Washerbot, the Next Gen of Washer Monitoring

Ok, so I built plugmon a while ago. It worked great. I loved it – super reliable, none of the fiddly nonsense I’ve had to work through with my vibration sensor-based dryer monitoring solution even. Sadly, the Etekcity smart plugs I used before, which used the (really nice) VeSync API no longer seem to be able to be purchased, easily at least.

So, what to do? If the code is to be useful long-term, we’ll need to change the platform to something that’s actually able to be purchased. Without question there’s no shortage of smart plugs available. So, what are desirable features that I’m after when looking for a different platform?

Naturally, I’m after some sort of way to easily talk to the plugs to read data. Of course, it also (should at least) goes without saying that we need a plug that offers the ability to monitor power use, as well as exposing some sort of API to allow use to get at that data without using the vendor’s app directly.

There’s a ton of options out there, but eventually, I landed with the Kasa (formerly TP-Link) plugs. Why? Two things really pushed them over the top. First of course was remote API-style access to the plug’s power monitoring data. But with the Kasa plugs one didn’t even need to go outside the home LAN to capture the data.

At the end of things, I kept the majority of code from jcostom/plugmon, grabbed a few bits of code from other projects I’ve worked on, and in about 30 minutes, the Washerbot was born.

It’s a shame that the VeSync plugs are now so difficult (impossible?) to come by. The API was reasonably easy to work with, and they weren’t terribly expensive either. I’m hopeful that TP-Link / Kasa Smart will be around for longer. I really like the “no outside connectivity” needed part of the python-kasa module as well.

Some may point out that there was a brief dust-up a couple of years ago with TP-Link, when they announced their intention to stop allowing local access to their devices, and you’d be right to do so. Fortunately, TP-Link was smart enough to take the not-so-subtle hints from the community, and walked that change back.

Without further ado, head over to GitHub and check out the new Washerbot code & container. Obviously, you’ll need one of the TP-Link plugs that provides energy use stats, like the KP115.

The Dryer Update…

[Any Amazon Links below are Non-Affiliate Links that just go to Amazon Smile]

So, if you think back a bit, you may recall that I was using a Pi 4 for my IoT project that monitored the dryer, shooting out Telegram group messages to the whole family when the dryer was done with the laundry.

Times being what they are, it’s pretty difficult to come by a new Raspberry Pi these days, as I’m sure many of you know. I needed the power of the Pi 4 for something else, at least on a temporary basis. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a couple of months prior, I’d received a ping from the Micro Center about 45 minutes away informing me that they had a handful of Pi Zero 2 W’s on hand. Those little suckers are super hard to find, so I snapped up my max of 2, along with the GPU I’d been dying to lay hands on for the longest time. For those who care, I finally got an EVGA 3080. Pandemics and supply-chain constraint conditions suck, by the way, in case you were wondering my position on that issue.

So, having my Pi Zero 2 W in the drawer ready to roll, I unscrewed the box from the way that housed the Pi 4, fitted the sensor I had directly onto the Pi Zero 2 W, and scaled down from a 2-project-box solution down to 1 box. Sadly, it sucked. But, it wasn’t the hardware’s fault. In reality it was totally a self-inflicted condition.

I modified (slightly) the pins on the old 801s sensor I had, fitted it onto that new Pi Zero 2W (since it didn’t have any GPIO pin headers soldered on), and sort of Rube-Goldberged it together using 3M VHB tape inside the project box. Total hack job. I thought about using a bunch of hot glue, but then I thought better of it. Why not solder? Honestly? I suck at soldering. One of these days I’ll get around to getting good at it. But that’s not today.

It was wildly unstable. The sensor kept on moving, losing contact with the side of the GPIO holes, it was awful. I all but gave up. I had a brief flirtation with the Aqara Smart Hub and one of their Zigbee Vibration sensors, and believe me, when I say brief, I mean like 12 hours. It just wasn’t fit for the job.

My grand plan with that was to mimic what I was doing over on the washer – write some Python code and run it in a container to query an API somewhere in the cloud every X seconds to see if the thing was vibrating or not, then based on that, work out the state of the dryer to determine if the dryer had started or stopped and then act accordingly. But alas, since step 2 in this plan was a klunker, steps 3 through infinity? Yeah, those never happened.

So, back to the drawing board. I found that I couldn’t easily lay hands on a new 801s again, and the project for the Pi4 was now finished, so I had that back. I did find a new vibe sensor – the SW-420. 3 pins instead of 4, but it’s still a digital output that works fine with the Pi, and my existing code worked as-is, so who cares, right? Yeah, I classed the thing up quite a bit more this time too. This time, instead of shoving the Pi inside a project box that’s mounted on the wall running from the SD card, I opted to run in one of those snazzy Argon One M.2 SSD cases booting Ubuntu 22.04 from an M.2 SSD in the basement of the case. I’ve got that sitting on a lovely little shelf mounted just above and behind the dryer, with my 3 GPIO leads running out of the top of the case, directly into the small project box that’s attached to the front of the dryer, inside which is the sensor, which is stuck to the inside of the box using 3M VHB tape. The box itself is stuck to the dryer using VHB tape as well.

In the end, all’s well that ends well. I’ve had to do a good bit more tuning on the SW-420 sensor. It’s been a bit more fiddly than the old 801s was. That one was definitely a plug and play affair. This has required a bit of adjustment on the little potentiometer that’s built into the sensor. Not too bad though. I’ve invested probably a total of 15 minutes of time standing next to the dryer, staring at telemetry, while the dryer is running, or not. But in the end, it’s all working, and the notifications are happening once again.

One Crazy Summer

Hey automators!

Summer’s been absolutely nuts. Between work stuff, family stuff, running here and there, and of course, the odd project or two, I’ve been just plain stretched for time.

Stay tuned. I’ll be coming back around shortly. I’m working on some things. Preview?

Well, Remember how Logitech decided that the Harmony Remote, one of the best things ever to happen to the world of universal remotes was going to be taken out back and killed? Yeah, I was pretty mad about that too. So, I went looking for something else to solve some automation challenges with that. So, that’s coming.

What else? Tried to buy a Raspberry Pi lately? Heh. Yeah, me too. I decided to try a different fruit for a change. So far, so good. More on that later.

More still? There’s an update on that printer situation. The dryer too.

How about a Raspberry Pi-based network console server for my network equipment?

Hang in there family, it’s coming.

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.