making your home smarter use case #13 – correlations happen

There are a lot of things that happen in the smart house that are connected somehow.

And the smart house knows about those events happening and might suggest, or even act upon the knowledge of them.

A simple example:

In our living room we’ve got a nice big aquarium which, depending on the time of the day and season, it is simulating it’s very own little dusk-till-dawn lightshow for the pleasure of the inhabitants.
Additionally the waterquality is improved by an air-pump generating nice bubbles and enriching the water with oxygen. But that comes a cost: When you are in the room those bubbles and the hissing sound of the inverter for the “sun” produces sounds that are distracting and disturbing to the otherwise quiet room.

Now the smart home comes to the rescue:

It detects that whenever someone is entering the room and staying for longer, or powering up the TV or listening to music. Also it will log that regularly when these things happen also the aquarium air and maybe lights are turned off. Moreso they are turned back on again when the person leaves.

These correlations are what the smart house is using to identify groups of switches, events and actions that are somehow tied together. It’ll prepare a report and will recommend actions which at the push of a button can become a routine task always being executed when certain characteristics are lining up.

And since the smart house is a machine, it can look for correlations in a lot more dimensions a human could: Date, Time, Location, Duration, Sensor and Actor values (power up TV, Temperature in room < 22, Calendar = November, Windows closed => turn on the heating).

“making your home smarter” – use case #12 – How much time do I have until…?

Did you notice that most calendars and timers are missing an important feature. Some information that I personally find most interesting to have readily available.

It’s the information about how much time is left until the next appointment is coming up. Even smartwatches, which should should be jack-of-all-trades in regards of time and schedule, do not display the “time until the next event”.

Now I came across this shortcoming when I started to look for this information. No digital assistant can tell me right away how much time until a certain event is left.

But the connected house also is based upon open technologies, so one can add these kind of features easily ourselves. My major use cases for this are (a) focussed work, plan quick work-out breaks and of course making sure there’s enough time left to actually get enough sleep.

As you can see in the picture attached my watch will always show me the hours (or minutes) left until the next event. I use separate calendars for separate displays – so there’s actually one for when I plan to get up and do work-outs.

Having the hours left until something is supposed to happen at a glance – and of course being able to verbally ask through chat or voice in any room of the house how long until the next appointment gives peace of mind :-).

 

“making your home smarter”, use case #10 – Fire and Water alarm system

Water! Fire! Whenever one of those are released uncontrolled inside the house it might mean danger to life and health.

Having a couple of fish and turtle tanks spread out in the house and in addition a server rack in the basement it’s important to know when there’s a leak of water at moments notice.

As the server-room also is housing some water pumps for a well you got all sorts of dangers mixed in one location: Water and Fire hazard.

To detect water leaks all tanks and the pumps for the well are equipped with water sensors which send out an alerting signal as soon as water is detected. This signal is picked up and pushed to MQTT topics and from there centrally consumed and reacted upon.

Of course the server rack is above the water level so at least there is time to send out alerts while even power is out for the rest of the house (all necessary network and uplink equipment on it’s own batteries).

For alerting when there is smoke or a fire, the same logic applies. But for this some loud-as-hell smoke detectors are used. The smoke detectors interconnect with each other and make up a mesh for alerting. If one goes off. All go off. One of them I’ve connected to it’s very own ESP8266 which sends a detected signal to another MQTT topic effectively alerting for the event of a fire.

In one of the pictures you can see what happened when the basement water detector did detect water while the pump was replaced.

“making your home smarter”, use case #9 – weights about to drop

A lot of things in a household have weight, and knowing it’s weight might be crucial to health and safety.

Some of those weight applications might tie into this:

– your own body weight over a longer timespan
– the weight of your pets, weighed automatically (like on a kitty litter box)
– the weight of food and ingredients for recipes as well as their caloric and nutrition values
– keeping track of fill-levels on the base of weights

All those things are easily done with connected devices measuring weights. Like the kitty-litter box at our house weighing our cat every time. Or the connected kitchen-scale sending it’s gram measurements into an internal MQTT topic which is then displayed and added more smarts through an App on the kitchen-ipad consuming that MQTT messages as well as allowing recipe-weigh-in functions.

It’s not only surveillance but pro-active use. There are beekeepers who monitor the weight of their bee hives to see what’s what. You can monitor all sorts of things in the garden to get more information about it’s wellbeing (any plants, really).

“making your home smarter”, use case #8 – it’s all about the power consumption

Weekend is laundry time! The smart house knows and sends out notifications when the washing machine or the laundry dryer are done with their job and can be cleared.

Of course this can all be extended with more sensory data, like power consumption measurements at the actual sockets to filter out specific devices much more accurate. But for simple notification-alerting it’s apparently sufficient to monitor just at the houses central power distribution rack.

On the sides this kind of monitoring and pattern-matching is also useful to identify devices going bad. Think of monitoring the power consumption of a fridge. When it’s compressor goes bad it’s going to consume an increasing amount of power over time. You would figure out the malfunction before it happens.

Same for all sorts of pumps (water, oil, aquarium,…).

All this monitoring and pattern matching the smart house does so it’s inhabitants don’t have to.

“make your home smarter”, use case #7 – hear that doorbell ringing!

We love music. We love it playing loud across the house. And when we did that in the past we missed some things happening around.

Like that delivery guy ringing the front doorbell and us missing an important delivery.

This happened a lot. UNTIL we retrofitted a little PCB to our doorbell circuit to make the house aware of ringing doorbells.

Now everytime the doorbell rings a couple of things can take place.

– push notifications to all devices, screens, watches – that wakes you up even while doing workouts
– pause all audio and video playback in the house
– take a camera shot of who is in front of the door pushing the doorbell

And: It’s easy to wire up things whatever those may be in the future.

“make your home smarter”, use case #5 – the submarine light (it’s red!)

We all know it: After a long day of work you chilled out on your bean bag and fell asleep early. You gotta get up and into your bed upstairs. So usually light goes on, you go upstairs, into bed. And there you have it: You’re not sleepy anymore.

Partially this is caused by the light you turned on. If that light is bright enough and has the right color it will wake you up no matter what.

To fight this companies like Apple introduced things like “NightShift” into iPhones, iPads and Macs.

“Night Shift uses your computer’s clock and geolocation to determine when it’s sunset in your location. It then automatically shifts the colors in your display to the warmer end of the spectrum.”

Simple, eh?. Now why does your house not do that to prevent you being ripped out of sleepy state while tiptoeing upstairs?

Right! This is where the smart house will be smart.

Nowadays we’ve got all those funky LED bulbs that can be dimmed and even their colours set. Why none of those market offerings come with that simple feature is beyond me:

After sunset, when turned on, default dim to something warmer and not so bright in general.

I did implement and it’s called appropriately the “U-Boot light”. Whenever we roam around the upper floor at night time, the light that follows our steps (it’s smart enough to do that) will not go full-blast but light up dim with redish color to prevent wake-up-calls.

The smart part being that it will take into account:

– movement in the house
– sunset and dawn depending on the current geographic location of the house (more on that later, no it does not fly! (yet))
– it’ll turn on and off the light according to the path you’re walking using the various sensors around anyways

smart home use case #4 – being location aware is important

Now that you got your home entertainment reacting to you making a phone call (use case #1) as well as your current position in the played audiobook (use case #3) you might want to add some more location awareness to your house.

If your house is smart enough to know where you are, outside, inside, in what room, etc. – it might as well react on the spot.

So when you leave/enter the house:

– turn off music playing – pause it and resume when you come back
– shutdown unnecessary equipment to limit power consumption when not used and start-back up to the previous state (tvs, media centers, lights, heating) when back
– arm the cameras and motion sensors 
– start to run bandwidth intense tasks when no people using resources inside the house (like backing up machines, running updates)
– let the roomba do it’s thing
– switch communication coming from the house into different states since it’s different for notifications, managing lists and spoken commands and so on.

There’s a lot of things that that benefit from location awareness.

Bonus points for outside house awareness and representing that like a “Weasly clock”…“xxx is currently at work”.

Bonus points combo breaker for using an open-source service like Miataru (http://miataru.com/#tabr3) for location tracking outside the house.

carbon neutral house – when the sun is shining.

7 day and 30 day graphs for solar power generation, power consumption, oil burn to heat water and outside temperatures to go along with.

Having everything in a time-series-database makes such things a real blast… data wandering around all the telemetry. There are almost 300 topics to pick from and combine.

Yes, generally the solar array produces more than the whole household consumes. Except that one 26th.

Thinking about building a display showing when we are closing in to consume what has been produced in terms of electricity… something like a traffic light getting more red towards the use-up of electricity generated carbon-neutral.

How to weigh your cat! – the IoT version

This is Leela. She is a 7 year old lilac white British short hair cat that lives with us. Leela had a sister who used to live with us as well but she developed a heart condition and passed away last year. Witnessing how quickly such conditions develop and evaluate we thought that we can do something to monitor Leelas health a bit to just have some sort of pre-alert if something is changing.

Kid in a Candystore

As this Internet of Things is becoming a real thing these days I found myself in a candy store when I’ve encountered that there are a couple of really really cheap options to get a small PCB with input/output connectors into my house WiFi network.

One of the main actors of this story is the so called ESP8266. A very small and affordable system-on-a-chip that allows you to run small code portions and connect itself to a wireless network. Even better it comes with several inputs that can be used to do all sorts of wonderful things.

And so it happened that we needed to know the weight of our cat. She seemed to get a bit chubby over time and having a point of reference weight would help to get her back in shape. If you every tried to weigh a cat you know that it’s much easier said than done.

The alternative was quickly brought up: Build a WiFi-connected scale to weigh her litter box every time she is using it. And since I’ve recently bought an evaluation ESP8266 I just had to figure out how to build a scale. Looking around the house I’ve found a broken human scale (electronics fried). Maybe it could be salvaged as a part donor?

A day later I’ve done all the reading on that there is a thing called “load-cell”. Those load cells can be bought in different shapes and sizes and – when connected to a small ADC they deliver – well – a weight value.

I cracked the human scale open and tried to see what was broken. It luckily turned out to have completely fried electronics but the load-cells where good to go.

Look at this load cell:

Hardware

That brought down the part list of this project to:

  • an ESP8266 – an Adafruit Huzzah in my case
  • a HX711 ADC board to amplify and prepare the signal from the load-cells
  • a human scale with just enough space in the original case to fit the new electronics into and connect everything.

The HX711 board was the only thing I had to order hardware wise – delivered the next day and it was a matter of soldering things together and throwing in a small Arduino IDE sketch.

My soldering and wiring skills are really sub-par. But it worked from the get-go. I was able to set-up a small Arduino sketch and get measurements from the load-cells that seemed reasonable.

Now the hardware was all done – almost too easy. The software would be the important part now. In order to create something flexible I needed to make an important decision: How would the scale tell the world about it’s findings?

Software

Two basic options: PULL or PUSH?

Pull would mean that the ESP8266 would offer a webservice or at least web-server that exposes the measurements in one way or the other. It would mean that a client needs to poll for a new number in regular intervals.

Push would mean that the ESP8266 would connect to a server somewhere and whenever there’s a meaningful measurement done it would send that out to the server. With this option there would be another decision of which technology to use to push the data out.

Now a bit of history: At that time I was just about to re-implement the whole house home automation system I was using for the last 6 years with some more modern/interoperable technologies. For that project I’ve made the decision to have all events (actors and sensors) as well as some additional information being channeled into MQTT topics.

Let’s refer to Wikipedia on this:

“MQTT1 (formerly MQ Telemetry Transport) is an ISO standard (ISO/IEC PRF 20922) publish-subscribe-based “lightweight” messaging protocol for use on top of the TCP/IP protocol. It is designed for connections with remote locations where a “small code footprint” is required or the network bandwidth is limited. The publish-subscribe messaging pattern requires a message broker. Thebroker is responsible for distributing messages to interested clients based on the topic of a message. Andy Stanford-Clark and Arlen Nipper of Cirrus Link Solutions authored the first version of the protocol in 1999.”

Something build for oil-pipelines can’t be wrong for your house – can it?

So MQTT uses the notation of a “topic” to sub-address different entities within it’s network. Think of a topic as just a simple address like “house/litterbox/weight”. And with that topic MQTT allows you to set a value as well.

The alternative to MQTT would have been things like WebSockets to push events out to clients. The decision for the home-automation was done towards MQTT and so far it seems to have been the right call. More and more products and projects available are also focussing on using MQTT as their main message transport.

For the home automation I had already set-up a demo MQTT broker in the house – and so naturally the first call for the litterbox project was to utilize that.

The folks of Adafruit provide the MQTT library with their hardware and within minutes the scale started to send it’s measurements into the “house/litterbox/weight” topic of the house MQTT broker.

Some tweaking and hacking later the litterbox was put together and the actual litterbox set on-top.

Since Adafruit offers platform to also send MQTT messages towards and create neat little dashboards I have set-up a little demo dashboard that shows a selection of data being pushed from the house MQTT broker to the Adafruit.io MQTT broker.

These are the raw values which are sent into the weight topic:

You can access it here: https://io.adafruit.com/bietiekay/stappenbach

So the implementation done and used now is very simple. On start-up the ESP8622 initialises and resets the weight to 0. It’ll then do frequent weight measurements at the rate it’s configured in the source code. Those weight measurements are being monitored for certain criteria: If there’s a sudden increase it is assumed that “the cat entered the litterbox”. The weight is then monitored and averaged over time. When there’s a sudden drop of weight below a threshold that last “high” measurement is taken as the actual cat weight and sent out to a /weight topic on MQTT. The regular measurements are sent separately to also a configurable MQTT topic.

You can grab the very ugly source code of the Arduino sketch here: litterbox_sourcecode

And off course with a bit of logic this would be the calculated weight topic:

Of course it is not enough to just send data into MQTT topics and be done with it. Of course you want things like logging and data storage. Eventually we also wanted to get some sort of notification when states change or a measurement was taken.

MQTT, the cloud and self-hosted

Since MQTT is enabling a lot of scenarios to implement such actions I am going to touch just the two we are using for our house.

  1. We wanted to get a push notification to our phones whenever a weight measurement was taken – essentially whenever the cat has done something in the litterbox. The easiest solution: Set-Up a recipe on If This Than That (IFTTT) and use PushOver to send out push notifications to whatever device we want.
  2. To log and monitor in some sort of a dashboard the easiest solution seemed to be Adafruits offer. Of course hosted inside our house a combination of InfluxDB to store, Telegraf to gather and insert into InfluxDB and Chronograf to render nice graphs was the best choice.

Since most of the above can be done in the cloud (as of: outside the house with MQTT being the channel out) or inside the house with everything self-hosted. Some additional articles will cover these topics on this blog later.

There’s lots of opportunity to add more logic but as far as our experiments and requirements go we are happy with the results so far – we now regularly get a weight and the added information of how often the cat is using her litterbox. Especially for some medical conditions this is quite interesting and important information to have.