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Designing a Network for New Home Construction

Designing a Network for New Home Construction

In building a new house, there are pivotal windows of time where it’s possible to make a change or add a feature at a huge discount. Perhaps the most pivotal is just before drywall is installed. When that happens, the price of making systemic changes, like plumbing and electrical, goes up.

When we did our electrical plan, we added little icons for network connections around the house as placeholders. We knew we’d have good wifi and figured that we’d decide about the wired network later. As the electrical rough-in was almost complete we had to make a decision: wired network or not? Wifi would probably be enough. But adding a network, at that moment, was priced at a discount that would soon disappear forever.

Before pulling the trigger, we considered using a mesh wifi system with plug-in satellites that extend the range from a primary access point. We’re currently using Orbi and it works fine. Something like Eero or Nest Wi-fi could do the job. But would we regret not having taken the opportunity to build network infrastructure?

I talked to some of my geekier friends who said I wasn’t likely to regret having ethernet built-into the house. We’ll have a fiber optic internet connection for a house that’s under 2,500 sq/ft and a single story. We work from home and most of our evening entertainment will be web-based. We decided to add the wired network and I started to learn how it all fits together.

Designing the Network

First, we had to think about the overall design of the network. We’d need a home base where everything connects and then ethernet cables that extend the internet to locations of our choosing. For example, we want our TV to have a wired connection to the internet via the network. This means an ethernet cable had to go from the wall behind the TV to the home base where it connects to the internet. The same is true with the network connections in our kitchen and garage. This was the basic idea of our network and it was an empty vessel without an internet connection.

The Basic Network

The property had a fiber connection when we purchased it and once the construction started, an orange tube stuck out of the ground, waiting for a house to appear. Our future network would be powered by the wire inside that tube. To do that, it needed to make a few jumps.

First, we needed the fiber optic cable in the tube outside to breach an exterior wall and connect to our office. Our service provider did this work and left behind a modem that connects to the internet and makes wifi available. This was the first jump: into the house. The blue tube at the bottom of the box below is the fiber arriving in our office and home base. At the top are ethernet cables arriving from across the house.

Our Network Box

Getting Connected To The Internet

By connecting the modem to the fiber connection, we could have wifi. This is the second jump: into the room. We could stop there, but we have a network and want to put it to work.

Our modem/router (above) has ports on the back that can be used for connecting the ethernet cables for our network. But it’s the most basic version possible and there only a few ports. If we’re investing in a network, I want it to be useful, powerful, and manageable.

This is where things get interesting. We have relatively simple needs and the challenge was cutting through all the complexity and identifying what products would be best for us.

Learning About Ubiquiti and Unifi

I saw a couple of friends recommend a company called Ubiquiti and the company’s line of products called Unifi for people in my position. As expected, I went to the website to learn more and quickly felt buried in confusing terms and acronyms. There are just so many options. After a couple of research sessions, I started to get a handle on what we might need.

One of the reasons people like Ubiquiti is that it’s an ecosystem of devices that work together seamlessly across internet, security, and entry access. You can start with a device or two and then build-out if needed. The more I learned, the more I liked the products and started to formulate a plan.

One of the most interesting discoveries was PoE (power over ethernet) devices. PoE means you can add devices to the network that don’t require a separate AC electrical connection. The power comes through the ethernet cable. I had no idea!

This was a pivotal because it meant we could add access points throughout the house that could make our wifi more bulletproof. The key is understanding the difference between wired and wireless access points. Wireless products like Orbi or Eero have a router and wireless “satellite” access point that plug into AC wall outlets. These devices extend the network from a single source.

Wireless Mesh Network

PoE devices are wired and create multiple sources and better coverage.

Wired Network of PoE Devices

This kind of product represents the third jump – across the house. Using PoE devices, meant the network could be modular and grow as needed. In fact, I found that Ubiquiti makes access points that fit nicely into outlet boxes and have their own ethernet ports for connecting another device.

Wired Network of PoE Devices Extending the Network

For us, this means the network connection behind our TV can be a wifi access point and a wired connection to the TV. If we need more wifi coverage, we could always use a wireless access point that plugs into the wall.

Home Base

With the internet connection in place and the network set up, I was confident that we’d have the wifi coverage we’d need. Next was figuring out how to manage and monitor the network. Until recently, this often meant using separate devices that serve as gateways, switches, etc. I dreaded this phase.

Eventually I discovered the Unifi Dream Machine, which is an all-in-one product that’s designed for people like me. It has a gateway, switch, and a wifi access point in one device. It also has ports for connecting the ethernet cables. This is what brought everything together; the home base of the network. The Dream Machine comes with software that provides for setup and network monitoring via a free app. We’d still need the modem, but the Dream Machine would be our router.

So that is our plan. The fiber connection will connect to our modem, then the Dream Machine. The Dream machine will serve as our wifi and wired network controller, including access points that are powered over the ethernet connection. My plan is to start with the Dream Machine and test the coverage, then add access points as needed. Easy scalability FTW.

In learning about how this works, I used the Ubiquiti design center to get a feel for how the devices would perform. This version is probably overkill, but shows how the signals work with our floor plan and multiple access points.

Note: I have no relationship with Ubiquiti or any other company mentioned in this post.

Smart Lights, Smart Home ??

Smart Lights, Smart Home ??

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


When we renovated our house in Seattle in 2010, I learned about home automation and the idea of a “smart” home. A renovation seemed like the perfect time to consider a system that would make the house “smart” and more automated. We ended up choosing a complex and powerful home automation system called Control4. It was state of the art and I completely geeked-out on all the things you could do. It was just what I wanted at the time.

That was 2010 and my perspective has changed. For our Orcas house, we are not using Control4 or anything like it. I’m still fascinated by home automation but today I have to consider living on an island along with all the new products that have since appeared.

The Reality of Island Living

Let’s start with living on an island. Unlike Seattle, Orcas Island doesn’t have large companies and teams of technicians that can drop by to fix something that breaks. A technician would have to spend most of a day traveling and taking the ferries to fix a problem in our house. For this reason, we’re opting for the most reliable systems and products we can find.

The best example is roller shades in our great room. In the summer, the sun shines directly into the room and shades will be required. In Seattle, we had electronic shades that were automated. They would roll up and down on a schedule of our choosing and it was pretty darn sexy. We considered using a similar system on Orcas, but came around to seeing a reliable alternative that’s been proven for thousands of years: a pulley. Instead of relying on an electric motor that could fail, I will pull a cord.

Controlling It All

The system we had in Seattle was complex because you could configure it in so many ways. We could program it so that unlocking the front door would automatically turn on lights, play specific music, open the shades, and more. Again, pretty sexy. But it also seemed fragile. Being a single system, a small problem could have a ripple effect that meant our TV might stop working. A technician seemed to arrive every year to fix something or update the system software.

There were things we loved about the system. For example, the lighting was programmable, so you could set up custom scenes that work with a push of a button. “Movie Time” was a scene where the lights would dim to 15% and light a path to the kitchen. We could also say “Alexa turn on the movie time scene” and it would work without buttons or phone apps at all. Because Control4 was connected to the internet, it knew the time of day. This meant we could program the lights to slowly turn on as the sun set or turn all lights off at a specific time.

One promise of these kinds of “smart” systems is efficiency. And it’s true, they save some energy and effort. But after having it for ten years, I don’t think that’s an important consideration. Switching to LED lights is an energy saver, but the savings from dimming and scheduling seem marginal to me.

More than anything, lighting control is a very convenient and pleasing feature to have. We like low, soft lighting and electronic dimmers make it simple to get it exactly right. Once you get used to it, it’s difficult to go back.

Smart Switches

To have the control we wanted, we needed to think about the switches. Unlike standard switches or dimmers that are mechanical, these have electronic dimmers and are connected to one another. Once you have a “smart” switch in place, it becomes controllable through an app or voice command. If you have multiple, you can control them together.

Again, for the new house, we had to consider the overall costs, including maintenance and upkeep. We realized that we didn’t need control of the lights for about half of the house. Like a pulley, we can flip a simple switch in the laundry room. But, we did want to control the lights in entertainment and living spaces like the great room and outdoor room.

In considering the options, we thought a lot about modularity and systems that can be removed, built-out, and reconfigured as needed. This way, we can get started with a set of switches, and always have the option to replace them ourselves. No ferry rides, no technicians. Thankfully, this is how most home automation is done today. Instead of one big system, there are now multiple systems that can talk to one another and be replaced more easily.

For the controllable dimmers (in-wall switches), we chose Lutron, which is a well-established company known for reliability. Their “Caseta” line is for consumers like us and is modular. With a set of Caseta dimmers in the house, we can set up scenes and control the lights with buttons, an app, or with voice. If we don’t like them, we can try another one. If we love them, we can add more. The non-Caseta switches will be Lutron Maestro which are electronic dimmers, but not “smart” switches.

image of smart switch
Lutron Caseta Smart Switch

The Ceiling Lights

In our county, new construction is required to have 80% high efficiency lighting. This means using mostly LED or CFL bulbs. Most of the lights in the house will be recessed into the ceiling, or what some call “can” lights. Because there are so many, I was concerned about getting them right, in part, because I care about lighting. Maybe too much.

ceiling lights
Kitchen Ceiling

The ceiling of our kitchen looks a little busy because there are so many lights. This is by design and relates to a lesson we learned about outdoor speakers. In Seattle, we had neighbors who we didn’t want to bother with music. I asked the guy who installed our automation system about a good strategy and he said that we could get better and more private sound by having more speakers at a lower volume. The same is true with lights. We find that having more lights at a dimmer setting leads to a nicer feel.

You have probably seen LED lighting that seems severe or piercing. It’s difficult to put your finger on why, but you can tell it’s too much of something. In recent years, LED technology has improved and they now look much more natural. You can get LEDs that are more white or warm and that’s measured on a “kelvin” scale. From what we learned, 3000 Kelvin is a good standard and one that we’re using. If you’d like to learn more about lighting terms, this is a helpful guide.

Part of the complexity in our situation is our ceiling. Some of it is sloped, some flat. Some covered in cedar, some in drywall. For this reason, we needed recessed lights that could handle all those situations, still look uniform, and work with our switches.

Many months back, we learned about a Canadian company called Lotus LED that seemed to offer everything we wanted. Their lights were solidly built and available with trims in black and white and options with gimbals, which means the lens can be pointed in different directions. The decision was made. LotusLED would be our standard.

lotus led light

The Lotus lights are interesting because they don’t have a removable bulb. Everything is built-in and they’ll last at least 50k hours and can last over 20 years. I will be just fine not thinking about that for a very long time.

On top of the system-wide decisions were the choices of fixtures for places like bathrooms, bedsides and hallways. The problem here is the sheer volume of choices. Sites like Lumens.com seem to have a never-ending selection. A lesson we learned was to pick out lights early and then wait for a sale. Often, you could sign up for their newsletter and save, too.

LED Strips

The final challenge was LED strip lighting and boy, was it a challenge. As a consumer, I find most lighting decisions to be a maze of features and terms that I don’t quite understand. This is certainly the case with what is mostly a very simple idea: LEDs on a thin strip of plastic.

LED strip

We love ambient light that reflects off of ceilings and walls. To get this effect, LED strips can be placed under cabinets and shelves or down hallways, for example. I won’t get into all the complexity, but I never imagined there could be so many possibilities. Part of the issue is that LED technology is moving so quickly that manufacturers can’t seem to communicate clearly about what’s possible and what works best for a given situation.

I was excited to find that we could use a “nano” strip in our hallway that’s hidden in the drywall via this little housing.

nano strip

Over the weekend, we got our first looks at the hallway, which is lit with these tiny LEDs. There is still some fine tuning needed, but I think it’s going to look great.

hallway with led lights

Of all the decision-making in this project, the lights were the most time consuming. The big lesson for me was learning to pick up the phone and call the number on the website. Most companies have experts ready to help and if not for these calls, I wouldn’t feel as confident as I do today.

Now, we wait. The electrical rough-in work is done and soon, all the lights will go in. Only then will we see the results of all these decisions. I, for one, anticipate the evening when we can finally experience the results of all the planning.


I Can Recommend…

Industry (HBO) – I wasn’t sure about this based on the first few episodes, but it grew on me. It’s edgy and pretty dark. Sex, drugs and young English bankers?

We Are the Champions (Netflix) – A show about the most accompished participants in fringe sports, like yo-yoing, cheese rolling, and dog dancing. Cheesy and fun. Rainn Wilson is the host.

Klaus (Netflix) – A new Christmas classic in my book. It establishes the origin story of Santa Claus in beautiful animation.

Rick Rubin Interviews Pharrell William (Broken Record – Podcast) I love the Broken Record podcast and this interview is awesome if you’re into Pharrell’s work. I was a huge fan of N.E.R.D. back in 2001 or so.

The Stepford Wives (You’re Wrong About – Podcast) A show where two entertaining journalists pick a subject from the past that has been misrepresented. This episode about the real-life Stepford Wives was fascinating.


Photo

This time of year is often foggy in the morning and I love it when the sun shines through the fog, like it did Monday morning.

Powering a Smart Home with Batteries

Powering a Smart Home with Batteries

We live on Orcas Island in Washington State, which is serviced by ferries and has about 3,000 year round residents. For most of the time it’s been developed, the power infrastructure has been fragile. It’s a densely wooded place and trees often fall on overhead power lines during winter storms. Our neighbors tell stories about power going out over a dozen times in the winter and sometimes staying off for a week or two. For this reason, many houses have built-in generators that run on propane. As soon as the power goes out, the generator kicks on and powers essential things like the refrigerators, water pumps, and lights.

When we started planning our house on Orcas Island, people often asked about our plans for a generator assuming we’d need one. For a while, we had the same assumption. Before starting the construction project, we lived on the island for about 18 months and saw that power outages were becoming more rare. Power lines were moving underground and the power company (a co-op) was fixing problems quickly. The power still went out a few times a year, but for hours and not days.

We also started looking into alternatives to propane generators. Along with using fossil fuel, they are expensive and painful to maintain. We wanted to build a house with smarter, more sustainable options that had the potential to save us money over the long term.

From the beginning of the project, we planned to use solar panels on our roof. Right now, we’re working with an electrician to be sure the house has the proper “rough-in” for making solar installation easy when we can afford it. One of the traditional problems of solar energy is storage. For many years, the energy from solar panels was either used at the moment or sold back to the grid. There wasn’t a good way to store the energy produced during the day and use it once the sun goes down, or during power outages.

In these discussions with the electricians, we took a closer look at batteries designed to store energy that can be used by the home. Like the solar panels, we wanted to be sure the house is being built with the right connections in place for the future. Once the drywall goes up, these things become more difficult.

Tesla, the same company that creates vehicles, created a product called the Powerwall that earned a lot of attention because it made home-based energy storage an option. Today, multiple companies offer similar products. They’re essentially a battery pack that is connected to your house, the grid, the internet, and often, solar panels. The batteries remain at least 80% full and when your house loses power from the grid, batteries keep appliances running instead of a generator. The batteries are expandable, but don’t necessarily power a full house or offer more than a day of energy in a blackout.

Learning about these products changed how we thought about backups for our house. Instead of a generator, we plan to have a battery in our garage that is programmed to bridge us through short-term power outages. Once we install solar panels, the goal is to keep it charged with sunlight. This way, sun during the day can charge batteries that work overnight or during outages.

The battery storage companies we’ve looked at so far are:

If you have any experience with these products, I’d love to talk to you.