Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Nest Thermostat

I recently bought a Nest thermostat. The idea is that it saves energy by being smarter. I also suspect people (including me) buy them because they're cool :-) One of the Nest founders was former VP in charge of iPods at Apple. The clean design, packaging, and user interface are reminiscent of an Apple product.

I'm mostly going to talk about an installation issue I had. For more of a general overview check out Scott Hanselman's Nest review.

I wanted to buy one when they first came out a year ago but they weren't available in Canada. Later, I used their compatibility checker which said it wouldn't work on my system. When the second generation Nest came out, I checked the compatibility again and this time it said it would work. At first I thought this was a result of improvements in the second generation, but I think it might have been my mistake the first time around - I may have entered all the connections that my current thermostat had, instead of just the ones that actually had wires connected.

Nest offers the option of having them arrange a local installer, but the instructions looked straightforward, so I just ordered the device.

It was easy to install. They even supply a screw driver, and the device has a level built in so you get it straight. I had to use the optional backplate to cover up the mess behind the old thermostat since I didn't want to get into filling and painting. Which is too bad, because it would look even slicker without the backplate.

The setup process was straightforward and I didn't have any trouble getting it to connect to my home wifi. (Other than the awkwardness of entering a long password without a keyboard.)

I had to shake my head when the first thing it did was start downloading updates. I get tired of every computerized device I own having to endlessly download updates. Actually, it's not the updates I mind, it's bothering me with them. Just handle them invisibly behind the scenes.

One tip - set the display brightness to auto rather than the default medium. This adjusts the brightness depending on the ambient light, making it less blinding at night.

Everything seemed to work fine and I patted myself on the back, prematurely as it turned out. I noticed that it seemed to have trouble turning off the furnace after it got to the correct temperature. It would cut in and out for quite a while before finally stopping. I emailed Nest but it was the weekend and I didn't hear back. The second night it crashed and rebooted. And in the morning the display would not turn on automatically when you approached.

I did some research on the web and found that the display won't come on automatically if the battery gets low. I also found other people had similar problems with cycling on and off. I learnt more than I really wanted to know about "power stealing". (Old style thermostat wiring was not designed for smart devices that require their own non-trivial amounts of power.) I ended up having to remove the Nest from the wall (it just pops off the base) and charge it with a USB cable.

Finally, I broke down and phoned Nest. (I hate phoning for customer support since it's usually such a frustrating process.) I got through fairly quickly to someone who was quite knowledgeable.  He had me check a bunch of things and play with the wires. The Nest has a bunch of helpful debugging information under Settings > Technical Info, including the battery voltage, and the input voltage and current. My battery was showing about 3.7 volts. The input voltage is a little misleading. These are 24 volt systems and mine were around 26 or 27, so I assumed I was good. But according to the rep, you have to divide by 1.4 and the result should be around 24 volts. Which means the Nest should show around 30, in which case mine were too low. I assume this is something to do with AC versus DC and how the Nest measures it. But given that the Nest is obviously computerized, I don't understand why they don't just divide by 1.4 before displaying the voltages. My input current was 20ma but he didn't say if that was good or bad.

It also seems strange that the customer support guy had to get me to manually read this information from the Nest. The device is already sending a bunch of information back to them (e.g. for the web interface) so why doesn't it send the technical info as well, so they don't have to get the user to give it to them.

The end result was that Nest said the problem was that the voltage coming from my furnace was too low and I'd have to get someone to check the furnace. I tried the company that installed the furnace (Greggs), but they couldn't come out for a week. I could have put back the old thermostat and waited, but that wasn't appealing!

I contacted Brent Veitch from Rock Paper Sun (the folks who did my solar panels) to see if he knew anyone who might be able to come and look at it. He offered to come himself although he's not a furnace specialist. Coincidentally he had just heard about the Nest recently so he was interested to see it.

I told Brent about Shelley asking "Why does the furnace keep cutting in and out?". He said, "Just tell her it's because you replaced a perfectly good thermostat with an expensive new toy". Ouch! Shelley laughed.

It turned out the problem wasn't really with the furnace. It just wasn't designed for the power stealing the Nest was doing. Ideally, there should be another C wire that could supply power, but the old wiring in our house didn't include it, and it would have been a major undertaking to run new wiring.

Brent had already talked to Nest and they had suggested adding a resister at the furnace end between the C wire and the Y wire (air conditioning) that was being used to "steal" power. They suggested 220 ohms but I believe he eventually went with 270 ohms. (Note: it needs to be a high power resister e.g. 5 W) That seemed to do the trick. The furnace now shuts off properly. The only question is whether this will cause any problems turning on the air conditioning. But considering we haven't used it for two years, I'm not too worried. (The battery voltage now shows about 3.9 V, the input voltage about 29, and the input current 40ma)

Although Nest's telephone support was quite good, they seem to be in a bit of denial about this issue (or at least deliberately vague). There's no mention anywhere about the resister fix. They do mention the power stealing and C wire issue but only in general terms. I'm not sure what percentage of installs have this problem, perhaps it's rare. And if you paid someone to install it, presumably they would deal with it. I can understand they don't want to broadcast their problems, but better to have information about how to fix it than try to pretend it doesn't exist.

Since then, the Nest has been working great. It's very cool that I can view and control it from the web or from an app on my iPhone or iPad (they also have an Android app). It's fun to be able to turn the heat up from my iPhone when I'm on the way home so the house is warm when I get there. (Although I'm sure the novelty will wear off quickly.)

In theory, the Nest will automatically learn your schedule based on manually turning it up and down, but I was too impatient to wait for it and manually set up my own schedule. (Based on the first couple of days, the learning did appear to be working.) I sure like being able to edit the schedule from my computer instead of the painful scheduling interface on our old "smart" thermostat.

Another nice feature is that it will automatically detect when no one is home and turn down the heat. I was a little skeptical of this feature, but after a week or so of "learning" it seems to be fairly accurately detecting when we're away from the house. It's somewhat conservative so if you just go out for a short time it won't kick in. But that's probably best, and you wouldn't save much energy anyway. (Even without this feature, if you forget to turn the thermostat down when you go out you can always do it from your phone.)

As much as I like the Nest, the initial problems made me a little nervous. A thermostat is a pretty critical piece of equipment in Saskatchewan winters. But since resolving the power issue it has worked flawlessly so I'm feeling better about it.

If you want help installing a Nest, give Rock Paper Sun a call. (They've also applied to be one of Nest's official local installers.)

Also check out Scott Hanselman's Nest review with more photos and screenshots. He had no problems at all with his install. (I notice from his photos that he did have a C wire - perhaps a newer house.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Stuff That Matters

Warm Sky, Cold Hands 2

The other day one of Shelley's friends complimented some of my photographs and said I was in the wrong business.

My immediate response was "Hard to make any money in photography."

Followed by slapping myself (figuratively).

What happened to the guy who goes around telling people to follow their dreams and do what they love, money secondary?

Honestly, I love photography, but I love it as a hobby. I don't think I'd enjoy doing it full time, or trying to make a living at it.

But it made me think. I'm not sure just doing what you love is enough. It's definitely better than doing something you hate. But what if what you love is eating ice cream? Should you make a life of that?

I think if you want to be happy with your life you also want to do something that counts. Or as Tim O'Reilly says, "work on stuff that matters"

I don't feel like I've done as well on that front. It's a bit of a stretch to say my company's software is saving energy by helping streamline the transportation industry. It's part of why I started EcoFriendly Sask. I'm not sure that's enough, but it's something.

Warm Sky, Cold Hands

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stops Along the Way

We drove 12,000 kms on our recent trip to Baja. On driving days, the highlights are often the coffee and restaurant stops. For my own memory as much as anything, here are some of the places we stopped on the way back. For a change we drove up the coast through California. The coastal highway is spectacular. But I hate the endless freeways through San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Since we didn't have internet access when driving in the US, we often relied on our Garmin Nuvi car GPS to find coffee shops and restaurants. It doesn't have everything, but it's a whole lot better than nothing. There are challenges to using it though. It doesn't have any information about the coffee shops or the restaurants, so you have to try to figure out from the name what it's going to be like. When there are no local coffee shops we'll fall back on Starbucks, but even that can be frustrating because the GPS doesn't differentiate between a "real" Starbucks and one in a grocery store or casino.

Fourchette (Ensenada) - We stayed overnight at the Best Western El Sid in Ensenada. It was nothing to write home about, but it was ok. The area around it was full of bars and seemed designed for young americans visiting on spring break. Luckily we asked at the hotel for a recommendation for someone quiet and good and they sent us to this italian place just around the corner. The food wasn't anything special, but it was small and quiet, exactly what we were looking for. There was also a good tea and coffee house right across the street from the hotel. (And a Starbucks a few blocks away.)

Santos Coffee House (San Diego) - There were lots of Starbucks as we got into San Diego from the Tecate crossing, but we opted for something else. This was a nice little neighbourhood place with friendly staff and good coffee.

Novo Restaurant Lounge (San Luis Obispo) - The deck overlooking the river is a great place to be on a nice day, and the food is good.

Eric Ericssons on the Pier (Ventura) - We made a pilgrimage to the Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, Patagonia's first retail store that opened in 1970. We asked at the store where to eat and they suggested Eric Ericssons on the Pier,  not so much for the food, as for the view. We had a decent meal and a fantastic view of the sunset over the ocean.

Miss Pearls (Oakland) - We stopped overnight at the Joie de Vivre Waterfront Hotel, mostly because I'd stayed there before, and it was on our route. After driving all day we didn't feel like going out so we ate at Miss Pearls in the hotel. It also has a nice view over the waterfront. Joie de Vivre is an interesting company, check out its founder Chip Conly on TED or his books.

Urban Blend Cafe (Oakland) - An interesting coffee shop in an old gas station. I visited here on previous trips. I like the black and white photos on the walls, I wonder who's they are?

Trinks Cafe (Gualala) - We were looking for somewhere to eat in this small town with a view of the ocean. We pulled into the parking lot for the Seacliff Motel. There was a small restaurant but it didn't look like anything special. Before we left, we stopped into the Ansel Adams gallery next door. As we left, we asked where to eat and he recommended Trinks next door and it turned out to be a good choice.

Requa Inn (Klamath) - We had planned to camp in the Redwoods, and actually managed to reach the turnoff to the campground while it was still light out. But it was closed for the winter (as were many of the campgrounds). After driving all day we couldn't get motivated to search for an open campground in the dark so we consulted the GPS and it came up with "Historic Requa Inn" which sounded interesting. It turned out to be a lovely little place. We sat in their comfortable lounge area and drank some Oregon Pinot Noir :-) In the morning they suggested a back road through the Redwoods. It was a small windy road, but I loved the chance to see the big trees. I only wished we had more time to spend there.

Barrio (Bend) - We stopped in Bend to check it out - it seemed like a nice town. We went to The Wine Shop to pick up some Oregon wine to take home, and they recommended Barrio. It's a small, cozy place, not too fancy. The tapas were excellent. On the way out of town we picked up coffee from Looney Bean.

Catalyst (Missoula) - We were expecting just a coffee shop, but this is a cross between a coffee shop and a restaurant. Had a great breakfast here before hitting the road.

Twist (Medicine Hat) - We haven't spent much time in Medicine Hat and weren't sure what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised with this place. Chosen by "Where to Eat in Canada" as one of Canada's best for the last three years in a row.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wild in the City

I left work early for a change today (it was a holiday after all) so I could enjoy the sunshine. The first thing I saw was a coyote beside the railroad tracks. Initially I thought it was a fox, but it was larger and didn't have a bushy tail. The other possibility was a dog, but it didn't look or behave like one. It was digging in the snow and when it saw me it trotted off down the tracks, stopping several times to look back at me.

On the other side of the railroad bridge someone was taking a picture of an animal beside the path. I assumed it was a rabbit but there were a couple more people there with binoculars who said it was a northern hawk owl eating a pigeon. I started to get my camera out of my pack, assuming that, as usual, it would fly away before I could take a photo. But it stayed there busily eating the pigeon. I was afraid to approach too close, so I didn't get great photos (only had the G12). This was my first view, you can see how close to the path it was.

I didn't linger since I was headed to Museo for coffee and they were closing early. On my way home from Museo I wished I had spent more time watching the hawk owl, after all, I can go for coffee anytime. Luckily my wish came true - the hawk was there in the same spot eating a pigeon. Given that it was an hour later, and judging by the rate it gobbled its food, I'm guessing it was a different pigeon. This time I wasn't as worried about scaring it away, since it obviously wasn't too concerned about people. I got some good photos in the lovely evening light. What a beautiful bird! (click for a larger view)

Northern Hawk Eagle

I even thought to take some video. (full screen recommended.) You can hear the cars going by on the road right beside us.

My iBird Pro iPad app (recommended) confirmed, "They have little fear of humans" and "Eats mostly voles and other small mammals; also takes birds, especially in winter; active during the day." And "A group of owls has many collective nouns, including a 'bazaar', 'glaring', 'parliament', 'stooping', and 'wisdom' of owls."

There were also lots of geese on the river, presumably stopping on their way south.

Canada Geese

On a lighter note, when I stopped at Museo for coffee on my way home, my latte even came with a creature :-)

Then an attractive young women walked up and asked if she could sit with me. (But don't read too much into that, all the tables were occupied and a middle aged guy alone at a large table was an obvious choice.) She asked what I was writing and when I explained it was a blog post about the creatures I'd seen on the way home she suggested I could add a wild red head (her words) to my post. And then she left.

Weir Reflections

Friday, November 09, 2012

It doesn't get much better than this

I was walking home from work today. It was dark already - the consequence of living in the north. The wind was blowing and the snow was flying - there was a winter storm warning out. It wasn't too cold, maybe -10c, but enough to give the wind some teeth.

And it was glorious! I laughed in delight and smiled at the snowflakes. I was dressed well enough that I wasn't really cold. I'm not sure why it felt so good. You might think I'd resent the cold weather having just got back from the warmth of Mexico. But I didn't. It reminded me of weather in the mountains, of other glorious days. Crossing the railroad bridge was as exposed as an icy mountain ridge.

But why would being reminded of bad weather in the mountains, by bad weather in Saskatoon, make it any better? I don't really know. Extreme weather makes me feel alive. To be comfortable while the storm rages is a powerful feeling.

Drivers hate bad weather, even though (or maybe because) they're not out in it. They're in another world in their hermetically sealed metal boxes. The weather is irrelevant except as far as it inconveniences their commute. We had a big storm a few years ago where roads were impassible and people were getting stranded in their cars. I walked home happily, enjoying the wild weather.

I remember storms during winter climbs in the mountains, where you could hear the wind gathering and building in the distance, growing as it approached until it blasted you like a freight train. It's best from a snow cave that you know won't be blown away. A tent is ok too, but you're never quite sure if it's going to hold. And getting out in the middle of the night to shovel snow that's threatening to collapse it can be an adventure in itself.

As I grow older I find myself reminiscing more. When I was young I used to feel sorry for "old" people that valued their memories so much. When you're young, the past holds little of interest or value, the future is everything. I'm still excited about the future, but I no longer think there's anything to feel sorry for about valuing one's past. I've been fortunate to do a lot of things with my life, but so have we all, in one way or another. We all have moments we cherish. To ignore the past is to throw away an increasing portion of our lives.

I have this habit of trying to identify times when I can honestly tell myself "it doesn't get much better than this". I don't mean trying to identify the "peak" moments of my life. It might "only" be sitting in the sun enjoying a cup of coffee, it might "just" be watching a sunrise, it might be walking home in a snow storm. I try to recognize as many of these moments as I can. To "catch" them, if only ever so briefly. To not let them slip by unnoticed. Because life is glorious, and all too often wasted. I could have wasted my walk home, grumbling to myself about the weather. Instead, I loved it, and I brought back happy memories of other times in other storms. It doesn't get much better than that.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Baja Birds

I'm not a serious bird watcher, but I enjoy seeing and photographing birds. Here's a list of some of the ones we saw on this trip (as far as I could identify them). It didn't seem like we'd seen that many different kinds until I started listing them.

(click on the name of the bird for more information, click on the photos for a larger view)

American Oystercatcher
American OystercatcherI love the bright red beak and eyes.

Belted Kingfisher
We saw kingfishers a few times, but never got a good look. I'm guessing the type from the range and the sound of its call.

Blue-footed Booby & Brown Booby
Blue-footed Boobies
We saw these in Galapagos as well. Their blue feet seem so improbable. It's fun to watch them dive bombing into the water to catch fish.

Brown Pelican
Brown pelican
These are common but I still like them. They seem to have a lot of character!

Chihuahuan Raven
There were hardly any crows or ravens, but we saw a pair on our kayaking trip. They looked and sounded more like ravens than crows, but they were smaller so I'm guessing they were Chihuahuan Ravens.

Costa's Hummingbird
I'm guessing at the identification. We could have been seeing several kinds.

Crested Caracara
We just saw one of these, sitting on a telephone pole, as we drove by.

Double-crested Cormorants
Lots around. Hard to identify the type of cormorant when they are sitting low in the water in the distance. Easier to get a better look when they are out of the water.

Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker
Usually saw these on the palm trees in Loreto. They had a distinctive call that would alert you to look for them.

Greater Roadrunner
Saw a couple of these when we were driving. Just brief glimpses but their shape is distinctive. I was happy to finally see them, but I'd like a better look

Magnificent Frigatebird
Frigate birds and cormorant
Lots of these around. Easy to identify by their distinctive wing outline when they're flying.

Osprey with fish
We saw a number of these and their nests on poles and cliffs. Also saw a couple of them flying with fish they'd caught.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret

Royal Tern
Royal tern


Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret

Turkey Vulture
UntitledThese are everywhere in Baja. Beautiful flyers, but their bald red heads are something only a mother could love!

A few more miscellaneous bird photos from the trip:

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Jumping Joel

I took a sequence of photos of Joel (our kayak guide) doing this jump. When I got home I figured out how to combine the images with Photoshop with the help of Image Sequences in Photoshop. This is the first time I've done this. It took a few tries but came out ok in the end.

Jumping Joel

It's pretty amazing (to me) how slick Auto Align, Auto Blend, and Content Aware Fill work.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Kayaking Baja

Horrendous bugs, oppressive heat, scorching sun, and six days accumulation of sun screen, insect repellent, salt, and sand. But if you let those things discourage you you're missing a real treat.

The negatives pale in comparison to the positives. Beautiful clear sunny skies, calm blue water, lovely beaches, great snorkeling, dolphins, whales, colorful tropical fish ...

We arranged our trip through Baja Kayak Adventures. We discovered the company on a previous trip to Baja and found out they were connected to Silva Bay Kayak Adventures who we later did a trip with from Gabriola Island in BC. This was the first time we'd done a trip with them in Baja. We were lucky to get one of the same guides we'd had in BC - Joel, who is from Mexico. Joel was very low key, and because it was a private trip he left it up to us where we went and what we did.

After all the crazy weather we'd had, including a hurricane, we were a little concerned with what it would be like for our trip. We lucked out - it was beautiful and calm the whole six days. A little warmer than average, but we could live with that.

We started just south of Puerto Escondido (south of Loreto), crossed to Danzante Island, and then over to Carmen Island. Both crossings went smoothly in the calm water. map of points (point 4 is the furthest we reached, the others are our campsites)

The mosquitos and flies were worst the first night. After that they eased up and we managed to keep them under control with insect repellent. Still, by the end of the six days I estimated 100 bites from my ankles to my knees. Thankfully, most of the bites didn't bother me too much. Apparently the bugs aren't normally so bad, but the recent rains have brought them out.

The first day as we were eating lunch a big group of dolphins swam by quite close to shore - a delight to watch, as always.

We snorkeled every day, sometimes several times a day, partly just to cool off. The water was warm but it was still cooler than the sun! It was great snorkeling and fun to explore the different bays and rocky points.

One night a noise woke me and a few minutes later it was repeated. In the morning Joel asked me if I had heard the whale. It must have come in quite close to shore and the sound we heard was it breathing. Pretty cool to have a whale visit in the night.

Crossing one sandy bay I saw a dark patch on the bottom. There were lots of dark patches of rock or seaweed, but this one seemed different. I circled back in the kayak, trying to keep my eyes fixed on it. The water was very clear, but 30 or 40 feet deep so it was still hard to see. My feeling was right - it was a sea turtle swimming along the bottom. It didn't seem to be aware of me, or if it was, it didn't get spooked and it swam quite leisurely. I called to Shelley but she was quite far ahead and by the time she paddled back to me I had lost it in deeper water. Afterwards, I dawdled across the bay hoping to see another turtle. Instead I counted 10 sting rays swimming along the bottom, silhouetted against the white sand bottom.

We saw a few more sea turtles along the way, but just glimpses of them when they came up to breathe and then disappeared again.

Another morning at sunrise Shelley opened the tent door to grab her shirt hanging on the outside of the tent to dry. She was startled when a huge insect entered the tent. My immediate response was "cool!" I reassured Shelley that it was safe and wouldn't bite. It was a large praying mantis. I've seen small ones before, but this one was about 2 inches long. I grabbed my camera. It was still very early and quite dark so I managed to get it to climb on my hand so I could take it outside where there was a bit more light. After some photos I carried it away from the beach and up the arroyo to where there was some vegetation. I took a few more photos in the more natural setting - it blended in well. Praying mantises are fascinating creatures. They are hunters and unlike most insects they can turn their heads. It was a little eerie when it turned its head and tracked me with its huge eyes.

There were a variety of birds along the way, turkey vultures, osprey, herons, egrets, oystercatchers, kingfishers, ravens, cormorants, gulls, and more. And of course tons of fish in the water. At one point I was taking photos of a great blue heron and I happened to glance down into the water below my kayak. There was a big school of king angelfish right underneath me. These are quite common, but usually just one or two at a time. The big group was beautiful to see.

When I was a kid I could sit and watch the flames of a campfire for hours. (And come home saturated with the smell of wood smoke.) I don't make many campfires these days. On this kind of trip it's the water and the reflections that fascinate me. The ocean varied from blue to turquoise to green and from transparent to black. Reflections of the red rock added even more colors to the mix. And as you can see from the photos we also had some colorful sunrises and sunsets.

click to view photos (75)Untitled

See also Shelley's posts: Paddling the South IslandsSalt Mining and Big Horn Sheep, and Snorkelling Photos