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


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


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. 


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


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. 

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


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.