Testing Your Smart Thermostats Shabbos IQ: Part I

There are several popular Smart thermostats on the market and the competition is heating up. Honeywell, Nest, and Ecobee are among the most popular devices. Each brand and model must be looked at through the lens of a Shomer Shabbos consumer to see if there are issues that need to be addressed for Shabbos use.

I have owned the Honeywell Total Connect Comfort color touch-screen thermostat for a few years now. It has a seven-day programmable schedule that allows me to customize the temperature for each day of the week. On Mondays-Thursdays during the winter, for example, I save energy by making the house cooler while everyone is in school or at work. On Friday afternoons, it adjusts as we all arrive home earlier to prepare for Shabbos. Each day or group of days has four modes: Sleep, Wake, Return, and Home, and I can adjust the temperature for each mode based on my family’s schedule. But these features are common among many thermostats, even ones that are not Smart.

What makes this a Smart thermostat is that I am able to control the settings remotely from anywhere in the world. This comes in very handy when traveling as you can set the temperature when you are at the airport instead of rushing before you leave the house. On the return, you can do the same and adjust the temperature so that when you arrive home, the house is perfectly comfortable. The Honeywell thermostat also integrates with Alexa and other smart devices so you can ask Alexa to turn up or down the temperature and the thermostat will respond. The thermostat will send you alerts if your temperature or humidity drops beyond a threshold which could indicate a problem with your HVAC unit. The device will send you monthly energy reports that detail your usage vs the previous year. To help with comparisons, the report also provides the average temperatures for each month. When this thermostat arrives and you take it out of the box and install it, there are no Shabbos issues to deal with, which is why I give it a Tribe Tech Review rating of 5 out of 5.


What this Honeywell thermostat does not do that other Smart thermostats can, is to automatically adjust the temperature based on whether or not anyone is home. It also does not have the ability to connect to remote sensors that would allow you to adjust the thermostat based on, say, the average temperature of two or more rooms.  This could be particularly important if a zone in your home has different temperatures in rooms that are all controlled by one thermostat. Honeywell is introducing a thermostat called the T9 ($199.99) that seems to have these features but it is currently only available for pre-order so it will have to be reviewed at a later time. The two most popular thermostats that have this capability are Nest and Ecobee. However, as soon as a smart device utilizes sensors to detect presence, it automatically sparks Shabbos questions and requires us to understand exactly what is happening and if it is permissible on Shabbos.

I will start by reviewing the Ecobee Smart thermostat which is available in three different versions: Ecobee3-lite, Ecobee3 and Ecobee4.

The Ecobee4 is the only version that has Alexa built-in. If you want your thermostat to play music and answer questions, this is the device for you. However, if you want to use it as an Alexa intercom and drop-in on another room, you will have to wait for Amazon to open this up for third party devices.

Like all digital assistant-enabled devices, the Ecobee4 raises issues of Shabbos and privacy since it is always listening and interpreting your words (see previous articles on Alexa and Shabbos). For the Amazon Alexa device itself that plugs into a wall socket, I previously recommended you use a smart plug and turn the device off completely for Shabbos. However, thermostats are low voltage and hardwired so turning the power off is not an option. Like all other Alexa devices, there is a physical/manual way to mute the microphone but no way to automatically or programmatically (using a HUB or IFTTT) turn off the microphone. While you can manually turn this off for Shabbos and then back on later, this is far from ideal. Additionally, when you mute the microphone, the Ecobeee4 has a sizable “Light Bar” that turns on and glows bright red until Alexa is re-enabled. This is a harsh visual that can be quite irritating in any room but especially in a bedroom. Unless the Alexa feature is critical, I recommend you try another model. This is only the beginning of the Shabbos issues, as you will shortly see.

The Ecobee3 is identical to the Ecobee4 in features but without having Alexa built-in. Both contain Occupancy and Motion/Proximity sensors that can be an issue on Shabbos. The Ecobee3-Lite has a Motion/Proximity sensor but does not come with an Occupancy sensor unless you add one.  The differences between occupancy and motion/proximity sensors are subtle. Motion/Proximity is a simple sensor that detects clear motion such as walking in front of or passing by the thermostat. The occupancy sensor is more sophisticated and use PIR (Passive Infrared) that is heat sensing. Occupancy detectors aim to differentiate between if you are home and sleeping vs. away and on vacation. They are like night-vision goggles which use the heat emitted from our bodies to detect human presence.  The Ecobee Occupancy sensors even attempt to differentiate between you or just your dog being home.  Both sensor types would have identical issues on Shabbos that would require them to be turned off, though the Occupancy sensor may be less obvious to the uninformed.

To discuss the potential tech work around and arrive at a Shabbos rating for all three versions of the Ecobee thermostats will require a dedicated article, so please stay tuned for Part II.


Lighting Automation for Shabbos and Yom Tov

The landscape of home automation platforms controlling lights and other home devices has shifted from high-end professionally installed systems to consumer-driven do-it-yourself (DIY) systems. These new DIY smart home devices achieve and often exceed the functionality of their counterparts at a fraction of the price. They are also easy to implement on both a small and large scale. Unlike the professionally installed systems, you don’t have to commit thousands of dollars implementing a whole home system. You can simply begin with a single switch and look to expand as you see fit.

The first question one needs to ask is: Which HUB and corresponding app do you want to use as the nucleus or backbone of your smart home? Your HUB will act as a communication bridge between your WiFi network and all your connected devices. While you may be able to avoid a hub in some cases, as you connect more devices, the HUB becomes critical in integrating them into a single platform.  Additionally, for Shabbos implementation a HUB is currently recommended.  For this article, we will review the Wink Hub 2 ($99.00 at Wink.com). I will expand on the Shabbos implementation first and then go back and fill in some of the other product choices and rationales.Wink Hub 2-Lifestyle-7

The free Wink app that is available for mobile devices allows you to easily create detailed schedules. You can create a “Shabbos Night On” schedule that turns on the desired lights for Friday night and then create another “Shabbos Night Off” schedule to close them when you expect your meal to end, etc. The scheduler always knows what time Shabbos is, even after Daylight Savings Time adjustments, since it is based on sunset and the app knows your location. You simply need to set it once and it is calibrated forever.

It would be ideal for the app to have a “Yom Tov” option where it simply knows the days of the chagim. This is the first area the Wink HUB falls short of addressing the needs of the shomer Shabbos consumer. For now, the pretty simple workaround is to go into the app the week of Yom Tov and schedule your “Shabbos Night” schedule for the specific nights of Yom Tov as well. For example, this year Succos fell out on out on Monday and Tuesday in the diaspora. Instead of setting the schedule for just Friday night, update the scheduler to take effect Sunday, Monday and Friday. The key is to remember to undo the days of Yom Tov after the last days of the Chag. While I would love to see a more automated Yom Tov option, this deficiency should not deter anyone from considering this solution.  I will review the Samsung SmartThings App a a later time.  While Smartthings potentially has more Yom Tov options, the App itself is more complicated which is one of the reasons I choose Wink.

Of course, outside of Shabbos, these schedules are also used to turn off all the house lights in the evening and turn on the outside lights at dusk. My children’s bedroom lights are scheduled to go off after they leave to school even if they forget to turn them off (kids, you know who you are). One can also “group” lights into rooms, floors, outdoor or other categories so you can simply turn on or off a whole group in a single command.

There are also two services new to the Wink application. HomesitterTM is a service that will make it look like you are home even when you are away by opening and closing lights in a natural (not random) pattern. If you are away for a Shabbos, this may be viewed as a halachic problem. MoonLightTM is another service that is designed to turn lights on and off between dusk and dawn, which is just a simpler version of the scheduler. There are also some great integrations with smart locks that we will save for another time.

The HUB, however, is just the controller, and you still need to purchase the individual switches. Wink provides an ever-growing list of compatible products that you can control on its platform. For lights, unless your wiring is old or you are just looking to for a single bulb on a lamp, I would recommend smart switches over individual smart bulbs, since bulbs eventually need replacements. Having a single switch cover multiple bulbs is often more cost-effective and practical. I use the Leviton Decora ZWave + Smart In-Wall Switch or Smart Dimmer. The Zwave is so that you are not reliant on WiFi for schedules and the dimmer is for applications where you want to control not only the on/off state but also the brightness of the light. You will need to make sure your bulbs are dim-able as fluorescent applications, and many LED bulbs are incompatible with dimmers. For three- and four-way switch applications, for instances where more than one switch controls the same light (such as at the top and bottom of steps), a “compatible” switch will be necessary. These applications often require an experienced electrician to install them correctly. These switches will, of course, look and act as normal switches and turn on and off your light with a touch. I particularly like these Leviton switches for not having an on/off physical state, so even three-way switches never seem like they are installed backward with the switch rocker in the up position while the light is in fact off. For users of electric hot plates, hot water percolators or pressure cookers, a Leviton smart plug can easily be inserted into the outlet and programmed to go off at the desired time, adding an extra layer of safety.  I will also recommend this later for Amazon Echo applications.

Liviton Dimmer

Before you can add schedules for your switches you will need to “pair” the switches with your hub. In my experience, this was not always as easy as it should be. The good news is that Wink provides an excellent customer service experience with the availability of a live and knowledgeable customer support line.

All in all, I would give the Wink high marks as the app is simple, flexible and constantly improving. The myriad of products that it pairs with is ever-expanding and I look forward to reviewing several in upcoming articles. If Wink were to make a little more effort toward shomer Shabbos needs, I would say they are the preferred system. For now, I simply say they are a strong choice in a competitive landscape. However, once you implement a Shabbos smart home, you may wonder how you ever lived without it.

Intro – Home Automation for The Shomer Shabbos Consumer

The number of ho­me automation products that offer to control our homes is ever expanding. From bulbs to switches, thermostats to appliances and locks to irrigation systems, the myriad products available continues to explode. In this new monthly article, I will review these products, their functionality and services through the unique lens of a shomer Shabbos consumer, and explore the intersection of tradition and cutting-edge home technology. Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT) for the observant home.

The appliance market was early to recognize the need for specialized technology and functionality for the Shabbos observant home. Shabbat-mode refrigerators/freezers, ovens and warming drawers have all become commonplace in the appliance market. Star-K has created a certification process where they approve specific models that adhere to their standards and provide their trademarked Star-K certification that one would previously only associate with kosher food products. Recently, my family opted for a warming drawer that had a Star-K certification rather than a significantly less expensive model that had a Shabbat mode but was not certified. The non-Jewish but knowledgeable sales person described the uncertified model to us as “problematic” in the traditional halachic sense. Manufacturers have recognized the buying power of the observant home and have invested in the technologies that accommodate Jewish traditions. Consumers, in turn, have rewarded these manufacturers by purchasing these often higher-priced items. The objective of this series is to create a forum for observant consumers of these new automation products as well as to raise the awareness of the manufacturers to both the needs and the purchasing power of the Shabbos-observant consumer.

One can argue that shomer Shabbos families were the early pioneers of home automation. Many of us grew up with timers decades ago. Having timers for light switches or in-wall air conditioners was common for most of us. For me, part of the Erev Shabbos to-do list always involved programming these switches. One of the challenges faced was re-setting the timer each week as Shabbos times changed. On the first Shabbos after daylight saving time it was rare for our timers to be in sync and we often ate in the dark for at least an extra hour. Each of these switches was also completely independent so changes needed to be made individually for each switch. This was a time-consuming task with a less-than-easy interface. Because of these challenges, many homes limited the number of timers they would use. Instead of having a timer in a bathroom one might opt for a night light, etc.

Newly available home automation technology addresses many of these limitations and offers new and improved functionality at ever-improving price points. The shomer Shabbos market is therefore ripe for home automation. At the same time, many manufacturers are building functionalities that are not easily compatible with observance. Work-arounds or modifications will need to be implemented to make them suitable for the observant home. We will explore these implementations and workarounds each month. I look forward to my first review of a home lighting automation implementation for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Please feel free to submit feedback and questions to TribeTechReview@gmail.com and follow TribeTechReview on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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