Planning for autonomy
You may want to refresh yourself on our discussion of Autonomy in the Principles section. While there's nothing ominous about making a house autonomous the planning can be, in part because we're well ahead of the curve in terms of off-the-shelf products, especially those that play well with others.
So in planning, we have a few steps to follow. One is to determine exactly what we want the autonomous features to be, one is to determine how we intend to make that happen and one is to figure out where to get the items and elements we need to pull that together.
This one is relatively easy. We want to avoid having that fan run when it shouldn't or not run when it should. A thermopile sensor can remotely read the cooktop temperature in a simple control system; alas, we have to kick that up a notch to be able to also turn off that fan in the event of a fire. (The fire response automation also automatically shuts down the natural gas feed to the cooktop, reducing the inconvenience of the fan being off when lives may be at stake).
Dual doorbell (and then some)
This isn't as obvious as it may sound. At its simplest level, we want to hear one chime when a visitor pushes the button and a different one when the button isn't pushed, but that isn't all. We also want to make sure that cameras at the door are recording for as long as somebody is there.
We do not want to establish voice or video communication with the visitor; the bad guys have already figured out that a voice at the door tends to mean that no one is actually home.
We can use the same kind of relatively inexpensive motion detectors - both PIR (passive infrared) and ultrasonic - to tell when somebody is at the door. We can use motion detection in our surveillance camera system to identify that as well as to identify the presence of a vehicle at the loop of the driveway near the front door. That's 3 different doorbell chimes so far. We end up with more than 20 - distinctive sounds - to tell us when mail arrives, when vehicles enter or exit the driveway, when cars enter or exit each of the 3 separate garage spaces and more.
We were inspired by a NuTone doorbell model that plays very realistic-sounding chime sounds that it actually stores as MP3 files. We, of course, decided to kick that up a notch. We used Audacity to edit and tailor several public-domain sound effects to create our library. And we adapted our design for the 30 ceiling-mounted smart sensor pods to include a small amplifier and speaker.
We end up with a distributed doorbell, making smaller sounds in many places rather than depending on one central chime to be heard everywhere. And here's where automation kicks in. We know where warm bodies are, so we don't need to play the doorbell sounds in empty rooms. We can limit the number of places they play during sleeping hours.
And we can enhance the play list for other purposes, like making a very localized knock-knock sound as a reminder when somebody leaves the door open to an otherwise vacant room.
It's one example of getting a house to answer the perennial question: Why didn't you remind me?
The mailbox at the street is more than 400 feet from the house, so we don't want to make unnecessary trips, especially when the weather turns ugly, just to learn that there's nothing there yet.
At the same time, if there is something there, we may want to respond to that quickly, so notification could be helpful. It's also nice to confirm when an outgoing piece of mail gets picked up. Of course, we could do all of that with something as simple as a hidden switch.
So let's kick that up a notch. If we create a second back cover on the mailbox and hide a thin, flat IP-connected camera there, looking through a hole at the contents, we can gain a few pluses. Assuming it's a WDR (wide dynamic range) camera with invisible IR emitters for illumination, we can see not only what, if anything, is in the mailbox, we gain the ability to automatically capture video of anybody looking into the mailbox.
As you'll see in a second, we have power and data connections nearby.
It's not unusual to see lampposts next to the apron at the foot of a driveway; neither is it unusual to see these built up with round or square stone pillars. So what do we gain by creating something that looks exactly like that but that isn't exactly that?
We know we can get very realistic stone or brick facade, so what if that pillar is really a box and the lamp is really bolted to a short post at the top? We can trench power and data runs from the house to these pillars through PVC conduit. Then how can we equip the pillars, to what purpose?
We can, of course, connect to sensors that tell us what's in the driveway, whether it's entering or leaving, even if it's one of the cars that has one of the garage spaces in the house. We can also include an electrical way to allow access inside the pillar. And the light is within the range of our Synapse Wireless lighting control system.
Several technologies are available for monitoring the driveway: buried inductive coils, infrared beam break, Bluetooth beacon, surveillance camera pixel shifts and more. A Sanus half-height enclosed rolling rack inside one of the pillars houses most of the electronics. A Falcon always-on (double conversion, continuous online) UPS with extended temperature specs assures power. An outdoor-qualified Microsemi Gigabit PoE (power over Ethernet) switch connects to the control center in the house over optical data fiber.
The challenge of entry to the inside without obvious hinge lines is daunting. It's a little too early to document our solution, but we think it will tickle you; we borrowed the idea from an old magic shop trick.
We plan to have three single-car garage spaces, each with its own door, at our 3-car garage. It's our habit to have a car “own” a garage space. It would be nice to have the system (through a master controller connection) recognize which of our cars is entering or leaving; either is an event that can trigger other activities.
On entering, the “owned” garage door can open (without anybody pushing any buttons) and, at night, an outdoor light above that garage door can turn on.
Ultrasonic sensors (right), good for measuring distances, can fire down from overhead, telling when a garage door is open, when a car is in a space or when the space is empty; we plan lines of 5 in each garage space. Laser distance-measuring (Lidar) sensors (left) firing from the back wall of each space can tell when the space is occupied or empty, whether the car is coming or going and when the car is positioned at its desired stop-point.
Bluetooth Beacon technology also plays a role. It starts with a transmitter in each car, wired to only be on when the engine is running. Each transmits a unique identifier.
So, on entry, as the garage door opens the garage interior lights turn on, the deadbolt on the door to the house gets unlocked and a message gets sent to occupants whose cars are currently absent saying, hey, I made it home OK. When the system senses that the engine has been shut off, the garage door closes and the outside light turns off. If the stop is temporary and the engine is still running the system recognizes that.
That leaves one more somewhat complex circumstance to consider.
This system can automatically keep any garage door open when it senses a car running, but may not do so for other engines. Running a lawn mower engine, for example, may not trigger the garage door but may trigger dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Because of fire codes and a concern that an inrush of air could result in flammable gases (like gasoline vapors) igniting, carbon monoxide detectors and garage door openers are not allowed to interconnect.
We could address that by combining combustible gas and carbon monoxide detection, but probably won't. We don't like the only choices being to choke or to burn, but for now, those are the only choices (though we did make sure to install man-door exits from the garage).
We don't need to spend any time discussing the obvious outdoor elements, like backyard or path lighting, but there a number of other concerns we should address.
One of those is the lawn, for both cutting and growth. We normally believe in letting landscapers do the cutting but we're looking into robotic lawnmowers to see if they can work out here. In terms of the health of the lawn, we plan to enhance a traditional irrigation (sprinkling) system with an intelligent controller that responds to recent, current and upcoming weather, not just a schedule; we want to unlock the clock and never be one of those homes running sprinklers during a rainstorm.
On that topic, we are taking several approaches to the weather. Most current smart irrigation controllers get their weather data from ad hoc weather networks. We're exploring API access to multiple online weather services and we'll have our own communicating weather monitoring on-site.
It almost certainly takes a blend of on-site micro-weather with oncoming macro-weather to be place-accurate.
Weather data can also be useful in helping the control system make decisions about window shading, lighting, HVAC adjustments (since it's more economical to adjust gradually rather than abruptly) and so on.
Outdoors is also, from another perspective, everywhere that leads to indoors, so we intend to ring the house with IP surveillance cameras to let the automation keep a close watch on what's crossing the yard or approaching the house. Some of it is for fun, so we can see what animal visitors we get; some of it is for convenience; some of it is for security. We can even put a sprinkling zone on pause if somebody walks into it.
We want to provide more comfort in more places where people actually are, but more economy by relaxing the comfort settings in places where they are not. We went into some detail in our Plans/Energy discussion of HVAC so we will just fill a few gaps here.
The specifics of the thermostat we choose and its intercompatibility with other elements (the HVAC heating, cooling and fan, the humidifier, the vent shutters, the ceiling fans, the fireplace and so on) will determine whether we use it without modifications or virtualize it, letting our controller system do the actual connection. If we do virtualize, we will install a hidden switch that can immediately revert back to direct thermostat control.
Lighting, too, is fairly straightforward. Our automation will keep track of where people are now and deduce where they are heading next. Ambient light will be a factor in deciding on lighting levels, as assisted by monitoring illumination levels in each room. The system should also be able to deduce purpose by looking at things like whether or not a TV screen is on, whether or not a stove is hot, whether or not it's bedtime, and so on.
We are also looking into motorized window shutters as an antidote to sun glare..
This is one of the most challenging elements of the house: how do we know when there's somebody in a hallway or in a room?
Most commercial lighting approaches use a device called a PIR (passive infrared) sensor, but a PIR only responds to bodies in motion. You may have sat, quietly and alone, at a conference table in a commercial facility, reading or working, and had the lights turn off; you weren't moving so its automation thought the room was empty. A PIR is inexpensive (as sensors go), so it's OK to use where motion if fairly assured (like hallways or garage spaces).
A PIR can also do a fair job of helping a control system recognize a presence through “abacus logic”, adding one to a room's head count when somebody enters and subtracting one when somebody leaves.
We plan something better. Infrared array sensors (a Panasonic Grid-EYE 8x8 sensor is shown on the right) don't depend on motion and are fairly good at separating warm bodies from background temperatures. We use this in our design for a Ceiling Awareness Pod (CAP), built into a ceiling-mounted 2-gang electrical box with a mostly plain cover plate. Our CAP (Ceiling Awareness Pod) design combines an IR array sensor, an IR proximity sensor, humidity and ambient light sensors, connections for open door and water leak sensors, a “distributed doorbell” amplifier and speaker, ceiling fan control relays and an Ethernet-connected Raspberry Pi Model 3 B computer.
We are working with companies to let them manufacture our CAP design to be available in mid-2017, about the time when the house debut media event happens, for anyone interested in adding it to their own automated home plans.
In addition to the CAP being a much better way to know whether or not somebody is in a room, there's a more dramatic benefit.
Fire and smoke alarms are getting smarter and some of them can communicate with controllers. That's one way to trigger an autonomous response to fire.
Kidde FireX smoke alarms (left) are AC-powered with backup batteries in each of one (this house uses 14), and they all interconnect through one additional wire.
They also allow us to use their accessory relay (right), which provides the signal that can get the fire responses built into the automation to trigger.
We also, of course, watch the CAP readings for elevated temperatures and pre-combustion warnings.
We are far enough from any fire stations to want fire sprinkler heads hidden (left) in the ceiling. (There's a chain of consequence here that reaches back to heightened requirements for the well pump in order to assure enough water pressure and flow for enough time to allow for the safe evacuation of the house).
Those sprinkler heads, we should mention, only open when there's enough heat to melt the solder in them that keeps them turned off, so it's not an everywhere-or-nowhere condition but something that happens one place at a time.
A gas shutoff valve on the master gas line just past where it enters the house, just past the first connection (which goes to the generator) kills the natural gas supply to everything else in the house. The EcoNet actuator (left) clamps onto the pipe and its motor arm, clamped onto the lever of the valve, pushes it the quarter-turn necessary to shut off the gas flow.
We reached out to Russell Township (Ohio) Fire Department Chief John Frazier (who we've known for decades) to ask what's the smartest thing to do to ventilation elements in the event of a fire. His reply:
I would suggest shutting down all air movement, HVAC and fans when your fire alarm goes off. In the investigation of fires, I have seen in “tight” houses and where the fire has not vented itself, HVAC that remains on during a fire will significantly impact the spread of fire throughout the structure.
Most commercial occupancies have this action also tied to their fire alarm system, and some with duct detection shut down where ducts go between fire walls.
The fire service in general is paying closer attention to what we call “flow path control”, which is essentially closing off or limiting ventilation from the outside when attacking fires. Only took thirty years for the fire service to figure this out.
Following John's advice, the automation should shut off all HVAC fans, all duct shutters, all ceiling fans and all exhaust fans.
Automatically notifying the fire department is also in the plan. Our system can, if necessary, make that happen with voice calls, even when no person is available to make them.
So is unlocking electronic deadbolts on the five exterior access doors (while at the same time putting all cameras monitoring those into full-time record mode).
But there's one more centerpiece to this.
We can take a front door vanity panel - the kind of thing that normally displays the house number or family name - and change its display to show the floor plan. Within that, thanks to the array sensors, we can also show the location of every adult, every child, every infant, every pet and every remaining hot spot in the house. All of this is intended to speed emergency responders to where they're needed the most.
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