Wednesday, September 26, 2018

My Dreams of a Smarter Home

I've been thinking about the concept of smart homes recently. My goal is to have the smartest home on the block and I'm doing pretty well with an Amazon Eco (and dots in each room), Lutron wireless light switches, an August door lock, the Ecobee thermostat, Chamberlain garage door opener, Philips Hue lights in the living room, B-Hyve garden watering system, SOMA smart shades, and a Nest camera and, Nest smoke alarms.

But what's interesting is that is not really a "smart" home, it's more like a "remote controlled" home. It's still cool. Here are some things that I regularly do:

  • When riding my bike home and I tell Siri from my watch to open the garage door.
  • When I arrive home at night the front door unlocks and the entry way light turns on.
  • I'll tell Siri "it's movie time" and all the lights in the living room turn off, except for the front row, which turns on 10% red. All other lights turn off too.
  • When I say "Clap clap", it locks the door, makes sure the garage door is shut, turns off all lights except for a dim path leading to the bedroom. My shades are supposed to also shut, but I can't get them to connect to HomeKit. :/
But you see the trend, it's all remote controlled actions. And none of them are really solving big problems. They also don't fundamentally change the way I live my life.

To me, "smart" involves, at a minimum, some sort of learning. The Nest Thermostat perhaps comes the closest by learning when I'm gone and adjusting the temperature accordingly. In our home, we use Ecobee for the HomeKit integration and because I could put a sensor in each room (which also doubles as a motion sensor of home/away status).

I'd like my home to notice that every Sunday afternoon we come home from church around noon, turn on the oven to 425, and turn on music. Then it could ask me if I'd like that to happen automatically so the oven is ready to go when we arrive.

Or, notice that my refrigerator's energy consumption is 10% higher than a year ago, or vs my neighbors. Our city recently switched over to digital meters. Perhaps this is possible now?

Actually, a lack of sensors is probably the biggest barrier to a smart home. I would put a sensor on my water pipes for pressure and temperature. I would put motion/temperature/moisture sensors in my attic and under my house.

Weather sensors on top of each house would also be amazing. Imaging if they all shared data to a central service to provide precision real-time weather information. Why are roofers not requiring this on every house? It'll make their planning so much easier over time.

If we built in all these sensors and started collecting the data, it would follow a similar path of current data trends: at first it would be stored, then it would be analyzed to understand what's happening, and then it would be predicted based on complex multi-variable trends.

Again, remote controlled actions are still cool. RC via voice feels especially cool... when it works, but it's just not smart. They're not breaking any paradigms yet. I know vertical farming doesn't work at scale yet, but could it work in my house? Could I enter what I'd like to grow and let robots take care of it so I have fresh food waiting for me?

Heating and AC feels especially broken. Heating and cooling the air around you via convection is the most inefficient method (that's a typical forced air system). Radiation (like from a radiator) is better with good insulation, but it's still heating the air. Conduction is the most efficient (think, floor heat), but condensation when cooling (depending on what you read) seems to be an elusive problem. How do we make rocket mass heaters safer and more mainstream? How can we make radiant cooling work better?

Or food. Why does preparing food feel so difficult? How we do make home food prep feel as easy as eating out (which I get is simply outsourced the food prep)? Can robots help? Don't even get me started on doing dishes or laundry!

What about open-living spaces? Imagine not owning a home, but instead reserving one. Or just opening up an app to see what's available that night. When you arrive, the house turns your personal temperature on, and ensures drones deliver the food you like. You're only charged for when you're there and the items you use. That's the direction we're headed in with cars. What about homes? Oh my: You have a van that stores your stuff. It backs into the garage and puts your stuff in the living space. When you leave, via another vehicle (?), it packs up your stuff and starts heading somewhere else.

At the very least, let's take RC to a logical extreme. I know there are some concept automated windows. Those should connect to my inside and outside thermostat and humidifier to determine when to be open. And each of those should be tracking my location and motion in the house. My windows would have shades built into the glass, like on newer 787s. Not only should the smoke alarms connect to the thermostat, but to the oven, all outlets, and the lights. You get the idea.

Perhaps what's needed is a modern open-source protocol for collecting/storing/retrieving data from sensors and controllers. My guess is that one already exists, but the big players (Google, Apple, Amazon) are too interested in owning the eco-system, which prevents something the equivalent of email or wifi from taking off.

For now, let's pretend that the privacy and security issues are solved. Wouldn't that be cool?! Perhaps companies are working on these in the background, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like they're OK with focusing on voice for previously touch-screen and keyboard activities. They don't seem focused on actually integrating services and turning the home into something truly smart.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I'm Thinking About Getting a VA, But I Struggle With Delegation

I'm reading a book right now called the Time Wealthy Investor by Mark B. Dolfini. I'm fairly certain that if I wrote a book, it would be pretty similar to this one. It's focus is on building systems that work  for you to reduce your personal workload. Think E-Myth and The 4-Hour Workweek applied to real estate investing. If you're an investor, it's worth reading (along with Landlording on Autopilot which gets more tactical).


What's interesting is that I'm finding I'm excellent and automating systems. I started reading the book hoping to learn a couple tricks to further automate what I'm doing, but I'm finding I'm already doing well. There are a couple small things I could automate, but the relative gains are small. For example, when I send a message, I email and text everyone individually. Technically I could set up a list for email through something like MailChimp, but I don't like that there will be an unsubscribe button. Plus, I don't even know of a texting service that'll let me use my existing phone number. It hardly seems worth it to spend 4 hours researching if it's possible for the ~4 times a year I send a text to everyone, which I already pretty easy because I use Google Voice and send everyone from a computer with copy/paste (if you know of a service, let me know).

Automation? Check.


The other part of the book talks about setting up processes that are documented and repeatable, with the goal of making them easy to delegate and manage. With such easy access to virtual assistants (VAs), it's super easy to delegate small tasks without having to hire someone full time. Example tasks could include:

  • When someone moves out: calculate their last month's rent, send the move-out email and prepare a new Craigslist ad.
  • When a new person is accepted as a resident: add their info to the database & QuickBooks, calculate their first month's rent, prepare the rental agreement, and schedule a time to sign.
  • When a resident calls with a maintenance request: add the request to Trello, contact the proper home service provider (which could be me), coordinate the schedule fix time, follow-up with the resident when it's done, document in Trello, and send a payment.

You get the idea. When a certain event happens, the documented actions are taken.

This seems pretty easy as I write it out, but for some reason I struggle to give up that control. I don't want to lose a pulse on what's working on Craigslist. How do I stay on top of it? Since I end up doing most of the maintenance repairs - because they're normally easily, and I enjoying getting out from behind my desk - what's the point of having someone else be the go-between? That seems needlessly complicated.

I also have a very high standard. Even today I was helping Jessi print our monthly newsletter (pictured above) and I couldn't help but notice a couple formatting issues (which nobody but I will notice. Like a double space after a period). I'm super happy Jessi is able to help with the newsletters, but how do I keep the quality where I want it... without hurting a relationship?

I've noticed this trend in other areas as well. Last week I was asked if I needed help on an HP project. My instinct was to say no because I knew the person wouldn't do as good of a job as I would and I didn't want to spend even more time going back and correcting it. Again, how do I set quality expectations and properly train somebody to successfully hit them? For a while my thought was "I'll just hire amazing people", but that seems implausible and limiting. The problem isn't automation. Perhaps it's a process that isn't fully documented, including quality checklists?

Delegation? I'm honestly not sure how to pull this off.

Moving Forward

I need to figure this out. We're planning to continue growing and it won't be sustainable as a part-time hustle for much longer. Unfortunately, I think the answer is I need to invest more time in the short-term to figure out delegation so I can spend less time later. I found one good article about successful VA relationships, but there really doesn't seem to be lot of good resources, which looks like a mini-red flag - why aren't there more resources and success stories? And I just looking in the wrong places?

Of course, then I go the opposite direction and wonder if I'm making life too complicated, like in the Fisherman's Parable. Should I instead figure out ways to remove tasks off my plate completely? For example, if we lived in a tiny home that was owned free and clear, that would remove a lot of the financial pressure and allow me to drop my job and then do all the business tasks myself. Of course, that would create new issues: space for the kids, a less desirable location, less ability to invite friends over, etc.

So no answers at this time, just public processing. If you've hired a VA, I'd love to learn about your experience and talk about what has and hasn't worked.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Phone Setting Idea: TimeTravel For The Clock Display

I was thinking about time this morning. Or more specifically, telling time.

In an effort to be on time, Jessi & I tend to set out clocks a little ahead of time. For example:
  • My alarm clock is set 1 minute fast.
  • The bathroom clock is 4 minutes fast.
  • The car is 3 minutes fast.
Of course, the problem is that I know how fast each are, so I tend to do the math when looking at the time.

Then there's my phone. It always tells the "right" time because I have the clock set automatically in settings. It's convenient when traveling and when we spring forward and fall back.

My Brilliant Idea

So, what if there was a phone setting... let's call it TimeTravel, that let's me set an interval of how fast head my phone clock display is. For example, I could set it 0-2 minutes fast. And throughout the say, the time displayed on my phone would sometimes be exactly right. Sometimes it would be 30 seconds fast. Sometimes it would be 95 seconds fast.

It would help insure that I'm always just a little early, but not consistent enough for me to always subtract 2 minutes.

Ideally I could link this setting to my watch and computer, but that's not a requirement. Also, I think it's be important to have access to the "real" current time in the clock app.

That's my idea. Since it's a system setting, I don't think I can create "an app for that", but it's something I'd find useful. Plus, I like the idea of time travel.