I’ll start with a gadget story but we’ll end up with saving energy, with greening our houses, I promise.To save another kind of energy, patience, I tried a Logitech Harmony One “universal” remote.  Again.  A few years back, two previous experiences with Harmony remotes had been frustrating and, ultimately,  abandoned.  It could be me, I am a certified klutz with a gift for pushing the wrong button at the wrong time.  Or my combination of devices couldn’t be “unified”, made to work together.  And/or the Mac version of the software was too painful to use.  Still, my Logitech friends kept insisting Harmony remotes were an extremely successful business of theirs.  I decided to try again three years after the second attempt.
Amazon delivers the Harmony One, I download the latest Mac version of the software and off we go.  You might have tried to program a TV, a cable box and, say, a DVD player into an ordinary remote, you know how it goes: not well.  You have to find out the DVD player model name/number and look up arcane codes -- if they exist.  Consumer electronic products are born at a rapid rate, from strange sources all over Asia and have very short lives, the result is a high volume of unreliable data.

Logitech’s first idea is to maintain a large centralized database of codes for all appliances known to man, this is a male thing, mostly.  You describe your configuration and the combined client/server software loads the proper codes into your remote.

The second idea is to focus on activities instead of devices.  By activities they mean watching TV or playing a console game.  The focus on devices, the conventional style of control, refers to turning the TV on, turning the cable box on, turning the Bose system on and switching the proper HDMI an audio inputs.  The latter view is dealt with during the software configuration, when you tell the program which input is used to feed the cable box signal to the TV.  When you’re done with the configuration, you connect the Harmony remote to your PC or Mac with a USB cable, the remote is updated and you’re done.
It often works.

Meaning there are occasional glitches.  Some are an opportunity to appreciate Logitech’s ingenuity, others to think about the future.

When things don’t quite work, there is a Help button.  Press it and questions come up on the remote’s LCD display: Is the Cable Box on?  Press No and the remote will turn it on and, very likely, we’re back in business.  But why didn’t the cable box turn on in the first place?  The answer sheds an unpleasant light on the state of consumer appliances and, more generally, of home control.  If someone had manually turned the cable box on, pushing the power button on the front panel, when you pressed Watch TV on the Harmony remote, the box got turned off.  Why?

There are two answers, both unpleasant. First, the cable box doesn’t have a Power/On or Power/Off button.  It just has a toggle button, a “change state” button.  If On, Turn Off.  If Off, Turn On.  This is what confused the remote.  But not the Logitech engineers who, knowing that sorry state of affairs, program a way to handle the only too predictable problem into the Help function.  It works very nicely and the configuration software has ways to fine-tune settings such as the timing of a succession of commands.  Timing?  Why?  Well, many appliances are slow and, at times, deaf.  If you issue an On command followed to quickly by a Change Input one, my TV can’t handle it, it needs time to process one command and be ready for the next one.  This is what happened when, having watched TV one day, I switched to Watching a DVD the next day.  The TV needed to switch to a different input, from cable box to DVD player.  The remote first started the TV and the issued a Change Input command.  My Mitsubishi TV is slow to wake up and didn’t get the Change Input command, not until I proceeded with the fine-tuning already mentioned.  All this with the advice provided by the troubleshooting section of the Harmony One software.  I hear the human support is excellent, phone, email, but can’t comment as I didn’t have to use it.

Second, these devices don’t talk back, don’t tell anything about themselves.  Such as, yes, I’m on, switched to HDMI input 3.  Not by infrared, WiFi, RJ45 (wired Ethernet) or Bluetooth.  This is 2009, these communication protocols are now “everywhere”.  Well, no.  If you can remotely program a cheap (less than $50) WiFi base station, it telling you its state and acknowledging your commands, why can’t you have the same dialog with a TV costing thirty times more?  Or with a cable box + DVR combo, or a Bose sound system?  Or an AppleTV?  Great minimalist remote, but not easy to integrate in a home theater system.

This combination of a satisfying experience with a smart remote, one capable of handling an imperfect world, and the shortcomings of today’s consumer devices got me thinking about the more general topic of home control and saving energy.

We can save energy, we can green our homes can without waiting for miracles from government and science,
without campaigning for nuclear power or hoping for breakthroughs in energy storage devices.
Going back to the Harmony configuration software, it features a section for Home Automation devices: light and climate controllers as well as more general home appliances.  Further, Logitech makes RF (for Radio Frequency, meaning wireless) repeaters so you can control devices not in “line-of-sight”, inside closets or in the next room.

Daily Watts

I had read horror stories regarding the “vampire” appliances and power adapters for laptops and cell phones sucking up kilowatts day and night, used or not. I went to the local geek store (Fry’s) and bought a power meter,  a device you insert between the power source and the device you monitor.  It tells you how much it consumes and, properly programmed, a lot more: consumption over time to be analyzed later, power factor (I’ll spare you the explanation, it’s here) dollars and, with the “Internet” version (I didn’t buy that one, I have limits), you can look at the damage from the other side of the world.  Before thinking of completely turning off a group of devices, such as a home theater or, at night, the collective power strip for computers, monitors and printers, the idea was to see how much power these devices used when “idle”.

There are surprises both ways.

Many power adapters, contrary to the urban legend, eat nothing at all when idle. For example, a Mac laptop adapter shows nothing, zero watt when idle.  My MacBook Pro, it’s 24”monitor and sundry USB devices consume 2.5 watts when off and a little more than 100 W when full on.  A Samsung 40” LCD HDTV shows a fraction of a watt when off, this explains why it needs about 15 seconds to “boot” when requested.  This is in nice contrast to the old-style “instant-on” tubes that were kept warm, thus wasting energy.  Strangely, the other Mistsubishi TV, also slow to start as described above, consumes 15 W even when idle.  And the whole home theater installation I programmed is eating 80 W when “off”.

(For a sense of proportion, “in the old days” thrifty Japanese families sat around a table, their hands and feet under the low-hanging table cloth and all got warmth from a 10 W bulb “burning” under the table.  Ten years ago, Panasonic still sold such an appliance.)

You can go around an American house and quickly see kilowatts flowing to no actual use. In passing, Apple spends millions advertising its laptops, claiming they’re the greenest on Earth or something similar.

Let’s stipulate the claim as true.  But what about AppleTV?  Idle, it consumes 20 W doing nothing, there no Off button, it just sits there.  Going back to the home theater, seeing that the power strip features an Off switch, a conscientious consumer could turn the whole thing off and go to bed with a green conscience.  Or program a remote control power strip (geeks can look here). Clean theory, dirty reality: if you do this, your Comcast cable box will lose its mind and won’t have a program grid when turned back on; the grid will have to be reloaded, a process that takes about one hour to complete.  The TV viewing will work immediately, without a guide.

What do we have today?  Depending upon your state of mind, a very imperfect, wasteful, disorganized world, or many opportunities. We already have devices that don’t waste energy when idle and we know we’ll have a much better way to control them if we make them talk back to us.  Do we need yet another standard, as in “The Good Thing About Standards Is There Are So Many To Choose From”?  Probably not.  The Logitech example shows control codes can be stored in libraries; we also have well-debugged communications protocols, they work.

At the risk of being repetitious, but using more examples, I see Japanese receivers from Yamaha, Onkyo, Denon and others all sporting a RJ45 connector in the back.  To do what?  Internet radio. And poorly at that.  How about a WiFi connection and a small (free, Open Source) HTTP server.  LG, Sharp and Sony proudly tout their Net-connected TVs; how about a dollop of software on top of that foundation to make them “talk back” to control devices such as remotes or laptops?  LG, for a while, they stopped, used to show a Net-connected fridge sporting a LCD screen on the door.  I’d prefer an IP stack for status and control information, same for the furnace, the water heater and the alarm system.

Google, as always, and I’m not completely sarcastic, wants to help.  See their PowerMeter initiative here.  It’s a great idea.  But it will remain just that, an idea, or Green PR, as long as we don’t cause device manufacturers, by law or by market forces, to provide a usable two-way connection to their products.  We want to see what they’re doing behind our backs or just have more fun using them.  Actually, we can have it both ways. — JLG

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