Traveling to Matete, Kenya

We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday evening, having left Austin on Friday

afternoon with stops in Atlanta and Amsterdam. We were met at the airport by Samuel, and stayed overnight in Nairobi at the EKA hotel. 

We arrived in Nairobi and were greeted by Samuel (pronounced Sam-Well) and Ronnie.

Sunday morning we attended church at Citam Karen  in Nairobi.

We did some shopping after church in Nairobi at the Utamaduni Craft shop and toured the Kazuri Bead Centre factory before flying to Eldoret to spend the night at the Boma Inn Hotel.

Our World Vision Trip to Matete, Kenya

Our church has been working with World Vision since 2011 to help the people of Matete, Kenya. As part of that effort, my wife and I have been sponsoring three children. That work has been going very well, and God has done some pretty amazing things in transforming the lives of the people of that area. My wife and I have been hoping to join one of the mission trips over there to actually meet the children one day.

Well, about six month ago it was announced that the next mission trip to Kenya later in the year would probably be the last. Things had progressed so well with the people there that it might be time to look at helping a different area. So my wife and I decided that we better figure out how to make this trip, or else we might never get a chance to do so.

So we signed up, paid our initial deposits for the trip, and shortly afterwards I was laid off from my job of seven years. At that point it seemed like the logical thing to do was to drop out of the trip. So we did so, hoping that I could find a job quickly enough to get back onboard with the trip. So I started some intense prayer, asking God for what to do, where I should be looking for work, and whether I should continue with the trip or not.

After two and a half weeks of more dead-end job leads and no job offers, I was sitting in church Sunday morning when I suddenly had this strong feeling that God wanted me to get back on the trip, and to trust Him to provide the means to do so. So I did. We were fortunate that there were still airline tickets available, and we were able to catch back up with the rest of the group.

Shortly after that, my wife read an article online that said that H-E-B was one of the best companies in America to work for. There was a link in that article to job posting, which she sent me. So I followed that link and applied. Well, it was all just a whirlwind after that. H-E-B was opening a new office in Austin, and was looking for folks like me. There was a quick series of interviews, and I was hired within less than two weeks.

God is good, all the time. I’ll be blogging about our experiences in Kenya in the next few posts.

Alexa as Home Automation Integration Point

Over the past few months I’ve done a lot of experimenting with getting various home automation technologies to communicate with each other. For example, setup a Raspberry Pi to bridge between SmartThings and Home Assistant using MQTT. SmartThings in turned connected to my Harmony Hub. Then tied in my Patriot custom electronics devices via MQTT. What I ended up with worked, but seemed overly complex. I don’t even want to try to blog about how to reconstruct such a beast.

So that got me thinking about how to simplify things. I realized that the individual pieces are are fairly simple: SmartThings, Patriot, Harmony. Each of these provides their own Alexa smart home skill, and most of what I want to accomplish can be done entirely by Alexa. So it isn’t really necessary to try to bridge between each of those. Instead, I can let Alexa be the common interface to each of them.

So that’s what I’m trying now. I’ve removed the bridging pieces, and will be using Alexa to control everything. Things certainly are simpler now. I’m hoping that the recently announced support for Echo Buttons indicates a direction for Amazon that will allow other inputs to be used with Alexa. Amazon is holding to their “voice first” mantra, but we’ll see where this goes.

In the meantime, I’m investigating whether I can trigger an Alexa skill lambda handler directly from a Patriot device. I think it may be possible…

Making Sense of Z Devices (Z-Wave vs Zigbee)

As I stated in my last post, trying to understand and control Z-Wave and Zigbee devices sure is confusing.

Having looked at several different controllers and hubs, and used both Zigbee and Z-Wave lights, I’ve come to understand the major differences. But it is indeed confusing.

So here is my simplified, high level understanding and comparison of these two:

  • Zigbee devices are cheaper than Z-Wave.
    • For example, the cheapest light bulbs today are about $9 for Zigbee, and $17 for Z-Wave. That’s no big deal if you only need one or two. It is a big deal if you’re replacing a whole house full.
  • Zigbee is natively supported by the new Echo Plus; no extra hub required.
    • But if like me you already have Alexa, Dots, and Shows, you’ll still need a hub.
  • Z-Wave devices are certified.
    • What this means is that they should inter-operate more reliably, but that is probably why they’re more expensive.

Confusion factors:

  • Zigbee and Z-Wave are not interchangeable.
    • You cannot control a Zigbee light with a Z-Wave controller, and vs. a vs.
    • The SmartThings hub supports both, but Echo Plus supports only Zigbee, etc.
  • Light bulb advertisements on Amazon don’t always say which one is supported.
    • I was searching for Z-Wave light bulbs, and kept getting Zigbee bulbs that do not say “Zigbee”. It would be very easy to purchase the wrong type.

So caveat emptor.

Home Assistant to SmartThings and Back Again

How many programmers does it take to control a Z-wave light bulb?

I consider myself fairly technical, but I’ve got to say that trying to understand and control Z-Wave and Zigbee devices sure is confusing. And don’t even get me started with how complicated trying to program them has been. It all began when I decided that I needed to control a regular 120 vac light bulb in a desk lamp on my computer desk. As you can tell from all my earlier posts, I’ve done all my automation so far working with 12v DC, and prefer it that way. So it seemed like just using a Z-wave or Zigbee light bulb would be the easiest approach; no wiring required.

I did some early investigation, and saw that Home Assistant and SmartThings were a couple viable options. So I started putting together a Home Assistant system, while looking at ways for it to control either Zigbee or Z-Wave.

It just so happened that there was a Z-Wave sponsored contest starting, and applicants could receive a free Raspberry Pi + Sigma USB Z-Wave controller + choice of any Z-Wave device. So I applied, was accepted, and chose the Zipato RGBW2 light bulb. Off to a great start!

Home Assistant is an amazing open source project! I like it. I tried using it to control the light bulb via the Sigma controller, but could never quite get it working fully. Oh sure, I could turn the light on or off, but not control the RGB or 2 types of white light. Plus the darn Raspberry Pi 3 kept hanging overnight.

So, in typical programmer fashion, I decided I’d just cut out the middle man and write my own code to control the light bulb. Well, the scarcity of examples and lack of any tutorials made this a very frustrating effort. I never did get the Z-Wave bulb to respond to any of my own code. So when my maximum frustration threshold was exceeded, I decided to punt on writing my own code and give SmartThings a try.

Samsung has put together some pretty extensive, well written developer documentation. So I was initially very optimistic. I ordered a kit that included the hub plus a bunch of sensors, and quickly had the light bulb turning on and off in response to motion and doors opening. However, going from there to integrating with all my other automated lights and Alexa skills was again very challenging. I eventually was able to get everything integrated together by writing a SmartThings Device Handler and Service Manager that could together automatically detect and control my Patriot devices, but then what? In order to automate stuff, I had to write a bunch code, and organizing all this code quickly got out of hand.

In my googling about all this, I came across several posts that shared my experiences; SmartThings can control a lot of stuff, but using it to automate things required writing lots of code. Some of these posts described that Home Assistant was really good at solving that problem. I also read where the Home Assistant guy (folks?) are looking into using machine learning to establish automation rules. That’s the direction I’ve been trying to go. So maybe I’ll throw my hat into that ring.

So I’m back to working with Home Assistant. And I was delighted to find that in the several months since I looked at it before, installing Home Assistant has become simpler and easier.

There are options for connecting SmartThings sensors to Home Assistant using an MQTT broker, and I may take a look at that later. I’ll eventually want to be able to interface with Zigbee devices, and using the SmartThings hub is one option. But we’ll see.

Oh, and the Raspberry Pi hang? I finally figured out that it was caused by leaving an open SSH connection overnight. So now I exit SSH when I’m done using it, and haven’t had any more hangs.

Backup Internet for my Alexa and Particle.io Devices

I’m really enjoying using Alexa to control the lights in my home. One down side to this however is the requirement to be connected to the internet. Without an internet connection Alexa becomes a lazy idiot.

SmartThings, TPLink Nano, and iPhone

Since I live in an RV, I won’t always have a fast internet connection. So what I’ve done to deal with that is to have two separate hot spots, only one of which is ever active at any given time.

When my fast internet (was Roadrunner, will soon be Google fiber) is available and working, it transmits to all my devices.

When I’m on the road, or the fast internet breaks (like for the past 5 days!), I plug in a TPLink Nano Wireless N router. This little $35 box is very versatile, and can handle receiving and/or transmitting on Wifi and/or ethernet.

For example, as shown in the image, the SmartThings hub needs an ethernet connection. So the Nano is configured as a “Client”, to receive WiFi from the iPhone and convert it to an Ethernet connection for the hub.

Likewise, with the Nano connected to my normal WiFi router, I can configure the Nano to receive WiFi at whatever RV Park I happen to be staying, and distribute it to all my WiFi and IoT devices without having to reconfigure anything except the Nano.

SmartThings Control of Photon Devices Using Patriot

SmartThings

So having finally received my SmartThings hub and a few devices, I’ve spent the past week learning how to program it to interface with my existing Particle.io Photon controllers running Patriot. It turns out that SmartThings has a fairly nice architecture that made automatically discovering my existing devices fairly easy. I needed to write a Service Manager SmartApp and a child Device Handler. Altogether this was about 200 lines of Groovy code (basically Java). The service manage interacts with Particle.io to locate each Photon controller on my account, and then ask it what devices it supports. It then creates a child device for each using the name exposed by the Photon. Voila!

This is essentially the same approach used by the Patriot Alexa Smart Home controller that I published for Alexa.

So yesterday when I finally got the kinks worked out, I reinstalled the Patriot Service Manager SmartApp that I’d written, and it automatically discovered my two dozen Patriot lights and added them to SmartThings. Woohoo!

So now I just need to explore the Alexa implementation on SmartThings and see if my Alexa Smart Home skill is still needed. At this point it looks like it can be completely replaced by the SmartThings Alexa support.

Switching to Samsung SmartThings

After a frustrating few weeks of unsuccessfully trying to get Home Assistant working with my Patriot Particle.io devices and Z-Wave bulbs, I’ve decided to switch directions and won’t be investing any more time on Home Assistant. While I really appreciate all the hard work that folks have put into Home Assistant, it just isn’t a good fit me.

So I am switching gears and am investigating integrating Patriot with the Samsung SmartThings hub instead. This will give me both Z-Wave and Zigbee control, and some level of operation when disconnected from the internet.

I’ve read through much of the SmartThings developer documentation, which is very good. I like the architecture, and clear descriptions of how to integrate 3rd party hardware.

I ordered a SmartThings Monitoring Kit from Amazon that should be here tomorrow in time to have some of my Holiday time off to play with it. This kit includes the SmartThings hub, a couple door sensors (with vibration and temperature sensing), an a/c switched outlet, and a motion sensor.

In searching the developer forums I’ve located some posts by others that have been successful in integrating SmartThings with the Particle.io cloud, so I’m confident that in no time I’ll have it controlling the plethora of lights, fans, and awnings that I currently control using Particle.io Photons and Patriot.

Teaching Alexa What To Do

In the last post I described combining an Alexa custom skill with an Alexa smart home skill. Well, I got that working this past week and it works great. The combination really has some interesting potential.

Chihuahua and electronics

Just a cute little doggie watching me wire stuff together.

Smart home skills are great because they’re short and simple, and the supported device names can be extended dynamically through the “discovery” process.

Custom skills are great because they’re very flexible, and allow interactive dialog, unless something fits into a lot, isn’t extensible.

Putting the two together can provide the best of both. Here’s what a dialog with Alexa sounds like using both the Patriot smart home skill and the new Patriot custom skill.

Initially the skills don’t know about any activity called “computing”. So when I say:

“Alexa, turn on playing piano”, it responds with “Sorry, I didn’t find playing piano”.

That’s as expected. So let’s teach Alexa what we want it to do when we say “playing piano”. Note that I’ve made the invocation words “my lights”.

“Alexa, tell ‘my lights’ to turn on office when I say playing piano”

Then Alexa responds with:

“Ok, from now on when you say ‘playing piano’ I will set ‘office’ to 100 percent. This is a new activity, so you’ll need to tell me to ‘discover devices’ if you want to use the smart home command ‘start playing piano’.”

How cool is that?

So then saying “Alexa, discover devices” results in “Ok, found one new device ‘playing piano'”.

And then I can say “Alexa, start playing piano” and the office light comes on.