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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Reprogramming Cheap WiFi Outlets

If you want to retrofit your home with smart outlets and lightbulbs, bust out your wallet. You can easily spend forty dollars for a smart light bulb at your local home supply store, and strips of smart sockets could cost sixty. When [coogle] found a WiFi-enabled four-outlet power strip on Amazon, he couldn’t resist. Sure, the no-name strip would be locked down behind a stupid iPhone interface and will probably turn your house into a botnet, but never mind that: you can easily reprogram these power strips to be whatever you want.

After receiving these power strips and tearing them open, [coogle] found exactly what you would expect from a no-name white goods manufacturer. There’s a board with an Espressif chip and a WiFi antenna, and a second board with a few relays, with a few wires connecting the two. You only need to browse AliExpress for a few minutes to figure out what’s going on here. The brains of the outfit are in the ESP8266, and if you can control that, you have your own Internet of Power Strips.

The problem, then, was reprogramming the ESP8266. This was a version of the chip [coogle] hadn’t seen before, but a quick query with the Google Mother Brain revealed it was a WT8266-S1 module, with all the pins required for programming easily accessible on a convenient header. After connecting this header up to an ESP programming board, [coogle] had all the relevant information including the capacity of the Flash. There’s still a bit more work to make this a functional WiFi power outlet, namely figuring out which GPIOs and wires connect to which relays, but this is effectively a completely Open IoT device right now. All you have to do is bring your own firmware.

Serial controlled power outlet


[Alan] sent me his simple rs-232 controlled power outlet. He built it to turn on his laser printer when a print job appeares in the queue. The relay is directly controlled by the DTR line on the serial port. Lots of espresso machine PID conversions use them to run boilers, so he could have avoided the extra mechanical relay. [I can’t pick on him too much, my old laserwriter is on all the time.]

He tied it together with some perl to turn on the printer and get the print job going once it’s had enough time to initialize.