Home Technology

It’s usually our goal to hide our electronics as much as possible.  This is especially true for all of the things that are hooked up to our TVs.  It’s so much nicer to be able to focus on the screen rather than all of the “boxes” and wires that go with it.

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So, this leads us to the Apple TV in the family room.  For the longest time, we left it sitting on top of the TV stand, which, honestly wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either.  The Apple TV itself was small enough to not be a huge visual distraction, but all of the wires coming out of the back were clunky and it was a pain to dust around.  The other issue we had with it (which might not have been a problem for everyone) was getting it to recognize button pushes on the remote while laying on the floor to watch TV.  I think we must have the MOST uncomfortable couch in that room, so we spend quite a bit of time watching TV from the floor and it was just annoying to have to hold the remote way up high to get the Apple TV to recognize it.

So, today I wanted to share the super simple solution that fixed all of this for us – 3M picture hanging strips.  We applied the picture hanging strips to the bottom of the Apple TV and used them to stick it onto the back of the TV.  Unconventional, but it works great.  It’s completely out of site and (here’s the best part) the remote control still works!!

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When Chad first suggested this, I was skeptical, figuring that the remote would never work with the Apple TV stuck to the back of the TV, but we figured we didn’t have much to lose since we could easily remove the strips if it turned out be a failure.  And I’m so glad we gave it a shot.  The signal from the remote must bounce off of the ceiling/walls/windows because it still finds the Apple TV just fine.  We find we sometimes need to point the remote up a little – like more toward the top of the TV than the center of the screen – but it’s really something that’s hardly noticeable.  It’s one of those things that just works – most of the time we completely forget that the Apple TV isn’t in the TV stand along with everything else.

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And, as for “everything else”, that mostly refers to our media center PC that we use as a DVR.  Unlike the Apple TV, it is located behind the solid wood doors of the TV stand and it actually receives signals from the remote control through a dongle.

The dongle.  (source)

The dongle. (source)

Similar to the Apple TV, we used to leave the dongle laying on the TV stand and it was very unobtrusive.  It did, however, have the same “dusting issue” as the Apple TV.  I was forever dropping it behind the TV stand or knocking it out of alignment when I dusted so that it would have to be re-adjusted for the remote control to work the next time we wanted to watch TV.  (Do most people have this many issues with dusting?  Maybe this isn’t a normal problem to have.)  Regardless, after the picture hanging strips worked so well with the Apple TV, I decided to try attaching the dongle to the TV as well.  I just used one of the extra 3M adhesive strips to stick it straight to the TV (no clips or anything) right behind the glass bezel.  And, same as the Apple TV, it is working out great for us!

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The remote functions perfectly, it’s basically out of site, and I’m free to dust with abandon.  Ha!

Anyway, I know this post must read like a 3M commercial – sorry about that.  This isn’t sponsored in any way (they have no clue who I am, I promise).  I just wanted to share a super simple tip that is working so well to hide some of our TV-related “clutter”.  I’d totally encourage you to give it a try!

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In this area, our choices for television providers are Mediacom cable or satellite (Dish, Direct TV).  And we’ve always been Mediacom customers just because we’ve been reluctant to mount a dish on the house.  After every interaction with Mediacom, though, I think we’re stupid for letting that keep us from trying something different … and last week was no exception.

Since we are getting ready to have the house painted soon and we are planning to clean up the crazy mess of phone and cable wires running on the outside of our house at the same time, we figured we’d better get everything ready so that the vast majority of the cables could be taken off when the house is being prepped for paint.

Just to give you an idea, here is one of several areas where the exterior phone/cable wiring has gotten a little out of hand. Yuck.

Uck.  An abundance of "exterior wiring" for phone and cable.

Anyway, we’ve actually done a lot over the last year or so to fish new phone, ethernet, and coax wires in the house (more on that later), so most of the wires on the outside (including all of them in the picture above) are no longer in use and can just be removed.  The exception to that was the coax running to the television in our sunroom and also to the television in our bedroom.  Since both of these rooms were long ago converted from porches to living space and there’s no basement, etc., fishing wires inside the house is pretty much impossible.  So, we decided we would make an exception for these two locations and very neatly install two new, short runs from the basement (where cable enters the house) to those rooms.  No splitters outside, we’d paint the cables to match the house, they’d be tucked behind gutters and along roof lines … you get the idea.

This was totally a project we could have (should have) done ourselves, but we needed to focus on other things this weekend and we were trying to get everything wrapped up before yesterday (when the painters started) so we wouldn’t be holding them up.  So, we called Mediacom to run the new cable on the outside of the house, thinking it would be nice to not have to worry about this part of the project.

On Friday, two guys came out and worked on running 2 new cables (for the sunroom and master bedroom).  They were here for 2 1/2 hours.  In those 2 1/2 hours, they:

1) Pulled new cable through an existing hole into the master bedroom closet.  (There was already cable coming in here that had been previously disconnected from a splitter outside, so they just connected the new wire to the old one and pulled it through.)

Pile of new cable in master closet.

2) Connected another new length of cable to the existing one going in to the sunroom TV (not sure what was going on with the extra slack there).

New cable connections for sunroom & master bedroom.

3) Piled the other ends of both cables outside, near the location in the foundation where we had asked them to drill a hole and run the wire into the basement so that it could be connected to the 8-way splitter that we are using for the entire house.  They left us a huge amount of cable – way more than we would ever need.  (The pile of cable is behind that bush, next to the step.  Sorry for the crappy picture!)

Piles of cable left outside.

4) Loosely tacked the wires to the house in a couple of spots.

A couple of tacks on the new cable.

At this point, I agreed to all of their excuses for why they couldn’t complete the work (leaving two cable connections that worked when they got there in a non-functioning status) just so they would leave.  In case anyone is interested, their complaints/excuses for not finishing included:

  • Not being sure if they had a masonry bit to drill through the foundation (I told them they could go through the siding just above the foundation).
  • Not wanting to drill into the basement because there is some electrical nearby and they might take our power out while drilling the hole.  (Yes, there are some power wires in the vicinity, but, no, not something that would be a concern for most people operating a drill.)
  • Wanting to install a splitter on the outside of the house (rather than running the cables to the basement) to avoid causing signal degradation (although they couldn’t explain how adding a splitter outside would be better).
  • Wanting to install a splitter on the outside of the house (rather than running the cables to the basement) to avoid causing problems with our internet service (but they couldn’t explain why having the cables come from the basement would cause problems with our cable internet – especially since the connection to the cable modem wasn’t changing with any of this).
  • Wishing that my husband was home so they could explain to him why a splitter outside would be better.  (Notice a theme?)
  • Commenting that my husband must be in IT (actually, we both are) since only IT guys would make a request to run the cable inside rather than use a splitter on the side of the house.  (Really?)

Anyway, after 2 1/2 hours of fielding complaints/excuses about every 15 minutes and re-explaining what we wanted, the goal of the project, and why we did not need a splitter outside about 5 times, they finally wore me out and I agreed it was fine for them to leave the work incomplete and just go.

So, this Saturday, when we had hoped to not be dealing with this, Chad drilled holes into the foundation, cut the cables to a proper length and put ends on them, routed them to the panel in the basement, and plugged them in.  He also cleaned up and secured all of the cabling Mediacom ran on the outside of the house and finished running the cable through the closet to the bedroom TV.

The two new cables leave the house just above that first row of siding.  A lot of the remaining cables will get cleaned up when the service entrance is buried in a few weeks.

The two new cables leave the house just above that first row of siding.

The new cables are connected to the coax splitter in the bottom of the panel.

The new cables are connected to the coax splitter in the bottom of the panel.

The mess of wires outside the sunroom is all cleaned up.

The mess of wires outside the sunroom is all cleaned up.

In the end, everything is done the way we wanted it, but we also had to do most of it ourselves.  The part Mediacom did seriously should have taken one person no more than 30 minutes, including the time to dig out and put away the ladder and tools.  It was a totally frustrating experience on so many levels  and definitely another lesson in doing the work ourselves if we want it done right – even for simple jobs like this one.  I’d like to say this is the first experience we’ve had like this with Mediacom, but it’s really not – we had so many troubles with them the time a tree fell on the line and we needed it raised back up to the pole a few years back.  It was all the same kind of crap then too – so many excuses and so much inefficiency.

We aren’t sure yet what the charge will be for their visit (or if we will even be charged) – the guys at our house last week said some customers are charged and some aren’t (what?).  If we get a bill for their work, though, I’m planning to give customer service a call to see if we can negotiate a discount for a job not even half done.

My major concern now, though, is that we will be calling their maintenance crew again soon to switch our house from overhead to underground service when we bury the electrical, phone, and cable service in just a couple of weeks.  If this last visit is any indication of how that request will go, something tells me we will be working with them on this for the rest of the summer, at least.  Stay tuned – here’s hoping I’m wrong!

When Haley was born and we converted our old guest room into a nursery, one of the things we worried about was maintaining a consistent not-too-hot, not-too-cold temperature in her room throughout the night.  Since her room is heated by the furnace in the basement, it is on a separate thermostat than the rest of the second floor, including our bedroom.  We were concerned that the temperature in her room could be totally different than in our bedroom and we would never know that it was way too hot or too cold.  So, we started looking for a way to keep tabs on what was going on in her room temperature-wise.

Initially, we bought a baby monitor that also measured temperature and would alert us if it fell (or rose) outside of the range we set as acceptable.

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It worked just fine for letting us know when the temperature was already too warm or cold in her room, but didn’t really help us identify what we could do to remedy the situation and maintain a more consistently comfortable temperature for her all the time.  For example, her room ran pretty chilly in the evening and was toward the lower end of our acceptable temperature range when we went to bed, but was about 8-10 degrees warmer (and pretty stuffy) by the time we got her up in the morning … and we weren’t sure exactly what to change to help that.  We really felt like we would be able to regulate the temperature better if we could see the temperature changes in her room graphed over time.

So, we did some research online and eventually bought the AcuRite AcuLink Internet Bridge and a few wireless temperature sensors a couple of months ago.  We liked that we’d be able to wirelessly monitor the temperature in Haley’s room (as well as a few other locations in the house) and view graphs of that data over time.

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The system only took a few minutes to set up and basically worked as advertised.  We could monitor the temperature online as well as on our iPhones and iPad.  Here’s what our dashboard looks like online:

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The website and app both include a graph of the temperature data captured by the sensors, but we were disappointed in the level of detail in those graphs when we started really trying to figure out what was going on in Haley’s room.  It was hard to zoom in and view the data in a way that could really help us understand what was happening.  At the same time, we also felt like it would be more useful to see the temperature data in her room graphed next to other data, like the times when the furnace was running, which we were already capturing and graphing using Zabbix (open-source monitoring software).

So, we decided an ideal solution for us would be to forward the temperature data being captured by the AcuLink system into Zabbix also where we could build our own graphs using that information.  The only problem was that there wasn’t an out-of-the-box way to automatically feed the temperature data from the AcuLink bridge to an external tool for further analysis, so Chad started searching online and found a few different approaches that others had taken when trying to solve this problem.  The one he liked the best (and that we wound up implementing) is described in a lot of good detail on this website.  It turned out to be pretty quick and painless to set up and we liked that it allowed us to capture the temperature data without interfering with how the sensors or bridge would normally function.

Here’s one (of several) graphs we configured to display temperature data in Zabbix:

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With the temperature data from Haley’s room being forwarded to Zabbix, it was a simple matter to create some graphs that helped to highlight patterns over time and help us figure out how to keep her room more comfortable.  In the example I mentioned above, where her room rose an average of 8-10 degrees overnight even though it started really chilly, we were able to determine from the graphs in Zabbix that because her room was maintaining heat better than the dining room (where the thermostat is located), the temperature just gradually crept up over night, getting a little warmer (and staying a little warmer) each time the furnace ran.

As we thought about how to fix this, we tried adjusting the program for the downstairs thermostat to just run a little cooler, but that didn’t actually fix the problem since her room still held the heat from whenever the furnace ran better than the rest of the house.  What finally did help was adjusting the baffles on the vent in her room.  We basically took one out and then shut the register vent so that about half of the air coming into her room was blocked.

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This way, each time the furnace runs, her room doesn’t get quite as much hot air, so the temperature doesn’t rise quite as high.  It actually turned out to be a really simple fix once we better understood what was happening with the temperature as the furnace ran overnight.

Anyway, Haley’s room is just one example where being able to review temperature data in more detail turned out to be really helpful.  The use case I’m way more excited about, though, is being able to review differences in temperature as we make improvements to the house, like when we add some insulation or replace a leaky door.  It’ll probably be really hard to get a good comparison because there are so many variables in play, but wouldn’t it be cool (in a really geeky way) if we could actually measure the difference those improvements made?  It’s an admirable goal, at least … right?

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