How Smart Outlets Made Life Easier
Smart outlets can make life easier, they just need to have a purpose, a problem to solve.
I've been interested in many home automation things for a while now, but I haven't been able to come up with a practical use-case that was worthy of trying out (read: spending money on).
- I don't feel the need for colored / smart lightbulbs
- I don't think I need smart light switches, flipping the lever works just fine and there are plenty of 3-way switches to deal with.
- An Alexa Dot speaker? No thanks, I'm good with the app.
I knew that I didn't want Amazon Alexa or Google Home in my home. Thanks but no thanks, I need to limit the amount of things that will be listening in on what happens in the home. No Sonus with Alexa here. No Echo or Dot here. Honestly, the fewer things that you need to know and understand, the better. Let's face it, Apple so far, has set the bar for end-user Privacy, they just charge us for it with monthly fees, either for your iPhone or iCloud storage space.
I finally found a use: patio lights!
We have a string of patio lights outside under the porch. They are really nice to have on, however it is a pain to actually turn them on. They have to be plugged into an outlet and unplugged when you are done. The outlet is in an awkward spot and you are left in the dark when they are unplugged. I finally found the problem that could be solved!
I ended up searching Amazon for smart plugs that were HomeKit compatible. I ended up finding this two-pack of outlets from VOCOlinc:
They had decent reviews and were in a price range that seemed be reasonable. Honestly, I could have purchased the single outlet instead of the two-pack, but I am glad I didn't! (more on that soon) I thought I would use the one outlet for the patio lights and I had no use for the second one, yet. I thought I could maybe use the second with my Swim Team RGB LED Matrix sign (details coming in a future post!).
Setup was very easy. Download the VOCOlinc app for iOS, plug in the outlet and scan the QR code with the app. The QR code is both on the outlet as a sticker and stickers on the box above each outlet. That provisions the outlet and configures it for the WiFi Network. Once set up, the app will check for firmware updates and you can update them, if needed. Now you can move on to the Home app for iOS and add them to your automation process.
Phase I - Turn on the lights with Siri
The Home app was easy to learn. The overall work-flow is really good. You can easily find the objects you are working with, rename them, create a new room and place the objects into the room. I created a Patio room and put my outlet in there, calling it "Patio Lights."
That was it! Now all I had to say was "Hey Siri, turn on the patio lights" and voila, she turned them on. The feedback from Siri can be mildly entertaining, too. At this time, I was able to duly impress my wife by showing her the power I now control - turning on the lights with the sound of my voice. Or by pressing the icon in the Home app. Or by even pressing the small, physical button on the outlet itself. Yes, they have a button you can use to manually turn them on and off, which is pretty nice.
Phase II - adding the stereo and some automation
This is where things get interesting. I thought that if I could use the second outlet on the stereo that feeds the outdoor speakers, I could have that turned on whenever the lights are turned on. The stereo is set to power off after a set amount of inactivity. So the next time you want to play music, you have to go over behind the chair where it is hidden on the floor and search for the power button. I know, it's a strange place, but that is where the speaker wires were run by the previous owner of the home.
A great thing is that the stereo, when plugged into an outlet, will turn on when it receives power and return to the last setting, which is CD for the music. The second VOCOlinc smart outlet can turn on the stereo! I bought the stereo on Amazon, too. It is an inexpensive Yamaha stereo model, nothing fancy, it plays music.
But that's not all!
With HomeKit (and I'm sure Alexa and Google) you can create automation events. Actions similar to IFTTT. Simply put, when the lights are turned on, either by Siri or by button or the Home app, the stereo outlet will also turn on. Likewise, when the lights are turned off, the stereo outlet turns off too. No hot stereo using up power 24/7 when it is not doing anything useful. It seems so simple, but it really is quite elegant to have this type of control.
Phase III - iOS shortcuts to make it all connected
Once the first two phases were complete, I had a fully functional system for the patio lights and stereo. Not willing to stop there, I wanted to make playing music easier. The stereo is connected to a re-purposed old Apple Airport Express. Remember those things? They could be a WiFi AP, or you could connect a printer to them or they even had an audio out port. Here I can use it to feed the stereo with AirPlay music from my phone!
The remaining connection was to somehow automatically get my phone to play music on the "outdoor speakers" device for AirPlay. This was achieved with an iOS shortcut. I created a shortcut called "Relax Outside" and set it to perform the actions:
- Turn on the patio lights (which also turns on the stereo)
- Set the iPhone playback destination to "Outside Speakers" - this was the part I really wanted to automate, there are too many clicks to get there from the control center
- Play a set piece of music from iTunes (you could also probably use Amazon Music or iHeart radio, etc.)
Now, the only thing I have to do is say: "Hey Siri, Relax Outside" and all of the pieces come together: lights and music. This to me, was a worth-while project for home automation. It can also be re-purposed for Christmas lights in a couple of months. No more hand-plugging in the Christmas lights every night and forgetting to turn them off. I can turn them off while lying in bed!!
What are you waiting for? Go out and get yourself one of these plugs and enjoy a little home automation!
P.S. - What about Security with the outlets?
This is a fair and especially important question. When any device is added to your internal home network, you need to understand what it is doing with the "cloud" or Internet hosts. When I add devices like this to my network, I put them into their own firewall policy for Internet access. This allows me to limit the access to and use of the Internet by the outlets. I log all of their network access, including DNS queries.
So far with these VOCOlinc plugs, they have not talked to Google or Amazon or some host in China. They do one Internet packet when they first turn on and every 24 hours thereafter: NTP. Network Time Protocol. They go out and look up an IP for pool.ntp.org (a well-known NTP service) and set their clock time from this site (ok, that's 2 packets for those counting).
Besides the NTP time set, the only other traffic they have ever sent out has been to download firmware updates. This is only done when you use their LinkWise app and it says there is a firmware update for the outlets. I would appreciate more information about what the update is fixing or changing, that seems to be missing from the app before you choose to update the outlets to new firmware.
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