Bill, Tessa, and Reuben discuss several ‘smart home’ improvements they’ve either made or have considered making to their own houses.
Reuben also mentions how his Arlo camera caught some kids stealing his pumpkins and his kid’s scooter from his front door: Thieves stealing pumpkins and scooter.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: If you’ve been curious about turning your home into a smart home but have felt overwhelmed with the amount of solutions out there or don’t even know where to begin, let’s dive in.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome everybody to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. I’m your host, Bill Oelrich alongside Tessa Murray and Reuben Saltzman. As always, we’re here talking houses. And we thought today we would run through some of the new techy gizmos that you can add on to your less technical house. Like everybody knows, if you’ve heard this conversation, I live in an old house, 1941 house. I mean, it barely had wiring when they built this thing, wiring was hardly a thing. But I watch TV and I see things like, “Oh, make your house a smart house and dim your lights and open your doors,” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s not happening here”. But apparently now, with WiFi technology and other sorts of things, we can do that. So I thought we’d have a conversation about all the things that as home inspectors, you run across these techy gizmos all the time. And so Reuben, what’s the one thing that you like most that’s in the marketplace now that if you didn’t have it in your house, you’d certainly put it in your house?
Tessa Murray: That’s a tough one, Bill. I’ve got a lot of them. I keep adding on more and more smart home stuff. One of them, this was just a friend of mine who told me he’s in love with these cameras and it’s kind of like the ring doorbell. You guys, everybody has seen them [01:29] ____. The studio we’re at here for City Site’s Podcast Network, he’s got the ring doorbell right on the front door when we walk up. I swear, half my neighbors have that. But there’s another version of that and it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s just security cameras. It’s battery-powered security cameras that store everything in the Cloud. We got the Arlo system. I got it at Costco. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was a three pack of cameras. You can put them anywhere you want. The batteries last like, I don’t know, a couple of months.
BO: What kind of batteries?
RS: Lithium ion. It’s proprietary. Their batteries that are made… It’s about half the camera is a battery that pops out. It’s a long-lasting battery and you put the camera wherever you want, and then, it records and it’s set to record on motion. It’s got awesome night vision. I’ve got one on my front door. I don’t know where the other two are.
RS: I think… I don’t think I’m making the best use of them right now.
TM: And this is to catch criminals up in Maple Grove or raccoons running through your yard?
RS: You know what? I’ll tell you the most recent thing we used it on.
BO: I’d be looking for fear, personally.
RS: We went to carve pumpkins last Saturday night. We had some family over, we were gonna carve pumpkins, we were all set to go. I go out on my front stoop to grab them and they’re gone. And I’m like, “Where are the pumpkins?”
RS: Yeah, I had four pumpkins sitting out on my front stoop and they’re gone. I’m like, “Somebody stole our pumpkins.”
TM: [chuckle] Oh my gosh.
RS: Not like I’m gonna report it to the police, but then we just went, “Huh.”
RS: And then we pulled it up on my wife’s phone. I mean, you can pull it up on your phone app, on the computer or whatever. And sure enough, we go back like one week, and it’s real easy to find something because it says the date stamp and it shows you a quick little clip and there’s not a lot of activity in front of my house at midnight. There’s like one recording in the last week. “Oh, what’s this at 12:31 AM on a Sunday morning?”
TM: It only records when there’s activity then?
RS: That’s right.
RS: That’s right.
TM: All right.
RS: It only records motion. And sure enough, three punk kids running up to my front door, took all four of the pumpkins and… But what made me mad though, they took my kid’s scooter.
TM: Oh no.
RS: We had a scooter sitting on the front step.
BO: Scooter casualty, it’s terrible.
RS: And my kid’s have been looking all over for that thing in the last week.
TM: Oh no.
RS: They’re like, “I don’t know where it went.” Well, Of course. It’s natural consequences.
TM: Oh, my gosh.
RS: This is what will happen if you leave your scooter out. But this was just like, my kids are vigilant about this now, and they replayed this video over and over and over again. I mean, it’s just ingrained in their minds. Like, “Don’t mess around.”
BO: Yeah, and make sure you shut it off for Halloween too, ’cause you’re gonna have a lot of action, man.
RS: Oh, that would be… Yeah, that would get really old really quickly.
BO: So this is stored in the Cloud?
RS: It’s stored in the Cloud.
BO: Is there sound that gets captured with it?
RS: Yeah. Perfect sound.
BO: Okay. All right.
RS: We could hear these kids laughing when they were taking the stuff.
BO: Okay, nothing else?
BO: There’s no like open your door or anything like that associated with it?
BO: It’s not smart in that matter. Okay, okay.
RS: No. No. It’s just motion and you can set it up where it gives you alerts on your phone, like it’ll tell you instantly, you can log in remotely. Like I would pull it up on my phone right now and I could show you guys what’s going on right outside of my house. I mean, it’s like live monitoring anywhere you are. Super cool. Again, this one’s made by Arlo but there’s a bunch of them out there. Just the video monitoring systems where they’ve come to is amazing. And oh, one of my favorite ones Melinda was doing an inspection, somebody had put one of those cameras on the furnace and put it on top of a stack of cardboard boxes in the utility room.
TM: To watch us inspect?
RS: Just to watch us. I mean, it’s like, “Don’t tell me you actually put the camera there ’cause you wanna monitor your furnace.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: You’re spying on us and this is just straight up spying.
TM: Oh, ugh, that happens a lot.
BO: You know you can spy on people but you can’t record them.
RS: Is that so?
BO: I thought that’s what the rule was, that if you were gonna watch somebody in your house and use it against them, you can’t record what they’re saying because…
RS: I don’t know what anything about that.
TM: I don’t know about that either.
BO: ‘Cause in our line of work in theory, somebody could set some cameras up and they might listen in on conversation and maybe use it to their advantage in a negotiation or something like that.
RS: I don’t know about you guys, but every time I’m in a house, from the minute I show up to the minute I leave, I assume everything I’m doing is being recorded.
BO: What do you guess?
RS: I just assume that and it kinda helps to make sure that everything I’m doing is on the up and up.
BO: Well, and from a home inspector perspective, there’s nothing that we should even say that would violate the trust of anybody. At our core, we’re fact-finders. We are there to see what we can see on the day of the inspection. And it’s like personalities. You met your wife and got married and you love her and some other person might meet your wife and thinks she’s a wonderful person, but doesn’t wanna… I mean, it’s houses and behavior and personalities, they just are what they are. Right? It’s not good or bad. We’re just there to find it. So we don’t need to be saying things that are derogatory of this, that or the other.
TM: I like the Anna and house metaphor. [chuckle]
BO: Oh, good. I’m glad you followed the line.
TM: You love your wife but no one else wants to marry her.
BO: That’s not what I said.
BO: I said, they might not see this… All right.
TM: I’m just giving you a hard time, Bill.
BO: She’ll appreciate that. Okay, so that’s the Arlo system and I’m sure there’s 15 other manufacturers that do something similar to that. We were talking about a new technology where you can open a garage door, so do tell.
TM: Yeah. Well, I think there’s a smart garage door opener that has an app and you can control the garage door from your phone. You can open it, you can close it, you can see if it’s open. And I thought about that and I’m like, “Man, my dad really needs one of those.” [chuckle] A while ago, when they were living in Iowa, and he would had to work and he said like a couple of times a week, he have to drive back home to make sure he closed the garage door ’cause he couldn’t remember if he actually shut the door or not, stuff like that. The technology is awesome ’cause you can make sure that you closed it and if you didn’t, close it from anywhere.
BO: We have lost so many things out of our garage. Because we hit the garage door button, think it goes down, and you’re like go in the house, come out the next morning, and you’re like, “Where’s my lawn mower?”
TM: It’s been open all night.
BO: “I know it was here when I left.” But…
TM: Oh, no.
BO: No, it has happened a few times. But my wife, she lets her car run in the winter time to warm up and all the windows get frosted over so I can’t see if the garage door is open, so…
RS: From the window?
BO: Yeah. And it’s cold out, we’re lazy. But anyway, I want that device. Whatever, I like the camera, I like the doors down.
TM: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know much about it. Reuben, do you know… Have you seen those? I mean, do you know how much they cost?
RS: I think all of the garage door opener manufacturers make this now. You buy at the high-end, whether it’s Chamberlain, Genie, whoever.
TM: And they have that option.
RS: The high-end ones all have an app where you can do this.
BO: Is the camera mounted right on the opener itself then?
RS: I don’t think this is even a camera.
TM: It’s not… I don’t think there’s a camera.
RS: It just connects to the opener.
TM: Right. It just knows if it’s open or closed… I don’t know, I don’t know how it does it…
RS: It’s a WiFi-powered opener.
TM: We might be geeks, but we don’t know everything about this stuff, Bill.
BO: Well. I thought you did. Sorry. Sorry everybody.
RS: No, no, we’re just riffing on stuff we’ve seen before, that’s about it.
TM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BO: Okay, Reuben. I need you to talk about this electricity monitoring device thing.
TM: Yes, yes.
RS: Oh man, the Sense Home Energy Monitor, that’s what you’re talking about. I had tested one. Well, I didn’t test it, I installed it ’cause I heard about this from another inspector in our company, Joe, who put one in his house. So I got one for my house and it’s basically, it installs inside of your main electrical panel and it monitors everything that happens, and it starts to identify everything that’s running. I mean, the first week that you put it in, all it does is really show you your electricity usage. I mean, that alone is super cool. It’s like you shut off a light in this room and you’ll see the energy bar, and it goes, “boop.” And it drops down a little bit. And it constantly shows you everything that you’re using. So every time you turn on something, it goes up, you turn something off, it goes down, you can constantly monitor your usage. But what’s really cool is that it starts to identify the unique electrical signals given out by everything in your home. Your garage door opener is one of the first things it recognizes because it’s a big motor that operates something instantly, and it’s a very short period of time that it operates for. So it recognizes your garage door opener within the first couple of days and it says, “Sense found a new device.” It tells you this on your phone.
RS: And then it keeps identifying more and more devices. And with this, you can start programming smart alerts. Like I set mine to alert me every time my garage door opener opens. Now, I don’t have that alert going on anymore ’cause it got obnoxious. But I mean, I can be sitting here and I know when my wife gets home ’cause I get an alert that says, “Your garage door just opened.”
TM: Oh, my gosh. So That’s too much.
RS: I mean, it will do all of this stuff and it’s just one little device. And it’s not a monthly fee that you’re paying, it’s a one-time purchase, you’re done.
BO: Why do you wanna know when your wife gets home?
RS: No, this was just an example. I really don’t care. Like I said, I turned it off.
TM: He’s got cameras, he’s got monitors, he’s got everything going on at his… [chuckle]
BO: Kids, put that candy away.
TM: Yeah. [chuckle]
RS: Well, you think I’m paranoid? Oh, do you know what I did though? Do you know what else it’ll do?
BO: No, I…
RS: It recognizes the television, the basement TV, that’s where my son’s got his X-Box set up. And you can get these other little devices that plug-in. I think they’re called Kasa devices.
BO: C-A-S-A like home?
RS: K-A-S-A. It’s that’s supposed to sound that way.
RS: But it’s like just a little plug, and you plug something else into it. It’s just a little box that bypasses your plug. And so, you plug your device into this, into the wall and it monitors when that device is being used, but it also has an on-off switch built in. These things go for like 10 bucks now. So if you have an Alexa at your house or a Google Home, and I know you guys both have those, you can just say, “Alexa, turn on the bedroom light.” And then as long as you have a lamp plugged into this, it clicks it on.
BO: So that’s how I can get around this. My house being completely dumb and not being able to get this smart technology, I have to add these little boxes on.
BO: Is it in every single room or is it one box?
RS: One box per device.
BO: Per device?
BO: So a light is a device.
RS: That’s right, yup.
BO: Okay. All right, very good.
TM: It doesn’t control the circuit? Just that switch or just that outlet.
RS: That’s right. Exactly.
TM: Just that switch, yeah.
BO: Okay, so what’s the name of that monitoring device? ‘Cause I’m getting it for my dad, ’cause I’ve heard my whole life, “Will you Turn the lights off. You’re wasting electricity.” And I’m gonna be like, “It’s a milliamp, it didn’t even affect your bill.” And I’m gonna use this against him. I’m gonna get it secretly installed.
RS: Yeah, it’s called the Sense Home Energy Monitor.
RS: SENSE. I think they go for around $300.
BO: Oh okay.
RS: I mean, it’s a big initial investment, but the whole idea is… I mean, you guys have surely heard when you pay attention to something, when you monitor the statistics, those numbers go down.
RS: And the whole idea is when you’re starting to pay attention to what your energy usage is, you start modifying your behavior.
BO: So the installation side of it, is it a DIY type of thing or do I have to hire an electrician to put it in?
RS: Borderline. It’s pretty simple. As long as you’re comfortable installing a circuit breaker in your electrical panel, it would be DIY. If that just sounds crazy and you’re not opening the cover on your panel, please hire an electrician.
BO: Okay. Where does it live? Inside the box? Outside the box?
RS: It lives right inside the electrical panel. It’s got these little clamps that go over to the main feeds coming in.
TM: I was just thinking, I had an agent who recently was contacting me, she had questions. There was apparently some weird electrical usage at this house, and they couldn’t figure out what it was and what was costing all this money.
RS: Oh, This would be perfect. I narrowed down everything at my house, going around shutting off device, by device, by device. And it’s basically called the phantom load, what you’re talking about.
TM: Yes. Yup.
RS: And you’ve got so many stories on their website talking about how people have solved failing motor on their furnace fan that was constantly drawing like 500 watts, things like that. This will track all that stuff down.
BO: Okay, I’m gonna let you dig into more of those. I think that’s fascinating. I mean, that device alone could save a lot of money. This country, imagine how much electricity we could save, anyway. I’m off on a tangent again. We were talking about electricity usage. So what does it cost to run a 60 watt light bulb?
RS: Man, it’s not what you think it is. I used to freak out at my kids like, “Hey, guys quit leaving the light on or we’re gonna go to the poor house,” all that stuff. Well, I was looking into this for a blog post that I’m doing for air conditioner crankcase heaters, and those use about the same amount of electricity as a 70 watt light bulb, about 70 watts is what they use. So It ends up being a little less than one cent per hour.
TM: Wow, and we’re talking about…
BO: This is pulled from one 60 watt light bulb.
TM: Well, yeah it’s…
RS: A 70 watt is what I calculated.
TM: What about incandescent versus CFL versus LED?
RS: Oh LED’s are way less, like a fraction of that. So you could have an LED light bulb on for I don’t know, maybe four to six hours and that’ll cost you about a penny.
BO: Nerd alert. Why are you writing about crankcase something or another in an air conditioning condenser?
RS: That’s a great question, Bill, I’ll tell you, we did a podcast here not too long ago on fall maintenance, and I had somebody come back on one of these and said, “Great podcast, love it, but one thing I gotta disagree with you on, you said, for AC maintenance, you don’t need to do anything. Well, I disagree with you, Reuben. You need to shut off the air conditioner circuit because those air conditioners have a crankcase heater and it’s gonna be running all winter long and it’s gonna run up your electrical bill. You don’t wanna have that, so it’s important to tell people shut off your air conditioner during the fall.” And I kinda went, well, that’s an interesting point ’cause I know air conditioners do have these, but is it all of them that have them?
TM: Or just the old ones?
RS: Yeah, and if they do have it, what does it really cost you? How much electricity is this? So I was digging into what it really cost.
RS: And then now, Tessa, you saw my post. We’ve got an internal company Facebook page for just group discussions here at Structure Tech and I had asked all of my inspectors, as you’re going around look in every air conditioner that you can and get photos of a crankcase heater for me. I wanna know how many of you can find a crankcase heater. And I think Dustin found one, in the last week. That’s it.
TM: Okay. Yeah, No one has posted any pictures. Yeah.
RS: There’s not a lot of crankcase heaters out there. So this is why I was digging into it, you’ll have to wait to see the blog post to get my final answer on this one yet. But that’s why I was digging into it.
BO: Sometimes the more I learn, the less comfortable I felt. You know I rewind…
TM: Just call Kura, Bill. It’s okay.
BO: Yes. Thank you, you let me off the hook again.
BO: Okay, what else are you thinking, Tessa? Do you have anything? You got garage doors.
TM: Well, I’ve seen a lot of those locks, too, that people can control also, from an app where they can lock and unlock doors.
BO: Okay, my house again I have to lean on my door to get it to latch so… And I was gonna actually replace the door, $3,500.
TM: Oh my gosh.
BO: And I said, “I think we’re okay.” And full disclosure, that was a contractor that was gonna come in, they were gonna take out the old door, they were gonna put in a new door, pull the permits totally above-board everything, everything there was cool, and I was shocked at the cost of a door.
TM: Front door, yeah.
BO: But anyway, does that new technology work with an old door?
TM: Well, yeah, I think so, right?
RS: Yeah, absolutely.
TM: You just replace the old lock with this new lock. And it might just be a matter of changing the location of your strike plate on your door, Bill.
BO: Is it that simple?
TM: Maybe, I don’t know.
RS: That’s it. Yeah, you can make it work.
TM: Yeah, maybe.
TM: There’s a blog about that.
RS: I didn’t wanna put any of those in ’cause I just think what happens when the battery dies? What happens if this goes wrong or that goes wrong.
TM: Exactly. Yeah.
RS: But, now that they’ve been out for like what, 15 years now? And I see…
TM: Have they? Really.
RS: I think so, and I see more and more of them. I just finally said, “You know what? Forget it, I’m gonna try this out”, and I put it on my front door and my garage door, and I’m just totally in love with it now. We never need to know where our keys are.
TM: You don’t need a key, you just… Yeah.
RS: And my family knows the code. If someone’s coming to my house I give them the code…
TM: Give them the code.
RS: All my neighbors already know the code, I don’t care. That’s fine.
TM: I tell you what though…
BO: Well, you’ve got a camera on them so if they break in, I know when you came and I know when you left.
RS: Exactly. Exactly.
TM: Yeah. You’re watching, you’re watching.
TM: I’ve had trouble though with some of them, being able to… During inspections they’ve got the automatic locking doorknob and they’ve got the code and they give you the code and you punch it in, and you hit enter, and you do all these things, you twist it, and it still won’t unlock or you can’t get it to lock. Get it to lock.
RS: Those are obnoxious. I know what you’re talking about. Yeah.
TM: Yeah, I don’t, I don’t know, they’re all different.
BO: So what you guys are talking about is not that device that’s physically attached to the door, it’s an app-based smart device, that is inside the wood or the metal. And it’s communicating that way, correct? Or what do they look like physically ’cause…
RS: I’m just talking about… It’s basically a dead bolt with a keypad on it.
RS: That’s it.
BO: Okay. But Tessa, what you’re talking about the smart technology, that’s different, right? When you’re opening garage doors, you were using an app.
TM: Yeah. Yeah.
TM: Well I… They make… Don’t they make locks that just connect to an app too? Yeah.
RS: Yeah, they make those too.
TM: Yeah, they do. Yeah.
RS: I don’t own one of those but…
TM: You’ve got the keypad one, where you… Yeah.
RS: Yeah, it’s just a fancier version.
TM: Yeah, so there’s different versions of these smart-locks. One has a keypad you can just punch in the code and it unlocks and one, you can get ones that connect to apps.
BO: I just had never thought they were gonna work in my house so I really haven’t explored the options very much.
TM: Yeah, a lot of this new technology, it doesn’t need to be hard-wired, it’s all Wi-Fi.
BO: But that’s what I was terrified. I mean, just look at all the cables that you see fixed to the outside of houses there. Coaxial or this that somebody thought was a good idea, and now you look at it and you’re just, “That’s ugly.” And then they cut and it, and… Old houses in the city.
TM: Yeah. You have a guy chomping through your attic insulation and destroying it.
BO: All right, so is there anything else you wanna cover here before we… We’re kinda getting to the end of this.
RS: The way I see it, the thing that’s kind of at the hub, that’s in the middle of all of this is an Alexa device, or a Google Home device, like some type of smart device that you talk to, that starts controlling everything else, that’s kind of the hub. So I’d say, if you wanna start getting a smart home, start with that, and it’s not expensive, you can get those echo-dots for like 30 bucks today. That’s a good way to start it out.
BO: Are you in charge of…
TM: I’m so old fashioned I don’t have any of those, and I don’t really want one either.
BO: Well, who’s in charge of all this data and all this information?
RS: Big Brother.
BO: All right, I like it. I like it.
TM: They’re coming out with smart appliances too, like a smart oven, where you can be like, “Pre-heat to 375 oven”, and it does that.
RS: Yeah, we all need that.
BO: Super cool. I see no point in my life to have such flexibility.
TM: I know. I also do… Okay.
BO: You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation, until next time, thank you very much.