Tech Smart Homes & Video Doorbells (Nest, Alexa, WeMo, and so on)

Kevin

Code Monkey
Staff member
Joined
Mar 20, 2004
Location
Pennsylvania
#1
It's 2018 and, as a tech geek, I'm way behind the curve when it comes to using tech in the house beyond just gadgets. Sure, there lots, and I do mean lots, of gadgets in our house like tablets, phones, laptops, desktops, TVs, various audio components, and other shiny things but none of them were actually connected to the house. Wait, there is one exception, when we replaced our furnace & A/C system our new house thermostat is connected to the internet so we can control it remotely but other than that there was nothing. That's changing. :D

A few weeks ago I got tired of our house doorbell not working. When somebody pushed the button it would buzz but that's it. Taking the cover off to see the transformer it was obvious that the strikers weren't moving to hit the chimes even though they were getting the needed voltage. A few DIY experiments provided no success so I made it a 'Sunday Task' to take care of it. After getting some parts from the local Home Depot and ordering a new toy online I was ready to go. Modern tech, here we come!

First thing I did was to replace the doorbell entirely. The one we had came with the house and, honestly, it was a bit dated looking anyway so out with the old and in with a new compact unit in a sleek grey housing. The new one isn't fancy but it didn't have to be, it just needed to work, because my real goal was not to just get a working doorbell but to have a working doorbell so I could install the next item. A Google Nest Hello video doorbell. Woohoo!

The installation instructions for the Nest Hello really point you to using either a "Nest certified pro" or an electrician. While I can that might be necessary for older houses where the wiring may be a bit funky or situation where the wiring is not easily accessible I did my own installation. Our house is a colonial style home built in the 1990's and the wiring is pretty straight forward: doorbell button attached to two wires at front of the house coming through the door frame connected to a doorbell chimes unit hanging on the wall in the front foyer. The voltage going through the wires is low enough that even an idiot like me non-electrician would have a hard time electrocuting themselves. Just to be clear though, the instructions emphasis turning off power at the electric panel before doing the installation (which, I did not do as I'm a stubborn male and figured "Eh, it's low voltage, what's the worst that can happen?").

Installing the Nest Hello is pretty straightforward with two pieces to be installed, a small disc shaped devices that attaches to the transformer inside of the doorbell chimes unit and then replacing the actual doorbell button itself. The purpose of the device attached to the transformer is because the Nest Hello offers the option of turning off ringing the normal chimes when somebody rings the doorbell. Why, you ask, would you want? :unsure: Because when the doorbell button is rung you get notified on your phone and optionally to other devices like the Google Home speakers. Installing it is pretty easy, just disconnect the wires to the transformer, attach leads from the device to the wires, then attach the wires from the device to where the original wires were hooked up to the transformer. The instructions are pretty clear and easy to follow to cover different scenarios of what your house might have in regards to the wiring configuration of your chimes. Outside it was just a matter of unscrewing the old doorbell button, screwing in the base plate to the doorframe where the wires came out, attaching the wires to the new Nest Hello video camera, then snapping the Nest Hello into the base plate. Google includes a 'wedge' in the box in case you need to angle the camera either left or right of the door. I used the wedge because our front door is under a porch that is setback about 10 feet or so from the front of the garages. If I didn't use the wedge then nearly half of the wide angle lens view would've been filled with the image of the outside wall of the garage, with the wedge in place it is angled 15* to the right so now I still get some of the garage wall in the view but more importantly my entire front porch is in the view. The trickiest part of the install was getting the camera into the baseplate because I needed to use the provided extensions to connect the exposed wires in the doorframe to the back of the camera since I didn't have enough room otherwise to actually screw them into the back of the camera. With the extensions in place though there was barely any room left behind the camera to accommodate the wires with the extensions while allowing the camera to snap into place flush with the base plate.

After hooking everything up the Nest app on my phone was able to automatically recognize the device and, after providing the network password, connect it to our home wi-fi network. I've been playing with the darn thing since. :LOL: It is way call to have my phone announce when somebody rings the doorbell and being able to talk to them in real-time no matter where I'm at. I defined zones for my front porch and the street area and when combined with the notifications options in the app I can, for example, get automatic alerts sent to me if it recognizes people or motion on my porch but to not bother notifying me of anything happening in the other zones. That is great because I really didn't like the first few hours of it when I was getting an alert every time a car went up/down the street or when somebody was walking their dog past their house. The cool thing that I really like is that with my Fitbit Versa I can also get alerts right on my watch from the Nest application. The end result is that I have it configured so that if any people are detected on my porch I get an alert on my watch within a few seconds. With the Nest Aware optional subscription I can then go back and actually view the video of the detected activity. Of course if somebody actually rings the doorbell I get notified of that as well and can interact with them.

The "Nest Aware" optional subscription is perhaps the best part of the system and is where Google gets you. It's a yearly payment option and it determines how many days of video are saved for viewing. Without the subscription you can still watch live video remotely and you'll be able to interact with people who ring your doorbell but you won't be able to, for example, go back and watch the video from in the middle of the night to find out why your dogs were going nuts barking at something through the windows in the front of the house. You get a 30 day free subscription to start with and then after that you'll need to subscribe or make do with just the real-time video capabilities. The cheapest plan is $50/year and that gives 5 days of video recordings. The most expensive plan is $300/year for 30 days. Mrs. Kevin & I are fine with just 5 days of video as we've never had problems in our development and so we can't envision needing to watch anything older than that. It should be noted, though, that having a subscription for hosting the video recording is not a "Google thing", you'll find the same for any of the other video doorbell vendors like Amazon's Ring.

So after hooking up a shiny new video doorbell what's the next step? Why getting an 'assistant' device for inside the house of course! (y) To start with I picked up a Google Home Mini. Yes, as you can tell I'm embracing the Google ecosystem for a number of reasons. My brother, for example, leans towards Amazon Ring & Amazon Alexa devices and Apple for phones & tablets and it can be argued back-and-forth all day long as to which ecosystem is better but, really, they both offer very similar features for similar pricing so it works out to what works best for you. For our household we're a Google (and Microsoft for the laptops) family.

The Google Home Mini kinds looks like big hockey puck that somebody inflated with air to make it rounded and covered with cloth. When you interact with the device there are 4 lights that shine through the cloth to indicate it is awake & responding. There is just a single cord coming out of it, a USB cord for power, and hooking it up to the wi-fi network was, like the Nest Hello, simple to do. As part of the connecting the device to Google Home app on your phone you can train it to recognize your unique speech so that it responds to your personally.

For the longest time I was convinced that I would never, never!, have a 'home assistant' device in our house as I just didn't see the need for it. I'm still not sure that I "need" it but it is nice to have. The Nest Hello can broadcast to the Google Home devices when somebody rings the doorbell including, if they are a recognized "familiar face", their name. I would prefer being able to also broadcast the notifications and not just somebody pushing the doorbell so hopefully that is coming with an update. I understand the Amazon Ring with Alexa system can do it so that is one plus for that ecosystem. Ideally since can I get the alerts on my phone & watch when a person is recognized as being on my porch it would make sense that it is also broadcast to the Google Home devices as well and, to me, it seems to be an obvious missing feature that should be there. If I can get that type of alert on my 3rd-party Fitbit device then why the heck would it be omitted from the Google Home when both it and the Nest Hello are both produced by Google? It doesn't make sense. So far that is my one gripe I have with everything in place so far.

The Google Home, besides acting as a fancy announcer to tell me somebody's ringing my doorbell, is proving to be entertaining at least by being able to give me the upcoming weather, giving me an overview of the news, telling me really awful jokes, acting as a hands-free timer, and giving me reminders. With just the one Home Mini in place I haven't really scratched the surface it what it can do fully such as interacting with Google Assistant aware devices like lights, speakers, TVs, electric plug controllers, and a bunch of other things. Some back I bought some packs that plug into the outlets that can then have lights & other devices plugged into them providing a way of using a remote control to turn the lights on & off. I think I'll be replacing them with some WeMo packs so that I can then control the lights using Google Assistant and being able to control them remotely.

Whew, that was a lot typing. Anybody still reading this? :eek:

Anyway, those are my small steps so far in embracing "smart home" technology. Another item that I've been playing with lately is a subscription music service but that'll be a write-up for another day. I suspect that I'll end up getting a few more Home Mini devices for other parts of the house but first I need to let what I've done so far sink in with Mrs. Kevin. She is normally averse to my addiction for shiny toys but she loves having a video doorbell now so it's just a matter of letting her get to used to the Home Mini for a bit before I start expanding it outward. One thing on the "Tech To Do" list that I've been putting off for years is hooking some wi-fi mesh routers to improve coverage in the house to eliminate some dead zones; if I'll be expanding where I'm putting wi-fi enabled devices then the issue of coverage will be rearing itself up fast.



Who out there has embraced a 'smart home' mindset? What ecosystem(s) did you choose? Were there particular features you were after that affected your decision? Have you any regrets after getting it all in place? What advice would you give for others just starting their builds?
 

Tom

An Old Friend
Joined
Dec 6, 2004
Location
Gulf Coast
#2
You would like the "tech" side of the movie Tau (2018).
The house is fully automated and run by an AI (Tau).

Netflix Activates the Trailer for Smart House Horror ‘Tau’ Starring ‘It Follows’ Star Maika Monroe
 

Kevin

Code Monkey
Staff member
Joined
Mar 20, 2004
Location
Pennsylvania
#3
Woohoo, turns out my existing Honeywell wi-fi enabled house thermostat works with Google Home! :happy: At the moment Google Home can only do basic things with non-Nest thermostats; it can raise/lower the temperature and switch between heating & cooling but it can't, for example, change the humidity settings or even tell what the current humidity in the house even though those settings, and more, is available on the thermostat & it's app. I'm trying to build out my entry-level 'smart home' as cheaply as possible so being able to use existing devices makes me happy.

Next up will be some WeMo "smart plugs" to replace timers that I'm using to turn a few lights on/off automatically at night time.
 
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