De-Smart Bulbing

Between buying a second home and taking over the ADU at our primary residence to be my home office, the need to make 20-some new lights smart had me reconsidering our home automation strategy. Our main home has somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 Zigbee bulbs and I’m just sooooo over them. People can’t be trained not to flip switches, no amount of remotes on the walls and blocks on the switches will stop them. Plus my non-Hue bulbs never get firmware updates, so they’re older than manufacturers figuring out that maybe they shouldn’t all turn on after a power outage.

Also thanks to tariffs / COVID / inflation, the bulbs I used to routinely buy for $6-7 are now more like $10.

The problem with smart switches 5 years ago was price. Zigbee switches didn’t really exist, Z-wave switches started around $50, and if your home lacked neutral wires at the switches the only option was Lutron Caseta dimmers which are $70. I’ve picked up a few used Casetas for exterior lights and other fixtures where I couldn’t use a smart bulb, but even scouring eBay for bargains it’s tough to get them under $45.

There are many more Zigbee and Z-wave choices today but prices haven’t dropped much and there are still few options that don’t require neutral wires.

The first thing I decided to try were the SONOFF ZBMINI-L relays, because the best smart home tech is invisible and they’re theoretically a bargain at $40 in a 4-pack.

What I found while installing them, however, was that their size and shape can make them incredibly difficult to fit in US-style boxes. I’d intended to trial 8 of them but after having trouble fitting 3 out of the first 4-pack I decided to return the second package. Functionally they’ve been solid but I had to set their maximum reporting interval for OnOff state very low to keep zigbee2mqtt from showing them as unknown state. They have seen an OTA firmware update, IDK what it was supposed to address or if that issue was resolved.

A switch that I’d missed in my first round of searching, that Amazon helpfully put in front of me when I started looking again, is the Martin-Jerry No-Neutral Zigbee switch. At $50 for a pair it’s significantly cheaper than anything else I’ve found for Zigbee or Z-wave, neutral wire or not.

Unfortunately, my second order seems to have pushed them out of stock. Hopefully they’ll make more soon but that probably won’t be soon enough for me. The ones I’ve installed so far are doing great, tho I find the design a bit weird. It’s hinged at the top and you have to press at the bottom to toggle. Why not just make the whole thing the button? Or properly emulate the “Decora” two-way rocker? It’s definitely going to confuse houseguests and I’m tempted to install them upside-down to optimize for the “fumbling for a switch in the dark” use case.

In the process of doing smart relay and switch installs in a bunch of fresh locations locations, I noticed that all my switch boxes were not, in fact, lacking neutral wires. In terms of Zigbee / Z-wave / Lutron that doesn’t really open up other options at my sub-$30 price target, but Wi-Fi switches get down to $10 or less.

I’ve been hesitant to add more Wi-Fi smart devices to my home for two reasons. Mostly my experiences with ESP-based Wi-Fi devices is that they just aren’t good Wi-Fi clients. My MyQ Garage Door opener used to constantly drop off the network, tho it seems to have improved. I bought a 4-pack of Wi-Fi color bulbs that were on clearance for a stupid cheap price, Tuya-based, and they’ve also experienced frequent disconnects despite being incredibly close to an AP. I have a few other random devices, some Tuya and some not, and I think the only one that has never been difficult is the Ultraloq Wi-Fi bridge.

But also I don’t want to be locked in to anyone’s phone apps or tied to their “cloud.” This is why I left SmartThings for Hubitat early on, and pretty much every device I have that doesn’t provide purely local control is something I regret choosing and will eventually replace.

Used to be that Tuya designs could easily be re-flashed over-the-air with open firmware, but they’ve managed to shut that down since about two years ago. They’ve also been introducing new products and redesigning old ones to use non-ESP chips that don’t have mature alternative firmware options like Tasmota / ESPHome.

I don’t want to deal with taking devices apart to flash them, especially if there’s further risk of discovering that they quietly switched to a SoC that’s useless to me.

Martin-Jerry to the rescue again, they have pre-flashed Tasmota switches for $14/ea and dimmers for $20.

Other options for inexpensive switches that ship with Tasmota or ESPHome firmware include Athom and CloudFree. They all have weird designs so I’ll be sticking to the M-J switches and dimmers for some semblance of consistency.

So far I’ve installed 10 Tasmota devices and they’ve been solid, much better than any other ESP-based devices in my home. I wish there was a software tool to make getting them joined to my Wi-Fi and pushing a basic configuration as easy as it is to add a Zigbee / Z-wave device, but after doing a few of them it becomes a fairly quick task.

As it stands, I’ve installed 21 new smart switches and have at least 30 more to go.

Good times.

UniFi Disappointment Router?

The UniFi fanbois were aflutter when Ubiquiti released this video promoting an upcoming UniFi Dream Router:

It sounded like a substantial upgrade to the UniFi Dream Machine: WiFi 6, two ports of PoE, 128GB SSD, an SD slot for storage expansion, and the ability to run Protect and other Ubiquiti controllers that haven’t been available to UDM users due to the lack of storage.

Then it hit the Early Access store for $79. Huh?

Turns out it’s based on MediaTek’s MT7622 platform. Two slow ARM A53 cores vs four fast ARM A57 cores on the UDM. It’s not a Better UDM, it seems more like a move to bring the “UniFi Dream” vision to the entry-level consumer browsing the shelves at Best Buy.

At the software level, like the UDM Pro SE and UXG Pro that still remain trapped in Early Access, the UDR runs on Debian 9 and ditches the mutant Debian unifi-os container. Hopefully that brings a significant reduction in CPU utilization, because my own UDM Pro typically sits at 30-40% just running Talk and Network without IPS/IDS, and I’d expect that to translate to 75-100% on the UDR’s CPU.

Early reports are that the boot process takes upwards of four minutes, LAN to WAN routing is maxing out around 800Mb/s unidirectional and enabling IPS/IDS drops to around 500Mb/s. I don’t think the routing performance is a significant concern for people who’d buy this product at $79 (or $159) but hopefully there’s more optimization that can be achieved because line-rate ought to be table stakes in 2021.

Where I do think Ubiquiti has missed the mark is on the storage and promoting the UDR as running the full suite of UniFi controllers.

SD cards have a well-deserved bad reputation for reliability. These days there are many cards rated for continuous usage in NVRs but the Average Joe is going to buy the cheapest card on the shelves and there’s the longstanding problem of avoiding counterfeit cards.

They could have made the M.2 socket easily accessible for upgrades, though it’s understandable that they wouldn’t. For the target audience, external USB storage would be the best option and the MT7622 does provide a USB 3.0 host.

On the controller front, given the relatively low-performance CPU and 2GB RAM, promoting this device as running every UniFi controller just seems unwise. The Access and Connect markets shouldn’t be bothered by needing a $379 UDM Pro or $199 CloudKey Gen2 Plus, and while Talk on the UDR potentially has an interesting use case as a teleworker gateway, especially with the direction UID appears t be headed, at the moment Talk is a long way from being suitable for that purpose.

Longer-term, Ubiquiti needs to free these devices from the constraint of being locked to their on-board Network controller. The entry-level buyer whose needs eventually push them to a higher-level “UniFi Dream” router will be left with an attractive piece of e-waste because the onboard AP and switch can’t be adopted to their new UniFi Network controller.

Unpopular Opinion: Don’t use a Raspberry Pi for that!

A Raspberry Pi is great if you have a need for which it excels. GPIO, extremely low power requirements, tight space constraints. But the Pi should not be the first thing you reach for when “Unobtrusive and Inexpensive Linux Host” are the only requirements.

Years ago I migrated my Pi-hole from an actual RPi to a NUC-sized system based on the AMD GX-415GA that I paid $5 for bare bones, roughly $45 all-in with PSU, 4GB RAM, and SATA SSD. It’s not screaming fast but it’s still overkill for something like Pi-hole. More importantly, it boots faster than a Pi and the storage is WAY more reliable than micro-SD cards and those things are kind of a big deal when DNS being down effectively means the Internet is down. At about 7w in use the difference in power consumption is about a penny per day.

More recently I wanted to build a stack of Docker servers to run a couple Frigate instances and consolidate my sprawl of containers running within VMs. I bought this stack of HP Prodesk 600 G4 micro desktops for an average of $260/ea. Two came as i5-8500T / 16GB RAM, one i5-8600T / 8GB RAM, all with 256GB NVMe drives. That’s a lot of compute in a tiny package and I’ll be upgrading them all to 32GB / 1TB NVMe.

A complete Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB kit is admittedly cheaper — typically $150 these days — but you can find complete i5-6500T systems in that ballpark with 8GB RAM and a hard drive or small SSD. Lower specs, or i3-6100T systems, can get down to $100. Again, for the money a 6th-gen Intel CPU is a ton more compute than a Pi, provides faster and more reliable storage, and you don’t have to put up with the quirks of Raspian or running an alternative distro that has zero community.

Granted, these are systems that will idle at 10-15w and can hit 55-60w at 100% load. There are situations where that may be unacceptable but that’s probably not the situation when you’re building a tiny Linux server at home.

Once you start down the rabbit holes of Pi-hole and Home Assistant, you’ll probably acquire a bunch of other things to run — I’m at 10 distinct Docker-ized stacks and have a few more things to migrate — and you’ll be happier having starting with one system that’s overkill for everything you’ll want to throw at it than accumulating a bunch of limited-purpose RPis that you’ll eventually want to consolidate on something more powerful anyways.

If you’d like to learn more about tiny PC options, check out ServeTheHome’s TinyMiniMicro series. I specifically looked for HP G4 systems from the MP9 / ProDesk 600 / EliteDesk 800 lines because they have dual M.2 M key sockets plus an A+E key, which provides maximum flexibility for NVMe storage and Coral TPUs.


This site has been running from my home Internet connection from Day 1 but my determination to get control over my Docker disasters finally overcame my inherent don’t fix shit that ain’t broke laziness. Now coming at you live from colo in 55 Marietta Street.

Now to work on finding some motivation to create some fresh content…

Left the Discord, Permanently

I checked out of the Ubiquiti Discord for months around the time of my move, and when I came back everything had changed. More Channels. More Rules. More Mods holding everyone else to higher standards than themselves. And… the same old cliquish behind-the-scenes behaviors.

Basically a shitty sub-Reddit in chat form.

I tried to focus on the good and ignore the parts I didn’t like, but… ultimately I realized that I wasn’t getting anything out of my participation in the community beyond frustration.

So I said Adios.

My Favorite Black Friday Deal

I always get myself the best “Christmas” presents. I know me so well. This year, it’s a couple of Arcade1up cabinets from Walmart for $249/ea.


In my early 20s I got into collecting arcade cabinets for a minute. A 29″ Neo-Geo MVS 4-slot and mint 4-player Gauntlet were the highlights of my collection, but of course, what I really wanted was a Pac-Man cabinet. I was just never willing to pay the price for one that was in presentable condition.

Eventually I had to give up the collection. I’ve always wanted to get back into it, but… they’re just so big, and heavy, and difficult to move up and down stairs without several helpers.

Spotting the Pac-Man cabinet at Walmart literally made my Christmas. Even tho it was only Black Friday.

These Arcade1up cabinets are just 4′ tall and a mere 65lbs. Easy to shuffle around and I can man-handle them up and down the stairs all by myself. Assembly takes about 40 minutes with just a screwdriver. All the bags of parts are labelled so there’s no guesswork as to which type of screw gets used where and it comes with a bag of spares.

Obviously it’s not as solid as a 300lb cabinet made of 3/4-inch birch or MDF, but the construction is good enough for home use. I’ve no concerns that they’re going to fall apart.

I’ll be keeping the Pac-Man cabinet as-is for now, but I’ve already ordered the parts to convert the Street Fighter cab to a RetroPie MAME setup — basically it just needs an LCD controller board and a USB encoder for the controls.

And I suspect I might pick up another one or two…

Our Homestead

Before I start posting about all of my home networking projects, I should probably describe the home and property. This is it:

Satellite view of my property showing the main house, pool, and detached garage / apartment.

The lot is 1.5 acres, roughly 180×400 if it were perfectly rectangular, with the front of the house about 120′ from the road. The house itself is the standard 40×30 box on a crawl space, with another 25×30 of garage / utility room and bonus room above. An addition off the garage provides a larger living room with a high vaulted ceiling. There’s attic access in the main part of the house, knee wall access on either side of the bonus room, and from the back side I can reach the living room’s attic space. There’s also some attic above the bonus room but the a/c ducts leave no room to get in there.

There’s a detached garage that was converted to a 2-bedroom apartment and came with tenants who pay half my mortgage. It also has attic access.

There’s a pool house that is basically a glorified shed. There’s an open area in the middle with small rooms to either side. One had been a proper bathroom but at some point in the past vandals ripped out the copper pipes.

So that’s what I’m working with. I have plans to bring Ethernet and in-wall access points to several rooms, blast WiFi across as much of the outdoors as I can reasonably manage, use 60GHz PtMP gear as wireless backhaul links for all three structures, give my tenants their own access point in the apartment, and much more.

My next post will be about deploying the PtMP gear.

Automating the Home

Last Christmas the girlfriend asked for an Echo Dot. At the time I thought the regular Echo was ridiculously over-priced and the Dot just plain dumb — why can’t any of them act as a Bluetooth speakerphone?! — but I got her one anyways because who am I to judge spending money on silly gadgets.

At first she used it for reminders, timers, music, and audible books in the kitchen. Then she steadily expanded with another Dot in her bedroom, a Wink hub, some TP-Link outlets, and assorted smart bulbs to about a half-dozen lamps / fixtures in her home.

Now, for practically my whole adult life I’ve used a couple of cheap GE remote-controlled outlets for the lamps in my bedroom so that I’m not getting into bed in the dark or fumbling around for a lamp’s on / off switch. Every time I’ve looked into changing over to something more advanced I’ve felt it wasn’t worth the expense nor the hassle…

But the girlfriend’s setup has grown on me. HA products keep getting simpler and cheaper and Alexa’s capabilities keep expanding. The tipping point for me was Alexa Smart Home Device Groups and discovering the 8-pack of Sengled ZHA bulbs. The Sengled’s have had coupons for 15-30% off for the holidays, bringing them as low as $6.50/ea — making it cheaper to upgrade my fixtures with smart bulbs than smart switches, plus saving me the the hassle of messing with electrical wiring in a home that I’m not planning to live in much longer.

My hardware assemblage so far:

Originally I wanted SmartThings + Echo Plus figuring I wouldn’t be able to cover my house and detached garage / office / theater from one hub, but ST is doing the job just fine despite not being in the best position. I’ve deployed one of the Hue Color kits in the master bedroom and several Sengled bulbs in the office, with Echos for each plus another in the kitchen. Over my holiday stay-catation I’ll be deploying the rest — an Echo for each living space and bulbs in the most used fixtures / lamps.

I may still decide to wire in a few smart relays for my outdoor lights — getting them on a schedule is highly appealing, and they really demand local control that preserves automation. Best as I can tell, nobody makes outdoor-rated smart bulbs yet.

And maybe some motion sensors to activate the stairway and upstairs hallway lights.

Going through all of this, I find myself wishing that Ubiquiti hadn’t screwed the pooch on mFi. The vision was there… but they basically made every wrong decision possible when it came to execution. I hope they’ll take another crack at it some day while embracing open standards and connectivity.