Sunday, May 22, 2022

Version 3.0 of Signal GH for HDHomerun

Signal GH 3.0 Circle Graphs

Finding myself out of work in the Fall of 2021, I took to updating my skill set, which meant immersion in SwiftUI. I had done some SwiftUI work at my day job at IBM writing Pilotbrief, and my son and I had written the watch version of TV Towers USA in SwiftUI, but I needed to up my game.  And what better venue than my signal meter app for the HDHomeRun: Signal GH originally published in 2008, yes the first year of the App Store. 


Signal GH 1.x (2013)



Signal GH 2.x (2016)


Signal GH 3.0 (2022)

The UI has been completely refreshed, except the map which wouldn't have benefitted from a SwiftUI replacement, with an emphasis on showing both graphs and meters simultaneously. And while I always loved the spinning wheel picker to choose the channel, one must admit it took up a disproportionately huge amount of screen space. Replacing it with a menu button was a huge win for showing more data and less chrome. Just tap on the digital channel number.

Menu of Digital Channels

Version 2 had featured wide bar graphs indicating signal quality and signal strength. 

Signal GH 2.x's Bar Graphs

I always loved these bar graphs with their gradient backgrounds and individual colors. And patted myself on the back about how the numbers transitioned from white to black as the bar slid under them But they were bulky. I replaced them with the compact circular graphs, similar to the ones I see on the Apple Watch. 

Signal GH 3.0's Meters

They are animated and colorful, and most of all take up minimumal space. 

Both of these compacting moves lost instant discoverability. The old spinner was big, but at least, most people would recognize it as a channel selection control. The old bar graphs were wide, but at least there was plenty of room for labels. Now, users will have to learn that the bottom left circular graph is the signal quality indicator, and the bottom right is signal strength. Tapping on the meters brings up a summary view and that view has labels, so I hope most of them figure it out. 

The Tuner Detail Sheet

I rely heavily on the new action color—the sort of turquoise blue you see throughout these screenshots—being recognized as tappable. 

To try to help with discoverability, in a first for one of my apps, I included several pages of documentation under the info tab: written in SwiftUI, so it has tappable elements. Tapping on the channel menu button in the documentation actually brings up a channel selection menu. There are no screenshots.

Live Tappable Documentation

When I Update Colors,
The SwiftUI Documentation Updates



I always wanted a bit of flair on the line graph, so the new one has an animated pulse circle that briefly appears when a new data point is added. 

Pulsing Circle on Graph




In a bid to help advanced users track changes in their system, there is an Experiments tab which scans all their chosen channels and stores the results. Helpful, is after all, my company's middle name.

Experiments Tab

Ran into a bit of a bug in SwiftUI here; the table wouldn't align to the left when there's only a few entries. And—I hope it's not making your eyes bleed—the need to use customary hazard colors made this tab garish. I've been thinking of putting out a Mac version, and this and its export function seem like an excellent Mac feature. 

The onboarding/settings views were an incredible amount of work to get where I wanted them. I had not liked the previous iteration. Particularly, the need for separate tabs to manually choose or automatically scan digital channels. And the previous progress was awkward and not descriptive. I ended up with a tall column of available digital channels which you could choose to manually add and scan. Or you could scan the entire ATSC range, or you could press a location button and I could add nearby towers from my database. The progress view is a massive improvement, much more descriptive about what's going on. This is tight on a 7th generation iPod touch, the smallest device that runs iOS 15, but it fits except the the labels above the Quality and Strength graphs which are truncated. And you can tell at a glance which channels are already reasonably optimized.

Settings/Onboarding


I took the opportunity to rewrite all the HDHomerun interface code in pure async/await Swift. The new actor type was of particular help wrapping the hdhomerunlib which is written in C and is particular about multiple threads trying to interface with the same tuner struct. Scanning multiple tuners simultaneously was pretty simple with an AsyncSequence. Should be extremely reliable. 

The ... button in the app brings up a channel summary sheet with live signal meters and I even display the program data from the tuner's data stream. Unfortunately, we don't have a NextGenTV ATSC 3.0 broadcaster here in southern New Hampshire, so I've gingerly added support for displaying and selecting ATSC 3.0 PLPs (the individual programs embedded in the data stream) with some help from beta testers, but they are still not working right, and is the main reason I haven't submitted it yet. 

Channel Summary View
with Live Meters

The new icon—being by me—was typed by hand in SVG using BBEdit. I wanted to emphasize new elements to the app, so there's the circular graph, the pulsing line, dark mode, a new orange level of quality between yellow and red, all while retaining the idea of an old fashioned wire antenna wrapping a graph. It was a struggle keeping it from being overly garish. A hard thing to do for an app that communicates so much with color. In particular, the yellow of the line was the tuner color that pops the best on a dark background when the icon is small, the magenta I'd initially tried was much too muddy at tiny size. 

Signal GH's New Icon
Signal GH 3.0's New Icon

Actually, it's only an approximation as the yellow in the app is in the P3 space (yay modern displays) and really pops there where I can only use RGB hex in my SVG. Colors in general, got a refresh. I use different colors for each tuner, and it is hard picking out distinctive colors that look good in both dark and light mode, so I used XCAsset colors to define both light and dark variants. Choosing tuner colors reminds me of back in the day when I was writing karyotyping software and the biochemists needed dyes to stain every human chromosome a different color. You run out of distinct colors pretty fast. 

All the other static artwork—except for the map tab, and my app icons in the info tab—are standard SF Symbols. Yes, I'm not using hand crafted SVGs anymore. Which was great, flexible and highly recommended, although the only appropriate icon for the Experiments tab is the sort of lame test tubes. 

It was a great learning experience revamping this venerable old app, I just hope my users can accept a little change. 



Saturday, May 07, 2022

A Heating Season of Less Oil and More Heat Pump

 The house we moved into in Fall of 2020 is excellent in most every way. Except it has an oil boiler. Heating a large house. In New Hampshire. 

After seeing the first January oil bill, I knew it was time for heat pumps. I had one at my previous house, which had relatively cheap natural gas heating. This was a whole other level of financial pain. Burning oil for heat does not have much of a future.

So, I planned all year for a multi-step installation. This is the story of the first step: heating the bedrooms and my wife's office with an air source heat pump.

Equipment

I went with Mitsubishi pretty much entirely because they make a ceiling cassette head unit that fits between unmodified standard joists, and I didn't see any other way to get the refrigerant lines to the children's bedrooms and the office. The one major downside is the smallest capacity Mitsubishi sells in this form is 9 kBTU, wherein my son's bedroom and my daughters bedroom and adjacent bathroom could probably get along with 6 kBTU. As the office is open ended and hot air would escape into the hallway and nearby rooms, I bought a 12 kBTU unit for the office. Finish that out with a standard wall mounted 12 kBTU unit to cover the master bedroom and bathroom. 
MLZ-KP12NA Ceiling Unit

I had hopes that if I installed the ceiling unit while my wife was out of the house, she wouldn't notice it right away, and I could argue it hadn't ruined the esthetics of her office, but she did notice it. Thankfully, she was OK with it and its premium look. Much nicer than the typical wall wart mini-split. 

As we would be keeping oil as a backup, I didn't feel compelled to purchase the more expensive hyper heat heat pump. Adding up the head units, and I bought a matching 42 kBTU inverter style heat pump. Southern New Hampshire only dips for a few hours a year below 0°F, and as I was to find, even the non-hyper heat model generates useable heat at that temperature. 

  • 1 MXZ-5C42NA 42 kBTU 5 Zone Heat Pump $3596
  • MLZ-KP09NA 9 kBTU ceiling cassettes 2×$785
  • MLZ-KP12NA 12 kBTU ceiling cassette $1175
  • MSZ-GL12NA-U1 12 kBTU wall unit $654
  • 200 feet of refrigerant lines around $1000
  • Covers, threaded rod, screws, wire, a breaker, concrete, mounting stand maybe $800
  • HVAC guy to connect the vacuum and hook up system $600
  • Total about $9400 - 800 NH rebate = $8600

This is a premium unit and there are certainly other brands that can be had cheaper. If you travel in China, near every apartment is a mini-split of some kind which implies they can be made cheaply. I just like the hardware and the design of the Mitsubishi ceiling units. 

By the way, the first compressor GotDuctless.com shipped was damaged in transport and they sent me a second, but they haven't yet picked up the first. It's been sitting in my garage for over 6 months. The second was only scraped a bit in transport, so I shrugged and installed it. 

MXZ-5C42NA Heat Pump



In doing most of the install myself: running electrical, running line set, cutting openings in ceilings, pouring concrete, etc., I saved at least $5000 over having the pros do it. I was lucky enough that the son of a former co-worker was available for dealing with refrigerant, and he even installed most of the condensate drain work. We ended up draining the upstairs units via the drain pipe of a conveniently located bathtub. By the way, the ceiling units occasionally gurgle when used for cooling.

It's a lot of money, but when you consider I needed to replace the corroded and dripping manifold on my radiant heating system this year and the cheapest of 3 bids was $5000 just to occasionally heat the floors in the main living area, pretty reasonable. 

Performance

To confound this analysis, I realized mid-Winter that my water was being heated with a kind of indirect system from the oil boiler which even in Summer months burnt 1.6 gallons of oil a day just keeping the boiler running and feeding the water heater. In mid-March, I replaced the hot water system with a Rheem hybrid (resistive+heat pump) unit for another $3400 installed. No rebate available this year. 

$8600+3400 = $12,000 total expenditures

Good thing too, as the water tank was 11 years old and failing.  About the same time, the oil boiler took to dripping water out of the relief valve and air vent and I had to shut it down pending repairs. Which points to another great advantage of having 2 heating systems, it makes a failure of one an inconvenience not an emergency. I shut off the boiler for over a month while taking my time to find the parts I needed and it was not a big deal. I won't need it again till January. 

So how did the system perform? Pretty well, we burnt 711 fewer gallons of oil than the previous year, and taking into account the month to month variance of oil price (which was between $3.30 and $6.59! this heating season) we saved $3190 in oil. But we spent $1570 more in electricity feeding the heat pump and water heater. So, in net, we saved $1620 from mid-November till today (May 7th). 

For the previous year we used a total of 1514 gallons of oil, which would (assuming the price of oil is about $5/gallon for the rest of this year) would have cost us ∼$6700 for this year. I'm not planning on using another drop of oil till the outside temperature drops below 20°, so I think the current system will allow us to use around 400 gallons of oil per year. 

Projecting electricity usage. During late Spring, Summer, and early Fall, it will almost all be water heating cost at $1.60/day, maybe $300. Assuming September through November the heating costs are like March, April and May, that would be maybe $500, so the total heating electricity will be $800, let's make it $900 for the occasional chilly night. 

$6700 oil (2021) - $1810 oil (2022) - $1570 elect. (actual) - $900 elect. (guess) = $2420 yearly savings

Thus I project a system payback at ($12,000 ÷ 2,420) 5.0 years just on heating costs. I assume the cost for cooling will also be greatly reduced: the central AC makes the entire above ground (2 floors) volume of the house a single zone whose compressor and air handler cost about $1/hr to run. In 2021, we used about a thousand extra kilowatt hours a month during June, July and August for cooling, so that's over $200 per summer month from which we can save money. We'll see.

As the chart below of kWh per day versus temperature, the pump maxed out at around 85 kWh for a couple of back to back days where the lows were around 0°.  At that point, to keep the rest of the house warm we were also burning a fair amount of oil.  It was fairly loud running all out. The one major problem with my install was placing the compressor only a few feet from our bed. I may have to see about upgrading the windows, and trying to lower the compressor another foot. Most days it isn't an issue, but in mid-January, you notice it. 

Kilowatt Hours vs Daily Average Temperatures
(includes water heater)

I installed a smart oil gauge in early January so you can see usage plummeting over time. The readings are too noisy for daily tracking, but you can see oil usage was high in January and kept going down. It maxed out at 7 gallons a day, which would be a wallet draining $46 for that one day (1/16/22) at the current price, and that was in addition to $16 of heat pump electricity. Oil heating demand for everything but water heating was shut off in early-March and I turned off the boiler entirely in late March after the water heater install. Basically, the heat pumps can handle everything comfortably above around 20°F, so no need to keep it fired up.

Smart Oil Gauge Readings Since Early January


I think the main takeaway here is that even at its worst efficiency, when it is maxed out and can barely keep up with heating the bedrooms, it isn't any worse than oil. There was never a point where I thought I should shut it down and just run the oil boiler by itself. At least when oil is 4 to 6 dollars a gallon, even here in the expensive Northeast with electricity at 21.4¢/kWh (it started the year at 18.6¢/kWh) When the outside air is over around 20°F, I can turn off the oil boiler and really start saving money. Not that it was fun paying $428 in January for the electricity to feed it. 


Emporia Energy Monitor of Monthly Heat Pump Use

One of the nice features of the system is that everyone in the house has some control over their own environment. My daughter likes the temp in the low 60° range, my son in the low 70° range. I like low to mid-70s. My wife likes to save money whatever the temperature. 

Another is the lack of dirty ducts. With this system, every few months I wash the filters out, and maybe replace the allergen filter; no possibly moldy ductwork, and no potentially virus ridden air flowing from bedroom to bedroom.

The least favorite problem is that unlike a nice, low maintenance thermostat, these head units take some daily futzing to get the temperature you like, and sometimes there will be a dispute between the head units over whether to go into heating or cooling mode and the loser will be left to blink its status light until somebody comes around and turns it back on. Doesn't happen often with the units all in auto mode, but it does happen. 

Mitsubishi should really improve their smart device offerings. The thermostats or thermostat integration hardware they offer are not DIY friendly. I did end up buying a little infrared smart controller (a Sensibo) so I could control the office unit from my iPhone although that confuses my wife as the Mitsubishi remote won't know I used another device to change the temperature. Maybe Elon Musk should get into the heat pump business, Mitsubishi is leaving a lot of room to be leap frogged.

Water Heating

As I said, I had an 80 gallon hybrid water heater installed in the basement, and there are a couple of issues. The previous, indirect system generated huge amounts of very hot water. In a year of use, I never ran low on hot water, even when filling the Jacuzzi in the master bathroom. With the new system and a teenage son, I must take care. The water heater has an app—doesn't everything these days—and I can make sure it's at capacity before getting wet. I ended up setting the water heater to its maximum 140°F despite the incessant scald warnings because otherwise the water was not comfortably hot by the time it wound its way upstairs to the kid's bathrooms. Also, this gives the added benefit of larger practical capacity. 

Rheem hybrid 80 gallon water heater



The water heater will take most of the day running the heat pump and ever so slowly getting the water up to temperature, and do so efficiently. As long as it doesn't have to turn on the resistive elements, it will provide hot water at maybe $1.60 a day. Compare this with the 1.6 gallons a day to run the oil boiler and the current $6.50/gallon or even $3/gallon. $1.60 < 4.80 < 10.40 or per year $580 < 1750 < 3800. If oil and electricity keep at their current price ratio, this water heater will pay for itself in just over a year. 

Rheem Hybrid Money per Hour (Note surge when resistive element turned on.)

The other thing is that it keeps the basement cold and dry. Which can be a good thing. With the boiler off in March, the basement was around 50°F—poor man's geothermal. The area around the water heater was maybe 45°. The ground has gotten warmer, and I've put up a temporary duct to spread the cold air, so now the whole basement is maybe 55°, not bad. When Summer visitors come, I'll either be thankful for free basement AC, or I'll put the water heater into expensive pure resistive mode. The house came with a "wine cellar"—I don't drink—with a now unused room chiller. I could see a future owner chilling the cellar with the water heater and saving money. 

Oh, and it makes some noise which I can't hear upstairs, and can't be heard from the guest room if you close all the doors. Contrast with the boiler which made heat and noise all summer long and ruining the guest experience. 

The Future

At this point we are approaching diminishing returns as there is not a lot of oil to save. However, the house would be more comfortable and useable in mid-Winter if I put in a couple more heat pumps. If I could get oil usage down to zero, I'd probably net out an additional yearly savings of $1000.  So, I plan to expand my collection. 

A single 12 kBTU floor mounted hyper heated unit for the sun room to keep it above freezing in the Winter and cool in the Summer. A dual system for our shared spaces and kitchen. And maybe replace the AC in the basement with a ducted heat pump for Winter time visitors and allowing me to use my workshop without gloves. The water heater is doing a very nice job of keeping it cold, so maybe not.  

I will have to be careful regarding the system's maximum power requirements. I have a 200A panel, which most days is ample, but I can imagine some cold January night where the 4 heat pumps and a water heater all want to do their thing and pop. 

Not to mention future electric cars. 

And then there is solar. That would be quite the synergy once the electrification is complete. Lots of electricity savings that could justify a solar array.

The 4% Rule

I'm approaching retirement, and one of the rules of retirement is that your yearly expenses should be 1/25th (4%) of your investments if you never want to run out of money. People focus on the pile of money in the investments, but reducing expenses is nearly as important and often easier. Here, I've reduced my expenses by $2420, which means I'll need 25×$2420 = 60,500 fewer dollars saved for retirement, and it only cost me $12,200. Quite a bargain.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Moving from Eve to Lutron Caseta Smart Switches

 My wife and I are preparing our previous home for the rental market. So, we are making practically every improvement we always wanted but never got around to, except this is all for a yet to be chosen renter. Quirks of the house, like having no light switch next to the entry door to the converted garage, which I tolerated for the 14 years I lived in the house, are finally being dealt with. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I installed Lutron Caseta switches and remotes throughout my new house. This was mainly because I was replacing dimmers and Lutron is well regarded for its dimmers, but I came to appreciate other features of the system. And this appreciation brought with it a certain distain for the Eve switches I had filled my old house with. And even though it was a fair expense, I pulled the trigger and ordered many dimmers, switches, remotes and a hub from eBay sellers. This blog post is about why.

Eve Smart Switches Ripped From My Walls


Reason #1, the Pico Remote

Of the 3 entrances into the house, only one has a handy light switch within arms length of the doorway. For the other two I'd spent all those years either stumbling through the dark, or when I did install Eve smart switches taking out my iPhone or Apple Watch and asking Siri to turn on the light; and it may or may not have worked, the system was only OK with reliability. The brick walls of the house prevented any reasonable chance of just installing an old fashioned 3 pole switch.

With Caseta Pico remotes, I can mount virtual switches wherever is convenient. They are extremely reliable, in my experience. If a dimmer remote is paired with a dimmer switch, I can even have a preset dimmed light level. I can even control multiple groups of lights at once. 

In the case of the basement lights, I can now turn off the basement light from the top of the stairs and the stairs light from the basement. What a magical time we live in. 

No more stumbling around in the dark. 

Reason #2, Dimming

As part of the refurbishment, the contractor installed new ceiling lights: dimmable LED disks. My Eve switches were simple on-offs. So, I can dim, use preset dimming on the remote, and when turning off there is a pleasant smooth dimming shutoff. 

Lutron dimmers also have the magical ability to function without a neutral wire. Not a problem in my new house, but a constant struggle with the haphazard wiring in my old house. 

Reason #3,  the Buttons

Tapping on the Eve is just tapping on a hard sheet of solid plastic. The Lutrons have a smalll amount of travel, but it has recognizable buttons. My wife, for one, is not a fan of the non-clicky buttons, but at least they move. 

Reason #4, Reliability

I can't say that I've ever had a Pico remote not do its job, and the switches and dimmers work every time. HomeKit is about as reliable as it ever gets. I will say that there are issues with certain LEDs. Some low wattage LEDs will never truly turn off with a Caseta switch as the current used to power the status light is enough to maintain a ghost light on the bulbs. Regardless, they work. On the other hand, HomeKit is hit or miss with the Eve switches; either taking several seconds to trigger or not at all. 

Reason #5, Build Quality

The Lutrons are nicely made with metal fins, and high quality, easy to manipulate wires. The Eves are more plastic, and the stranded wires are annoying to deal with when using wire caps (another reason to use Wagos).

Reason #6, Homekit

When I have to add an Eve switch, I add it directly in HomeKit which would be fine except the contractors installed one I'd given them and then threw out the frame and the box, so I couldn't add it to HomeKit weeks later. The Lutron I add in the Lutron app, and it tends to be more streamlined in pairing, and I don't feel compelled to save the HomeKit code for each and every switch. Just the Lutron hub. For either system, I have the nice features like Siri integration and remote management. It's been extremely convenient making sure all the lights are off at a house 20 miles away. 

Cost didn't Help

Lutron is not cheap. The switches are not cheap, the remotes are not cheap, even the plastic brackets to mount a remote on the wall is not cheap. But neither is the Eve switch. In fact, you can get Caseta switches on eBay for less than you can get Eve switches on Amazon. Of course, I ended up spending much more because I purchased Pico remotes, often 2 or 3 remotes for each actual switch. 

In Conclusion

I'm happy with how the system ended up, and I think it'll be much more accessible and functional for my renters. I'm not happy at ripping out working smart switches and I wouldn't have done so without a belief the resulting house would be greatly improved. Which it was.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Bringing a 2000 Home Up to Modern Tech

 My family recently moved to a home built in the year 2000, from our smaller, built in 1964, home I'd spent 15 years making convenient and comfortable. While the new home is beautiful and well made, it doesn't seem as if the previous owners thought much about technology. 

Door Locks

I don't believe my children have ever had cause to use a mechanical door key. We've always had keypad locks, and love the security and convenience. The new house had a huge, ornate, front door lock which was broken when we purchased the house and was going to cost me $600 to fix, for a lock I didn't even want. Instead, a locksmith put in a keypad based Schlage lock to match the one I installed in the side entrance—including matching the mechanical keys, which got tossed in the big bucket of keys, never to be used again. This is not a smart lock, I've never needed to open my doors remotely. 

The old lock was a bit larger

Networking

At the closing, I mentioned to the seller I'd be putting in Ethernet everywhere. He didn't think much of the idea, as he'd been blasting WiFi from the central office on the 2nd floor. But for me, wired networking is reliable networking, bringing uniform WiFi coverage throughout the house, from the basement guest room to the sunroom tucked on the far side of the garage. Indeed, our family had a horrible experience the first week, pre-network install getting by with a pair of ancient Airport Expresses. 

When, a few weeks in, roofers were replacing the roof—see below—they gave me half an hour to enter the inaccessible portion of the attic over the general purpose room over the garage. A place no-one had seen for 20 years. Time to pull Ethernet and antenna coax from the main attic and into the wall behind the TV and place speaker wires. Later, a handy man came in to cut a hole in the ceiling allowing me to pull  security camera cables, tidy up the speaker wires, add one last Ethernet port, and double up the insulation before sealing it for another 20 years. 

I did untangle this

The final setup is 100% Ubiquiti hardware with an overkill number of in-wall WiFi access points powered by Power Over Ethernet (POE). It has been reliable, except when played with—don't plug non-POE devices into the POE out port of an access point. A 24 port POE switch went in the main network closet, and an 8-port POE switch to handle the legacy Cat 5 in the basement. The 8-port is really a 10 port as you can buy non-POE SFP adaptors to add 2 extra RJ-45 ports.

I'm done pulling for now, because after I removed the blown in insulation in the attic, pulled as many wires as I could think of uses for, and replaced the blown-in insulation, adding anything more via the attic would be a several thousand dollar journey to the network closet. More could be added via the basement, and there are a couple of unused wires I pulled and decided not to use, but my wife is starting to make comments.

My biggest annoyance with Ubiquiti is the rack mounted router whose loud fan which can easily be heard well down the hall from the network closet because the closet has a half door to let sunlight through in the evening. [Update: I opened both the router and the switch and replaced their fans with Noctua NF-A4x20 FLX quality fans. Much better with about the same temperature.]

I learned through experience that if a cable isn't getting gigabit, as likely as not, it is a mis-punched wire, not the other end. So, check your punch-down connections. It's enlightening having a system which clearly lets me know when there is a problem with a connection.

Also, if you are going to be cutting dozens of openings in drywall for single gang box keystone plates, then invest in a box hole cutter for your oscillating saw. The cut will be fast, the holes will be cleaner, and if you have to patch them you'll have a perfectly sized bit of drywall scrap.

My Network Closet

A Single Box Drywall Saw

Washlets

Ever since the day my wife changed planes in Tokyo, we've used Japanese washlet bidet seats. Unfortunately, the toilets in my old house have round bowls, while all the bowls in the new house have an oblong shape, so the expense of new seats for the family. Also, most of the toilets were too far from a convenient power outlet requiring a bit of wall cutting and wiring. 

If you've never used a washlet, I highly recommend it for cleanliness and the luxury of a warm seat in winter. Costco is a good source. 

Sound

The inaccessible attic over the general purpose room gave me a narrow window to pull speaker wire for height effect ceiling speakers and my rear surrounds. Atmos might not be a must have, but it is a nice to have. The recent release of the Lord of the Rings with Dolby Atmos tracks made me very glad to have my ceiling speakers and good surrounds, although the odd shape of the room didn't allow for the absolute most accurate placement of the surrounds. I only installed 2 ceiling speakers, but I left wire in the ceiling in case I ever upgrade to 4.

The one piece of tech the previous owner left me was some abandoned and non-obvious how to drive Sonos speakers mounted over the deck and in the sunroom, probably left just because it was too much trouble to patch the resulting holes. Much prefer the HomePod. Oh, not to forget the whole house vacuum cleaner, which we have used once; letting my robot vacuum free every day works better and takes less effort.
Aperion Novus Slim Satellites as Surrounds

Cameras

I went with Ubiquiti Protect cameras, and doorbells. I like wired cameras, which makes it sad the doorbells aren't POE like the rest of Ubiquiti's line. Still, my uniform WiFi coverage make the connection to the doorbells almost reliable. Powering them involved putting a transformer into a 2 gang box inside the wall shared by the doorbell, and powering it with electrical wire brought in from the adjacent light switch box—I hope this does not violate some obscure building code. A great thing about this house is that all the light switch boxes contain neutral wires—what luxury; half the light switches in my previous house couldn't be upgraded to smart because of the lack of a neutral. (Although by some black magic Lutron dimmers work without a neutral.) The opening of the transformer boxes, I covered with Lutron Pico remotes instead of ugly double gang blanks; two birds, one stone.

The other cameras are wired with Ethernet strung through the attic and powered by POE. They've been fairly reliable although it seems like every few days one will go offline for a few minutes. I have not been happy with the G3 bullet, even with its optional infrared accessory, it has not shown anywhere near the night performance of the other cameras.

Protect is hosted on a Gen 2 Cloud Key upgraded to the max 5TB of storage. Five cameras have not stressed it as it chugs through the video streams.

While they do have a security component, on property cameras are just generally useful, keeping track of deliveries, and scrolling through the day on Ubiquiti Protect on my Apple TV has turned into one of my favorite diversions. I've a lovely view of my backyard for which I splurged on a G4 Pro, and it's pleasant listening to bird song my double pane windows block. On the negative side, my G4 Protect doorbell camera crashes the Protect Apple TV app every time. [Update: no longer crashing.]

With HomeBridge integration to HomeKit, a doorbell ring buzzes my Apple Watch, shows a live video feed of the visitor, and chimes the HomePods. For this, I installed HomeBridge and the appropriate extension on the Mac Mini in the network closet. I put a HomePod Mini in my wife's office to act as a doorbell, as she refuses to wear an Apple Watch and the near constant torrent of notifications she gets on her phone mask doorbell notification. Still, I can't say that we notice all rings, and delivery men have an aversion against pressing the button.

Ubiquiti G4 Doorbell

 Broken Doorbell

Smart Switches

At my previous house, I had installed a smattering of Eve smart switches, mainly because I'd been erroneously avoiding hub based devices. But because the current house has many dimmable lights, I went with 100% Lutron Caseta and could hardly be happier. They have been nearly flawless in working, and the Pico remotes have allowed me to combine separate switches into groups. For instance, the remote mounted at the garage entrance, will not only turn on the overhead light at that door, but also, the light over the adjacent hall, and the stairs leading upstairs. I found I could put all the real switches in central positions, and put the remotes around the edges making grouped lighting convenient. 

I can turn on the backyard lights from a variety of places throughout the house, or just use Siri from a convenient device. My wife has a Pico remote in her car to turn on the garage adjacent lights as she arrives. Unfortunately, we are bumping up against the 75 device limit to the Caseta system, maybe fortunate to my bank account.

A smattering of switches and Pico remotes
Lutron Caseta vs Old Switches
Pulled so many switches


All the common lights in the house are automated through HomeKit to turn off after midnight, and the driveway post lights are set to turn on at sunset and turn off after 10. 

I ran into the odd condition where low power LED lamps—a 3 LED, 12W total, chandelier—wouldn't go completely black as the current used to power the switch's internal status LED was enough to emit some light. Solution: a single 6W LED mixed in with 2 lower powered ones keeps it dark. Yes, Lutron will sell you a very expensive dimmer for low power LEDs, but bumping up the wattage is a lot cheaper. 

Speaking of LEDs, the house was filled with energy hog incandescent lights, which I methodically eradicated in favor of LEDs. Thankfully, as an Amazon Vine reviewer, LEDs are virtually free for me. I've a preference for 3000K lights in most rooms, and am happy with the LED replacements for fluorescent tubes. 

If you are going to be installing dozens of switches, you will find Wagos much easier than twist caps for connecting wires. I certainly lack the skill to reliably twist together and recap 5 neutral wires, but I can easily trim the wires and insert them into a 5 conductor Wago. You probably won't need the 10 guage version (like 221-613), I erroneously bought some and they are too big.

Wagos are so easy

Smart Thermostats

There are 2 cooling zones and 5 heating zones in this house. And each had an old school mercury switched bimetal coil thermometer—not even the mercury free kind with a magnet. The heating thermostat for the entire second floor was in my son's room; great for him, not so good for anybody else.

Every single thermostat was wired with the minimum number of wires needed—2 for heating. I spent a couple weeks figuring out how to get new wires from one end of the house to the other and into the fortress which is my boiler room. I had spools of 5 and 7 conductor wire, and I finally got them there. An HVAC guy wired it into the boiler controller and AC air handlers. He insisted on wiring the smart thermostats: my favorite ecobee 3 Lite model himself. We coalesced each AC thermostats with one of the heating thermostats: thus there is now only 1 thermostat in the basement, and 1 on the second floor. He disposed of the mercury thermostats for me, thankfully. 

I've added many ecobee temperature sensors. For example, second floor temperature during sleep hours is determined exclusively by the temperature in my children's rooms and not the temperature at the thermostat in the hall which tends to be 3°F cooler than the bedrooms. Without the sensors, my kid's rooms would be unnecessarily hot during winter. 

This house is going to be exorbitant to heat and cool as it is. Missing the natural gas furnace and mini-split inverters from the old house, but oil heat and central air is how it's done in my new area. 

Ecobee
Box of Mercury Thermostats vs Ecobee 3 Lite

A Roof

By far, the biggest expense was installing an Owens Corning shingled roof to replace the disintegrating original. Roof technology has improved markedly since 2000, what with improved ice shields, better airflow through the ridge vent, advances in durability. Regardless, I'd like to put in solar panels soon, and a new roof was step number 1 on that journey. I looked at Tesla tile roofs, but it seemed like it couldn't be done on any kind of reliable schedule, and this place needed a roof before winter set in. And it was expensive when compared to an asphalt shingle roof as opposed to a fancy tile roof. 

Broadcast TV

I had the roofers put a large J mount high up, under the eves, to which I attached a largish UHF/VHF antenna (a CM-5018) in hopes of pulling in my local PBS affiliate which took the FCC repack money and moved to the garbage channel which is digital 5. Surprisingly, due to my clean line of sight and a good hundred feet of elevation I get much better signal quality, with less effort here than my old house despite being farther away from the local antenna farm. Didn't even find the need for a pre-amp as the new antenna is maybe 18 feet directly above the TV stand where I keep my HDHomerun and Tablo. Short coax runs help. I'd been looking forward to making use of my own Signal GH app, but I was getting 100% signal quality on the first pointing. 

This house had been wired for an era where media was distributed by individual coax cables to cable boxes in every plausible room. When I got here, the cable modem was fed via a huge power amplifier feeding 8 coax lines in the house—doing who knows what damage to data throughput. My first act as a Xfinity data subscriber was to ask the technician to disconnect the booster and directly feed the single coax line to the room with my cable modem. In my house, we use iPads and Apple TVs via WiFI or Ethernet, there are no cable boxes, just steaming subscriptions. 

Still missing the purity of fiber optic service I had at my old house.
CM-5018 Antenna



Somebody Really Liked Cable TV

Finally

I can stop with the constant DIY upgrading and get back to maintaining my apps. I may put a sensor here or there, and I might get an electrician to install a dedicated circuit to the network closet, but for now I can rest.

Finally Done










Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Thank You Bell Atlantic for the Ethernet in My Walls

 I've recently moved into a year 2000 vintage house filled with such trendy tech as phone jacks and coax cable in most every room. Being me, I set to pulling Cat 7 Ethernet to every corner I could reach. But there were many corners I couldn't reach, and I despaired of getting the coverage I wanted. 

Then I took notice of the one Ethernet jack in the house—in a basement media room, and that its cable ended up terminating in a grey box under the stairs. 

Bell Atlantic Network Interface Device

and there were many grey wires, printed with "Cat5,"  ending up at the same box. But where were they going, there were no more Ethernet jacks in the house. I'd searched. And then understanding came, I unscrewed all the phone jacks in the house. And with the exception of one, they were all wired to use a single pair out of a standard four pair Cat 5 Ethernet cable. 20 years back someone had seen the future and pre-stocked my house with the makings of fast wired networking. 

Out went the phone jacks and in went Ethernet jacks or Ubiquiti in wall access points. 

My Collection of Phone Ports

At the other end, I neatly punched each cable and attached it to a managed Ubiquiti switch.

Repurposed Phone Lines

Now you might think that Cat 5 would be slow, but for short lengths, in non-challenging environments it works fine without the shielding enhancements of later standards. My managed switch lists all but one as working at 1000 megabit full duplex, and the other one at 100 megabit full duplex. Even 100 megabit is adequate for streaming 4K iTunes video. I pulled Cat 7 in the attic because I never want to do it again, not because my current needs wouldn't be met by Cat 5e—or in a pinch by this existing Cat 5.

I found the ends of most of the cables near the Bell Atlantic box, but couldn't find the one to the kitchen, whose central location would make a great place for a WiFi access point. Then I came across a walkthrough video of my house pre-kitchen remodel, and right there was a long gone desk and on the desk was a phone and behind the phone was a phone jack. Ah ha.

Detective Work finding the lost Phone Line

I cut a hole in that wall, and neatly stapled to a stud was the last lost Cat 5 in a perfect place for an access point, and a great central location for a Lutron smart switch hub. It would have been unacceptable wall butchery to get an Ethernet cable there through finished ceiling and walls, but 20 years ago somebody left me a present.

Ubiquiti in-wall access point
+
Lutron Caseta Hub

I was able to wire all of the second floor with new cable via crawling the attic before it became inaccessible with a new layer of blown insulation. There had been two phone jacks in the second floor office, so I was able to join my new network into the Cat 5 legacy network. I will admit to a little overkill with the networking as Ubiquiti hardware is not cheap—what with the gateway, switches, and controller, but it was so easy to use Power over Ethernet (POE) in wall access points wherever I could get an Ethernet cable giving me a robust mesh network. If you have the means, I recommend the system. 

This was also the first time I had used a punch down tool, and I'm proud of my professional looking network with the dedicated upstairs network closet with its rack of equipment and punched down cables. 




Tuesday, May 26, 2020

TV Towers USA for Apple Watch

The Series 5 Apple Watch includes a compass. Which necessitated me selling my otherwise nearly identical Series 4 watch, because I knew it was time to write a watchOS app. Also to write something using the SwiftUI framework, and Combine. And get my 14 year old son to write code.

TV Towers USA for Watch

I decided to embed it in the existing TV Towers USA iPhone app and sell it via an in-app unlock method. This is a bet on my reasonably large installed base of happy users being a better source of revenue (all of of which will be going to my son) than the unlikeliness of being found on the Watch App Store. But, like all my other personal App Store projects, the major point is skill sharpening for the future of my day job. There will come a day when I'll have to pull SwiftUI or Combine out of my bag of tricks. 

And we ended up with this gratifying, smooth, simple, useful app, just what an antenna installer needs for getting a quick bead on the local antenna farm. I can only imagine the number of iPhones that have slid off roofs. Or would be antenna installers, so be careful out there and wear a harness or leave it to the pros, or put the antenna in your attic. 

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Why The Corolla Hatchback Won My CarPlay with Manual Transmission Battle

For several years, I've been pondering replacing my 2003 Civic LX 5 speed sedan—with aftermarket CarPlay receiver. I was certain I was getting a Mazda 3, then I was equally sure I was getting a Subaru Impreza. I might have even gotten a Civic Si, my pondering went on so long. But, in the end, it was the Toyota Corolla XSE 6 speed manual that earned my money.

CarPlay

I was concerned with the non-standard, non-touch interface Mazda uses for their infotainment system. Toyota's implementation is standard, and I'd say nicer for a CarPlay user than Honda's as it has a lot of real buttons, including push buttons on the steering wheel to adjust volume. I've used the Honda system in my wife's CR-V many times, and it is awkward and doesn't make good use of space; consumers were glad to get so much as a real volume knob, and the swipe volume control on the steering wheel is touchy. I don't have any experience with the Subaru implementation, but it is probably fine. 

I did see an oddity, where much of the CarPlay interface was cut off,  making me have to plug and replug it. Still, it has been reasonably performant. 

Power Train

I'm convinced in the value of a simple power train. A turbo is just something easy to break that gets a few more horsepower I'm unlikely to use in practice. The 168 HP my Corolla generates is a little lower than a comparable Civic, and it's zero to sixty time might be half second less, but I get quick throttle response and I can use non-premium gas. This is similar to my avoidance of a CVT, which gets a noticeable better fuel economy, but seems mechanically complicated and easy to fail. I will say that living in New England, I would love to get an all wheel drive Impreza, but it would be mechanically more complicated and may be a little less peppy. Also, I'll be putting winter tires on this car and that's most of the battle against winter roads. I like the idea of the Mazda 3's engine, but I wasn't all that impressed with the gearing when I test drove a manual; and it was always prompting me to shift into a ridiculously—if fuel efficient—high gear. 

The boxer engine in the Subaru just seems to be an obsolete technology despite its advantages in smoothness and maintenance. 

The Corolla shifter is longer than I'd like, and it's taken be a while to get used to the grab point on the clutch, but it is in general a joy to use. Particularly liking the hold feature which makes uphill starts trivial; I'm likely to lose my ability to balance the clutch to the throttle. Also, rev matching is easy. So, even for a manual, it makes life easy. 

I don't want an auto-engine stop feature for that last smidge of gas mileage; talk about something that will kill a starter. 

Reliability

Everyone I've ever read highly rates Toyota has the king of reliability. I've dealt with oil leaks/burning for years on my otherwise beloved 7th generation Civic and I could use some reliability. In the end, this and the bad reputation of the local Mazda dealer, eliminated the Mazda 3.  I don't know if it makes a difference, but the Corolla is still made in Japan in factories with a long history. (Having said that, the door edge protecting plastic fell off the rear passenger door the first time my kids opened it, so that's worrying.)

Safety Tech

The Corolla gives a very complete set of safety features. The lane warnings are a bit annoying, but at least it doesn't bother with driver attention spying. I chose the higher XSE trim in large part because I often have shoulder problems making blind spot monitoring a life saver. It seems to be very comparable to the Honda safety features on the CR-V. Adaptive cruise control seems less touchy than the Honda. 

There are a wide variety of settings on the headlights. They are literally the only things I had to look up so far in the manual, I guess I'll just set them on auto with auto high beams. Regardless, they are plenty illuminating, but for some odd reason the adaptive headlights were only available with the Blue Flame paint color. 

Appearance

I think the Corolla Hatchback is the best looking of all the current Japanese Hatchbacks. The Mazda 3 sedan looks great, but the backend of the hatchback is a balloon. The Civic is just too angular for me. The Impreza is pretty nice, actually. 

Mine is in Galactic Aqua Mica, which is a lovely and varied color; sometimes it looks almost black, sometimes blue, and sometimes green. 

Value

As I bought it when the dealers were clearing out 2019 stock, and being the niche market of a manual, I got a pretty good deal of $19.4K which is way, way under MSRP. For me, this is an amazing value what with all the safety tech, the excellent fuel economy and how fun it is to drive. Nice value adds include: heated seats, fully automatic windows, two map pockets, rear center arm rest, driver lumbar support, telescoping steering wheel, electric mirrors, 2 years of maintenance, partial leather seats, and auto release parking brake. My particular car even came with all weather floor mats, wheel locks, and body side moldings. 

On the other hand, the cargo area is small, but I have a CR-V to use as a hauler. Center console storage is small. There is no standard tow package, so I can't easily add a hitch receiver bike rack. Nor are there available roof rails. Heated steering wheels are apparently only available in Canada. It's unclear if the 2019 models will get upgraded firmware to support Android Auto—not important to me, obviously. 

Things That Don't Matter

There is a lot of tech in the infotainment system that doesn't matter. It has a WiFi hub that you can subscribe to Verizon through: our phones and tablets all have unlimited data. It has SeriusXM: I have an account, and it is much easier to listen to content using the app, where I can skip over most of the commercials in FoxSports and listen to other non-live content.  Who is going to buy a Toyota navigation package when I have Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze? For that matter, why would I bother with a bunch of soon to be stale Toyota versions of apps for services that already have well maintained CarPlay/iOS versions?

 I'd have been fine with 16" tires but wanted the other things in the XSE package so 18" wheels it is. People like to make fun of the fake exhaust tips, but they don't matter. 

Summary

I'm happy with my purchase. It took a lot of saving and a lot of pondering, but I finally got a car that is a happy successor to my dying Civic.