Tech for the second home

Exciting title, right? But I feel like it would be of service, maybe, to people who have second homes or who travel a lot.

I did not want to pay for cable or phone twice, so all I get at the house is Internet. I had had Clear but it was slow and never quite worked right. I recently signed up for Comcast and so far things are great. Fingers crossed.

Many people will just use a cell phone, but for those who want a “landline,” I use this device, called an Obi, to make and receive calls with Google Voice, which is entirely free. It works with a regular phone and has been awesome and reliable, as long as your Internet connection is. Another option is to get a Skype phone but that has a small charge (about $60 a year for unlimited domestic calls). But the great thing is, I have it ring there when I’m there and not when I’m not, so there are no worries about turning off the ringer when I leave. I do the same for my NY phone. It doesn’t ring and ring when I’m out since 90% of my calls are through Google Voice.

As for TV, I really did not want to buy cable twice. It’s expensive enough as it is and it’s not like anyone is using it at the NY place when I’m out. I have a three-pronged solution.

Local channels – I get these through a digital antenna. I use this one, the Leaf, and it’s great.

Cable – I just stream my home cable to my computer or iPad and then send those to the TV. How? I use a Vulkano, but you can also use a Slingbox. It can lag a little, but for the most part, it’s amazing how well this works. I use an Apple TV and Airplay to send from my iPad or laptop to the TV.

(EDIT: I have switched to Slingbox. Not only can it turn on the cable box if it goes out – which I found out I needed desperately – but the picture is much better).

I also have tons of movies and TV on my computer in NY which I can watch using the Plex app. This means you have to have a computer in your first home which is always on.

The rest – I chose an AppleTV to get channels like Netflix and Hulu but a Roku or Chromecast will also do a good job. I like the AppleTV because of the Airplay function I mentioned in the previous item. There are many great channels, and if you have cable someplace else (as I do), it allows you to log into many apps that save their content for cable subscribers, like ESPN. I was able to watch all of Wimbledon last summer just using the ESPN app.

Security and Automation
Since I set up my house last March, there have been tons of new entries on the market for “connected home” type devices. So there may be better ideas out there. But here’s what I did.

I use the Z-Wave standard to connect all my sensors and devices. It was easier because I already knew I wanted outside monitoring for my security needs. After tons of research, I went with SafeMart and bought many of my components from them. The advantage was that they pre-programmed many for me. On the other hand, some items were cheaper from Amazon or other online places, and so I bought those separately. But SafeMart have been awesome. I highly recommend them.

What did I get? First, a panel to control the whole thing. I went with GE. To go with it, I used wireless sensors on all my doors and first floor windows. I decided my house was visible enough that if anyone put a ladder up against it, folks would notice. I also used a glass break sensor and motion sensors that not only trip the alarm if set off but take pictures. As you may remember, I can peek in using these at any time.

On the automation front, I also have a front door lock that uses numerical codes that can be set and removed from afar. My system emails me when one of these is used. So when my painters were there, it would email me to say “Acme Painters unlocked the door at 9:15am.” The same when they left. I can also program alarm codes remotely, if I want them to be able to set and turn off the alarm. Having this kind of system, incidentally, also ensures you never get locked out if you lose or forget your keys.

Other connected devices I have are these:
Thermostat – Many people have heard of Nest but my system uses one that works with Z-Wave. I can raise or lower the temp with an app from my phone wherever I am, as well as setting up rules, like emailing me if the temp goes above or below a certain threshold. This way, I can turn on the A/C when I’m an hour from home or turn the thermostat up when there’s a cold snap as there was last week.

Lights/Devices – I plug my lamps into modules that I can turn off or on from my app. I also have rules set up so that a lamp comes on 15 minutes after sunset and turns off 15 minutes before sunrise. Because my devices are connected to the cloud, it can be dynamic this way and not just be a certain static time every day, like 4:15pm. This way, there are always some lights on in my house when it’s dark out.

Smoke alarms – The three I have (one for each level of the house) are all connected to my system. This way, if I am not there and they go off, the fire department gets called. Otherwise, I fear the whole house would go without anyone there to notice. I’d also get contacted so I could be on top of it. You can also get carbon monoxide alarms, but I feel like if those go off and I’m not home, meh.

Webcam – This is my only device separate from the Z-Wave system. I could have bought monitoring from SafeMart but it would have taken me up another level of payment. Besides, it is easy to set up your own system. I have one camera pointed outwards from my front window sill. It’s not really for security, although I am sure it would provide some. It’s really to just kind of know what’s going on outside my house, like if the snow needs to be shoveled or if the the lawn needs to be mowed. However, as I said in my last post, it’s kind of hypnotic to watch. It makes you feel like you’re there when you’re not. I have discovered things I had only assumed, like that the teenage girl next door parks in my space when I’m not there and that people like to use my steps to cross over to their own houses. No one does these things when I’m there, not that I mind. But it’s interesting to see. I could set it up to record to a DVR that I could watch later, but I’ve never had a security problem, so I don’t feel it’s needed. This is the camera I got but there are many out there and some come with software or monitoring. My software is ultra-basic but I can still pan around from my computer and it does email me photos when it detects motion.

Here’s a fun screenshot of the software, and my front window view, on a misty, wet day. Weather is bad, but I wish I were there.

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