Venturing out on to the Raspberry Pi

Wow, it’s been some time since I’ve added anything to my blog! It seems adult-ing is really time consuming and after the most recent failure to launch a relationship, I’ve decided to go back to my roots of technologies instead. (Yes, kind of like escaping)

Smart Plugs!

I have been thinking for sometime now, to see if there’s a way to control the power in my home without too much effort. By effort I mean timer controls and flipping switches on and off. Like a remote controlled power switch or outlet that would allow me to turn things off and set a predefined scheduled that is modifiable. As it is 2018, there are smart plugs or devices which allows one to accomplish this, in fact, many of them works with services like Siri, Alexa, or Google. However, there’s always a flaw in these that I find and it all seems to be the same problem.

The Smart Plug is great and I actually do own one, sort of like a pilot / test to see how it works. I’ve installed it in my home back in 2015 and it is quite good. The device have many functions including the ability for me to physically turn it on or off via the manual override, control it via a phone app, and can be controlled via a very customised schedule which I created and the schdule resides on their server. During anytime of the day, I can query the device to see what temperature the outlet is currently at or how much power I have consumed for the period, with temperature cut off threshold and power consumption cut off threshold as safety and money savings features. Lots of fun toys to play with for a simple power outlet!

What I don’t like about it are the price tag and its presence on the internet. To be honest, the price is quite high per outlet. When I got the Smart Outlet, I think I paid around $50 CAD for it but that is not really a high concern providing that these are a one-time investments for a smarter home. However, the presence on the internet is and it expands from here.

Internet reliance

First there’s the reliance on the internet. As an IT Professional and a Software Engineer, I know I should be the last one to say ‘what if the internet is down?’ but that is always one of my concern. I want a smart home that is entirely self contained. In the situation where the internet connection is severed, my home must still function. Imagine your entire house’s power outlets have now fail to respond, to use anything, you have to manually override each socket because a truck ran into a pole that apparently contains your neighbourhood’s internet junction lines. That maybe an once in a blue moon situation but loosing one’s internet connection isn’t really that uncommon, even in 2018.

Data on the internet

The other side is the data on the internet. I don’t want any programs to be running off of a server somewhere on the internet to control how MY power works in my home. If that server is located within the confines of my home but not on the internet, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. The current power status of each of my sockets will also be known to an external party, that’s a possible security risk. I can’t rule out the possibilities of investing in dozens of smart plugs and finding out later that the company is no longer updating their software or the company is ending the project and turning off the servers, forcing me to update my smart plugs all over again.

Reaching out to the manufacturers

To address a few of these issues, I’ve attempted to reach out to my smart plug manufacturer. My goal was to see if I can gain access to the API or other codes they are willing to share. I asked specifically for the Smart Plug I own and shared with them my concerns. I also inform them that I would like to reprogram their plug to communicate to an internal server instead of theirs. The respond I got was not what I had hoped. Due to a matter of security, this level of information cannot be shared with any consumer. It seems I have to look else where instead of customising an off the shelve solution :(.

RF Outlets

As a lazy person, we have always had some remote controlled outlets in the home. These controlled some power to light up several sets of lights in the basement. The lighting can change depending on the requirements of the user entering the basement via different remote switches. This gave me a very interesting idea about taking advantage of these outlets. After googling them, I learnt that these are radio frequency controlled power outlets. If I can mimic the radio frequency sent by the controller, I should be able to control the outlets!

Initially, I was thinking of a USB dongle with some radio frequency generator, but after reading Tim Leland’s post on using a Raspberry Pi to accomplish this, I’ve started venturing into the world of Raspberry Pi!

So I picked up the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ to start playing around with.


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