Smart Plugs Don’t Save You Energy, But Don’t Consume Much Either

Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and just about every electronic device manufacturer are jumping on the bandwagon of connected devices. They promise us the ability to turn on our toaster from another room, unlock our doors just by shouting at them from outside, and change the channel on our TV through perfectly enunciating a sentence instead of mashing the buttons on our remotes like chumps. And yet, despite all this new-fangled finger-less control, there is an unanswered question: does this technology save us energy in the long run?

For years we’ve been hearing about vampire power and all the devices in our home that sit in standby, waiting for their masters to turn them on, quietly burning power to listen for that signal to wake. Fortunately the One Watt Initiative and general awareness and design for energy savings has cut out a lot of this phantom load. So how does the smart home, which essentially adds a bunch of connected vampires to our base load, end up saving money in the long run? And is it better than other alternatives or just good habits? I put these questions to the test with today’s smart power strips and controllable outlets.

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The Electrical Outlet and How It Got That Way

Right now, if you happen to be in Noth America, chances are pretty good that there’s at least one little face staring at you. Look around and you’ll spy it, probably about 15 inches up from the floor on a nearby wall. It’s the ubiquitous wall outlet, with three holes arranged in a way that can’t help but stimulate the facial recognition firmware of our mammalian brain.

No matter where you go you’ll find those outlets and similar ones, all engineered for specific tasks. But why do they look the way they do? And what’s going on electrically and mechanically behind that familiar plastic face? It’s a topic we’ve touched on before with Jenny List’s take on international mains standards. Now it’s time to take a look inside the common North American wall socket, and how it got that way.

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Smart Outlet Cover Offers Lessons on Going from Project to Product

Going from idea to one-off widget is one thing; engineering the widget into a marketable product is quite another. So sometimes it’s instructive to take an in-depth look at a project that was designed from the get-go to be a consumer product, like this power indicating wall outlet cover plate. The fact that it’s a pretty cool project helps too.

Although [Vitaliy] has been working on this project for a while, he only recently tipped us off to it, and we’re glad he did because there’s a lot to learn here. His goal was to build a replacement cover for a standard North American power outlet that indicates how much power is being used by whatever is plugged into it. He set constraints that included having everything fit into the familiar outlet cover form factor, as well as to not require any modification to the existing outlet or rewiring, so that a consumer can just remove the old cover and put on the new one. Given the extremely limited space inside an outlet cover, these were significant challenges, but [Vitaliy] found a way. Current is sensed with two inductors positioned to sense magnetic flux within the outlet, amplified by a differential amp, and power use is calculated by an ATmega328 for display on 10 LEDs. Power for the electronics is tapped right from the outlet wiring terminals by spring clips, and everything fits neatly inside the cover.

It’s a great design, but not without issues. We look forward to seeing [Vitaliy] tackle those problems and bring this to market. For more on what it takes to turn a project into a product, check out our own [Lewin Day]’s story of bringing a guitar effects pedal to market.

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Finding ESP8266 Inside Big-Box Store IoT Plugs

When we buy new shiny toys, we usually open them up to at least have a look. [Scott Gibson] does the same, apparently. He found an ESP8266 module inside the EcoPlug brand WiFi-controlled wall switches.

The original device was intended to be controlled by a (crappy) app. He sniffed the UDP packets enough to send the on-off signals to an unmodified device, but where’s the fun in that? [Scott] gave it an upgrade by replacing the ESP8266’s firmware with his own and now he’s got a much more capable remote switch, one that speaks MQTT like the rest of his home automation system.

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Cheap WiFi Outlets Reflashed; Found to Use ESP8266

There’s a bunch of simple WiFi-enabled outlets on the market today, and all of these blister-pack goodies seem to have something in common – crappy software. At least from the hacker’s point of view; there always seems to be something that you want to do that the app just doesn’t support. Stuck in this position, [scootermcgoober] did the smart thing and reflashed his cheap IoT outlets.

Although [scooter]’s video is very recent, and he says he got his plugs at Home Depot, we were unable to find them listed for sale at any store near us. Walmart lists the same device for a paltry $15, though, so the price is right for repeating his experiment. The video after the break shows his teardown, which locates all the major components, including a mystery module that was revealed to be an ESP8266 upon decapping. Pins were traced, leads were tacked to his serial-to-USB adapter, and soon new firmware was flashing. [scooter]’s new app is simple, but there’s plenty of room for improvement once you’ve got the keys. All the code is up on GitHub.

WiFi outlets like this and the WeMo have proved to be fertile ground for hacking. Of course, if you’re not into the whole blister-pack thing, you could always roll your own WiFi outlet.

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Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: A Better Smart Plug

Walk into any home improvement store, and you’ll find dozens of smart accessories, home automation equipment, and WiFi-connected ephemera. The Belkin WeMo Insight is one of these devices, giving anyone with $60 and a WiFi network the ability to switch lights and appliances on and off over a network. [John] picked up one of these WiFi plugs, but it didn’t work exactly as he would like. Instead of building a smart plug from scratch, [John] replaced the controller board for a WeMo Insight for his Hackaday Prize entry, making it far more useful and a replacement for devices like the Kill-a-Watt.

In its stock form, the WeMo can only be used though the smartphone app provided by Belkin or through a few third-party services like IFFT. All of these solutions have a limited API, and don’t provide advanced power metrics. To solve this problem, [John] replaced the smart controller board inside the Belkin WeMo with one of their own design.

By volume, most of the electronics inside the WeMo are a transformer, caps, and a relay; the smarts of this smart plug are just a daughterboard. By re-engineering this daughterboard with a new microcontroller, an ESP8266, and a microSD card connector, [John] can replicate the functionality of the WeMo while adding some new features. SD card datalogging for up to four years is now possible, a RTC now provides precise time stamps on all data collected, and a few simple calculations on the microcontroller enable power factor, line frequency, and total energy metering. With the ESP, all this data can be sent up to the cloud with a vastly improved API.

It’s a great project, and something that Belkin should seriously consider for their next revision of the WeMo. For anyone stuck with a stock WeMo, [John] has made all his design files and code available, allowing anyone to replicate this build

You can check out [John]’s Hackaday Prize entry video below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Hacking A Wireless AC Power Outlet

It’s always nice to see hackers pick up stuff headed for the landfill and put it back in action with a quick repair and upgrade. [Septillion] found a wireless remote controlled AC outlet in the junk bin and decided to do just that. A nice spin-off of such hacks is that we end up learning a lot about how things work.

His initial tests showed that the AC outlet and its remote could be revived, so he set about exploring its guts. These remote AC outlets consist of an encoder chip on the remote and a corresponding decoder chip on the outlet, working at 433MHz.  Since the various brands in use have a slightly different logic, it needed some rework to make them compatible. The transmit remote was a quick fix – changing the DIP switch selected address bits from being pulled low to high and swapping the On and Off buttons to make it compatible with the other outlets.

Working on the AC outlet requires far more care and safety. The 230V AC is dropped down using a series capacitor, so the circuit is “hot” to touch. Working on it when it is powered up requires extreme caution. A quick fix would have been to make the changes to the address bits and the On/Off buttons to reflect the changes already made in the remote transmitter. Instead, he breadboarded a small circuit around the PIC12F629 microcontroller to take care of the data and address control. Besides, he wanted to be able to manually switch the AC outlet. The relay control from the decoder was routed via the microcontroller. This allowed either the decoder or the local manual switch from controlling the relay. Adding the PIC also allowed him to program in a few additional modes of operation, including one which doubled the number of outlets he could switch with one remote.