In which I use that one semester of electrical engineering I took

Many years ago, we upgraded to a keypad lock on our door. Not even kidding: it revolutionized everything about my life. Since we live in the city and I take the train to work, there are a lot of days when I could just stroll right out the door with no keys, free as a bird. I cannot stress how awesome of a feeling that is. I mean, I guess it doesn’t SOUND that great, and I probably wouldn’t have thought so either, until I did it. So I guess you’ll have to take my word for it: it was awesome. And that’s on top of the regular bonuses, like being able to let someone in if you’re not there or knowing that if there’s some weird situation where the kids are dropped off and we’re not home, they can always get in the house.

I think that was really my first infatuation with the idea of a “smart home”, but let’s be honest: I write science fiction. I have really been dreaming of a smart home for basically my entire life. Sara can attest to the amount of brain space I have dedicated to thinking about smart home integration. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot.

Sara on the other hand is not so sold on it, which means that I have had to sneak in pieces here and there, whenever I can. ūüôā In her defense, these things generally tend to be expensive, and usually what you get for that money is the ability to say, “wow, that is so cool!” So, you know, to SOME people maybe that is not worth it. I will let SOME people speak for themselves.

Since we moved to the new house, the main problem I have been facing is what to do about the front gate? Our fancy keypad lock doesn’t do a whole lot of good if you can’t get to it (and by extension, my dream of not carrying my keys was dead).

My first attempt was to buy a keypad or smart lock for the gate. No matter how many times I looked into it, I just couldn’t find something satisfactory. Most smart locks assume the interior part is going to be inside your house, and is therefore not waterproof. There are a few locks that would work but 1) they are expensive, and 2) in addition to buying the actual lock, I would probably have to weld a plate onto the gate or something to attach the lock to. So it wasn’t going to be cheap, especially if I had to hire someone to do it.

In other words, a non-starter.

Eventually I had an idea: what if instead of changing the lock at the gate, I was somehow able to put something inside the house that could tap into the buzzer system? I couldn’t unlock the gate per say, but if I could mimic pressing the buzzer button I could still open it up remotely.

My first go involved using a MIMOLite controller, but the problem was it required a smart hub to communicate with. I was fairly confident I could get it done, but it was going to cost about $140ish. Cool, but not cheap.

I thought about this off and on for probably 6 months, occasionally doing more research, until one day I strolling through a DIY smart home website and I discovered the Sonoff 1 Channel Inching /Self-Locking WiFi Wireless Switch. This thing was almost too good to be true: instead of paying $140, I could rig up my gate buzzer for about $6 (I ended up spending another $6ish for a long micro USB power cable, so lets call it $12).

The first thing I needed to do was to figure out how the buzzer worked. It seems a little overly complicated, but with the help of some time and some good internet detective work, i was able to figure things out.


Once I had that, it was just a matter of hooking up the switch. The best part about this is that it is completely non-invasive. Honestly, if you lived in an apartment building you could probably hook this into your system no problem.


The long and the short of it is when the relay receives a signal over wifi (via the free sonoff app), it simply closes a circuit. The relay has a mode that allows it to close for a short period of time before releasing, which is all we need to trigger the buzzer.


Et voila! Works like magic! See for yourself:

You can even incorporate it with Google Home, which would allow you to open the gate with voice commands, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Now that this is done, I don’t really know if I have any more “smart” integrations to do, although I’m sure I can come up with a few if I put my mind to it. I can only hope they will be as cheap as this one turned out to be!

Taking apart my iPhone

I have an iPhone 5s. Also, I am cheap (the two things may be related).

When I get something, I like to use it until it is used up, and then use it a little more beyond that. I took my last car to 197,000 miles and was disappointed I didn’t make it to 200,000. I wouldn’t even had this 5s in the first place if I would have realized that my old 4s would have been fine after it dried out (my mugger threw it in a puddle where it was recovered by the police). I still HAVE that iPhone 4s come to think of it.

So needless to say, when my battery got to the point where it couldn’t hold a charge for an entire day, and I started spending a significant amount of my life anxiously looking for an open outlet, I didn’t go buy some fancy new phone.

Apple had been offering a special deal on battery replacement, but of course my phone was too old to qualify. $80 for a battery replacement? Not on this old phone! But, it turns out, you can get non-OEM batteries for only $20 if you’re willing to do the repair yourself. “I’m pretty handy,” I thought to myself, “especially when it comes to electrical stuff. How hard can it be?”

Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t look at the instructions before I bought it, because I probably would have balked.


Everything is tiny and delicate. A lot of the instructions are of the, “Pry this open with a crowbar BUT DO IT GENTLY OR YOU WILL RIP APART ALL THE CABLES AND YOUR PHONE WILL NEVER WORK AGAIN” variety.


You really get an appreciation for how finely these things are engineered when you are working in there. There is absolutely no room to spare; everything is super tiny and just so. Each screw is subtly different and if you put them in the wrong place you will destroy your phone.

Obvs you need a super high tech sorting device to keep track of everything, and I did:


Did I mention those screws are tiny?


But, by going as slowly and carefully as I possibly could, I did finally get that battery out! The adhesive on the battery is the hardest part, but I knew that going in, so I was not deterred.


So everything was going great up to this point! Got the battery in, got all those tiny screws back in, and then I thought, “You know, I should probably fire this puppy up before I finish putting it back together.

Uh oh.

The display had lines through it and I couldn’t get the touch screen working at all. I was SURE I had screwed something up (possibly literally). Luckily the instructions had mentioned something about lines in the display and that it had something to do with one of the connectors not being tight. Sure enough, I had a loose one. It’s pretty hard working on those tiny little connectors, but after a few tries I got it seated properly.

Voila! After only 1:45 I had a fully functioning phone again.


In retrospect, even though there were some nerve wracking moments, it was kind of fun. It’s been a while since I had a project like that. So I would say, if you enjoy that kind of thing, go ahead and go for it; if not, it’s probably worth the money to have someone else do it for you.

And, hey, I have the tools now…

Youtube How-to

A while back we were having some issues with our washing machine. I wasn’t sure if it was worth repairing, or if we needed to replace the whole thing. I was kind of stuck: I didn’t want to pay a technician to come in and look at it, if we were ultimately going to get rid of it anyway. So I turned to my old friend, Mr. Internet.

If you go to youtube and look for information on how to fix something, you’ll be amazed at the amount of detailed information people have put out there, in video form! I found a video that showed me exactly how to take my washer apart and repair the suspected problem.

Now it turns out I didn’t need to fix my washer, but I could have! And now I have a new go-to place to find examples for fix-it projects. I¬†wanted to find the exact repair video I watched, but I couldn’t because there are just so many. And very high quality, with good production budget too!¬†Anything from¬†how to fix your¬†refrigerator,¬†replacing your spark plugs, or this fantastic video, which will show you how to repair a broken leg:

Thank you, Internet, for this high quality information! I will follow this video exactly next time I need to set a broken bone!