Home Automation

Gremlins in the system

The notion of a gremlin in the system, a bug or intermittent failure of a system to perform it’s usual function, can be one of the most annoying aspects of modern technology. Depending on how much technology you surround yourself with the impact can be unnoticeable or life changing. Your alarm clock failing to go off is annoying and will knock-on to affect the rest of your day, but your self-driving car failing to notice a brick wall will have considerably larger consequences.

My gremlin falls into the middle ground, I went fairly large on smart light bulbs, and environmental monitoring sensors a few years ago. The system worked well and took its cues from all the various systems around me. Back door open and movement detected in the same area at the rough time i usually get home from work? Lights on! 

A few years down the line, i’ve added a couple of bluetooth buttons where light switches don’t exist, i was given an Amazon Echo for Christmas and i run Kodi on a few screens about the house. The integration is humming…

Much of it is ridiculous and was initially set up as i like to tinker with tech, i also have a techie flat-mate who doesn’t really engage with it, but appreciates the automation when coming home late. For each of us it has it’s own pro’s & con’s until a week before christmas where our frustrations aligned.

The smart bulbs are getting unreliable. They work on 2.4ghz wifi and supposedly have collision avoidance with other devices. The bulbs connect back to a WiFi hub which in-turn is connected to my WiFi. My house is built of strong stuff – lots of reinforced concrete with large chunks of hardcore and metal re-bar throughout all the internal & external walls. Makes fun of the wifi to start with, but i have CAT6 all-over and enough Access Points to cover a cruise ship. Things were fine for years.

A week after christmas my Z-Wave network, which runs my sensors and a few appliance sockets, went to hell as well. Cue buying all sorts of diagnostic tools to try and get to the bottom of what is happening. Is there a collision somewhere? Is a device dying and spewing out crap? What is going on in my house!!!

So far nothing conclusive. I’ve reset nearly every system that i can reset – so far i haven’t had a clean run of more than a few days without something failing. And there lies the problem. I am a techie, i’ve worked in troubleshooting tech for more than 10 years, and before than tinkered with anything electronic I could get my hands on. And if i’m stumped – Joe Public has absolutely no chance.

Apple tried to get into SmartHome tech, and immediately had to reverse and re-release their HomeHub. Sorry early adopters – put it all in the bin and buy fresh. My experience with the lower end of the market was similar, but on a much slower time-scale, and with no fanfare. I’m now evaluating where to go with the lighting in my house. Do i replace with a new type of smart bulb? or try a different approach. Control the light-switch already in place, rather than adding tech to a bulb?

After living with light switches in useful places, some configured to perform multiple actions or different actions based on what time of day, i’m not sure i want to go back to the ways of old. But then again, sitting here pressing this bastard BLE button as only one of three supposedly smart lights come alive I wonder if we’ll ever crack the dreaded “network blip” that ensures my packets make it only to the bin or worse – arrive 2 hours late, when i’ve just drifted off to sleep having been unable to for the past 5 hours.

Bastard tech…