Alexa Control of RV Lights

Today I finally got all the pieces working to allow Alexa to control my RV lights. It turns out that the Alexa code only took a couple hours to implement, using a great tutorial posted by Kevin Utter on the developer.amazon.com site. This tutorial shows how to implement in under an hour a trivia game using Alexa. I followed the tutorial, created first a Reindeer trivia game, and then modifying it to be a Lisles Trivia game.

Once I was familiar with the process, I followed similar steps to create my own RvDuino Echo app. This app uses Alexa to listen for commands, and then forwards them to Particle.io which forwards them to a Photon Arduino.

I didn’t have to write any code on Particle.io. Code running on the Photon instructs Particle.io what commands to listen for, and which Arduino functions to run as a result. It really doesn’t get any easier than that. This has really made me a big Particle.io fan now!

I then used the Particle web IDE to write a fairly small Arduino sketch on the Photon that routes commands received from Particle.io to the desired Arduino Pro Mini over a simple RF24 network.

I’ve posted all the information and code on Github: https://github.com/rlisle/alexaParticleBridge.

Replacing the Wall Switches

I’ve started replacing the lighting wall switches in my RV. Instead of hard-wiring the switches to the lights, I’m using radio connected Arduinos. The switches will appear to work the same, but what is really happening is that the switches are read by an Arduino, that then sends information over radio to another Arduino to control the LED light.

So why all the extra cost and complexity?

To begin with, the cost is not very much. The parts I’m working with amount to about $10 per board. As for the complexity, I have several objectives:

  • Enable dimming of the lights
  • Enable grouping of lights
  • Enable remote control

This last one is the exciting part. Once I get the internet connection working, I’ll be using my Amazon Echo to voice control the lights.

Wall switch with Arduino

Wall switches before using a PCB

So, where am I in this process? I had initially cobbled together a wall switch to remotely control ceiling lights over my desk.
As you can see in the picture, this was pretty fragile, with parts soldered directly to the switch pins. I had to resolder things after breaking things when installing it into the wall. This was part of my motivation for creating custom printed circuit boards.

Wall switch and PCB

Wall switch and PCB

In this photo you can see the new 5cm x 10cm PCB I created for mounting to the wall switches. On this board I’m not going to use any of the 4 LED driver circuits, so they are unpopulated.



PCB mounted to wall switch

PCB mounted to wall switch

And here you can see the new PCB mounted to the switch. The FTDI programmer is connected to the Arduino for programming. It will be disconnected when I install the board into the wall. The nice thing about this arrangement is that it simply mounts into the wall like any other light switch.

The small blue board on the right side is an HM-10 Bluetooth LE part. This provides BLE communication and Beacon capability. This was my first attempt at surface mount soldering. Total cost on this board, including PCB, was about $7.50.

Second batch of PCBs received

I finally received my second batch of printed circuit boards from ITead Studios. Delivery time was about 3 weeks. The total cost including shipping was $14.50 for ten 5cm x 5cm 2-sided boards! This is just amazing.

2nd Printed Circuit Board

The quality of the boards is very good. In the image above you can see that I’ve mounted most of the parts. These took me about 30 minutes to hand solder to the board. Starting from the left, going clockwise, they are:

  • 3.3v power regulator using an LD1117v33 and some capacitors
  • nRF24l01 radio
  • Arduino Pro Mini 3.3v
  • 3 x 30N06 power mosfet 12v LED drivers.

The unoccupied squares on the right were intended for screw terminals, but I picked the wrong size Eagle part template, so they don’t fit. I could easily update the Eagle files and order new boards, but I have decided to simply solder the wires for now. I’ll fix the problem once I use up the current batch of boards and need to order more.

These boards are small enough that they can fit through the 3″ hole in the ceiling used to mount the recessed LED lights that I’m using.

Total cost for this board and parts is under $10 each. I populated all 3 LED drivers, but only need to populate the number needed on each board going forward, reducing the cost by about a buck each.

Particle.io Photon is awesome!

Having worked out most of the kinks with using Arduino Pro Minis with RF24 radios to automate various things in my RV, it’s time to connect my private RF24 network to the Internet. I’m doing this primarily to allow integrating my Echo’s Alexa voice capabilities into the network. I purchased and have been waiting on the new Digistump Oak parts to integrate WiFi, but after months of waiting for it, and a couple recent delays, I decided to move forward getting familiar with the Particle.io build environment using the readily available Particle.io Photon part.

Particle Phone part on breadboardOMG, this $19 part is amazing! We’re talking immediate WiFi connectedness. The team at Particle.io has done an amazing job of providing a web-based Arduino environment. Connection to their servers was super easy, and the tutorials provided on their website will get you up and running quickly.

Since it’s web based, I can create and/or update code using my computer, or (at least eventually) any web browser, including the one on my iPad or iPhone 6+. I attempted to edit some code on my iPhone 6+, but while the IDE displayed within Safari ok, editing appears to be broken at this point. Judging by how well everything else is working, I expect that those geniuses at Particle will have this fixed before long.

I highly recommend taking a look at the Particle.io Photon.
Well done, Particle.io!

Designing Printed Circuit Boards with Eagle

It never ceases to amaze me how much of a nerd I am. I absolutely love computerized, electronic technology. I don’t mean playing with things like Xbox or owning the lastest stereo equipment. I mean playing with the stuff that is used to create today’s leading edge products.
As mentioned previously, I’ve been playing with Arduinos, and recently teaching others about them. But now I’m ready to really expand their use in my RV.
I currently have 5 Arduinos installed in my RV, all communicating using inexpensive RF24 radios (nRF24L01). I’m still shocked at how low cost these things are. Total cost for each is about $7. At that price, I want to put one on just about every light and switch in my RV.
The ones I’ve built so far were put together using small breadboards. This works ok for fast prototyping, and is fun and easy, but they probably won’t hold up very well as we’re bouncing down the road (I mentioned that this is an RV, right?)
So I’ve started looking at more robust solutions. This typically means using printed circuit boards. Many years ago I made my own PCBs, either by dry transfer decals or etch resistant pen. But it’s really hard work, yielded only fair results, and isn’t easy to duplicate. Photo-resist techniques were available, but expensive and fairly touch also.
But today things are different. After doing some research this weekend, I’ve discovered that really great results can be achieved very inexpensively. Software is available free for designing circuit boards, and mail-order PCB manufacturing has become ridiculously cheap. The down side is that there is a pretty steep learning curve to doing this.
So that’s what I’ve been doing this weekend; installing and learning to use the free version of Eagle software. This software is used by the professionals, for example those great folks at SparkFun and Adafruit. And that’s where I found some great tutorials on how to use it. And the kind folks at Eagle support student and hobbyist activities by providing a free version for them. They only ask that we purchase a license if/when we start doing professional work with it. How cool is that?
The Eagle software is then used to create what is called “gerber” files. Gerber files can then be sent to a PCB shop for production.
The cost to do this? It depends on the size of the board made. But so far, my circuits ideas have been fairly small because I intend to use lots of small, simple units instead of fewer more complicated circuits. So I expect that any of my designs will fit onto a 5cm x 5cm board. These will cost me about $10 for 10 at iTead Studios. Yes, that’s about $1 each.
I can’t wait to get my designs onto PCBs!

Playing with Arduino

I’ve been busy playing with Arduinos these past few months. I think I must have been locked in a cave the past 8 years or so. I’ve been shocked by how advanced and inexpensive these things have become. These things are awesome, and very inexpensive. I plan on installing a dozen or so throughout my RV to control just about everything. Couple that with my iPhone programming skills, HomeKit, Siri, and the new Amazon Echo, and this is going to be a high tech playground for me. Woohoo!

I had been struggling with getting nRF24+ radios working, to provide cheap communication between Arduinos. It turns out that a bunch of folks at MySensors have already implemented a very cool, open source solution along the same lines. This is an incredible site. The information there really helped me get my radios working. They’ve done a lot of good work to provide clear instructions on how to connect multiple Arduinos together using open source software. These Arduinos can then read various types of sensors in order to control all sorts of things. I feel like a kid in a candy store (“ooh, which one do I want next?”). The crazy part is the price of these parts. They have a really well done page listing out links to buy all the various parts at unbelievable prices. Thank you MySensors!

Unfortunately, I think I’ve let myself become spread too thin across exploring and playing with all these cool technologies. I’ve written an iPhone app and Apple Watch extension that uses the Lightblue Bean to display the level of the RV remotely. I got it working well enough to use for myself, but I haven’t taken the final steps to post it to the App Store so that others can use it also. It’s very close to being in a state that can be released to the app store, but I’d rather play with new Arduino projects instead of spending the time to finish and submit it. I’ve also setup several Arduinos to control fans and lights in the RV, but they’re still sitting on the workbench. I’m trying to get them connected to the internet so the Echo and iPhone can control them.

So now I’m going to try to be disciplined with myself, and focus on getting a few basic pieces done and installed before worrying about adding more advanced features. With the 3 day weekend coming up, I’m hoping to get the Lightblue Bean installed in my closet to control a string of led lights based on sliding door microswitches, and an Arduino Uno hooked up to control dimming some LED recessed spotlights that I installe over my booth workbench. I’ll post back later about how that goes.

RV Automation using LightBlue Bean

I’ve started playing with the LightBlue Bean as a part of my RV Automation project. This $30 part combines a low power, 3.3v Arduino board with Bluetooth LE, several sensors, and an attached 3.3v watch battery. This means that it can be used to do a lot of jobs without any connections whatsoever, and it can talk with an iPhone over BTLE.

I first heard about this part from a github article that my friend Sean wrote. It’s a well written article, fun to read, and I recommend that you read it. Thank you, Sean.

What Can I Do With A LightBlue Bean?

Using Bluetooth

I think the best thing about this part is the built-in blue tooth.

iPhone Connection

I expect the bean to be a bridge from my iPhone to other Arduinos. BTLE makes it very simple to interface to an iOS device using


I may be able to take advantage of the fact that any BTLE device can be configured to act as an iBeacon. This will enable the iPhone app to determine proximity to it. This leads to all sort of automation possibilities:

  • Turning nearby lights on/off
  • Disabling security system when near
  • Unlocking doors

Of course, security will be important, so I’ll have to consider carefully the use of a passcode or some other system to prevent allowing unwanted access if my phone is stolen.

Using the built-in 3 axis accelerometer

The bean also includes a built-in 3 axis accelerometer. This means that it can detect motion in any direction.

Security System

One of the shortcomings of living in an RV is that it moves when walking around inside of it. I’m planning on turning this into an advantage, and use this as a component of my security system.


The accelerometer will be used to help me level the RV when parking. Since gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration, it makes a great way to check for level. I’ll need a way to calibrate the level settings after mounting the bean, and I’ll want to convert the accelerator readings from Gs to angle for display on my iPhone.

Door Motion

Another possible application, but one I don’t plan on using at this time, would be to mount the bean to a door. Since it’s battery operated, this could be as simple as just sticking it onto a door.

Using the Temperature Sensor

This is a no-brainer, but does require me to think about where I mount it. Do I want interior or exterior temperature readings?

Using the RBG LED

Status Display

I expect to mount the LED such that it can be used for displaying status of some sort. It can display any color, and be dimmed and/or blinked, allowing for a large range of indications.

Interfacing with Other Arduinos

I expect the bean to be a bridge from my iPhone to other Arduinos using inexpensive RF24 parts. These can be purchased for under $2 each.

Replacing the Battery

I expect to connect it to my RVs 12v system eventually, so I don’t have to keep replacing batteries. This will require a 3.3v regulator. The LD1117v33 is available from Amazon for under $2.

Moving the Booth

After removing the wall, we relocated the booth table and bench seats down into the garage. This required unscrewing the booth from its current location:

Removing the booth


and mounting it into the new location in the garage:

Installing booth in new location


Here it is almost finished. There is still some trim work to do, though.

Booth mounted in garage


With the booth removed from its old location, we then bought a couple inexpensive chairs. We really like the way this change opened up the area.

Chairs where booth used to be

Installing the New Couch

Once the wall was removed, we could move the new couch in through the garage. It came boxed up and wrapped in plastic, so we had to do some unwrapping.

Unpacking the new couch

Once unwrapped, we slipped it into place.

Image of new couch

Removing the Garage Wall

We had expected to garage wall to come down pretty easy, and for the most part that was correct. My neighbor John recommended that I contact the manufacturer to ask about it. I did so, and was surprised to receive a reply within a day stating that it should be ok. There are no wires, pipes, or structural issues with doing so.

My plan was to remove the door, and then start on the garage side taking the paneling down to see how the wall was constructed. This helped me see where the screws were located.



Upon close inspection, I discovered a problem. The side of the walls are attached to the walls with screws. I could see the screws protruding in from the outside wall, but the screw heads are not visible on the outside walls. So I concluded that the walls were screwed in place before the outside paneling was installed. This made it impossible to remove the screws without removing the outside paneling, which I did not want to do. So I ended up drilling holes around each protruding screw, and then ripping the wood off the wall. This left each screw protruding from the wall. I then used a power grinder to cut each screw off at the wall. I’ll need to apply some sort of trim to hide the cut-off screws.

Removing the wall 2

The picture above shows the garage looking from inside the RV. Part of the old wall is leading against the back (tailgate). The grinder used to remove the screws is laying next to where the wall used to be, and next to the step that leads down to the old garage.

Above the garage is a bed loft. The wall provided a bit of support to the bed, so we’ll need to reinforce it with a post or additional angle iron. We didn’t need to make that decision right away, but eventually decided to make a post that would only be put into place when using the loft. This leaves the space wide open the rest of the time.