Physical dashboard devices – Eh!

According to this article by Katie Fehrenbacher at Gigaom, the developers of home energy management systems have figured it out that there’s no future in dedicated dashboard devices when you have a marketplace full of iPhones, Android phones, iPads and other tablet devices.

The dedicated dashboard devices would be able to display various conditions of your home energy system, your local weather, etc., and to control devices in the home.   But now that we have Android phones and iPads, these new devices can access the web and use either native web pages or specialized apps.

It’s a no brainer.   Have a web based system as the default UI and provide specialized apps for hand held controls.

Fun with Google Charts

I was working on some Google Charts and came across this one.  Here’s my new business card:

Tinaja Labs Blog

Tinaja Labs Blog

As they say, “read ’em and weep”.

From the overview of Google’s QR codes charts:

“QR codes are a popular type of two-dimensional barcode. They are also known as hardlinks or physical world hyperlinks. QR Codes store up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters of arbitrary text. This text can be anything, for example URL, contact information, a telephone number, even a poem! QR codes can be read by an optical device with the appropriate software. Such devices range from dedicated QR code readers to mobile phones.”

Anyone have a laser reader? Here’s one:

Here’s a sample app to read a QR code from your smartphone:

Knitting QR codes:

Wireless Sensor Networks

This is going to be a base post (I’ll make it sticky) to hold the outline of tutorials related to various aspect of wireless sensor networks.  From the sensors and radios, to a gateway,  to web services, data logging and eventually, charting and analysis.  Look at this overview of Wireless Sensor Networks on Wikipedia.

Our interest is in developing a wireless sensor network platform that is inexpensive and simple to use.  There is a sweet spot between super high tech and older outdated technology where we believe there exists a meaningful set of technologies that will fit our goals.

XBee, Wifi, Sensors

XBee, Wifi, Sensors

What we’ve discovered is that we can use radios, like the xBee radios from Digi, with up to 4 sensors hooked up to each one, as our remote sensor boards.  We have also discovered that we can transform a wifi router into a tiny, low powered computer running an embedded, open source, operating system called OpenWRT.  Many wifi routers have a serial port available on the main pcb inside the device to which we can hook up a coordinating xBee radio; the counterpart to the ones on each sensor board.  Then we install a scripting language, Python, into the Linux operating system.  Finally, we install python scripts which can be used to collect the data being transmitted from the sensor boards and send that data to web services like Cosm (formerly Pachube), ThingSpeak,, Paraimpu, etc.

So we have wireless sensor boards sending sensor data to a radio wired into the serial  port of a wifi router.  The wifi router has been re-flashed with an open source embedded Linux operating system, OpenWRT, and to that we’ve added Python as an easy to use scripting language.  We have then added various scripts to bundle the incoming data and send it to the internet for further processing, charting, and so forth.

It is an inexpensive, flexible, easy to use, wireless sensor network platform.

In this ongoing quest to learn more about sensor networks I’ll add links to the Resources Page.


Here’s a list of notes we’ll be updating with information about how to build you’re own wireless sensor network.

  • WSN: Sensors: this is where is all begins.  The sensor responds to some environmental events and generates a voltage or a digital signal.  I’ll be going over a few sensor types that I’ve built; Tweet-a-watt, Temperature, Gas (example of indoor air quality), and a Force Sensitive Resistor (FSR) as an example of Elder Care.
  • Radio: XBee – Radios allow us to create the wireless part of sensor networks.  The XBee radio is very accessible to beginners even if configuration is a bit challenging.  I’ll describe the various aspects of XBee radios that I’ve used.
  • Gateway: Wifi Router – in the original design for the Tweet-a-watt the output from the sensor’s transmitter sent data to an XBee receiver hooked into a PC (via FTDI-USB).  The approach I describe uses a low powered (about 4 watts) Asus wi-fi router in place of a PC.  I’ll describe using OpenWRT as a replacement OS and adding a USB memory stick to extend the storage memory of the device.  I’ll also show how I added python with web service calls in order to send data to the internet.
  • Client facing site: a site for users to register their gateway devices and manage the sensors associated with each.  Also the place to look at the charts and subsequent analysis for the sensor data.  This is an MVC web application written in C# and ASP.NET using Visual Studio 2010 Express and SQL Server 2008 Express.

Next: WSN: Sensors

Energy Dashboards

I’m interested in software development for home energy management systems.  The most efficient software delivery platform would take the form of a Dashboard.

The “Dashboard” is a software version of what you see behind the steering wheel of your car.  It has taken on the term to mean a software application, often in a web page, that has meters and dials to display, in a meaningful way, various things in the real world; like the weather, volatile stock prices, air quality, traffic, and all manner of things that warrant monitoring.

I’ve been looking at some providers of Home Energy Management Dashboards (and perhaps the energy generated).  This is some of what I’ve found:

I first saw the design from Lucid Design Group at the David Brower Center building in Berkeley. It’s an amazing building and their dashboard software shows the status of the buildings various systems.  You can see a live demo here:

Lucid Design Group has what they call a “Starter Kit” for commercial and residential use.  The basic starter kit for commercial use comes with a single current monitor (requires an electrician to install the hardware) and costs $10,000.  I think I read that the residential system goes for $7,500 but I couldn’t find that again.

Greenbox comes from some folks originally involved in the development of Flash technology, so I expect they would use Flash for their Dashboard.  Their web site describes the various components of their consumer dashboard; brief overview of your energy usage, daily patterns that affect your electricity usage, categorize your electricity usage, calculates your carbon footprint based upon your energy usage profile, compare your usage anonymously with other homes like yours, etc.  They don’t seem to have it finished yet so I don’t know how much it costs.  I did sign up to be notified when they’re ready.

Agilewaves has a residential offering and it seems they have the ability to track devices and appliances within the home.  They can track electric, gas and water use, temperature/humidity, output from solar PV, performance of solar or geo-thermal water heating, indoor air quality, and provide accurate consumption and carbon footprint information in real-time.  They also have an OEM offering.

Again there is no pricing information but you can call them to discuss the istallation.

Tendril has an offering  that sits between your utility company and your house, .  Their system has a browser based Internet dashboard that enables you to monitor, manage and control the energy consumption and each of the smart devices in your home.  However they only sell to the utilities so each page that describes their products has the following:

This product is not currently available in retail stores, please contact your utility to get smart energy in your home today.

Their hardware uses wireless zigbee technology and they have a device that plugs inline to an appliance which makes possible to monitor and possibly switch a specific device  on/off.  They have display devices that show system energy stats, they have a air conditioning thermostat control and devices to boost the wireless signals and to connect the signal to the internet.

On the site the monitoring functions are promoted to the utility companies as a way to track customer usage and to be able to influence customer usage based on demographics collected about energy use.

As far as I can tell they only have agreements with Reliant in Houston and Tucson Electric Power.  You might want to call your utility company and see if they’re working with Tendril.

There are some hardware based monitoring devices that don’t have a web portal but instead show the stats in a small display.  Examples of these are DIY Kyoto, Onzo, and The Energy Detective (TED). These are all in the range of about $100 – $200.

Overall the web based portal systems that reflect energy use, energy generation and other home statistics are generally too expensive.  The systems that depend on the utility companies’ smart meter offerings have the problem of allowing too much knowledge of the internal, personal energy useage.  Too much big brother for my taste.

What we need…

…is a series of inexpensive devices based on the zigbee wireless protocol which relay the energy usage to a modified router (or a simple PC) that then transmits that usage data to a secured web portal.  The inline devices should be priced in the range of $10 each for simple data aquisition and $20 each for data and on/off control.  These devices should be placed on all significant appliances, light switches, etc.  Consumers could then monitor very specific usage within their private, secured web portal and changes made in the portal should be reflected in the devices.

This could thought of as a sort of a mashup between the Kill-A-Watt, Zigbee (think Tweet-A-Watt), X10 appliance modules and a web services portal.  Also look at the framework by ioBridge.

For inspiration, check out this site in the Netherlands,

Please let me hear from you if you know of any other dashboard monitoring systems for residential use.