Testing the Phillips Hue Lux

For a while now, I’ve been using the fancy Hue system from Phillips. These are pricey LED light bulbs which you can control remotely from your smartphone. Not only can you do standard things like turning lights on and off, but you can also change the color temperature on the fly (going from a nice, warm incandescent light to something suggestive of a 1980s office park), change all the lights in your house to your favorite shade of hot pink, etc. To really cap things off, the Hue bulbs are insanely energy efficient (drawing only 5 watts, according to my measurements), long lasting (up to 20 years), and color-accurate (they score in the nineties for Color Rendering Index, which is much better than most other LED lights).

So what’s the catch? Well, as I mentioned, they’re pricey. A single Hue bulb will run you about $60 on Amazon. Replacing a home with 25 fixtures would cost a cool 1.5 grand.

You can imagine, then, that I was excited to discover that Phillips has launched a new line of Hue bulbs called Hue Lux. Here’s what they look like:

They’re priced much lower, at around $30 per bulb. What’s the difference, you ask? I created this short and poorly focused video to enlighten you:

Based on my initial experience with Hue Lux, they definitely look like an interesting option for people who want basic lighting control at a more competitive price. They’re also a great option for people who are using the full bore Hue bulbs already, but don’t feel like spending $60 on a bulb for a oft-neglected hallway or spare room fixture.

Installation, like with the other Hue products, is a breeze:

The one irritation with the Lux bulbs is that I can’t seem to get them to play nicely with other Hue bulbs in Phillips’ “Light Recipes.” This makes it hard to control both Lux and normal Hue bulbs with a single command in the app. But through continued experimentation and complaining on social media channels, I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

If you’re looking to replace a lot of lights, and you want industry-leading app control and easy setup, check out Hue and Hue Lux.

Tutorial: Using Python + Bidgely to Get Realtime Electric Usage Into Your Home Automation System

In a recent post, I wrote about using Bidgely to track your realtime electrical usage, using a little gadget that reads minute-by-minute data from your utility’s smart meter. I even made a video showing how to install the Bidgely Rainforest Eagle device and use Bidgely’s (very pretty) web dashboard.

Using the native Bidgely hardware and dashboard is all well and good, but this website is do it yourself home automation. Most of us are creating our own home automation systems with Raspberry Pi, crazy sensors, control hardware, etc. We generally aren’t satisfied using someone else’s interface and systems, no matter how slick they are. We want to get at the data.

In a new post, I share Python code which allows you to get your electrical usage data from Bidgely and feed it into your home automation system in near-realtime. Check out my tutorial here.

You can also check out my code walkthrough about the Python + Bidgely integration here:

Video: Monitoring Electrical Usage with Bidgely

In a previous post, I shared info about monitoring your realtime electrical usage via a smart meter and hardware from the home automation startup Bidgely. Below is a video from my testing of Bidgely. This includes info on the Rainforest Eagle, as well as a demo of Bidgely’s web interface.

I’ve been using Bidgely for more than six months now, and despite some issues with data connectivity to my smart meter, it’s been a great service. As I mentioned in my post about the Arduino Tre, I even found a way to integrate with Bidgely to pull realtime usage data into my home automation system for use with other parts of the system. More on this project soon…

This is our first video, but more are on the way! You can subscribe to our Youtube channel here.

Wink Home Automation: Not There Yet

Happy New Year! 2014 was a big year for home automation products. It seems like pretty much everything is suddenly “smart”. You’ve got smart watchesSmart thermostats. Even the pinnacle of silliness: a smart egg tray, which pings your smartphone when you are nearly out of eggs (manufactured by GE, nonetheless).

What was the real winner in 2014, though? Apps!

Several companies have come out with smartphone apps–often with accompanying physical hubs–which are designed to integrate all your various smart stuff together. These hubs and apps make a lot of sense. With the tremendous growth in the diy home automation market, the proliferation of different standards, wireless transmission technologies, and APIs has gotten kind of ridiculous. You used to just have X10 and Insteon. Now you have to contend with Zigbee, Wifi, Bluetooth, ANT+ and whatever the hell else the latest group of home automation startups think up.

Hubs and apps promise to make this insane sprawl of standards more usable by communicating with all your devices, consolidating the data and signals from them, and displaying everything in one slick (usually phone or tablet) interface. Revolv originated the idea, but there are at least 5 companies which are now doing the same thing.

The hubs are pretty similar; you basically stick a bazillion different radios, chips and other sending/receiving technologies into an antenna-studded plastic sphere of some kind, have users install it in their home and connect it to the Internet, and then feed the data into your app.

The app is where things get interesting. Most hub and app companies let you use the app to perform basic functions for all your devices, but also to create more complex behaviors by connecting different smart items together. Want to turn the lights on via Hue when someone taps in the correct code on your Wifi-connected front door lock? To recycle a cliche, there’s an app for that.

Since I think the smartphone app and hub system is the way the diy home automation world is moving (and rightfully so; I’d rather have a profusion of different home automation standards than be locked into X10 or Insteon like in the dark old days), I’m going to start looking at some of these app and hub systems in more detail.

I’ll get started with an easy one; Wink. Wink offers a hub for about $40, with an accompanying app. You can connect a variety of home automation devices to the hub, and then control them from within the app. Wink has been advertising heavily on social media and streaming television services, so you may have seen one of their commercials, which involve robots.

Why is Wink easy to review? It doesn’t work.

To start out testing, I downloaded the Wink app on my Android phone (Galaxy S5). The installation process was painless, and the interface was slick and easy to navigate. Since I didn’t have a Wink hub yet, my first test was to connect the app to my Phillips Hue hub (Wink hubs aren’t required for Hue, as the Wink app can talk to the Hue hub directly). Pairing with the hub was easy; you just press the Hue button, and Wink connects right up.

Next, I hit a button to control the lights, and…nothing. A few seconds later, the light turned on. I kept experimenting, and this inconsistent operation was very…consistent. Sometimes pressing a button in the Wink app would have no effect. Sometimes the light would come on immediately. Sometimes it would come on, but the graphic in the Wink app wouldn’t update, and it would still appear to be off. All the advanced functionality (what Wink calls “robots”) failed entirely.

Am I just dumb or incompetent? I don’t think so. The top two comments on the Wink hub at Amazon are titled “Not ready for primetime at launch” and “Does not work :(“. The comments on the app in the Android store express a similar sentiment.

Wink has a very slick interface (and clearly a good PR firm), but they’ve gotten a bit ahead of themselves. My advice to their team is to focus a bit more on product before you start running expensive TV spots. I know how this game is played (I’ve read the Lean Startup), so I’ll be first in line to give Wink a second try when they work out the kinks. But other users probably won’t be as forgiving.

Beta Testing the Arduino Tre

Some time in 2015, Arduino will be launching a new board known as the Tre. Thanks to Michael Shiloh at Arduino, I got my hands on an early development version of the board, and got to participate in Arduino’s official Tre Beta testing. The Tre has some promising applications for home automation, which I’ll get into below.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, prototyping boards like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis are fantastic for home automation. You can hook up a Raspberry Pi to everything from your alarm system to your sprinklers, and do tons of neat things with these systems.

In the past, though, these board designs had a flaw. The Raspberry Pi, with its graphical Linux operating system, USB peripheral support, etc. is wonderful for higher-level computing, where you need to be able to do networking, write stuff in Python, etc. Arduino boards, in contrast, are great for when you want to interface directly with low-level electronics (with Arduino’s built in ADCs, power conversion circuitry, etc.), but you don’t care so much about flashy GUIs or the other fancy things a Linux OS brings to the table.

For most projects, it’s an easy choice. Want to build a $50 streaming media server, or perhaps some kind of fancy video installation? Go with Raspberry Pi. Want to drive motors on a robot or tamper with your Roomba? Choose Arduino. Home automation, though, kind of throws a wrench in things. People doing diy home automation projects generally want the best of both worlds; we want to be able to interface with low-level systems (think a temperature sensor or door switch), but then we want to use the data from those systems to do high level things (like send an email, give an X10 command, etc).

Raspberry Pi generally fails at the first task, and Arduino fails at the second. As a result, home automation people often end up mashing the two together. See, for example, this project which uses a Netduino and a Raspberry Pi.

With the Tre, Arduino (working closely with Beagle) has done the mashing for you. The Tre is basically two boards in one. It has both a high speed Sitara processor running a full Linux distro (a la Beaglebone), and a separate Arduino Leonardo with all the fixings–separate Atmega chip, headers, USB, even a fancy outline on the PCB with the same footprint as a normal Leonardo. You can even use it with existing Leonardo shields. If you’re impatient or want to skip to pretty pictures of the board, here’s a little hands-on video of my Tre:

At first, this mashing up seems like kind of a kludge. Surely, there must be a more elegant way to solve the high level/low level problem than mashing two unrelated boards together. Arduino, though, have taken some fantastic steps to make sure the two halves of the Tre’s split personality genuinely work together and complement each other.

Firstly, they have created a new version of Arduino’s IDE which can be accessed completely over the web. The Tre uses its beefy Sitara processor and Linux networking to run and serve the IDE, but since the two parts of the board are electrically connected, you can use the IDE to load standard Arduino code directly onto the onboard Atmega processor, even over the web. The upshot is that you can plug this board into your home network, call up a browser on another computer, point it at the Tre, and have a full Arduino development environment right there in Chrome. This eliminates the normal hassle of installing a million USB drivers on each computer you want to use with your Arduino, and also makes it super easy to access the Arduino even once you’ve embedded it in a project.


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Secondly, when you do upload code, you have the option to run it on the Atmega, or to have the Sitara processor run the code, pretending to be an Arduino. The advantage of the second option is that you get much faster processing speeds, but you can still write your code in the familiar Arduino format.

Finally, because the Sitara chip runs a full Linux distro, and it’s electrically connected to the Leonardo part of the Tre, you can run high level scripts on the Linux part of the board, and have them talk directly to low-level electronics through the Arduino. Because of this capability, the Tre will make a fantastic board for home automation. You can do low level stuff til the cows come home using the embedded Leonardo–read sensors, send out PWM signals, take in analog values from your thermostat, etc.–but also have all the network, scripting and graphical capabilities you need to act on the data, all one a single board.

Currently, I’m using the Tre on a project which will grab info on my minute-to-minute electrical use from Bidgely (using a Python script on the Sitara) and then change the color of a glowing dome (via an RGB LED connected to the Tre’s onboard Leonardo) depending on my current usage (more on this project later). The Beta team is still ironing out some kinks, but overall the board has performed extremely well, and Arduino has been very responsive to questions from their testers.

Arduino haven’t said how much the Tre will cost, but when it does come to the market, make sure to check it out.

G7 Power: The Best Light Bulbs

Recently, I decided to finally bite the bullet and swap out the old incandescent lightbulbs in my home. Before you stop reading in disgust or leave nasty comments about the fact that I still have incandescents in 2014, let me take a step back and say that I swapped out the vast majority of my bulbs for CFLs a long while ago. I like the soft-white ones from Phillips; they draw about 22 watts for a 100 watt equivalent brightness, they produce a nice quality of light, and they’re cheap.

CFLs have their downsides, though. They’re (usually) not dimmable. Even with good ones, the light has that vague office building-esque character to it. They’re big, and can be hard to squeeze into compact fixtures. And if you break one by trying to force it into one of those fixtures (as I did recently), you have to go into full hazmat mode and evacuate the house to avoid mercury poisoning.

Still, I had already gone CFL for the majority of my lights. The ones which remained incandescent were the problem children: a three-bulb dimmable hanging light in my dining room and track lighting in my kitchen. When I set up Bidgely to monitor my home energy use, it quickly became clear that these bulbs were costing me. Leaving them all burning (as I tend to do) was consuming 700 watts, or about 25 cents per hour at California energy rates. Do that for 4 hours a day and you’re paying $30 per month to light two rooms.

Given the potential savings, I decided to make a switch. I would go LED.

LED lights have come a long, long way in the last several years. They combine many of the advantages of incandescents (good light quality, instant warmup, easy dimming) with the advantages of CFLS (low energy use, long life). The biggest issues with LEDs are normally price and brightness. I have a couple Hue bulbs from Phillips (more on these later) which are awesome for home automation, since you can control them from a smart phone, and they generate fantastic light. But they cost $60 per bulb, and even the basic Phillips LED bulbs hover around $15 for a decent brightness.


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Enter G7 Power. I discovered G7 while doing a random Amazon search. They’re based in Reno, Nevada and were founded by an electrical engineer. They make all manner of LED bulbs, get stellar ratings on Amazon, and are even veteran-owned. And the best part? Their bulbs are cheap. You can get a 60w equivalent bulb for around $10, and they make a high color rendering index bulb (read: one which makes excellent quality light) for about $14. They even make weird bulbs, like the little GU10 bulbs for my track lights.


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Naturally, I was skeptical. Were these bulbs really going to make light of comparable quality to the more expensive Phillips ones? Would LED tracklighting even look right? I decided to order a couple bulbs to see.

Turns out, the G7 bulbs are great. The light quality is excellent. I opted for the high CRI bulbs, which have a color temperature of 3000K, and they add in just the right mix of sunlight-esque coolness without making the dining room look like a 1980s office park.

For those who like the color yellow, G7 power makes 2700k bulbs too, which will look much more like your traditional incandescent. The bulbs dim pretty nicely, too. My only complaint is very occasional flickering, probably when there’s a power surge through my dimmer.


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The best part, though, is the energy savings. Running all my track lighting and the hanging fixture, I’m drawing about 50 watts; a more than 10-fold decrease from my old bulbs. With just the track lighting running, I draw so little that Bidgely has trouble keeping track. My first electrical bill after making the switch was almost $30 lower.

So if you’re thinking of swapping out your incandescents for the best-in-class LEDs, use Phillips Hue. But if you don’t have $4k to drop on lightbulbs, take a look at G7 Power.

Tracking Realtime Electrical Usage With Bidgely

I live in California, which is served by Pacific Gas and Electric. It’s one of the enlightened utilities which has installed smart electric meters in many of its customers’ homes, including mine. The meters monitor electrical usage continuously, and report back to PGE. Using the data, they can change how much they generate to keep up with demand, see when people are using the most energy, and (of course) bill you more easily!

What’s enlightened about that? Well, PGE does something else with all their data; they let you see it. By default, any PGE customer with a smart meter can log into an online account and see their usage data, broken down hourly, for the previous day. It’s a neat feature for seeing how much you use and when. I’ve used it to try and reduce “background” electrical usage by shutting down appliances which draw small amounts of power continuously.

While the basic PGE interface is nice, it’s not terribly useful for making realtime changes; it’s hard to motivate yourself to turn off extra lights if you won’t see the change in your usage until tomorrow, and only if you log into a web interface, zoom to hourly resolution, and compare that hour to the hours before and after it. And the PGE interface is basically useless for home automation, because it’s nearly impossible to scrape the data and integrate into your HA system (I’ve tried).

That’s why I was excited to discover–on the PGE website, no less–a series of links to so-called HAN devices. These devices use ZigBee radios to connect directly to your smart meter (from PGE or many other utilities), grab usage data on a 10-20 second resolution, and then send that data over the Internet to a fancier, snazzier interface which lets you view it in near realtime.

The website offered several potential devices which work with PGE meters, but I settled on something called the Rainforest Edge from a company called Bidgely. The device arrived, and I lot it up and running. Lo and behold, it works! I’ll do a full page about using it, but I’m now getting realtime electrical usage data. Turn off a light, and the number changes immediately. Bidgely can even automatically tell you which appliances are using how much electricity, without any additional equipment.


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If you use PGE or another compatible utility, check out the Rainforst Edge on Amazon, and Bidgely here.

Home Security With the Raspberry Pi

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how home security intersects with home automation. In both home security systems and home automation systems, you’ve got a lot of the same things: sensors, servers, monitoring, alerts, etc. So why not merge the two together (and in a DIY way, of course)?

Over at PrivateEyePi, they’re doing just that. The project uses the Raspberry Pi as a simple platform for creating your own DIY home security system. You connect contact sensors, motion detectors, etc. to the Pi, and you get alerts when the sensors are triggered. You can even access the system online, and add in temperature and humidity sensing using a DHT22 sensor.

My favorite part of the system? A Raspberry Pi connected siren! PrivateEyePi’s mysterious creator (who never goes by name on the page) warns that you should test this feature with a buzzer before upgrading to a full home security system siren, but I still love the ability to trigger any kind of siren from the command line. Imagine the possibilities if you rigged up the Pi to trigger this thing whenever it would normally send a system bell character!

Image from PrivateEyePi

HA Question: Will Infrared Illuminators Interfere With My Security System’s Motion Detector?

Here’s an interesting question that comes up from time to time in home automation and home security circles: if I use a security camera with an infrared illuminator, and also use an infrared motion detector (like a PIR sensor) in the same space, will the two interfere?

First off, let’s begin with some background on what this question means. Humans (sadly) can’t see in the dark. Cameras, though, can. If you’ve ever watched CopsZero Dark Thirty, or pretty much any reality TV show from the late ’90s, you’re familiar with so-called “night vision” systems. These systems work by using a camera which is sensitive to infrared light. Humans can’t see infrared light, but there’s usually at least a bit of it out there, even in a space which looks totally dark to us. “Night vision” cameras turn this light into visible light, letting you see in the dark.

Here’s the great thing about infrared light, though. Since (again) we can’t see it without a special camera, you can flood a space with infrared light, and the space will still appear totally dark to a person. This is what an infrared illuminator does. It’s like a giant spotlight, filling a space with light that’s invisible to the naked eye. Put a camera in the space, and suddenly the camera can see great, even if people in the space are totally blind.


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Understandably, people often use infrared cameras as part of home security systems. Install a camera in your hard, use an infrared illuminator to light up the space, and suddenly you can see the guy crouching in your azalea bush.

Lots of home security cameras now come with infrared illuminators (or IR illuminators for those in the know) built in. You’ve probably seen these as a ring of faintly-glowing red LEDs around a surveillance camera.


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So what’s the issue with these illuminators? Well, most home security systems use another infrared tool to detect intruders: infrared motion sensors. These sensors work by reading the “passive” infrared energy (mostly heat) emitted by living beings, just as a night vision camera uses this energy to make those beings visible. Infrared motion sensors usually contain two sensing elements, and a lens which divides incoming infrared light between the elements.


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If the level of infrared light hitting one element is higher the the level hitting another, it probably means that something in front of the sensor is moving around. If the two sensing elements are reading the same level, then the infrared light in the whole space in front of the sensor is probably constant, and the sensor infers that nothing is moving around.

Already, you can probably see where the trouble arises when you use infrared illuminators and infrared motion detectors as part of the same home security system. One system is pumping out tons of infrared light, and the other is looking for subtle changes in infrared light.

So do they interfere? The short answer is: sort of. In general, the systems don’t totally cancel each other out, and many people do use them together. Remember, an infrared motion detector is looking at changes in infrared light across a scene. Flooding the scene with infrared light doesn’t necessarily result in one part of a scene having more light than another; all parts of the scene have move, so there is no contrast  in light for the sensor to detect. Infrared illuminators do, however, tend to make infrared motion detectors react slower to movement.

Why? Imagine, for a moment, that you’re part of an experiment. Someone tells you that you’ll stare at a room, and when the room gets brighter, you should raise your hand. When you first start, the room is dark. The experimenter turns on a light. You raise your hand immediately. Now, imagine that the same room is bathed in sunlight. Again, the experimenter turns on a light. Since the room is so bright to start with, it’ll probably take you a lot longer to notice the little bit of extra light that the experimenter has added. You might take a lot longer to raise your hand, or you might miss the subtle change entirely.

The same thing happens when you point an infrared illuminator at an infrared motion detector. When the detector is bathed in infrared light to begin with, it’s a lot harder to detect the subtle change in infrared light caused by a person moving in front of the sensor. The sensor might be slower to respond to movement, or if it’s a cheap sensor, it may not respond at all.

So if you’re trying to use both systems as part of your home security system, what should you do? One obvious solution is to not use both systems together in the same space. But if you really need motion detection and night vision cameras as part of the same security system, you can always use another motion detection technology. The two biggies are microwave and ultrasound systems. Both work by using sound or radio waves, the Doppler effect, and fancy math to detect motion. Both are pricier than infrared motion detectors, but they should work more reliably.

Have a pressing home automation question of your own? Ask it on our Twitter feed!

My Industrial Sensor System Comes to Life

Recently, I did a blog post about installing an industrial sensor system in your home. At the end of the post, I said that I was getting an evaluation kit from the industrial sensing company Monnit. The kit arrived, and my system is up and running. I did a full write up about it here.

Ever wanted to see real time temperature data for every room in your house, from anywhere with an Internet connection? Want to shut off your HVAC system if you’re cooking dinner and the oven is heating your house? Want to have your lights turn on automatically when you pull your car into your parking space (or get a text message if it pulls out during the night)? How about getting an email when the postman delivers your mail?

Read all about it!