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.

 

A Wyze Camera For Shabbat


There are many smart security cameras on the market. Nest is a popular brand offering cameras at $199 and $299. Netgear, another popular brand, offers the Arlo camera at $199, while Amazon offers the Cloud Cam for $119. Nest requires a subscription-based cloud service to store video in the cloud so that you can view it from anywhere. The Nest Aware cloud history service is $100 a year for 10 days of history and goes up to $300 a year for 30 days of history. It’s bundled with other services as well. When reviewing home technology, I often prefer to start at the bottom from a cost perspective and see if the features provided are sufficient before I move on to technology with a higher price tag. This month I’m reviewing the Wyze Cam, which sells for $19.99 at Wyzecam.com. No, that is not a typo; the camera costs 20 bucks and does not require a storage subscription. Interested? Keep reading.

When the Wyze Cam camera arrived in the mail, I was shocked at how small the box was: literally a 2-inch cube. Do good things come in small packages? My wife Bibi’s reaction was, “Wow, this camera is cute.” The camera comes with a flexible stand, which allows it to be raised, tilted and swiveled to point in any direction. It also comes with a magnetic base and an adhesive for wall mounting (although I did not mount mine). The camera requires a nearby power outlet (it is not battery powered) and of course a Wi-Fi connection.

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Once plugged in, a simple application of the camera is as a baby monitor that will allow you to view your little ones from anywhere. I recommended this to a colleague who is a new father and he loves it. There is also a two-way voice connection that allows you to speak to the camera and hear sounds along with viewing live images.

Right out of the box the camera offers both sound and motion-detection options. When movement or sound is detected, the camera records and uploads to the cloud 12-second clips, which are saved for 14 days without a subscription. That is a huge advantage over some other services that charge hefty fees for a similar feature.

I found the motion sensor to be accurate, detecting primarily actual movement. Occasionally, I received empty motion clips that seems to be triggered by cloud movements and shadows. There is a sensitivity option that I dialed down to address this. The sound clips did not seem very helpful in my experience, though I did discover that houses make sounds—be it the air conditioning or heating or the refrigerator compressor switching on. I dialed down the sound sensor drastically, hoping it would still capture a glass breakage or other loud sound but not bother with the rest.

There is a separate smoke and carbon monoxide alarm sensor that will notify you if any of your external house alarms are triggered, which can be very helpful in a real emergency. The camera also has wide angle (110 degree) viewing capabilities. When I placed it in my foyer I was able to monitor both my front and side doors simultaneously since they are set at a 90-degree angle of each other. If you require coverage of angles wider than 110 degrees you can use two cameras and daisy chain from one power source to multiple cameras, avoiding extra wires.

There is also a night vision mode that I set to Auto; it produces high-quality videos even with all the lights in the house switched off.

The camera is only for indoor use, so I placed it on a windowsill facing the street to capture activity outside my front door. It worked well during the daytime, capturing all movements to my front door. The camera is compatible with the Alexa, so I can ask to view a live image of my front door from a compatible Alexa-enabled device (Echo Show). The wide angle and motion detection works against you in this scenario as the motion sensor picks up each car traveling on your block. Fortunately, a recent update to the software allows you to set a specific zone for motion detection. I set it to the narrow view of my front path while excluding any movement beyond the curb. This defines the motion-detection zone, but once motion is detected in that zone the full camera view is recorded. Nighttime video, however, was a little bit of a disappointment on my window due to the reflection of the glass.  Perhaps if you have a better lighting in front of your house it will give you a better image.  In a recent interview with the Wyze Cam CEO, there was a hint of an outdoor version of the camera in the company’s near future.   I will hold off on purchasing outdoor cameras for a while until this is released.

Motion detection on Shabbat poses the big challenge for this camera as well as other smart cameras and smart home devices. When speaking with halachic authorities, the common opinion is that triggering motion detection that is not for your benefit is not a problem. However, where the trigger is for your benefit it can be problematic. For example, if your neighbor’s motion light sensors are triggered when you pass on your way home, this may not be an issue since the motion detection is for your neighbor’s benefit and not yours. However, setting up a motion-sensitive camera in your own home is clearly for your benefit and this may not be permissible if it will trigger events on Shabbat. In a previous article I quoted rabbinic authorities who believe keeping an Amazon Echo listening in your home on Shabbat is problematic for similar reasons (see Alexa get Ready For Shabbat ).

The app does allow for turning off the motion detection at certain times during the day but does not allow you to choose the day of the week, or to choose times based on sunset for Shabbat. Plugging the camera into a smart switch that turns the entire camera off for Shabbat is a solution (one that I previously recommended for the Amazon Echo itself). I did this for a while and it rebooted after Shabbat without issue. However, I wanted to find a way to keep the safety of the recording going 24/7 but to just turn off the motion-detection triggers over Shabbat and Yom Tov. I have found a solution and it is a solution that may work for other smart device integrations. It is a bit elaborate, so check back soon 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!”