A Journey To A Smarter Dryer

This one was much more difficult. A lot more difficult.

If you recall from my post about the washer, I was able to pull off some fairly useful stuff without a ton of effort. Read a smart plug’s API to see how much power the washer is using to figure out when it turned on, then wait for it to turn off again, then let the fam know that the washer finished, and go take action so that the laundry doesn’t sit around for days, get funky and need to get re-washed. This was of course pretty easy simply because we were able to rely on the fact that the 120V motor in the washer draws well under 15A, the top end of the smart plugs I’m using, the Etekcity ESW15.

Sadly, when we moved into our house, we had an electric dryer. We’ve got natural gas in the house. Heck, in the same room even for the furnace and water heater even. But, back when the last washer sprang a leak and we needed a new washer in a hurry, and unfortunately at the time it was going to be months to get the matching gas dryer back in stock, so we just punted and stuck with the electric model. Sadly, this means for us this means we can’t take the same approach we did with the washer, since nobody makes a smart plug that works on 240V AC 30A circuits.

Unwilling to settle for relying on setting timers with Alexa, having to remind the kids to set timers, or just plain forgetting to do it, I started Googling about, looking for ways to go about monitoring the dryer. Monitoring energy use is the natural fit. When the dryer is in use, it’s consuming loads of energy, and when the clothes are dry, the energy use falls right off. This really shouldn’t be that hard to figure out, right? Right? Sadly, it was.

My next move was to play around with a split core current transformer clamp, and build a circuit with a burden resistor, reading the thing with a microcontroller. I read about the whole process in a handful of places online and it didn’t seem to ridiculous to build the circuit, so I sourced the parts. I got a little breadboard, some jumper wires, the resistors, capacitors, and the CT sensor clamp, and a sacrificial extension cord, which I’d use for my proof of concept test. You see, the CT clamp goes around a single conductor, not the whole cable assembly, so I needed to modify the cable slightly. Relax, the real cable was one of those “flat, side-by-side” types, so it would only mean peeling them apart, not really cutting anything. Sadly, I never made it to that phase. During my POC phase, I was able to get readings back from the sensor, but they never made sense. I was using an ESP32 microcontroller with MicroPython, so maybe that’s related. Or maybe I had a bum CT clamp. Or something else was wrong. We’ll never know, since I gave up after several evenings of bashing my head against the desk.

Failing at the “point” solution of energy monitoring, I moved on to looking at whole-house power monitoring. Hey, if we can’t kill this fly with a newspaper, let’s try a missile, right? Sense landed at the top of the pile. It had the API I was after, though they sort of keep that on the DL. Not in love with that, since those sometimes disappear. If I’m going to drop a couple of hundred bucks on something to use the API for something, it better not just disappear on a whim someday. Plus, our panel is in my home office, recessed in the wall, and there’s not exactly a clean way to get the Sense WiFi antenna back out without it looking really weird. I could make it clean, but then there’d just be a random RP-SMA antenna sticking out of my wall. Interesting decor choice. Sure to be a selling point when we sell the house some day.

Which brings me to the vibration sensor. I was reading one day, still searching, and I came across Shmoopty, and my problems were (half) solved. Sure, I had a Pi Zero W already laying around and I could have just built exactly what he had done, but what’s the fun in that? Remember, I’m already invested. It’s overkill time. So, I ordered up a couple of those 801s vibration sensors and got to work. You know, it was surprisingly hard to get one that met my needs at the time. Why? Most of the 801s units out there are analog-only. Since I’m using a Raspberry Pi, I wanted a digital output, so I didn’t need to mess around with the need for extra ADC (Analog to Digital Conversion) circuitry, just to read a simple sensor. So, I had to order from AliExpress and wait the long wait for shipping from China.

After my sensors finally turned up, I worked out the arrangement of my project boxes and so forth in the laundry room. I landed on a wall-mounted box for the Pi with a 1m pair of wires connected to the sensor, with the sensor inside another small box, which is stuck to the top of the dryer using a little strip of 3M VHB tape. Shmoopty’s Python made it easy to figure out how to read the sensor, so I was happy to be able to draw my inspiration from that. His approach is to keep it small, run on a Pi Zero W, even make it renter-friendly, while mine is more of a “go big” approach – building a Docker container to run it inside of.

Well, at the end of it all, it shares a lot of common philosophy with the plugmon tool, in that it loops infinitely, looking for start and stop conditions. Instead of watching power consumption, it’s watching for the dryer to start vibrating a lot. When that starts an appreciable amount of time, the dryer is declared to be “on”. Once it transitions back to “off”, it fires an event that causes a Telegram message to get sent to the family group chat, again, much like when the washer finishes!

Well, if you’ve made it this far, you’re ready to go check it out. So, get going and get reading. Smarten up that laundry room, report back what you did, and how you did it!

Smartening Up the Washer

I solved this problem once a couple of years ago using a Wemo smart plug, IFTTT and WhatsApp. Well, fast forward a couple of years, and everything broke. Wemo went and totally broke their IFTTT integration, IFTTT completely changed their model pricing model, and Facebook really changed how they were handling how involved they were (and what level of privacy they were giving to) with WhatsApp. So, given how broken things were, I had to go back to the drawing board.

After a conversation with a guy from work that does a bunch of projects like these, I settled on one of the Etekcity smart plugs from Amazon that uses the VeSync app. These days, these seem harder to come by. If I was going to do this over again, I’d probably do it with a Kasa smart plug and use their local API. Anyhow, the VeSync app also has an unofficial, but pretty well-defined, and stable HTTP API that works really well.

So we’re going to leave IFTTT out of the party this time around, just read directly from the plug’s API, figure out how much power is being used to determine whether or not the washer is running, and once we know the washer has stopped, we alert the family by way of a group text. While in the past this was a group text via WhatsApp, now it’s a message to a Telegram group using a bot. I’ve got no great affinity for Telegram beyond the fact that it’s easy enough to setup the bots and get everyone setup on it.

The bottom line? All of this together enables a pure-Python solution that runs under current Python 3 releases, plays super nicely inside a Docker container, which is how I choose to run it. In essence, the code is pretty simple – turn on the plug, start up an infinite loop where you keep reading power levels. After you change to “ON” state, wait for power to drop below a line, to go back to “OFF” state, at which time you throw out a Telegram message to notify the family that the load in the washer finished up and it’s time to go downstairs and move the wash to the dryer.

This has really been super effective at reminding us to stay on top of the laundry. The number of times that we forget loads in the wash and end up needing to re-wash because stuff got forgotten and ended up getting funky smelling has been slashed down to nothing. Great stuff!

Grab the code, or deploy a container today!

It Started With A Light Bulb…

One night a few years ago my wife and I sat in the living room watching something on TV, when suddenly one of the recessed lights went out. The bulb died. It wouldn’t be long before a great adventure would begin.

The next morning I trotted off to Lowes to pick up a replacement bulb. I decided that it was time to catch up with current tech and move from the power-gulping bulbs we had in the fixtures to newer LED replacements, so I picked up 4 of those retrofit kits. They’re simple to install. You pop off the old trim ring and unscrew the old bulb, screw in an adapter, connect the wires from the adapter to the LED/trim piece, and put LED/trim into position. Installation takes a good 30 seconds. Minutes later, the 4 cans in our living room had been completely modernized. After I finished and went back to the dimmer on the wall, I popped the little “slider” piece back in to re-energize the switch and the LEDs started flickering. Uh oh. So, the old Lutron dimmer in the box wasn’t ready for LEDs. It’s minimum load was too high, and so it was passing enough power that it was lighting up the LEDs.

Unwilling to go back at this point, I returned to Lowes in search of an updated dimmer. It was then that I was greeted by the Lutron Caseta family of products. On sale was the starter pack. For a small premium beyond the cost of the dimmer I was already going to buy I could get “Smart” switches that I could control from my phone with an app, and even worked with Apple’s HomeKit. I was sold already. Within a year most of the switches in our house had been converted to either Caseta dimmers or switches, except for the couple of spots where we’re using Hue lights.

Is there more? Oh yeah, there’s more. Wait until I tell you guys the story about the microcontroller, fire, the sensor from China, Python, and the Raspberry Pi.