When Home Isn’t Home Anymore

How I feel about living in a town that was my home for 15 years without actually living in the house that was my home.

My visit to Wickenburg again this winter brings up something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: how Wickenburg was my home but isn’t my home anymore. This wasn’t really an issue in past visits, but is really on my mind this year.

What’s different? Well, I made friends with the folks who bought my old house.

New Friends in My Old House

It was Mary who started the dialog earlier this year. My wasband had left behind a metal sculpture she thought I might want. She tracked me down online; between this blog, my business website, my Twitter account, and my Facebook account, I’m really not that difficult to find. I didn’t want the sculpture and explained why. We started a dialog in email. I thought she and her husband might like my friends Jim and Cyndi (who I house/dog sit for in Wickenburg) so I made introductions via email. They really hit it off. We became friends on Facebook. And the other day, when I arrived at Jim and Cyndi’s, I got to meet Mary and Jeff in the flesh. I think it’s safe to say that we hit it off, too.

We’ve been hiking with the dogs at least once every day since I arrived.

The other day, I went to their house (formerly my house) to lead a hike on one of the horse trails I used to take. I thought it would be a nice introduction to the trails near where they lived. (That turned into a bit of a fiasco when the trail was longer than I remembered and obviously hadn’t been used in some time so it was hard to follow. And what’s with the fences?)

Palm Tree
This Mexican fan palm, which was about five feet tall when we planted it in 1999, is easily 30 feet tall now.

I’d flown over the house in October on my way to Chandler to drop off the helicopter for overhaul. That was the first time I’d seen it in 3-1/2 years. Oddly, I didn’t feel any emotional pangs looking down at it from about 500 feet up. It was just a nice looking house with a well-kept yard and a very tall palm tree.

Still, I thought I’d feel weird about actually going to the house. After all, it was what the court referred to as my “marital home.” But again, the weird feeling never really sunk in.

Mary and Jeff have made some changes to the house and yard that really improve it and make it look better than it ever did while I lived there. They’d increased the height of the wall around the yard and installed some really pretty yet simple metal gates where needed. Whatever vegetation had survived since my departure in May 2013 — a lot died when my wasband turned off the irrigation before deserting the place in the summer of 2012 — had really grown. The single palm tree, the mesquite (Spot’s tree) in the back yard, the two saguaros, the desert willows, and the palo verde that I’d nursed from seed were all at least twice the size I remembered them being. All the overgrown plants and weeds had been cleared out and everything was nicely trimmed.

All these things combined made the house seem different.

Is that why I didn’t really feel any weird emotions while I was there?

Or is it because my mind has completely closed that chapter of my life? Because my mind closed that chapter on the very last day I was there, when I drove away for what I thought would be the last time?

Marital Home?

In all honesty, it really wasn’t much of a “marital home.” How could it be? More than half the time I was there during my short, ill-fated marriage I was there by myself while my wasband played house in his Phoenix condo with a roommate or went back to New York to spend time with his mommy. It was my home, the home I’d painted and furnished and decorated the way I saw fit. Where I worked and played and relaxed, mostly alone.

There had been very little input from the man who occasionally lived there with me before abandoning it for a walled-in tract home in a decaying Scottsdale subdivision. The man who, for some reason, tried to keep me out when I returned that last autumn by changing the locks and fighting me in court when I got in anyway. (As if an $8 lock would keep me out of my own home.) The man who was so desperate to get me out after the divorce trial that he agreed to give me every bit of personal property in the house and his condo that I wanted. The man who wanted it so badly in the divorce that he eventually paid me half of its court-appraised value.

And then he never moved into it, neglected it, incurred huge expenses getting it ready for sale, and wound up selling it for less than his appraiser told the court it was worth.

(Yeah: I made more money on the sale of the house than my wasband did. I did mention elsewhere in this blog that he made a lot of really stupid decisions, right?)

Anyway, although I thought I’d feel weird about going to the house, I didn’t. It was just another house. Sure, I’d lived there for fifteen years, but I’d moved out and I’d moved on. Any fond memories I had about the place had been pretty much erased by the abuse and neglect I dealt with after I married the man who seldom lived there. My mind was on my current home, a home not haunted by a failed relationship and false marriage. My old house was no longer my home and I had absolutely no regrets about leaving this one behind. I was much happier where I lived now.

The “Then” Photo

One of the things I did before leaving home this November was to track down one of the framed photos that had hung on the wall in my old house. It’s an aerial image of the house, shot in 2000, not long after I’d started the landscaping in the yard. All the trees and other plants I listed above are still quite small. My horses are down in the wash — you can see almost all of Cherokee, but just Jake’s butt sticking out from under the shade that is no longer there. I’m standing near the front door, holding my aviation radio, wondering why a helicopter is hovering over my neighbor’s house.

I packed the photo that last winter mostly because I didn’t want to leave it behind, but when I got to my new home, I had no desire to hang it. So I packed it when I headed south.

The other day, I remembered to give it to Mary and Jeff. Part of me was worried that they’d think I was just getting rid of my old junk. I was prepared for a very unenthusiastic response. But to my surprise, they liked it.

I promised them a helicopter ride to get another shot just like it, so they can get a sort of Then and Now comparison. (I hope Mary or Jeff won’t mind riding with a door off to get reflection-free photos.)

I thought I had the original floor plans for the house, too. I distinctly remember them being rolled up and stowed away in one of the poster tubes I had in my office closet. But when I went through the poster tubes I packed and brought to Washington, I couldn’t find them. Maybe my wasband has them. Maybe when his old whore reads this — she follows my blog and tweets because her own life isn’t very interesting — she’ll ask him to look for them and send them to Mary and Jeff. He knows the address.

More likely, he threw them away, as he threw away the rest of his life.

How Do I Feel?

So how do I feel about being back in Wickenburg? Great!

My hosts here have given me a very comfortable place to stay while I watch their dogs and house. I get to enjoy daily hikes out in the desert I know so well and drive my truck down the desert roads I used to bump along in my Jeep. I get to eat at the restaurants I remember and like — the pollo asado burrito I had at Filiberto’s the other day was just as amazing as I remember it and I can’t wait to get up to Nichols West, “the best restaurant in Wickenburg.” (The joke is, it’s not in Wickenburg.) I get to see old friends who are all genuinely glad to see me. And of course, I get to soak up the sunshine in warm temperatures that let me wear t-shirts so I can start working on my summer tan.

What’s not to like?

Best of all, I don’t have the burden and responsibility of owning a home here. And I don’t have to deal with local politics and policies, which are apparently as close-minded, crooked, and skewed to favor the “good old boys” as they ever were. (Seriously, Wickenburg: do you really think hanging a digital sign on the Community Center is going to get the Phoenix/Vegas drivers to stop? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people stop at destinations. Hanging a tacky sign does not make Wickenburg a destination.)

I’m not tied to Wickenburg anymore and I like that. When I’m ready to move on — or my friends start hinting that I’ve overstayed my welcome — I’ll put my camper back on my truck and head out to explore other places. And when all my friends die or move away, I’ll likely stop coming here. By then, I’ll have other places I prefer to spend my winter time — possibly places a lot farther south than Arizona.

So “home” really isn’t home anymore — and I don’t have a problem with that at all.

Unpacking the “Table Linens” Box

More than just napkins and tablecloths.

I’ve had a sealed up moving box labeled “table linens” in various places in my bedroom for the past year and a half. I’ve been wanting to unpack it, but I wasn’t sure where I’d put the napkins, tablecloths, and placemats I assumed it contained. A few months ago, while cleaning up before expecting some guests, I shoved the box into my bedroom closet.

And promptly forgot about it.

Earlier this week, I finally cleared one of the shelves in my linen closet. This morning, while looking for something else in my bedroom closet, I found the box. Perfect! I thought to myself. I finally have the shelf space and can empty this box.

The first thing I found inside it, however, wasn’t table linens. It was a white Bed, Bath, and Beyond bag filled with paper-wrapped items. I pulled them out and unwrapped them one by one, remembering the day in autumn 2012 when I’d packed them.

They were a mixture of heirloom items I’d gotten as a child or adult from grandparents and some Native American folk art I’d bought on the Navajo Reservation back in the early 2000s.

The heirloom items were mostly Steiff stuffed animals — and yes, a clown (!) — that my father’s parents had given me when I was a baby. Even if they had been bought new back then — likely in Germany — they were at least 50 years old.

Heirloom Items
Some heirloom items, back on display in our new home.

There was also a dancing doll in Black Forest costume that’s almost identical to the one in this video. I remember getting that doll when I was about 10. My sister had gotten one just like it but I seem to recall that our dog tore hers up.

The Lladro figurine was one I’d bought for my mother’s mother for Christmas one year. She liked Lladro and I chose this one to remind her of all the nights I’d slept over at her house when I was a kid. When she died, my mother gave it back to me.

All of these items, due to their fragile nature, were safely tucked away in a big, glass-fronted cabinet in my old house. The cabinet had been a bookshelf in my wasband’s parents’ dining room, with dark wood shelves and lots of old books. My wasband inherited the bookshelf when his father died and it eventually made its way to our Arizona home. He replaced the wooden shelves with glass ones and added lighting — both of which really improved it. I never really did like the cabinet — it was too dark and heavy for my taste — but it did provide a great place to show off heirloom items. In addition to these things, it was also home to my Lenox china (still packed) and an original Hummel nativity set I got when my father’s parents died (and gave to my sister last year). There were some vases and crystal, too, but I left most of that behind; I was never a fan of cut crystal and since we’d gotten most of it from his family — he had an aunt who seemed to think we liked cut glass — I figured he should keep it.

The Native American folk art was more fun than meaningful and it lived on the mantel over the fireplace in my old house: a big wooden chicken and a smaller feathery rooster. I’d also picked up an ocarina and a little milk pitcher, both shaped like chickens. I used to have a sheep, but I think it was damaged and discarded. Or I may have given it away; I gave away a ton of things while I was packing.

Chickens
Folk art chickens and more.

I moved everything from the “linens” box to my new hanging wall cabinets. They fit nicely, except for the dancing doll, which is a tiny bit tall. Don’t tell anyone, but her hat is supporting the shelf above her in the photo.

It’s funny because just today I was wondering what I’d put in the cabinet to fill it. Last week, I sent my collection of Katsina figures to the shop where I bought them about 16 years ago in Arizona’s Hopiland to have them repaired and they’ll definitely get places in the cabinet. (I’ll pick them up during my travels this winter.) But until I unpacked the “linens” box, I couldn’t remember owning anything else that might fill those shelves. I figured I’d pick up more odds and ends in my travels and eventually fill them all.

Well, this is two less shelves that need filling.

As for the rest of the box’s contents, well, it was table linens. Three different sets of napkins, a few tablecloths, including a lace one, a handful of placemats, and more lace doilies than I know what to do with. Looks like I can change out my napkins with the seasons now; I have the perfect set for spring.

Best of all: another box unpacked and thrown away.

Fog & Sky Time-lapse

Probably the best time-lapse movie I’ve made so far.

A few weeks ago, we had an amazing day full of fog that drifted in and out for most of the day. It was a real joy to watch it from my home, mostly above the fog. But, of course, I didn’t have a camera set up for a time-lapse.

GoPro Camera Setup
I set up my GoPro on the deck outside my bedroom using a clamp mount my brother got me for Christmas last year. I have a USB power battery replacement for my GoPros that ensure I never run out of power.

Early this past week, the forecast mentioned fog for several days in a row. So I got out one of my GoPro cameras, put in a blank mini SD card, connected it to a full-time power source, and got it going taking one shot every 10 seconds.

That was on Monday afternoon.

Tuesday was a nice day. No fog. Not even much in the way of clouds.

Wednesday was kind of dreary with some clouds coming and going, but nothing really interesting.

Thursday was the same.

Friday was a bit more interesting, with clouds moving around a bit. I figured I could turn that into a time-lapse in a pinch.

But Saturday! Oh, Saturday, November 13, 2016.

Morning Clouds
This scene out the window beside my desk was my first inkling that it might be a good time-lapse day.

I was sitting at my computer finishing up a blog post about my home automation system when I happened to glance outside. My “office” window faces northeast. I see the Columbia River Valley as it narrows between cliff faces. And that morning, as it was just getting light, I saw the clouds clinging to the side of the cliffs near my neighbor’s house.

The fog was back.

I was almost afraid to see if the time-lapse camera was still running, but when it got light enough to see, I went out on the deck and took a peek. It was. Glad I’d bought that 64GB mini SD card.

I let it run. I went about my day, doing odd jobs at home and running errands in town. The camera continued to run. The fog came and went, the clouds moved around, it became a beautiful day. The wind kicked up and the clouds seemed to fly by.

And the camera continued to record an image every 10 seconds. All day long and into the night.

This afternoon, I shut off the camera and brought the SD card inside. I found the images starting at 6 AM and ending at 6 PM. I ran them through a batch action in Photoshop that cropped them to HD video size. I fired up QuickTime 7 Pro, which I have just for time-lapse work, and compiled the 4320 images at 6 frames per second. The result was too slow. I tried again with 15 frames per second. Perfect!

The result is what you see below.

Got five minutes? Take a break and watch my time-lapse. View it in full screen if you can.

If you’re wondering about the music, which seems to go perfectly with this video, it’s by Paul Avgerinos: Dance of Life from the album Sky of Grace.

Construction: Home Automation

How I’ve embraced the Internet of Things.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

One of the best things about designing and building your own home is the ability to include features that are fully customized for your own individual needs. I built my home with home automation in mind, but what I still find surprising as I look back on what I’ve done is how easy it is to retrofit a home with automation features.

I thought it was time for me share some of what I’ve learned while setting up the home automation features of my home. This is not intended to provide readers with everything they need to know to set up their own system. Instead, it’s an overview of what I’ve done and why and what it’s cost me. As you’ll discover, it’s neither difficult nor expensive to get started.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re looking for a “buyer’s guide” or detailed analysis of what’s available or even step-by-step instructions for setting up a system or devices, you won’t find it here. This is just an overview of what I did and why I did it. Use it to get some ideas for your system or needs.

The System

Wink App
The main screen of the Wink app on my iPhone. Each icon represents a type of device; tap the icon to access the actual devices.

Let me start by explaining what I wanted from my home automation setup.

I was very interested in setting up certain things that could be turned on or off when I wasn’t home. For example, the very first thing I thought about was having floodlights on my deck that shined down onto the concrete driveway where I land my helicopter. Although I very rarely fly after dark, if I was out flying and got delayed until after nightfall, I wanted the ability to turn on the floodlights from my helicopter so I could clearly see where I had to land without relying on my landing lights.

So in this example, I have a few components. On one side are the actual floodlights and the light switch that turns them on and off. On the other side is the Internet and my mobile device (smartphone) that communicates with it. What I needed was something in between the two sides — a device that made it possible for my phone to talk to the light fixtures.

That’s where the home automation system comes into play. It forms a sort of bridge between devices and a smartphone. It connects those devices to the Internet so your phone can talk to them.

When I began looking into this — about two years ago now — there were already quite a few options. There are even more now. I needed a system that met the following requirements:

  • Affordable. I’m not rich and I don’t want to pump a bunch of money into a system — especially one that might be out of date in a few short years.
  • Well supported. I wanted a system that had been around for a while, seemed to have good customer service, and looked as if it would be around for a while longer. That ruled out any brand new providers or ones that didn’t seem to add many new devices.
  • Wide variety of devices. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being able to connect the most things to the system? Well, I didn’t need a lot of things, but I did need certain types of things.

I also discovered that different systems used different communication protocols. For example, Wink, which is the one I wound up with, supports ZigBee and Z-Wave enabled devices. So any device that supports these two protocols should work with Wink. But a device that doesn’t support them might not be supported by Wink. I really can’t explain it any better than that. (And you can learn the difference between these two protocols here.) My advice: make sure the devices you want to use are supported by the system you select before you install a system. While there’s nothing stopping you from having multiple systems, wouldn’t you rather have just one?

Wink Hub
The original Wink Hub connects wirelessly to my network.

I chose Wink because it met all my criteria and was available for sale in Home Depot, which is where I bought almost everything to complete the living space in my home. Wink offered two (now three) main communication devices: the Hub, which is a sort of router with no visible interface, and the Relay, which is a touchscreen device you’d mount on the wall. The Hub was cheaper and I really didn’t see the benefit of a touchscreen, especially when I’d likely use my phone to interact with the system. There are now two different hubs, but I don’t see enough benefit in the new version (Hub 2) to make it worth upgrading. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)

I should make one thing clear: some devices require the Hub (or Relay) while others don’t. For example, my Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors require the Hub but my Ring video doorbell does not.

Once the whole thing is set up, you add devices to the Wink app. You can then control them in a variety of ways as I discuss here.

The Floodlights

Remember my example with the floodlights on my deck and driveway? That’s actually the first component I installed.

I wired the light fixtures like any other fixtures: two fixtures each having two bulbs with their wires coming together to one switch. These were standard Home Depot fixtures and floodlight bulbs; nothing special.

Leviton Smart Switch
This light switch looks like any other Decora switch, but it does not toggle.

What’s special was the wall switch. I bought a Leviton DZS15-1BZ Decora switch. (All my living space light switches are Decora style.) The back side of the switch is a lot bulkier than a regular light switch, but that’s because it has wifi capabilities built into it. It connects to the wires like any other light switch so I didn’t have any trouble installing it. I should mention here that I can switch it out any time I like — or add other ones just like it. My point: you can retrofit to add this at any time.

Once it was wired up and I’d set up my Wink hub, I followed the instructions in the Wink app on my phone to add the switch as a device. Voila! A light switch I could turn on or off or monitor from anywhere I had an Internet connection. Yes, including my helicopter in flight. I used it not long after installation when I returned from a charter flight after nightfall. It was very cool to see my deck lights turn on as I was flying across the river to my home.

And yes, it works like a wall switch, too, although it doesn’t toggle. Tap to turn it on, tap to turn it off.

Door Sensors

Security, for Peace of Mind

Reading about my the security features of my home automation system, you might get the idea that I’m paranoid. Am I? I’d like to think that I’m not. I’d like to think that I’m just interested in keeping an eye on things, especially when I’m not home.

During my off season, which is seven months out of the year, I travel quite a bit. Even two of the months I’m “working,” I’m based part of that time in California. So although I have a very reliable house-sitter (with a Doberman!) and neighbors who keep an eye on things during my long trips away from home, the house is empty almost as much as it’s occupied. While crime is not an issue where I live, it is somewhat remote. (My city-dwelling friends would argue that I live in the middle of nowhere.) It just seems to make sense to install features to keep an eye on things when I can’t be around to watch them myself.

Another thing I set up very early on were the door sensors. I bought four Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors, which are now marketed as Quirky Tripper Smart Security Trigger. These are two-piece units that you can place on doors or windows.

I used them on doors. One piece goes on the door itself and the other piece goes on the door frame so it lines up with the other piece when the door is closed. They don’t have to touch. When the door is opened, the sensor triggers. I set this up so it would send me an alert on my phone any time the door opened. I can also check the app from anywhere to see if the door is open or closed. Each door has a name, so I always know which one was opened.

Obviously, I did this for security reasons. I’m the only person who lives here. If a door opens and I didn’t open it, I want to know about it.

Motion Sensors

Motion Sensor
I use motion sensors like this to monitor activity around my shop and garage.

My security setup also includes motion sensors. I use the GoControl Z-Wave PIT Motion Detector, which has a built-in temperature sensor.

Like the door sensors, the motion sensor also works with Wink and will alert me when it senses motion. It’s very sensitive — it can pick up my 7-pound dog, Penny, and has, in the past, sensed a mouse.

Thermostat

Thermostat
This is the one I have. It was installed about a year and half ago; they have a lot more spiffy looking ones now, but I can’t imagine that they offer more features.

When the HVAC guys got around to finishing up my heat pump system — that gives me what we used to call “central air” as well as heat — I made sure they installed a wifi enabled Honeywell thermostat. This thermostat is programmable with up to four time periods a day and up to seven different programs a week. Since my life is not “scheduled,” I have it set up for the same programming each day and fine-tune it when I’m around or leave.

Like the other items I’ve listed so far, this one works with my Wink app. But it also has its own app that can be used independently of Wink. I’ve played around with both and have decided that I prefer the Honeywell app, so that’s what I use.

Thermostat
Adjust the thermostat while still lounging in bed? Check.

Because it’s wifi enabled, I can control it from anywhere with an Internet connection. So yes, I can adjust the thermostat while I’m still lying in bed. But I can also adjust it from SeaTac, when I want to bring the heat (or air conditioning) back to a comfortable temperature before I get home from a trip. Likewise, I can set it to a more economical temperature while I’m away, if I forgot to adjust it before leaving. And I can check the temperature at any time to make sure the system is working right. It has alert capabilities, too, as you might imagine, but I don’t use them.

Smart Plugs

Because not all lights or appliances have wall switches, there are smart plugs. A smart plug is a wifi enabled outlet that you can plug into any outlet. You then plug an appliance into it — a lamp, a coffee maker, a neon sign — and turn that item on. When the plug is turned on, it sends power to the appliance and it goes on.

Smart Plug
Smart plugs like this one make it easy to automate any device.

I bought iHome Smart Plugs to play with this feature. The first one I set up was to be able to turn on a neon sign I bought in Quartzite last year. I hung the sign on the rail for my loft, far out of reach. With the signed plugged into the smart plug, I can turn it on from my phone. What’s really cool, however, is that these smart plugs also work with Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, so I can turn the light on or off with a voice command. (It’s a real hit when I have friends over for dinner or drinks.)


Frivolous? Guilty.

I also used one of these to help circulate air in my loft. Because two of my HVAC vents are up on my loft, the warm (or cool) air sometimes gets “stuck” up there, especially on very warm or very cold days. I set up a fan and attached it to one of these smart plugs, then set up a schedule for the plug to turn on in the morning and turn off in the evening. This made it possible to get the air circulation I wanted without having to climb the ladder to the loft to turn the fan on or off.

So yes, the plug, when used with my Wink system, can be programmed to turn on or off at any time. And that schedule can be overridden at any time. From any place. Kind of cool, no?

Video Doorbell

One of the toughest things I had to do when wiring my home was to find and install a hardwired doorbell. Why? Because people apparently don’t use hardwired doorbells anymore. They seem to prefer wireless ones that have a push button outside and a door chime somewhere inside. But I wanted a wired one and I finally found the basic one I wanted. And then I had to figure out how to get the silly thing properly installed so I had electrical power on the wall outside my front door. (Hint: when you switch the wires, the doorbell rings continuously.)

Ring Doorbell
It was not easy mounting this on a corrugated metal surface, but I managed and it isn’t going anywhere without my building attached.

Why did I want power there? Because I knew that at some time in the future, I was going to install a video doorbell. It took a while to find the one I wanted, but I eventually wound up with a Ring doorbell. This is a really cool device. It combines the features of a regular doorbell — push the button and the chime I’d already installed chimes — with a video camera, intercom system, and motion sensor. Basically, if someone drives (or walks) up to my home, I get an alert. I can then use the video camera to see who it is and start a conversation with them — even if they don’t ring the bell.

And it really does work! I recently answered the door and chatted with the person standing there — who I could see — while I was driving my truck in town.

Although Ring can connect to Wink, it’s much better when used with its own app, which lets you configure it and interact with it. And this is the only device I pay a subscription for: I signed up for the cloud recording feature so that every time Ring senses motion, a video clip is automatically stored on Ring’s server for future reference. (Needless to say, I have many recordings of me letting Penny the Tiny Dog out to do her business.

The Router

Right around this time, I started having trouble with my Internet connection.

I get all my television service via Internet streaming with Roku. After installing Ring, I noticed that television shows would often get interrupted and need to reconnect to continue streaming. It was very annoying.

Rural Fiber Rocks
Rural fiber rocks.

At first, I didn’t make the connection between the Ring installation and the Roku problem. I did a speed check and saw that I still had the wicked fast Internet service I always had. After restarting the router and anything else I could think of and the problem not going away, I figured that the junky router my ISP had provided had simply gone bad. So I did the lazy web thing and got on Facebook to ask my friends if they could recommend a router. During the conversation that ensued, I got a router education and discovered that several of the devices I was installing — the Wink hub, Ring, the thermostat, the cameras (see below) — were talking directly to my router, along with my desktop computer, laptop, iPads, iPhone, and Roku. The router couldn’t handle the traffic and was partially shutting down when I watched TV.

ASUS Router
The ASUS router I bought to replace my crappy ISP-provided one. Wow! What a difference!

My friend Tom, who is extremely knowledgeable about these things, recommended a specific model of ASUS router. It was well over $200 — a lot more than I wanted to spend on a router. But I understood that I needed more capacity and I also now understood how much each model could handle. So I settled on an ASUS RT-AC66U Dual Band router. This would give me a 2.4GHz network like I already had plus a 5GHz network and even a guest network. I set it up with the home automation devices on the 2.4GHz network and my other devices, including the Roku, on the 5GHz network. And I plugged my desktop mac directly into one of its four Ethernet ports, thus removing it entirely from the wifi network. (I don’t know why I didn’t do that in when I set up my old router; they’re sitting right next to each other.)

What I like about this router is how easy it is to set up and monitor connected devices. While I assume my old router had some of this capability, this one just seems to make it more obvious. And it handles my current load — about 20 devices — with ease. No more Roku streaming problems!

Garage Doors

My home has four car garages, each with its own door. When I wired the garage, I included outlets over each garage bay for the future installation of garage door openers. But because I didn’t need garage door openers, I didn’t get them installed right away.

I finally got around to it this past June. The installer offered me three options ranging from $325/door to $425/door. (Do the math on four doors: ouch!) All three options were for LiftMaster doors — that’s the professionally installed version of Chamberlain.

Internet Gateway
Smaller than a deck of cards, this device plugs right into my router and makes my garage doors accessible from my iPhone.

I did some research and learned that although all three options were wifi enabled, the most expensive one (model 8550W) had a built-in “router” of sorts and was all ready to be connected to the LiftMaster app. But the other two models could be added to the app with the purchase of a single small device called an Internet gateway. The differences between those two models was chain (noisy) vs. belt (quieter) drive. As I told the installer, if my garage door opens and I’m not the one opening it, I want to hear it. So I went with the cheapest of the three models (model 8365) and spent an extra $50 for the Internet gateway, which I installed myself by simply plugging it into a wall socket and my new router.

LiftMaster
The LiftMaster app shows a status screen for each garage door, which I can name. Tap the picture of the garage door to open or close it. (Looks like my Honda is being neglected again.)

(And no, I was not about to install the garage door openers myself, even to save a few hundred bucks. There really is a limit to my DIY skills.)

I absolutely love my smart garage doors. I can open or close them from anywhere, check the status (is a specific door open or closed?), get an alert when one opens, and even set up a robot to check the status of the doors at a specific time of day and automatically close them all — in case I forget to close them myself. Of course, they all do have the usual remote controls — one for each vehicle that lives there — and a central control area just inside the door that leads from my entrance vestibule to my garage. And there’s even a keypad outside one of the doors that, when the proper code is entered, will open a specific door or close them all.

The only thing that would make the setup any better is if the garage door openers washed the cars while they were sitting idle in the garage.

Smoke/CO Detectors

When I first started working on the inside of my living space, I was excited to buy a pair of Kidde Wink-compatible smoke detectors. To me, this was the best of all worlds: a system of smoke/carbon monoxide detectors that would “talk” to each other and alert me about hazards no matter where I was.

Trouble was, the smoke detectors were battery operated and they didn’t have a hardwired version. The building code requires hardwired smoke detectors. So I had to buy the old fashioned kind and install those to meet building codes.

Once I got my Certificate of Occupancy, however, I could make changes. I didn’t remove the approved smoke detectors. Why would I? They were already bought, paid for, and installed. Instead, I just added the two smoke detectors to my home: one in the garage (where I honestly think everyone should have one) and one up on my loft. I then connected them to each other wirelessly and tested them. Not only did they both go off, but they gave me the alert I was hoping to get on my phone.

Smart Bulbs

Smart Bulb
GE Link smart bulbs put wifi into the base of a light bulb.

My most recent automation acquisition was a pair of GE Link light bulbs. These are energy saving LED lightbulbs that are wifi enabled. They can be added to my Wink app like the smart plugs or light switches.

The benefit of using a smart bulb instead of connecting the light fixture to a smart plug is that you can easily control the bulb manually. If you use a smart plug between the wall and the lamp, if the plug is disabled, there’s no power to the lamp. With a smart bulb, there’s always power to the lamp; it’s the switch on the lamp or the bulb itself that controls whether there’s light.

Like the smart switches, smart bulbs can be controlled with the app or on a schedule. They make it very easy to set up light timers on any kind of light.

Interconnectivity

One thing I didn’t mention here is that devices accessible through my Wink system can talk to each other and work together. This is done through the creation of “robots.”

For example, I can have a robot that monitors my Ring doorbell between sunset and sunrise and turns on my deck light if it senses motion. (I already have the deck light monitoring when I come home so it turns on the light when I pull into my driveway.)

While an example like this is great, Wink doesn’t have the ability to set times for an activity to end after a robot started it. So if it did turn on the deck light, it would stay on until either I turned it off or another robot did. I’ve put in a feature request to Wink to add timer-based functionality — for example, turn the light on for 15 minutes.

Cameras

I didn’t talk about my live video cameras, mostly because I don’t consider them part of my home automation system and they don’t work with Wink or any other system. I have three different cameras (not including the one in Ring and my weather cam), one of which was installed before my home was built! I keep trying new ones but don’t seem to find one I really like. At this point, I have enough of them. They provide additional security and a way to keep an eye on my home when I’m not around.

Suppose I’m on a day trip out of town somewhere and I get a motion sensor alert. I can use the cameras to see whether there’s someone around who shouldn’t be. If there is, I can use one of the cameras to talk to that person if I want to.

Tip of the Iceberg

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as capabilities are concerned. There are automatic watering systems, sensors for all kinds of things, even a device that tells you when it’s time to buy eggs.

And I’m sure I’ll be expanding my little system as time goes on — although I can keep track of my egg supply without a computer.

Have you set up any home automation at your place? If so, please do take a few moments to share your experience or advice with readers. My experience is limited to what’s here. You can add value to this post by sharing what you know with others.

Life above the Clouds

One of those days when I’m so glad I made my home where I did.

Pictures just don’t do it justice. I know because I’ve been trying to take a good picture of what I’m seeing outside my window for the past hour and a half.

It started before dawn, when the early morning’s gray light revealed the thick cloud blanketing the Columbia River in the valley far below me. It just sat there for a while, apparently still, shrouding the homes and roads and orchards that normally fill my view. I went about my morning tasks — making coffee, writing in my journal, unloading the dishwasher — sneaking peaks outside to see if the view had changed. Every time I looked, it had. Then I begin to notice the movement of the clouds, rising and falling, drifting to the south west, drifting back to the north east. For the hundredth time in as many days, I regretted not setting up one of my GoPro cameras to capture a time lapse of the movement of the clouds.

I took pictures. Dozens of pictures. I used my phone and my good Nikon. I brought the pictures into my computer and fiddled with them, hoping I could get them to show off what I was seeing. For some reason, they always came up short.

Cloud Pano
One of the first photos I shot was a panorama. Click this image to load and view the whole thing.

At one point, I watched the cloud grow and climb and drift right up my driveway to swallow my home. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it was gone.

Airport Clouds
Directly across the river from my home, the local airport is in a bright fog. Like me, it’s quite a bit above the river level.

Autumn
This zoomed in shot looking toward Wenatchee really shows off the autumn colors.

Even as I write this, now two hours after dawn, the view keeps changing. The bright sunlight plays on the autumn colors in the orchards and reflects bright white off farmhouses and shop buildings. I keep waiting for the fog to burn off, but instead it keeps drifting and rising and falling. Below the cloud, its a gray day, but above it, here at the Aerie, it’s bright and beautiful — almost springlike.

Foggy Home
A 300mm lens really compresses the distance between a home about a quarter mile away and the city of Wenatchee five or six miles beyond it.

I’m a view person, as I’ve stated numerous times here and elsewhere. I bought this piece land because of the view and I designed my home to take advantage of it. I don’t need pictures on my walls; I have windows. It’s amazing to me how often the view out those windows varies — with changes of time or light or season or weather. It’s a new show every single day, and although some days are better than others — like this morning’s show — they’re almost always amazing.

The other day, a friend came by for dinner. As we were sitting at my breakfast bar, enjoying our meal, we couldn’t help but take in the view of the city as late afternoon turned to evening and then to night. My friend turned to me and said, “I’m so glad that you haven’t taken your view for granted.”

I immediately knew exactly what she meant. My last home, in Arizona, also had some nice views. In the beginning, when I first moved there, I used to like to watch the way the setting sun turned the mountains to the north an amazing shade of copper red. After a while, however, I noticed that I wasn’t looking quite as often, even though the view was spectacular most afternoons. I had begun to take the view for granted.

I hope that doesn’t happen here.

As I was finishing this up, I noticed that the fog was finally dissipating, being burned off by the warmth of the sun. I took a quick break to shoot video of what I saw — it’s zoomed in a little so the quality of the video isn’t very good. It does give you an idea of what I was seeing and just how beautiful can be here.


A quick video from the deck.

I’m very glad I decided to make my home here.

Prepping for Winter

I get started on my winter preparation chores.

Thought I’d write up a quick blog post to review a few of the things I did yesterday to prep for winter and maybe list a few that still need to be done.

Winter in Wenatchee

I should start off by saying that winter in the Wenatchee area, where I live, isn’t as cold and nasty as you might think. Yes, Washington is in the northwestern corner of the country and I live at about 47.4° of latitude there. But as surprising as it might seem, our winters are just about the same as the ones I experienced in Northern New Jersey years ago, which sits at about 41° of latitude. Here’s some data from Sperling’s Best Places:

Climate Comparison

I’m finding it hard to believe that we have fewer sunny days than the New York Metro area, but that’s likely due to the winter when we get cloud cover 4 out of every 7 days (my estimate). In the rest of the year, it’s sunny most days. The rainfall numbers (8.8 annual inches in Wenatchee vs. 42.6 in Harrington Park) and precipitation days (64 vs. 113) tell the tale. We even get less snow.

One of the two main reasons I left New Jersey back in 1997 was to get away from the cold winters. (The other was financial; I can have a much better lifestyle out west for the same or less money.) So I think it surprised a lot of people when I made the move to Washington State. But there are a lot of things beside the weather to attract and keep me here — I’ve mentioned a lot of them elsewhere in this blog.

Still, the weather does dip below freezing in the winter here and, like in Arizona, it does it earlier than it did back east. It seems that the coldest days here are right around Christmas. (Back east, it started getting coldest around New Year’s day and didn’t let up until mid February.) I’ve experienced freezes here as early as November, which is why I start winterizing as soon as we get our first frost.

That was this past Tuesday morning.

Irrigation

Because of our “high desert” like environment, the only way to get a garden or leafy trees to grow is to put them on irrigation.

I’m a real pro at setting up drip irrigation — I did it at my Arizona home not long after we moved in and were able to do some sort of landscaping there. (Long story; not worth retelling.) The benefit of drip irrigation over sprinklers is that you can bring water directly to the plants that need it. That saves water and cuts down on weeds.

I have four irrigation systems at my Washington home:

  • My vegetable garden was the first one I set up. It runs from a battery-operated timer and provides water to the raised garden beds, a flower garden beside my shed, and the flower garden at the entrance to my driveway. I also ran the line under my driveway to deliver water to the first trees I planted on the south side of my driveway, including a handful of fruit trees (cherry and apple).
  • My front lawn was the next one. The only reason I have a lawn is because my dog likes grass. The lawn is small and is bordered by rocks and my driveway on three sides and a row of lilac trees I planted right in front of my home on the other. This system also runs on a battery-operated timer and it includes three pop-up sprinklers in the law and a bunch of drip lines for the lilac bushes and some marionberry bushes a friend gave me.
  • Two professionally installed irrigation lines on a programmable 4-zone timer provide water to the trees I’ve planted along the road and all the way down in my bee yard. I have over 1,000 feet of road frontage and the lines run almost that entire length. I add drip emitters every time I plant another tree.

The main thing to worry about with irrigation lines in the winter is that if you don’t drain them, they’ll freeze and possibly crack. That means tracking down leaks and doing a lot of repairs in the spring. I obviously want to avoid that.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been cutting back on the water being delivered to my garden, lawn, and trees, mostly by adjusting settings in the irrigation systems. When the weather finally turned full autumn last week, I shut most of them off completely. A friend in the area suggested giving everything one final soaking before winterizing. Mother nature is doing that for me: there’s a double storm system coming through the area that should be delivering lots of rain. So I shut everything down yesterday and winterized it.

What does winterizing entail? Here’s what I do:

  1. Shut off the water source at the source. Three systems run from the “frost free” valve at my shed; the one from my lawn is a spigot at the front of my house. which has an internal shutoff valve.
  2. Disconnect the water lines. This makes it easier for them to drain. Or for water to expand if there’s any left in the water line and it freezes.
  3. Use an air compressor to blow out the lines. I bought all the equipment to do that last year: male and female hose fittings that can connect any hose fitting to my compressor. My compressor is a huge affair on wheels that my friend Bob gave me. I have it connected to a very long hose (also from Bob) on a reel I bought and installed my car garage. The hose is long enough — if you can believe this — to reach my shed about 100 feet away from my front door. So it took only minutes to run the compressor hose out there, hook it up to the various lines, and blow out each line. Then I cranked the compressor hose back in. Done.

Th only other thing I need to do is gather up and drain the hoses I’ve used around my yard, coil them back up, and store them in the shed until next spring. I’ll likely do that next week when the weather clears up again. They’re not at risk of freezing.

Water source
This Frankenstein’s monster is where the water comes into my building and goes all kinds of places — including a hose for the inside of my garage. I designed this crazy setup so I could actually drain all the water out of my pipes from one place.

Inside my garage, under the stairs where the water comes out of my slab and goes up into my home, my water lines also need a bit of prep. That’s easy. I have a ceramic heater that I place in front of the PEX pipes. I plug that into a Thermo Cube — a temperature sensitive outlet that turns on at 35°F and turns off at 45°F. So if temperatures get down to freezing inside my garage — which is possible once in a while — the heater will turn on and keep that area warm. No chance of pipes freezing.

The Garden

My vegetable garden this year was better than ever before. Until the tomatoes took over.

I planted and harvested sugar snap peas, beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, okra, eggplant, beets, corn, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, various herbs, and potatoes. Everything except the brussels sprouts provided me with a good harvest. The sprouts were attacked by aphids and grasshoppers that I was simply unable to keep under control. The zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers were attacked by squash bugs, but I managed to get a good harvest before they came.

My Garden
Here’s my garden in the spring, before the tomatoes and sunflowers took over.

I also planted just four tomato plants. Unfortunately, some “volunteer” tomato plants also started growing. These were from seeds of tomatoes that had fallen to the ground, likely at the end of the previous season. At first, I pulled them out. Then I potted some and gave them to neighbors and friends. Then I pulled more out. Then I thought, well, what’s a few more tomato plants?

I went away for a week in the beginning of August. When I got back, those volunteer tomato plants had pretty much taken over one side of the garden, making it impossible for me to reach the second batch of corn that I wanted to harvest.

And then the spiders moved in. Big yellow and black ones that an entomologist friend assures my are not harmful. There were at least two that I saw. Who knows how many more lurked in the jungle of tomato plant leaves? I made sure I always wore gloves when picking tomatoes.

And then I started taking pruners with me when I picked tomatoes. Ever time I picked a basket full, I’d lop off huge branches of the plants. I eventually regained access to my eggplant plants, which began producing again. The peppers were a complete loss, as was the corn. If my chickens hadn’t met an untimely end, they’d likely be eating back the plants. But because they’re gone, the tomato plants soon invaded the fenced-in chicken yard.

Out of Control Garden
Out of control tomatoes and sunflowers in my garden. At this point, I’d already harvested much of my garden’s crops.

I should mention that there comes a point when your neighbors and friends stop taking tomatoes from you and you feel as if you eat another bowl of gazpacho, you’ll die of tomato poisoning (if there is such a thing).

When the frost set in the other day, I have to say that I was glad to see frost damage on some of those plants. I’d finally get rid of them.

But I will eventually have the task of cutting them all back and putting the plants in a compost pile. I’ve already been doing this a bit with grass clippings and other tomato plant cuttings. I put them in the raised planters I’ve already harvested from. When the snow falls, it’ll form a heavy blanket over each planter’s pile. Snowmelt will help break down the plants. In the spring, I’ll just use a rake to loosen up the previous year’s soil and new compost. Then I can add a half bag of fresh garden soil, work it in, and plant.

This year’s chore will be difficult. As soon as the frost kills the plants, I’ll get to it. I figure an hour or two a day through the rest of October will finish it up.

I almost forgot about the invading sunflowers. They grew all over my garden area and at the corner of my front walkway. They’ve been dying and I’ve been pulling them out for the past month or so. Still have a few to go. They go down to my big yard waste pile, which is a low area alongside the road just past my windsock. The quail are having a field day on the seeds that are dropping. I guess I’ll be fighting sunflowers next year, too.

Potatoes from my Garden
The last of the potatoes from my garden.

In the meantime, I harvested the rest of my potatoes yesterday. This was the first time I’d ever grown potatoes and I started with a few from my pantry that had grown “eyes.” I followed the instructions I found on the web and put them in their own pallet planter. I never put that planter on irrigation — I just watered it occasionally. Next year, I’ll irrigate; I think I’ll get more potatoes that way.

The Lawn

Bad Lawn
Here’s what part of my lawn looked like this spring. The top part of this photo shows the dead grass raked out; the bottom shows what long grass looks like if left under snow for months at a time. Lesson learned.

I learned my lesson about the lawn this spring: if you don’t cut the grass down short before the snow comes, you’ll start the season with an ugly brown patch that requires a ton of raking to prepare for spring growth.

Even though I’ve turned off the irrigation, my lawn continues to grow — although more slowly than it did in the summer. So I’ll keep cutting it.

It’s not a big deal because it’s a small lawn. I have an electric mower that works very well. The whole job takes about 15 minutes, including prepping the mower and then dumping the grass clippings and putting the mower away when I’m done. I suspect I’ll keep at it until either the first snow is forecast or I go away for the winter.

My Lawn
Here’s what my lawn looked like this summer. Not perfect, but I’m proud of it. It’s the first lawn I’ve ever planted, grown, and tended to in my life. (And yes, that is a pesky volunteer sunflower along the gravel area.)

My Cheat

Oh, yeah — maybe I should have admitted that at the top of the post: I don’t stay here for the winter. I actually never intended to — even when I first saw this homesite and knew it was what I wanted. As far as I’m concerned, this is a three season place. When the temperatures begin to drop and that cloud cover moves in like a cold winter blanket, I’m out of here, headed to points south: Arizona and California.

I’m lucky to have a very good house-sitter who comes with her Doberman to keep an eye on things for me. She’ll be here for most of the time I’m gone and has family nearby to help her if anything goes wrong.

Still, I want to prepare my place so it’s easy for her to tend to — and worry-free for me. That’s why I winterize.

Home Tour, 8-Oct-16

Another look at my work-in-progress home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I had a friend I hadn’t seen for about a year come over for dinner on Saturday night. It was a good thing he came. I had a few little projects that I’d been putting off for two long — the trim around my bathroom door being the biggest one — and knowing he was coming motivated me to finish them. It also motivated me to clean the place up and throw away a lot of the junk that had been accumulating. I am the queen of clutter and I’m really working hard to control it.

My Red Sofa
I get very serious when I clean. I even took out the leather cleaner and wiped down my living room sofa.

Once my home was all spiffed up, I figured I’d take the opportunity to do a quick video tour. I’ve been videoing various parts of my new home construction and it’s kind of neat to go back through my archive and see where I was at various points.

My living space is about 95% done at this point. I have my Certificate of Occupancy — I got it last spring — so there’s nothing left to get inspected. There are three big finishing projects, though:

  • Build a ladder to my loft. I already have all the wood and hardware. I just have to stop procrastinating and get the job done.
  • Finish the tile around my shower stall. Again, I have most of the materials I need. I just absolutely detest working with tile. So I procrastinate.
  • Paint and trim the stairs. I’m going with paint because it’s durable and cheap. But I still have to sand the steps, paint them, and then add trim along the sides.

I also have some “baseboard” trim work to do. I’m using quarter round to keep it simple. There’s not much left to do. I might knock it off Monday afternoon.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.