Testing Your Smart Thermostats Shabbos IQ: Part I


There are several popular Smart thermostats on the market and the competition is heating up. Honeywell, Nest, and Ecobee are among the most popular devices. Each brand and model must be looked at through the lens of a Shomer Shabbos consumer to see if there are issues that need to be addressed for Shabbos use.

I have owned the Honeywell Total Connect Comfort color touch-screen thermostat for a few years now. It has a seven-day programmable schedule that allows me to customize the temperature for each day of the week. On Mondays-Thursdays during the winter, for example, I save energy by making the house cooler while everyone is in school or at work. On Friday afternoons, it adjusts as we all arrive home earlier to prepare for Shabbos. Each day or group of days has four modes: Sleep, Wake, Return, and Home, and I can adjust the temperature for each mode based on my family’s schedule. But these features are common among many thermostats, even ones that are not Smart.

What makes this a Smart thermostat is that I am able to control the settings remotely from anywhere in the world. This comes in very handy when traveling as you can set the temperature when you are at the airport instead of rushing before you leave the house. On the return, you can do the same and adjust the temperature so that when you arrive home, the house is perfectly comfortable. The Honeywell thermostat also integrates with Alexa and other smart devices so you can ask Alexa to turn up or down the temperature and the thermostat will respond. The thermostat will send you alerts if your temperature or humidity drops beyond a threshold which could indicate a problem with your HVAC unit. The device will send you monthly energy reports that detail your usage vs the previous year. To help with comparisons, the report also provides the average temperatures for each month. When this thermostat arrives and you take it out of the box and install it, there are no Shabbos issues to deal with, which is why I give it a Tribe Tech Review rating of 5 out of 5.

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What this Honeywell thermostat does not do that other Smart thermostats can, is to automatically adjust the temperature based on whether or not anyone is home. It also does not have the ability to connect to remote sensors that would allow you to adjust the thermostat based on, say, the average temperature of two or more rooms.  This could be particularly important if a zone in your home has different temperatures in rooms that are all controlled by one thermostat. Honeywell is introducing a thermostat called the T9 ($199.99) that seems to have these features but it is currently only available for pre-order so it will have to be reviewed at a later time. The two most popular thermostats that have this capability are Nest and Ecobee. However, as soon as a smart device utilizes sensors to detect presence, it automatically sparks Shabbos questions and requires us to understand exactly what is happening and if it is permissible on Shabbos.

I will start by reviewing the Ecobee Smart thermostat which is available in three different versions: Ecobee3-lite, Ecobee3 and Ecobee4.

The Ecobee4 is the only version that has Alexa built-in. If you want your thermostat to play music and answer questions, this is the device for you. However, if you want to use it as an Alexa intercom and drop-in on another room, you will have to wait for Amazon to open this up for third party devices.

Like all digital assistant-enabled devices, the Ecobee4 raises issues of Shabbos and privacy since it is always listening and interpreting your words (see previous articles on Alexa and Shabbos). For the Amazon Alexa device itself that plugs into a wall socket, I previously recommended you use a smart plug and turn the device off completely for Shabbos. However, thermostats are low voltage and hardwired so turning the power off is not an option. Like all other Alexa devices, there is a physical/manual way to mute the microphone but no way to automatically or programmatically (using a HUB or IFTTT) turn off the microphone. While you can manually turn this off for Shabbos and then back on later, this is far from ideal. Additionally, when you mute the microphone, the Ecobeee4 has a sizable “Light Bar” that turns on and glows bright red until Alexa is re-enabled. This is a harsh visual that can be quite irritating in any room but especially in a bedroom. Unless the Alexa feature is critical, I recommend you try another model. This is only the beginning of the Shabbos issues, as you will shortly see.

The Ecobee3 is identical to the Ecobee4 in features but without having Alexa built-in. Both contain Occupancy and Motion/Proximity sensors that can be an issue on Shabbos. The Ecobee3-Lite has a Motion/Proximity sensor but does not come with an Occupancy sensor unless you add one.  The differences between occupancy and motion/proximity sensors are subtle. Motion/Proximity is a simple sensor that detects clear motion such as walking in front of or passing by the thermostat. The occupancy sensor is more sophisticated and use PIR (Passive Infrared) that is heat sensing. Occupancy detectors aim to differentiate between if you are home and sleeping vs. away and on vacation. They are like night-vision goggles which use the heat emitted from our bodies to detect human presence.  The Ecobee Occupancy sensors even attempt to differentiate between you or just your dog being home.  Both sensor types would have identical issues on Shabbos that would require them to be turned off, though the Occupancy sensor may be less obvious to the uninformed.

To discuss the potential tech work around and arrive at a Shabbos rating for all three versions of the Ecobee thermostats will require a dedicated article, so please stay tuned for Part II.

 

Alexa as a Home Intercom System


When we renovated our home, our contractor presented us with the option of installing a classic intercom system. This type of system requires a special phone or a wall-mounted device to page and communicate by voice from room to room. However, something inside of me said that these systems will be obsolete by the time they are installed, so we passed on the option. I then set out to find the latest intercom technology and I am certainly glad that I waited.

The first device that caught my attention was the Nucleus intercom system. If you are looking for an intercom that has both audio and video, this system may be the way to go. The product has come down in price significantly, and at $100 provides a rich set of features including an integrated Amazon Alexa. This means that you can use the device as a stand-alone video intercom or as if it was an Amazon Echo. You will require one of these devices in each room in which you want an intercom set up, which can quickly add up. Additionally, to hang this on a wall you will either require a power source at eye level or have a wire running up the wall. Alternatively, a power over ethernet (POE) would need to be run at eye level to the location of each potential device. The installation can quickly add to the total price. Placing the device on a stand and using WiFi with the cord running behind furniture is certainly the most economical and aesthetic way to go. I have not tested the product, but I do not believe it avoids any of the Shabbos issues raised previously with the Echo. Additionally, powering the device via POE will not allow the smart timer solution I provided in an earlier article.

Given that I (and presumably many of you) already have an Amazon Echo in several rooms, using the Echo as a home intercom system seems like the easiest and more cost-effective choice, for now. You can add an Echo Dot for under $50 and expand it to rooms as you feel necessary. While I don’t currently own the Echo Show, which is the Echo device with a screen, I did convert a Fire Tablet that I bought on sale for under $50 and converted to an Echo with a screen.  This is a much cheaper alternative to the Echo Show without the “clunkiness” of the device. While, we do not have a smart doorbell with Alexa compatibility, I do have a camera on the front door that I can ask Alexa to view from the Tablet.

The key to setting up an Echo device as an intercom is to uniquely name each device after the room in which it is located. We have the kitchen device named “Kitchen” and my daughter’s room named “Abby.” I keep the names as short as possible to make it easiest to speak. For example, saying, “Alexa, call Abby” is easier than saying, “Alexa, Call Abby’s Echo Dot” or “Alexa, Call Abby’s Bedroom.” It also makes it less likely that Alexa will misunderstand a word.

The Echo has two calling modes. One is simply a call where the device rings and a voice command is required to answer the call. The second method is the “drop-in” mode, where the connection is instantly established with no answer or acknowledgement necessary. This can be problematic from a privacy perspective. I set my kitchen Echo to allow drop-in from household members only. The thought is, anyone who can physically drop into the kitchen at any moment can also drop-in via Alexa. However, the master bedroom, which requires a knock before physically entering, will certainly require specific permission before connecting. I set the drop-in feature on this room to “off.” For kids’ rooms, it is really a personal call. If you have an Echo show (or Tablet) with video features, you may feel differently about this than if it is just a voice connection.

While the Echo as an intercom works well, Amazon is far from content to leave it at that. The Echo also allows the intercom to extend beyond the walls of your home. The intercom and drop-in feature can extend to anyone who owns an Echo device. My parents have an Echo and we have used it to talk occasionally (yes, Mom, I know I should call you more often). My daughter has an Echo in her college dorm and it does make me feel like she is just a little closer to home. But beware, Amazon is very aggressive in asking for access to your contacts, and if you don’t configure your Drop-In settings properly, you may have your boss or other contacts Drop-In on your family dinner unannounced, or perhaps even worse.

Finally, Amazon is taking aim at phone cord cutters (those who opt not to have a home phone) and now offer a device called the Echo Connect that will allow your Echoes to call any land line or cell phone. While I have not tested this yet, the idea of being able to dial everyone on your phone book without picking up a landline or cell phone is certainly appealing. To all this, my mom has one thing to say, “OK, so don’t pick up the phone; but call me anyway!”