Voice Activated Motorized Curtains, Cheapest Solution, no Hub

Required materials:

There are some very expensive solutions out there for motorized curtains, most come with a RF, Z-Wave or IR remote that would require an additional hub to bridge the connectivity between the Amazon Echo and the curtains. Some curtains even have networked add-ons so they can be controlled over wifi, but the costs add up to well over $800 in most cases, and I would rather not purchase a fixed length rod and add unnecessary hubs or highly specialized brand specific equipment if not absolutely necessary to preserve flexibility if I move to a new place.

If you already have devices that you want to control with RF or IR then you could pick up the Broadlink RM2 Pro. It will learn the specific codes required to manage your devices but it requires an extra Android device running an app called Broadlink Tasker to act as a bridge between your Amazon Echo and the Broadlink device. That’s really unfortunate as this would be an amazing device with direct integration to the Echo or through IFTTT. If you only want to control IR devices you have more options like the Logitech Harmony Hub that have direct integration with Alexa.

The Add-a-Motor D80 is the super simple mechanical device that makes opening and closing the curtains possible with something as simple as a Wemo switch. The D80 is basically a relay switch with an adjustable ring that determines how long the motor runs and at the end of the run it flips the switch for the motor direction and shuts the motor off. It makes some noise that you can hear in the video below but it’s not excessive.

The D80 does require curtains that have a string to open and close the curtains. These are called “traverse curtains”. I haven’t seen them since blinds were all the rage in the 80’s except at my grandma’s house, but they’re not terribly expensive at $30-50 depending on the size, and are far better for tall windows. The shorter length rods tend to have the strings fixed to one side or the other while the longer rods that have a center draw can usually be changed to a left or right draw, and the pull string can additionally be changed from one side to the other.

The Wemo switch needs to be set up with an “auto-off” of 1 minute. So you turn the Wemo switch on, and depending on the width of travel for your drapes, the D80 will run for 10-30 seconds before the mechanical switch is flipped and the motor stops. The Wemo switch remains on until the minute elapses and then turns itself off. The next time the Wemo switch is turned on, the motor runs in the opposite direction and the process repeats.

The caveat with this set up is that you have to turn on the switch to both open and close the curtains and saying “Echo turn on the curtains” to close the curtains is not as lexically satisfying as saying “Echo close the curtains” or “Echo turn off the curtains”. Setting this up with IFTTT you can say “Echo trigger curtains” which is better as there is nothing contrary in the statement.

2017 Onion Crop – Planning

After last year’s onion experiment I have wanted to try a much larger variety of onions for 2017, and expand on the growing conditions.

I started several varieties mid-November and a few more mid-December. I started the seeds with my usual method of using a small container to start with a high density until they are mature enough to separate and grow on their own. This works well given the finicky nature of onion seed germination. I now have far too many starts for the area I can grow them in – I’ll have to give some away.

The varieties I’m growing this year are:

Variety Bulb size Qty
Zebrune Shallot 1″x3″ 34
Tropeana Lunga 1″x3″ 36
Red Wing 3.5″ 16
Ringmaster 4″ 10
Valencia 4″ 28
Gabriella 4.5″ 32
Yellow of Parma 5″ 22
Ailsa Craig 6″ 9

I used approximately the same number of seeds per variety but there are drastically different numbers of germination that you can see above. The ones with high germination came from Baker Creek and not only were the seeds good quality but they were not stingy, offering more than 5x the amount of seed for the same price as the seed I got from other places.

As a rule this year, I want to take the volume of the fully grown onion bulb and have at least 3x the volume of soil. So for example, the largest, Ailsa Craig, the diameter is 6 inches which assuming a perfect sphere is 113 cubic inches, if the pot is 6 inches in diameter, the height would need to be 12 inches to get 339 cubic inches of soil. So the easy rule is to take the onion diameter for the diameter of the container and double it for the height of the container.

To put the size into context, a gallon is 231 cubic inches, so extrapolating that to the different sizes:

Diameter Height Volume Gallons
6 in 12 in 3393 in 1.3 gal
5 in 10 in 1963 in 0.85 gal
4 in 8 in 1013 in 0.44 gal

Finding containers that fit that precise criteria is going to be fairly impossible, so I am going to custom make many of them in 5″ and 6″ diameters. The smaller ones can go into the standard 4″ square pots or some red 16oz Solo cups (with holes poked for drainage. The smallest ones I will plant in large bunches in larger containers.

The custom made containers I’m going to make from heavy commercial landscape fabric. There are plenty of posts out there on how to make custom grow pots so I won’t elaborate in this post. The great thing is that they collapse down for easy storage, and are very easy to sanitize and reuse. Of course if you wanted to buy pre-made grow pots, they come in standard gallon sizes.

The landscape fabric I linked to is less than $30 and is 3′ x100′. If I were to use the whole roll I could make 120 – 6″x12″ pots which would cost $0.25 each in fabric plus a few cents for thread. Each bag takes 5 straight lines of sewing, taking into account easy folding & cutting I could make 15-20 per hour.

I am going to have these grouped in trays that will always have water in the bottom so they will not dry out. The water will wick up from the bottom to the roots as needed.

One thing to note is that I am not making any distinction between long & short day onions in my selections. Since my climate is conducive to an extended growing period, I’m seeing if I can have the short day onions start to bulb out in April-May-June and then the long day onions to bulb out in June-July-August. That’s a range of roughly 120-180 days so we’ll see what happens.

Update: I made the grow bags, and they take more like 6 minutes for each one if I’ve got everything organized. The 1″ distinction between diameter makes a huge difference in the resulting sizes. I was barely able to hem the 4″ bags on my sewing machine since they were so small. I thought they wouldn’t be very stable given the height, but the 5″ & 6″ bags are quite stable. The 4″ size can get knocked over pretty easily.

I wish I had more space for the rest of the onions I didn’t get to plant out, but I planted the extras all together in a small container to give to a friend so they’re not going to waste. I’m really curious how the small 1″x3″ tall onions will turn out in their dense planting, and if I’ll be able to get full size onions in the grow bags.

From top to bottom: Ailsa Craig (9) Yellow of Parma (8) Gabriella (10) Valencia (10)
From top to bottom: Ailsa Craig (9) Yellow of Parma (8) Gabriella (10) Valencia (10)
Top left: Tropeana Lunga Top center: Zebrune Top right: Ringmaster Bottom: Red Wing
Top left: Tropeana Lunga Top center: Zebrune Top right: Ringmaster Bottom: Red Wing

Voice Activated Sunrise & Sunset Emulation with Smart Lights

I’ve slowly been equipping my Amazon Echo, aka Alexa, with connected hardware, and the next step was a smart light for the bedroom. I wanted a bulb that was full color, required no hub, integrated directly with Amazon Echo and had IFTTT integration. The only bulb that fit that criteria was the Lifx Multicolor Wi-Fi Smart LED Bulb. I also wanted to get an Amazon Echo Dot just for the bedroom.

First a brief warning about smart lights in the bedroom:

After I got everything all set up, there was a power outage in the middle of the night and I learned the hard way that “smart bulbs” have a really dumb design flaw because I was jolted awake by a giant supernova coming from the lamp. After much research I discovered there is not a single smart bulb that will maintain its current off state in the event of a power outage.

In the manufacturers view any state change resulting in electricity being terminated and restarting whether from a power outage or from flipping a light switch off and on should be treated as if the intention was from a mechanical switch turning on and therefore should always turn  the light on to achieve user expectations of traditional light switch operation. However we are dealing with an entirely new generational set up of devices here that should have new expectations of operation. The real switch that users are engaging with is not at the wall, it is by voice, by an app, or by a multitude of other possibilities that we are inventing and re-inventing.

Anybody who comes home to a house with every light on, or has been woken up in the middle of the night knows the status quo for this is not working, and at the very least we as users should have a choice for how our lights respond when the power comes on. It’s not like it would take much effort for manufacturers to accommodate such a feature by adding the option the settings for each light, but until they come around I had to come up with a solution.

So how can I keep my smart bulbs from turning on after a power outage? I was curious about how other IOT devices would react to the same scenario so I tested my Wemo Switches and found they remained inactive when power was restored even if they were in the active state when they lost power. So the plan I came up with is to use a Wemo Switch at the wall and then plug the lamp with the attached smart bulb into that and always keep the Wemo turned on so I can activate the smart bulb. In the event of a power outage I would just have to turn on the switch when needed.

This won’t be a solution for someone who wants their whole house to have smart bulbs. In that case I would recommend to skip smart bulbs entirely and instead install smart wall switches. You’ll save a lot more in the end.

 

You will first need to set up the Echo & the Lifx bulb according to their directions. You will then need to add the Lifx skill to Alexa to finish the main integration.

IFTTT
The greatest advantage of IFTTT is that it can greatly simplify the commands you say to your Echo. Instead of saying Alexa tell Life-ex to change bedroom to orange you can instead say Alexa trigger orange.  It gets better though because you can create more advanced settings, and that is how I achieved my sunrise and sunset routines.

Note: if you want to decrease your syllables even more, change the trigger word to be Echo instead of Alexa. It also de-anthropomorphizes the cloud service which I prefer.

To get started, you need to associate both your Lifx account and your Amazon account with your IFTTT account.

Check out all the Lifx Applets on IFTTT.

Sunrise
There are two options you might like, you can either have the light act like an alarm and run at a set time on specific days, or you can use a voice trigger to activate the sunrise whenever you start to wake up.  I’m only focusing on the voice activated transition since the alarm is pretty straight forward.

To do a proper lighting transition consists of creating the starting light color & brightness and then having the light transition to the final light color & brightness. It would be great if we could accomplish this with one easy voice activated step, but due to the nature of the available IFTTT applets, only Lifx can create applets that are more complex and do multiple things. For now we will have to create two Lifx Change Color applets.

Setting the sunrise scene:

  1. Turn On a new Lifx Change Color applet
  2. Customize the applet name, Lifx Change Color (twilight)
  3. For ‘What Phrase?’ enter twilight
  4. Select the light(s) you want affected in the dropdown
  5. Ignore the color for now
  6. Click Save
  7. Click the gear icon to edit the advanced options for the applet
  8. Under Advanced Options enter: brightness: 0; color: #000000;
  9. Click Save

Activating the sunrise transition:

  1. Turn On a new Lifx Change Color applet
  2. Customize the applet name, Lifx Change Color (sunrise)
  3. For ‘What Phrase?’ enter sunrise
  4. Select the light(s) you want affected in the dropdown
  5. Click Save
  6. Click the gear icon to edit the advanced options for the applet
  7. Under Advanced Options enter: transition_duration: 180; brightness: 1; color: #009BDE;
  8. Click Save

Now you should be able to say echo trigger twilight followed by echo trigger sunrise. Over 3 minutes (180 seconds) your light will transition from black to a bright blue. The color #009BDE was the closest match to the color from my Philips GoLITE Blu Energy Light.

Sunset
This is a great way to fall asleep, and since it is voice activated you don’t have to be constrained to a set timer. It is nice to trigger the sunset scene at any point in the night to put you in the getting ready for bed mindset and start producing melatonin. Then when you go to bed you can activate the sunset transition and easily fall asleep.

Setting the sunset scene:

  1. Turn On a new Lifx Change Color applet
  2. Customize the applet name, Lifx Change Color (evening)
  3. For ‘What Phrase?’ enter evening
  4. Select the light(s) you want affected in the dropdown
  5. Ignore the color for now
  6. Click Save
  7. Click the gear icon to edit the advanced options for the applet
  8. Set Color: Hot White
  9. Set Brightness 50%
  10. Turn on first? Yes
  11. Transition duration: 5 seconds
  12. Click Save

Activating the sunset transition:

  1. Turn On a new Lifx Change Color applet
  2. Customize the applet name, Lifx Change Color (sunset)
  3. For ‘What Phrase?’ enter sunset
  4. Select the light(s) you want affected in the dropdown
  5. Click Save
  6. Click the gear icon to edit the advanced options for the applet
  7. Under Advanced Options enter: transition_duration: 1800; brightness: 0; color: #E08A00;
  8. Click Save

Now you should be able to say echo trigger evening followed by echo trigger sunset. This says over 30 minutes (1800 seconds) transition from 50% brightness to 0% and from the Hot White color to #E08A00.

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