Home Technology: Occupancy/Vacancy Lighting

With my recent move into a new home, I have the opportunity to install all sorts of cool technology.

With DirecTV's new Whole House Video solution, I didn't need to utilize my previous whole house audio/video solution, so I needed a new challenge.

The 'Problem'
I needed a new toy to install, and luckily for me my wife provided a great excuse.  You see, like many women, she is deathly afraid of light switches.  Or at least turning them off.  She's never explained it in so many words, I've just come to this conclusion based on the number of lights that are left on around the house for no apparent reason.

So I had my problem: find a way to keep the lights from being left on all day.  Option 1, convince my wife to turn them off.  I have many years of evidence demonstrating that this approach is ineffective.  Option 2, technology!

I researched different options, and it appears that Lutron and Leviton are the primary players in the residential Occupancy/Vacancy sensor space.  With the advent of CFL bulbs, I also wanted a switch that could control both traditional incandescent, as well as florescent and CFL bulbs.  Why do these types of bulbs need a specific version?  The short version is that traditional versions use the 'load' of the traditional bulb in their circuit.  The florescent/CFL bulbs do not provide the right load, yielding unreliable results (flickering lights or failure to turn on).  The newer versions instead require you to wire your switch to ground (Common), alleviating the need for the bulb to provide the correct 'load'.

Based on my research, I chose to use Lutron switches.  I wanted both traditional switches, dimmer switches, and a 3 way switch, all with an occupancy/vacancy sensor.

Occupancy or Vacancy?
These switches consist of a toggle button, and a sensor.  The button is used to manually operate the light, while the sensor determines whether there is anyone in the room.

Occupancy switches turn on when you enter the room, and turn off when you leave.  Vacancy switches require you to turn on manually, but will turn off automatically when you leave.  Both can always be operated manually as well.

Some switches only do Occupancy or only do Vacancy, while some are programmable.  The switches I chose are programmable.

The Switches
I used three different models from Lutron:

  • Traditional Switch: Lutron MS-OPS5AM
  • Dimmer Switch: MS-OP600M
  • Accessory Switch (for 3-way): MA-AS 

I bought some from from Union Lighting, and some from SmartHome.  Union Lighting was slightly cheaper, but drop-shipped directly from Lutron, who was back ordered.  So it took a couple weeks, but they arrived just fine straight from the manufacturer.  SmartHome shipped from their own warehouse and came in about a week.

Both switches sold for between $35 and $40, while the accessory switch was between $25 and $30.

The installation is pretty straight forward IF you have a ground wire in your light-switch junction boxes. Since my current home is newer, I had a common wire in every junction box.

The wring is pretty straight forward.  Unlike traditional switches, you need to know which is the line (source) and which is the load (light fixture).  Visual inspection in each of my junction boxes illustrated this easily (the line was always tied into a wiring nut with several combined wires while the load always ran directly out).

Wiring in the common (ground) wire required an extra 4-6" length of electrical wire, which is not included.  I had a few scraps in the basement from previous projects that I was able to use.

The 3-way install was a little more complicated.  It took some careful reading of the instructions, and unlike traditional switches, the runner wires (that run between the two switches) must be on the same connector on each switch.  I missed this my first time around and it took me a while to figure out.

In most of the cases, the biggest challenge was adding a new wire to the combined bundles already in the box getting the wire nut back on, and then fitting the wires and the rather large new switch into the box.

I installed a mix of occupancy and vacancy switches.  In small/utility rooms (washrooms, closets, laundry room, garage) the occupancy switches work great.  I love being able to walk into a closet, or through the garage carrying something without worrying about the lights.

I used the vacancy switches in the master bathroom, where I didn't want them to turn on automatically all the time, but where they often got left on all day.

I have been very pleased with the lights.  They've worked really well, and I love never getting home to find a light has been left on all day.  But I really enjoy having the lights turn on automatically in the rooms configured with occupancy lights.  It seems like a small thing, but it makes every day activities easier.  It's wonderful to not have to worry about slapping the light switch as you walk through or into a room with your arms full.

The switches are not cheap, and I don't plan on installing them in any of the 'main' rooms in the house (Kitchen, Family Room, Dining Room, etc.) but I think they are a great addition to bathrooms, utility rooms, and walk-in closets.

Golden Fire Summary

While the fire is not out, the Evacuation Warning for my neighborhood has been lifted, and Golden has enjoyed clear skies for the last 36 hours.  So while the fire isn't over, its direct impact on me is. I wanted to capture my thoughts and experiences while they were still fresh...

The fire, known as the #goldenfire on Twitter, or the Indian Gulch fire in the media, was first visible during the morning of Sunday, March 20th.  I first noticed it late Sunday morning while near Lookout Mountain.  The fire was not far from our home, so we headed home quickly to see what was happening.  Upon arrival we were greeted by two messages on our answering machine.  The first message notified us to evacuate immediately!  The second message (approximately 30 minutes later) notified us that we should simply prepare to evacuate, but that evacuation was not necessary at this time.  We were glad we were not home to get the first call!

Smoke from the fire was clearly visible from our house, so I grabbed my camera bag and headed outside.  This was the view just outside my house:

I continued around the block, and in addition to seeing many of my neighbors, I was greeted by the view of a helicopter refilling its water bucket from a small pond just behind a neighbor's home.

There was a small contingent of Golden Firefighters supervising the operation and keeping us from getting too close.  However, they did allow us to get quite close, and I was able to get several pictures of the helicopter in action:

Throughout the afternoon, the fire kept threatening to come over the ridge and down the hill towards our homes. Here are a few pictures I took from our neighborhood:

The helicopter was dropping most of the water on the other side of the ridge, but I did catch a shots of the helicopter in action:

Sunday was a very tense day. I spent most of the day watching the helicopter work, and meeting many of my new neighbors. Throughout the day, all of my information about the fire came from the Police, Firefighters, and Park Rangers on site, and Twitter. Twitter deserves some special mention.

My first tweet about the fire didn't contain the #goldenfire hash tag. But after searching twitter for 'Golden Fire', I found that the #goldenfire hash tag was being used, and started adding it to my tweets. After a little while I took a break and uploaded some of the pictures I took and posted them both on twitter and on SmugMug. Many of my twitter updates (tweets) were quickly repeated (re-tweeted) by others in an effort to share the experiences I captured.

Twitter quickly became my go-to resource for updates on the fire.  Special mention also needs to go to Misty Montano, who is the Digital Content Manager @ 9News. She created a Storify page on the fire, aggregating many different social media sources to create a summary view of many different news sources. Thanks for your efforts Misty!

Sunday evening, the fire still seemed to be right on top of us. I set out to see what I could see, and was able to capture this picture from just around the corner from my house:

I think this image really illustrated the fear that many residents felt as the fire loomed over our neighborhood. It must have struck a nerve, as the version I posted on twitter has over 6,000 views in the 4 days since I posted it.

The helicopter did a great job of draining the pond Sunday afternoon, and the Golden FD used a pump truck to refill the pond Sunday evening and throughout the day Monday to enable the helicopter to continue to operations.

Sunday evening was a stressful night. The smell of smoke permeated our house, and we were concerned we would get a call in the middle of the night instructing us to leave. Fortunately, that was not the case.

I stayed home from work Monday, with the expectation that we would need to leave some time during the day. I spent much of the day walking through the neighborhood, taking pictures, and talking with my neighbors.

Monday brought out news crews, and many more Firefighters. Here is a picture of a news conference:

After the news conference, the news crews stuck around to get some reactions from local residents:

Monday afternoon the winds began to pick up, and hampered both helicopter operations as well as press conferences:

Fire crews were also visible from our neighborhood on the ridge between us and the fire. Here is a picture of a Fire Fighter keeping watch on the ridge:

As the winds picked up, the smoke began to engulf the Northern part of Golden. This view from my neighborhood looking Northwest shows just a part of the huge smoke cloud.

Monday evening I drove around Golden to better understand the scope of the fire. The first picture is from Mount Zion to the South of the fire. You can see the burned out valley, with a few remaining open fires in the valley and a significant amount of smoke in the sky above.

The second picture, from North of the fire, shows more active fires.

By Monday night there was hope that life may go on, as I posted on twitter: "All is quiet in Mntn Ridge tonight. Everyone going about their lives. Winds still blowing, a few news and fire trucks around. #goldenfire"

It was still tough to sleep Monday night. We still believed that evacuation was extremely likely. But Tuesday morning came, and I headed back to work in an effort to be optimistic and hopeful that we could return to normalcy. However, high winds Tuesday afternoon, as well as pictures of Firefighters digging trenches behind the houses in our neighborhood, sent me home early. Luckily, this proved unnecessary. But high winds Tuesday night were a big concern. I posted: "Stopped on mt Zion for a picture. So windy I can't get my door open. Car is rocking back and forth. Getting seasick! #goldenfire"

Wednesday morning, after an afternoon and night of high winds without the fire getting significantly closer to us, brought some confidence that things may be improving. Life began to return to normal, and I was able to go for a run in Golden without choking on smoke. I posted "Hard to tell the #goldenfire is still burning from mountain ridge, other than the helicopters and planes flying overhead."

Conditions continued to improve Thursday, culminating in the cancellation of the 'prepare to evacuate' order at approximately 5:30 on Thursday evening (tonight).

The response to this fire was impressive on many fronts. All of the Firefighters did a great job fighting the fire, the Police were on scene making sure everyone stayed calm and kept their distance, as well as the Jefferson County Sheriff and Jefferson County Open Space Park Rangers. There were also many folks working behind the scenes, including the Golden Public Works, who ensured that the Golden FD could continuously refill a pond while maintaining water pressure throughout the town.

Social Media, particularly Twitter, was a great resource. I was able to share what I observed, and learn what others in and around my community were seeing. The information on Twitter was generally accurate, and usually more timely than other resources. I was even able to scoop the major news organizations (by about 3 minutes) on the first evacuations.  I found Twitter useful before, but this week I found it critical.  There is no other resource available today to share experiences and information about an event like this.  And its already impressive penetration rate increased, as I noticed several people opening new accounts (family members included) to follow the news.  My friends throughout the country were able to follow the situation and send notes of encouragement.  Thanks to everyone that checked in with me!

Special thanks goes out to the City of Golden, specifically our Mayor and Councilman. They made great use of Twitter, as well as checking in with us in person. Thanks @jacobzsmith and @GoldenBilFish! Golden even streamed their special City Council meeting tonight online (as they do with all their City Council meetings). Progressive Government!

Here is Jacob Smith, our Mayor (in the green shirt on the left), checking in on the situation Sunday afternoon:

You can see all of my pictures in these two photo galleries:
Golden Fire
Golden Fire Day 2

While I'm proud of the pictures I took, there were some really great pictures taken by Jeff Warner, one of my new neighbors that I met this week. Here are the links to his pictures:
Indian Gulch Wildfire Heli Ops
Indian Gulch Wildfire at Night
Indian Gulch Fire Day 2
Indian Gulch Fire Night 3
Indian Gulch Wildfire Day 4

There were many other people posting pictures, and the local news organizations were able to capture some impressive shots, but it was my neighbors and the updates on Twitter that dominated my attention.

Our neighborhood is thankful to everyone who helped out, and signs thanking the Firefighters could be found throughout our neighborhood Thursday evening:

Looking back, it was an event that had a very significant emotional impact on me, while (thankfully) having no lasting effects.  It can be tough to handle the stress of a situation that you cannot impact, and I found the constant low-grade stress exhausting.

I also found it instructive on how much more significant local events are.  In the days before the fire, I was obsessed with the Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear problems in Japan.  From Sunday morning through Wednesday night, Japan completely dropped off my radar.  But in the end, my 'crisis' was trivial compared to the devastation they face, which only further illustrates how lucky I feel.

Thanks again to everyone who has helped (and continues to help) fight this fire, and others throughout Colorado and the United States.  Thank you for keeping us safe!

Golden Fire Day 2

I've started a separate gallery for today's pictures, check them out here.

Golden Fire Highlights

This morning I took a second look at some of the pictures I took yesterday.  I've updated the original photos here and added a new one.  As part of cleaning up the pictures, I identified a few of my favorites:

Golden Fire

A large fire is burning in Golden today.  My neighborhood is under the threat of an evacuation.  While the fire has not moved closer today, tomorrow is an unknown with possibly higher winds.

I took quite a few pictures today.  You can see them all here.  Follow me on twitter for real time updates.

May be tough to get to sleep tonight...

Java Email Server Gets a New Home

Nearly 10 years ago I created a fork of the CSRMail project, with the permission and encouragement of Calvin Smith, the project's founder.  The new fork was called Java Email Server.

Java Email Server (JES) started as a 'scratch the itch' project.  I wanted to run an email server on my home Windows computer to host a few different email domains.  I found the available options overly confusing or expensive, so I developed a solution to meet my needs.

The initial goal of JES was to solve my problem, and that problem was: "I want an easy to setup email server to host a few small domains".  Over time, I have worked with the community to add features and fix (many) bugs, while working to keep JES a simple and easy to use solution.

JES has also been an interesting learning experience as a developer.  It is a project I've worked on for 10 years now, a period that has seen my experience and capabilities change significantly.  The code base is often a useful exercise in humility.  I appreciate all the contributions the community has made over the years, not only to JES, but to my skills as a developer.

The JES community has contributed other projects, including a JES Plugin for Eclipse.  JES has found a home in production systems, and as a tool for many development teams, assisting the testing process of systems that interact with email servers.  With 50,000 downloads of the binary versions of the 1.x branch over the years, JES has reached a lot of users.

JES even spawned my first commercial software offering, Simple Mail Processor.  It provides an API to process incoming SMTP messages, useful in systems that need to act programmatically on incoming email.

Over the years, many contributors have come and gone.  But for the past few years, one developer has picked up the ball and really run with it. Andreas Kyrmegalos developed the 2.0 branch of JES, bringing it into the modern era with the addition of many much-needed features (like SSL)!

I have decided to hand over control of the JES project to Andreas.  I'm confident he will do a great job, as he has been doing for the last few years.  And more importantly, with me out of the way, he will be able to bring releases, features, and bug fixes out much more quickly.  The project will remain hosted at SourceForge, but the main HTML page will also be hosted at SourceForge instead of on my site.

My site will continue to host the original 1.x branch releases and documentation, but all current (2.x and beyond) releases, documentation, and discussion will take place on the SourceForge project page.

I wish Andreas and the JES community the best and hope that the project continues to thrive.

I'm still happy to help any JES 1.x users with issues or critical bug fixes, but the 1.x branch is firmly in maintenance mode and no new development will be occurring on it.  Since JES 2.0 now requires JDK 1.5, the 1.x branch also continues to serve as the JES solution for older JDKs.