of the devices in the Z Wave network. When the rear porch light comes on, for example, for any reason, either because somebody turned it on at the switch or another scene activated the light, then turn off the upstairs bedroom light.

Experimenting with your VeraLite system will give you some experience and also give you some ideas to try out. Additional VeraLite plug-ins are available to provide capability above what comes with the unit.

Getting into VeraLite is fairly painless. I have seen the control units as low as $169 plus tax (free shipping) from Amazon. Basic switch units start around $36, and duplex outlets are around $42. Prices on Amazon seem to vary from week to week, so shop around for the right price and make the buy. Each device exceeds Amazons threshold for free shipping, so order what is cheapest and wait for the more expensive units to go on sale.

What I have not experimented with are 3-way switches and dimmers, both about the same price as a basic switch.

Here are some of the scenes I have implemented to my complete satisfaction:

  1. Front security. The outside front lights go on several minutes after sunset, and they go off several minutes before sunup.
  2. Rear security. One of the back porch lights (there are three) goes on about an hour after sunset, then goes off a few minutes later. Then it goes on a few hours later and then goes off before sunrise.
  3. Various interior lights go on and off during the night.

Schedules 1 and 2 above I run every day. In particular I don’t have to remember to turn the outside front lights off in the morning. Schedule 3 I run when I am out of town overnight. I will purchase additional components to activate interior lights later on. This will give the house an even more lived in appearance at night.