Home Control Assistant Newsletter for February 21 2021

Have you looked over the version 17 release notes? Lots of changes that you can incorporate into your designs right away. Easy upgrade.

Looking for answers to the most common questions about HCA? Check out our
Frequently Asked Questions page.
Resilience is defined as: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

Recently I was working with a user who has a complex HCA based automation. A concern I have is the fragility of the system with so many “moving parts”: A windows computer, Windows 10, the HCA software, Insteon interface, Insteon devices, a Hubitat interface, Ecobee thermostat, sensors managed by Hubitat, external Ecobee temperature sensors, Wi-fi, multiple routers, an internet connection, and the power to the home.

What can be done to “toughen” this installation? It’s hard since few of these items are very amenable to backups. Because of the way Insteon works having a second PowerLinc or even quickly replacing the existing one should it fail is
not easy at all.  But I do have a few ideas, that while less about automatic recovery, are more about knowing quickly that a problem has happened. That may not make the fix quicker but at least you can start on it sooner.

Alert on issues
There are a lot of checks that you can built into your automation solution that report when problems happen. Knowing about a problem as soon as it happens lets you return to full function as quickly as possible. Recently the user I was working with had a problem with the Ecobee thermostat going offline and so the external room temperature sensors were unavailable to HCA. The Ecobee thermostat reports those sensor values to its cloud and HCA gets them from there. The automation solution should have had a mechanism to check if the data from those sensors was current or not. Working with data days old – because the current data wasn’t making its way to the Ecobee cloud – wasn’t operationally useful. Knowing as soon as the problem started would have been much better.

Device checks
In any system where communication is used there is the potential for problems.  HCA can do some of these checks as it can alert if a device doesn’t acknowledge a command, status request, or hasn’t been heard of in a while. This is a big topic and there is a user guide chapter and technical notes on it. Again, the idea is to recognize problems sooner rather than later.

Some battery powered devices can be queried for their power level. A program that periodically checks for this can be run once a week and alert when it is too low. For devices that don’t report power levels – like most less expensive motion sensors - a battery replacement once a year can eliminate problems before they happen. The Hubitat package has a program to check battery levels. It shows how easy a program can go though all the devicesin your design doing checks.

Another area to look at is agreement of sensors. As we use more of these in our solutions, a test can be made to see if what they are reporting makes sense. Are all the room sensors reporting consistent data? Are most reporting around 70 degrees and one reporting 60? Even a single sensor can be checked for an expected range of values. If sensors are inconsistent or reporting crazy data, then probably there is a problem with that sensor and it could be replaced.

Manual control
Most of what I have written is all about knowing when a problem happens and not preventing problems or providing a way to automatically handle failure. All the devices we use can send HCA signals then HCA initiates actions. While that is great as you can create smart systems, if HCA stops working or any of the pieces of the “machine” between the device and HCA fails, then you have no control. Having the device communicate directly with its target is a tougher system as it eliminates many pieces. While this may sound like I’m suggesting eliminating HCA for a better system, I’m not. But what I am saying is that not every simple action need be carried out by HCA. Press a keypad button and have “that” light go on really doesn’t need to be handled by HCA. 

Each week I get emails from users who need a new install because their computer crashed, and they lost “everything”. Please make backups. Also, computers are so inexpensive these days, rather than using that old “trashed” Windows 7 laptop with failing batteries that still “works”, get something more reliable that doesn’t have a spinning disk.

Oh, the internet! We live and die by it. There isn’t much one can do without it. While we still support Samsung SmartThings, we no longer recommend it. Hubitat is recommended because it communicates events inside your network unlike SmartThings which routes everything through its cloud. If the internet is down, Hubitat still works for events but SmartThings doesn’t. Same with LIFX lights and Phillips Hue. LIFX uses a cloud, Hue lights are all inside your network.

Another area that often fails is routers. Too many times in my own home I have to use the “cable box” fix: pull the plug, wait, plug in. Now I have an HCA program that Pings a website that is always available (Google DNS servers) and if that fails, I power cycle my router because it is connected to a UPB module that HCA can OFF then ON. This same method can be used on any Wi-Fi connected device when you want to see if it is online or not. (Like my pesky printer that seems to drop off Wi-Fi with great regularity).

Windows LTSC and restart on power
I know I have written about this before, but Windows generally offers a solid platform for HCA. It is capable and reliable. Windows update however can be a trial with slow and frequent updates, plus disk space issues. This is why we offer the
small footprint computers for HCA. These run Windows 10 LTSC which is the variant of Windows 10 that is used in “Kiosk” type applications, so it doesn’t do feature updates often. Also, these small machines restart Windows as soon as powered on with no user action needed. I know some users use a computer with a UPS or a laptop to survive short power outages. I question the wisdom of this. When the power is out all your automation gear – unless battery powered – is offline. I prefer to have HCA shut down and get restored when the devices it controls are restored too.

These are just some ideas. I wish that our systems could be tougher, and we could have backup systems in place that would be used when there are problems. I hope as time passes and more smart systems get installed – probably using Amazon or Google systems – that these types of issues will get addressed.

Important NEST Thermostat Note!
Do you have a NEST thermostat in your home and want to integrate with HCA? Back before NEST got absorbed into Google, HCA supported NEST thermostats. Unfortunately to provide that support again is beyond what we can do from a business standpoint (the cloud developer is a smart guy so technically it can be done, but Google is asking things from a business standpoint that we can’t do).

There may be a way to create support as if you were each ”developers”. It would require installing several Windows programs onto your computer – as we do for Apple Homekit support – and having each user who wants this to create a Google developer account – costs $5. This can be a support nightmare for us, and we are not anxious to take that on but will do so if there is sufficient interest.

Before we decide, we would like to know how many users want support of NEST thermostats. Drop me a line and tell me if you do and, more importantly, what you plan to do with that support. In my own home I have a NEST thermostat and it is smart enough, so I just leave it alone and it does a great job. I don’t need to integrate it with HCA.

User-to-User forum

An HCA User who wanted to set up a forum for user-to-user communication. I'm passing this on, but please know that this is not a HCA company project and I will not be spending much time there so I don't know how this will work out. Here is a link to what he set up.

Want to take the next step in automation? Want to get started with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant and control HCA by voice commands? Even if you are a long-time user of HCA, the Getting Started guides have all the info you need on client-server, mobile applications, DDNS, and voice assistants.

All of the
Getting Started Guides are available on the support website.
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