Ladies and Gentlemen, Let’s Welcome Back; “HomeKit”

(Updated on 2015-06-05: Formerly titled: “Waiting for HomeKit”)

For the past year, I had been planning to experiment more with home automation but managed to get myself FUD’ed [1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear,_uncertainty_and_doubt] by Apple’s HomeKit.

Up until June 2, 2015, HomeKit had the impact of an open source code release for FaceTime. That is to say nothing, absolutely nothing [2. Sung to the tune of Whitfield and Strong’s “War”. There were numerous announcements about locks, lightbulbs and hubs but it took a long time to certify and retail HomeKit products.], had hit the streets at retail since the grand unveiling of HomeKit as an idea in June 2014. It seemed that something might happen in mid-May 2015 and now there are finally some real products available for the IoT [3. Internet of Things] user. It may be at another 6 months to 1 year before many of us will have a real sense of just how well HomeKit works and how well hardware integrations with HomeKit will perform. More vendors and a wider array of product interactions will be required to determine whether HomeKit can work for typical users.

I have had a brief sojourn into home automation. My hope was that automation in the Apple world would get better; sooner rather than later — more integration, more reliability, ease of use and collected data. In measured Apple fashion; that did not happen. An integrated home automation platform that may develop the critical mass to encourage wider consumer adoption? We’ll see.

Further Reading:
http://www.macworld.com/article/2922507/report-homekit-delayed-until-august-or-september.html#tk.rss_all
https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204903
https://support.apple.com/en-ca/HT204893
http://www.imore.com/homekit-faq

Baby steps in Home Automation – the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Mini Review

You would think an Electrical Engineer specializing in building science would have a house full of home automations toys. But no, that would be wrong.

I do have a programmable thermostat and have had one for years but it stands alone and does not have any interconnectivity. A programmable thermostat is the key area where any home owner can make a significant difference in terms of energy savings. No wonder the people at Nest started with a thermostat.

I have had an occupational interest in Zigbee and Z-Wave for a few years. Originally, it seemed like Z-wave was targeted at the consumer market, while Zigbee trended more towards the commercial sector but that is changing now. In the home, both of these protocols, and others, have largely been the province of professionals and keen hobbyists. If home automation is really going to take off it has to be as simple as making a few adjustments and installing an app.

Which brings me to this; the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Universal Smartphone Garage Door Controller. Knowing that I didn’t leave the garage door up after driving away appeals to me, so I thought I would take a look at the feature set.

Here’s a rough description of how the system works:

1) The hardware component consists of a door sensor and a hub unit. Mount the door sensor on an upper garage door panel and the hub on the garage ceiling near the garage door drive unit. The hub uses wifi to access your local network and is also able to transmit a homelink code to your garage door drive to raise and lower the door. The hub detects the door open/closed position using the door sensor. It also contains an audible alarm and LED warning light.

2) Using the Arrayent server back-end, the hub connects via the internet to a private account that you set up with Chamberlain. The API for Arrayent is here. If you have an iPhone or Android phone you can use a free app to monitor door status or remotely send a signal to open or close the garage door. Remote closing could occur with someone in the vicinity of the garage, so the hub sends an audible and visual alert for 5-10 seconds prior to activating the garage door to meet UL325 requirements. This, along with the door operator’s obstruction sensors, allows for safe remote operation. Safety is extremely important; it’s why I chose to go with an integrated product and not a DIY solution.

Installation per the manual is easy but I installed the door sensor in the cold with the included adhesive backed velcro strips and am not confident that it will hold in the long term. My suggestion is to use the alternative, and included, mounting screws for the sensor. The hub mounts to an included bracket easily and quickly. You need AC power nearby to power the hub from a small power supply brick, which explains the suggestion to mount it near the garage door drive unit.

When you first power up the hub, it initiates a bluetooth pairing session. Grab your phone, pair and accept the transfer of wifi settings from the phone to the hub… But wait — and you won’t find this in the manual — My phone uses wireless N and I discovered that the hub uses G because, after repeated tries, I continued to receive connectivity errors. An alternative start-up procedure turns the hub into a wifi hub that you can connect your phone to. Using Safari on my iPhone, I browsed to an alternative set-up web site. That’s when I saw that the hub was only seeing wireless G access points. Luckily I run a separate G router at home in order to connect “old” devices. Once I got the hub connected to the correct router, the MyQ unit wanted to — of course — download a firmware upgrade.
(Has there been a device shipped in the last 2 decades that ever shipped with stable firmware?) The download timed out twice and indicated a failure but the status lights suggested otherwise. Low and behold, after a restart, the firmware update did take and I was ready to start using the unit. Getting reliable wifi into the garage may be a problem for some people, so I strongly suggest that you test signal strength and usability in your garage with your smartphone before purchasing the MyQ. You may discover that you will need to augment or change your wifi set-up before utilizing the this garage door controller.

Your Chamberlain account info must be entered to start the app. Thankfully, the software contains a checkbox to remember your login. The app allows the door to be opened or closed from the touch screen. Additionally, alarms — also called events — can be set up to either provide a notification or email when the door is opened or closed. These events are logged and sorted by date and time. This info is useful if you have allowed third party access to your door through a keypad, for instance.

At about C$140.00, I am satisfied that the Chamberlain MyQ Garage works as advertised. The system does utilize a remote server service but it is free to use. The MyQ system is not Z-wave or Zigbee compatible out-of-the-box but I’m okay with that for this purpose-built application. It is possible to add other MyQ devices but I’m not planning to go in that direction. I’m going to play with Z-wave inside the house. Before that however, my next project is to set-up an older MacBook as a motion detector and security cam.